7

We've had related discussions twice:

The general consensus seems to be that any technique is fine as long as it's comfortable and doesn't have high potential for injuries and stuff like that. So, if it isn't hurting you, go ahead and use your pinky.

But it also seems to be the case that some schools discourage it (and some don't), perhaps not because of injuries, but because of some other reasons? In hybrid picking some techniques you use it, but in classical training you mostly avoid it, or sometimes completely absolutely no flexibility possible prohibit its use, depending on the teacher.

This all is addressed in the questions linked above. The thing that is not addressed is why. Why some specific schools of finger-style see it as a negative, and discourage it, and even strictly prohibit it (not in a "fingering police" way, but in an "achieving the most optimal technique" way)?

Is it too slow? Is it too weak? Is it too inaccurate? That can be improved with practice, right? Is it too small? That can be minimized by compensating, like the curving of the fingers and adjusting the angles involved, right?

Same applies to all our other fingers (from both hands), so why is the pinky being singled out? We use the pinky of the fretting hand extensively, so why the discrepancy? What's the reason behind some schools of finger-style guitar avoiding the use of the pinky finger?

Some background examples:

Example 1:

In classical guitar music, we do occasionally use the little finger. Not often, but sometimes. And it’s more likely in advanced music. Using the right-hand little finger generally falls into the category of “special effects”, or special techniques.

Example 2:

"...in hybrid picking you use it, so no challenge here...": I don't. Most people I know don't. And I dare say most known guitarists I'm aware of don't. But perhaps I'm wrong. I'd say, but it's just a guess, that for most people thumb + index through ring finger comes most naturally. My pinky is too short (and too weak) to be of practical use, without contorting my hand in a very awkward and straining position. It simply seems to be what works for the vast majority of players, and therefore also what got taught. I use my pinky for artificial harmonics (but not always) but that's about it

Example 3:

In fingerstyle guitar, the picking-hand pinky is often not used at all.

Example 4:

I am a classical guitarist. Left hand pink - certainly (I'm sure you assumed that already)! Right hand pinky... almost never. Only exceptions are really in some forms of rasgueado

Or

It seems that the C/pinky finger is not normally used for sounding strings, though it is certainly used on the fretting hand. Looking at YouTube clips of Julian Bream, you see that he never appears to use the smallest finger on his right hand. It is a little deceptive since the pinky remains tightly coupled to the ring finger and moves with it, in a kind of sympathetic reaction, though it does not contact the strings.

Example 5:

Every fingerstyle channel or resource I come across says to either use the pinky to rest above the soundhole to 'lock' the other fingers into place, or to just leave it floating about if it's not comfortable to do so. The only time I have heard it recommended is for flamenco.

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    "...in hybrid picking you use it, so no challenge here...": I don't. Most people I know don't. And I dare say most known guitarists I'm aware of don't. But perhaps I'm wrong. I'd say, but it's just a guess, that for most people thumb + index through ring finger comes most naturally. My pinky is too short (and too weak) to be of practical use, without contorting my hand in a very awkward and straining position. It simply seems to be what works for the vast majority of players, and therefore also what got taught. I use my pinky for artificial harmonics (but not always) but that's about it. – Willem van Rumpt Mar 2 at 6:26
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    Always considered it odd that r.h. pinky isn't encouraged. I always expect students to use it. Hasn't even got an official name! PIMA - and pinky on l.h.is 'extremo'. +1. – Tim Mar 2 at 8:36
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    @Tim - in clasical guitar we use p, i, m, a and c. C for chiquito :-) I was always taught how and when to use it, and I teach it myself. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 2 at 9:09
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    @Tim: What do you use it for, like a regular picking finger? I'm just wondering out of curiosity btw, not to question it. Can't do anything useful with mine (except harmonics), but this is maybe indeed because I never trained it. – Willem van Rumpt Mar 2 at 9:25
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    @Willem van Rumpt - All sorts. As a standard picking finger, same on bass. As a specific finger for a note in a chord. For rasguedo, the first finger to strike. Harmonics are usually with thumb on node, ring finger picking, but pinky works o.k. too. – Tim Mar 2 at 9:48
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I don't see how it is really discouraged. The Spanish school even has a name for the right hand pinky, Nuno. The classic Primary, Index, Middle and Anular, can be extended to include the pinky (Nuno) as well (For P-I-M-A-N). My teacher taught me that it is good to train the pinky as it aids with the learning of the rasgeudo and for a world class strum with your hand the pinky needs to be trained as well.

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  • I've found it discouraged by some classical guitar teachers, and there's an expectation for it to not be used by some people (see comments for an example). Hybrid picking is sometimes taught using pinky, sometimes without pinky (same example in comments). – Von Huffman Mar 2 at 12:35
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    Pulgar, Indice, Medio, Anular. Nuna is new to me. probably like Nina - little. – Tim Mar 2 at 12:37
  • Yup - like c - chiquito - little – Doktor Mayhem Mar 2 at 16:18
  • ok, sorry I got my wires crossed it is Nuno, not nuna – Neil Meyer Mar 3 at 6:28
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I don't think I can pinpoint a single reason, but I can add some ideas.

I started learning classical guitar, and then moved off to other pastures. Most of the pieces I played made use of just 4 fingers, skipping the pinky. In general, you have the thumb picking the low strings and the other 3 arpeggiating the high strings. In this sense, there is no need to use the pinky finger.

Rarely did I have a case where I had to strike 1 low note and arpeggiate 4 high notes. In those rare occasions, I was told to use my middle finger twice (to hit the 3rd and the 1st strings, for instance).

My pinky finger is shorter and much weaker than the other 3. You are right in that you could potentially work on it to train it, but I guess that the common consensus is "it's not worth it". It could be said that one of the main challenges of the Spanish guitar is to get a good, consistent tone with all your fingers. It's hard enough using 4 of them, and if you want to use 5 it gets harder.

You're absolutely free to develop your own technique, especially if you're an innovator, and that would allow you to build your own personal sound. There are many guitarists that have done something like that. There are also a lot of great guitarists who use a more traditional approach. I guess it's a case of "tried and tested" vs. "innovate, fail a lot until you make a great discovery".

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  • You can alternate the other four, and the middle one can reach farther than the others. A "not worth it" case is very easy to see, good thing to have in mind that I didn't consider. – Von Huffman Mar 2 at 14:23
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Reliability is one important factor.

In other words, you generally want to have a technique that can be reliably learned and used by everyone. Only a small minority of people would be able to learn to use the pinky effectively and reliably, so it makes sense to leave that out, and focus on what works a lot better for everyone.

Of course, if you are the exception rather than the rule, you can always go ahead and expand the technique on your own.

(The next paragraph will sound incredibly dated in the near future, but I'll include it anyway if you don't mind...)

For example, if you drive manual transmission cars, strictly speaking, you only need the clutch to start the car, once the car is moving you can always change gear without using the clutch, by matching revs. (I do it routinely just for fun and to make driving a bit less boring). However, although clutch-less driving is quite possible and enjoyable, it's hard and inconvenient for the majority of the people to learn. And since there's a much easier and more reliable alternative that works well for everyone, that's what gets taught.

One last point about physiology. While all the other fingers have one important dedicated nerve each, going all the way through the arm, fingers 4 and 5 share the same nerve until the finger bones start. That makes it almost impossible to move fingers 4 and 5 independently from each other. Try this: stretch your hand forward in front of you, palm down, and try to lift finger 4 without lifting finger 5 as well. You'll find that's impossible. You can lift thumb, index, etc. independently, but not finger 4 and 5, not independently. Coupled with smaller size, that makes using the pinky not really worth the trouble in most circumstances.

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    That finger lifting: presumably from a fist? I find ring finger more attached to middle than pinky! 60+ yrs of guitarring? – Tim Mar 2 at 12:41
  • Last paragraph might be a huge reason to avoid using it, provided you have a reason to avoid shared movement, which some techniques do, like the ones minimizing any "extra" or "not absolutely needed" movement. – Von Huffman Mar 2 at 14:19
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    @Tim I can move the pinky independently just fine. It's the ring finger that has a hard time moving by itself. I'm not really a guitarist though. (I own one, but can't really play it well. My instrument is the piano. Not sure if that makes the difference...) – Darrel Hoffman Mar 2 at 17:30
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    The thing is, for any guitarist with some experience the fretting frand pinky is able to move independently from the other fingers, so this illustrates that it's mainly an issue of training - there's no physiological reason why the pinky of my picking hand shouldn't be able to move with the same independence than the pinky of my fretting hand. – Peteris Mar 2 at 18:06
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It might be due to physiology. There is a set of tendons or ligaments (I don't really know the difference) that connect three of the fingers (middle + ring + pinky) making independent movement difficult, especially for the ring. Guitarists are familiar with the effort it takes to learn to move all 4 fingers independently and with equal force and speed on the fretting hand. The pinky often move with the ring and (the pair is easy to move as a unit), and the pinky is a little more free, independent. However, it is also smaller and for many, more difficult to reach the strings while the other fingers are in a comfortable position.

I have never seen the use of the right hand (picking hand) pinky in classical guitar pieces for scales and arpeggios. Not sure about "special effects". I am aware of exercises by Eliot Fisk that use the pinky. He recommends doing the Segovia scale exercises and other mechanical exercises with the pinky of the right hand as a way of strengthening the entire hand and developing better independent movement of all fingers. But I've never heard of him using it regularly in performance.

I use the pinky when playing with a pick on the electric (hybrid picking, e.g. Jimmy Page style) when it feels right but I don't really work the pinky like Fisk would recommend.

I really think it's not forbidden but evolved as it did based on average physiological constraints. If someone out there has a long pinky and can add it to a tremolo picking technique, they absolutely should! That would probably be well received.

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  • The physiological reason is taking shape. I just assumed that the pinky was exactly like the others, but smaller. – Von Huffman Mar 2 at 14:35
  • I used to think so too. In graduate school I did some research in biomechanics with s group of orthopedic hand surgeons and that really opened my thinking on the matter – ggcg Mar 2 at 14:59
  • ggcg - this is not quite correct. Your finger tendons are independent except for the middle and ring finger tendons. The pinky is separate – Doktor Mayhem Mar 2 at 17:21
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    But the basic laws of physiology still hold regardless of you. So it is a valid answer and not speculative. The op asks why perhaps guitar styles evolved without use of the pinky. Since the majority of people would experience coupling between three fingers it is a valid explanation of the phenomenon – ggcg Mar 2 at 23:50
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    Someone has been randomly mass downvoting stuff, both questions and answers. Maybe this is another casualty? – Von Huffman Mar 3 at 2:00

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