GUITAR 101: Your Fantastic Fourth Finger
If you watch a lot of guitar players, you’ll notice that many of them hardly ever use their fourth finger on their fretting hand. Don’t let yourself be one of those. As compared to your other fingers, your pinky is naturally a little weaker and less coordinated than your others. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it work for you. Obviously, when you’re playing scales, melodies, solos, etc. it makes a lot more sense to be able to use all four fingers. However, since this column is about guitar for songwriters, we’ll be talking about using your little finger to play more interesting chords and better-sounding chord voicings.
The training of the little finger usually takes time and persistence, just like learning to use a pick and playing bar chords. It takes a little patience and a little discipline to push past the point of awkwardness. Do not let your pinky off the hook because it doesn’t “want to” work for you at first. In playing basic open guitar chords, the fourth finger is rarely used in the most commonly known chords, except for B7 and Bm.
The average guitar-playing songwriter could usually improve his/her songs by knowing how to play more “color” chords. Examples would be the sus4, add9, 6th, etc. These chords sound more interesting or “colorful” than your basic triads. Also, alternate chord voicings of common chords might sound better than the ones you’re playing.
An extremely easy way to play these chords involves one very simple technique: adding your pinky to a chord you’re already playing. Let’s start with a basic open E chord. You’re using your first three fingers to make the chord. Your pinky is doing nothing, as usual. Wake that lazy little sucker up and put it on the 1st (little E) string on the 2nd fret. You just added an F# to the E chord. That makes it an Eadd9 chord. You don’t have to play that chord for a whole measure, just throw it in for a couple of beats. Now put the pinky on the 2nd fret of the 2nd(B) string while you’re playing the E chord. Now you’ve got an E6 chord. Makes me think of The Beatles. They used 6th chords a lot. They’re also common in Western swing music. Now put pinky on 2nd fret of 3rd (G) string. You’ve got an Esus4. Throw it in anywhere you want. You can do the same thing with an Em chord.
Now let’s take a basic open C chord. Little finger out of work again. I get tired of the usual open C voicing, so many times I’ll add my pinky to the little E string on the 3rd fret. That’s a G note. The G is already in the C chord (the open 3rd string) so I’m not adding a new note to the chord. It’s just a different voicing of the C chord. I’ll use this chord especially after playing a G chord, so that the G note stays on top of the chord. The transition from G to C sounds so much smoother that way. Now play the old 3-finger C chord and add your pinky to the 2nd string on the 3rd fret. You have a Cadd9. Put pinky on 3rd string 3rd fret. C7 chord. Now put it on 3rd fret of the D (4th string). Now you have a Csus4. Now if you play the C chord the usual way, scoot the 3rd finger playing the C note (3rd fret 5th string) over to the 3rd fret of the Big E string and let the pinky play the C note on the 5th string. You now have a C/G chord. A C chord with a G as the bass note.
Okay, let’s take a G chord. I do not believe you should use your 3rd finger to play the G note on the little e string 3rd fret. That’s a complete waste of your little finger. It’s like keeping a player on the bench for the whole game. Pinky should play that note. Now the 3rd finger can play the D note (3rd fret, B string) which is in the G chord, or you can choose to leave the open B in the chord. Either way, it’s still a G.
When you play any F-shaped chord anywhere up the guitar neck, you’re using only 3 fingers. Add your pinky to the 1st string for an add9 chord, 2nd string for a 6th chord, 3rd string for a sus4 chord. Jimi Hendrix did that a lot. Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack used those fluttery, little hammer-ons and pull-offs that Hendrix made famous. And they couldn’t have done it without that much-maligned, under-worked, prone-to-laziness digit….Pinky. Or, Pinki.