There are a number of "diseases" that afflict the left hand in the course of its development on the guitar, diseases that take the form of built in "bad habits" that players acquire without knowing it. We get these diseases as we practice our first songs and exercises, scales, etc. Of course, we don't know we are getting them, and we are never told what to look out for in order to avoid them, but sooner or later, these diseases will show themselves as various playing problems and limitations to our ability on the guitar.
In our online course "How To Master A Scale:Beyond The Walking Exercises", we learn about the 3 diseases of the left hand, and how to avoid them in the context of learning scales. This is because scale practice presents a multitude of serious challenges to the fingers, and when not done properly, seriously screws our fingers up! Two other popular techniques, "hammer-ons" and "pull offs" have the potential to damage us even more, because they require much more force from the fingers than do scales, and that force, improperly generated and handled during the execution of these techniques, becomes debilitating, locked in muscle tension that affects literally everything we play.
In "Hammers & Pulls According To The Principles" we learn about these diseases in relation to the fundamental mechanics of hammers and pulls. However, students often fail to identify these same difficulties during the practice of actual music. This fact was brought to my attention the other day while working with a student on a rock solo that contained a very common type of lick, taken directly from a Pentatonic Scale. In fact, it IS a Pentatonic Scale, played descending, with pull offs. You will find this lick, and ones like it, in almost every rock solo.
Finger Rise: A Form Of Sympathetic Tension
The problem encountered in playing and practicing this lick is a result one of the most primary technical dynamics that all guitarists must know about in order to practice effectively: Sympathetic Tension. This type of tension, which occurs in one muscle as a result of the use of another muscle, can and does destroy the technique of many players. It takes thousands of forms, and in the lick under discussion it takes the form of the finger disease known as "finger rise", specifically in the 3rd finger, as it reacts to the pulling action of the 4th finger.
What happens is this: a student will start practicing this lick, and if they know the basics of how to properly do pull-offs, things will go well, up to a certain point. However, at a certain rate of speed, (different for every player), they will start to miss the 5th note, the one on the 3rd string. They will miss that note because the 3rd finger will not be able to get to the string on time because it is tied up with the tension that formed in the muscles of the 3rd finger as the 4th finger did the pull-off. Usually, the student will not notice this tension as it begins in the 3rd fingers, he or she will keep pushing the speed, or going over and over it trying to get it.
At this point, a lot of tension will begin to form in the hands, arms, and shoulders, and as that tension grows, other notes will be missed, or struck weakly. One other common and more subtle playing problem will emerge: the rhythm will begin to be distorted. Hammers and Pulls are notorious for distorted rhythm amongst guitar students. This is because the student is solely concerned with pulling the string and sounding the pull off note, NOT with precisely timing the pull action so that the note actually appears at the right time. Most students are just happy to get a sound, they don't care WHEN it happens! This is why you MUST record your practice and listen back for rhythmic evenness at half speed when doing speed exercises.
How to Avoid Finger Rise
The most powerful technique for training the 3rd finger to overcome finger rise in this example is to use the "Touching Technique", a technique that is used extensively in "Hammers & Pulls According To The Principles".
We simply, during our no tempo practice and slow tempo workups, keep the 3rd finger in very light contact with the 3rd string AS the pull of is done. By keeping the 3rd finger in light contact with the string, we do not allow the extensor muscle in the forearm which would otherwise cause the finger to rise, to contract. We thereby train the extensor of the 3rd finger to remain inactive while the flexors of the 4th finger perform the pull off.
This technique must be done no tempo, with extreme focus to the hand and the entire body. Do not hold your breath! If you are unable to actually hold the finger on the string, then you are not going slow enough with enough focus; anyone can do this if they go slow enough and use enough concentration. After establishing this procedure with no tempo practice, work it up using the Basic Practice Approach.
The other common problem that prevents students from attaining speed with these type of licks is the left hand change from one string to another. The first finger must stay down until the 4th finger has established itself on the new string. When it comes to the left hand, it is all about balance. When we start the lick, we have 4 and 1 down, and the hand is very balanced and stable. Once we do the pull only 1 is down, the hand is less stable. As we place 4 and remove 1 to move it to the next string, the hand becomes even more unstable. It is at this point that many people get instant "lock-up" throughout the arm, and the lick falls apart. Keep 1 down until the last split second (timing its release with striking the 4th finger note works very well), and pay attention to keeping the entire arm relaxed during the transfer of the 1st finger to the new string. The 1st finger will take its place on the new string WHILE 4 is still firmly on its note.
After you have absorbed everything I have said, and experimented with it, apply and expand this knowledge to all your playing, and examine playing problems in light of it.