I have heard that the principle of economy of motion is taught in many a Martial Arts/Self Defense studio, but I have only heard of it being used in music instruction circles one time before, and that was by one of my classical guitar professors. Almost instantaneously it began to resonate with me and so from that point onward I started employing it into my own playing style as well as the lessons that I would provide to my students down the road.
At this point some of you reading this blog may be wondering what this has to do with learning to play the guitar, and I will be addressing that in this blog. The first thing that should be understood is that where playing the guitar is concerned economy of motion has to do with being finger specific, which is to say that you opt for using the easiest, most natural fingerings for whatever scale, chord voicing or arpeggio that you are playing. In this article, I will be covering this principle on how to apply economy of motion so that you can avoid unnecessary or inefficient fingerings in your own personal playing style.
This is not to say that one can’t use alternate fingerings if you so choose, but any alternate fingerings should always be ones that you can do well and that serve you well. In the case of the A-Minor chord voicing where notes A and E are fingered on strings 3 and 4 on the second fret and the C note is fingered on string 2 on the first fret there are two different fingerings that one can use. One is more common than the other, but depending on what you are trying to do either one will work.
In the case of this particular voicing of the A-Minor chord a 1-2-3 fingering is commonly used placing the index finger on C, the middle finger on E and the ring finger on A, which is a more natural and flexible fingering in that both open and closed notes contained within the A-Minor pentatonic scale can be brought in to elongate a musical phrase.
Using a 2-3-4 fingering where the middle finger is placed on C, the ring finger on E and the pinky finger on A can be quite limiting at that particular end of the guitar neck.
An Economy of Motion/Specific Fingerings in Arpeggios:
If you were wanting to use a G-Major arpeggio (1-3-5=R-3-5) on the sixth string third fret a 2-1-4 fingering (middle, index, pinky) would be the obvious choice when using all closed notes.
If perhaps you desired to use a G-Minor arpeggio (1-♭3-5=R-♭3-5) on the sixth string third fret the obvious choice for fingering when using all closed notes would be a 1-4-3 fingering (index, pinky, ring).
An Economy of Motion/Specific Fingerings in Scales:
The best place to start is with the A-Minor pentatonic scale, which is a two note per string scale. Say that the scale you want to play is an A minor pentatonic at the sixth string fifth fret, the notes being A-C-D-E-G-A-C-D-E-G-A-C, using a strenuous or awkward fingering such as would be the case if a 1-3 (index, middle) fingering were to be used throughout the entire scale would be counterproductive. The much better choice for fingering would be (1-4)(1-3)(1-3)(1-3)(1-4)(1-4) where the 1-4 (index-pinky) fingering is used on strings six, two, and one, and the 1-3 (index-ring) fingering is used on strings five, four and three.
Continuing with A-Minor pentatonic as our scale of choice, let us now say that we want to play this scale at the twelfth fret. The note order changes, and so does the fingering. The notes are E-G-A-C-D-E-G-A-C-D-E-G and the fingering is (1-4)(1-4)(1-3)(1-3)(2-4)(1-4).
OR The scale just mentioned can also be played at the lower end of your guitar’s fretboard using both open and closed notes.
For the last example of the A-Minor pentatonic scale, the notes are D-E-G-A-C-D-E-G-A-C-D-E, and the fingering is (1-3)(1-3)(1-3)(1-4)(1-4)(1-3) with all the (1-3) fingerings being played on strings six, five, four and one. The(1-4) fingerings are played on strings three and two. The 1-3 fingering is pretty straightforward whereas incorporating the (1-4) fingering into the mix can take a little getting used to. Play the (1-3) fingering on strings six, five and four, shift back one fret for the (1-4) fingering on the third string then up one fret for the (1-4) fingering on the second string and finally return back to the (1-3) fingering on the first string to finish out the scale.
I have just barely begun to scratch the surface with regard to imparting the principle of economy of motion, but what I have imparted should be enough to get you started. When playing chords, arpeggios and/or scales simply look to see what notes are involved and pick the most logical fingering. Once you decide to adopt the principle of economy of motion into your own playing you should be able to recognize vast improvements in your overall performance where speed and accuracy are concerned.
Lastly, accuracy is more important than speed. However, there are two different ways that I personally define speed, and whether you choose one or the other, or both is a completely individual decision that only you, and you alone can make. One way to define speed is how quickly you can get to all areas of the fretboard that you want to play on. Another way in which to define speed is how many notes you can play within a short span of time. In my humble opinion economy of motion is a balance of these two definitions and although they are two distinctly different sides of the same quarter, both are equally as important as the other.