One of the most common problems that beginner guitarists experience is the “fat finger” issue. I put it into quotation marks, because 95% of the time, it’s not a real problem, just a newbie thing.

fat finger guitar Israel Kamakawiwo

Think your fingers are too fat for guitar?

No matter whether they have short and chubby fingers, or long and skinny ones, beginners will always have difficulty fretting a note without touching the adjacent strings. This is perfectly normal, so before you quit all together or start playing bass because of your “fat fingers”, you need to know one thing:

Your fingers are fine and perfectly sized for the guitar neck. Really!

This issue is caused by the fact that the beginner’s hand and fingers are simply not used to fretting chords. Granted, there’s not much space in between the strings to fool around, but if Johnny Hilland, and this guy, and of course the awesome Israel Kamakawiwo'ole can play well, you should be able to manage as well.

The most common causes of the chubby finger syndrome holding beginner guitarists back are the following:

  • The guitar is not positioned correctly in their lap, the neck is too far downwards, so the hand position will be off.
  • Their fingers aren’t curled and arched sufficiently.
  • Their fingers can’t stretch yet.

So there you have it. Your fingers aren’t too fat for the guitar, you just haven’t developed your playing technique yet. As I mentioned, I can say with 95% certainty, that this is the cause of your problems, it's very common with beginners.

The Chubby Guitar Finger Diet

Sorry about that subtitle, I couldn’t resist 😀

So getting back to business, how do you deal with this problem? Before you start typing "Are my fingers too fat to play guitar?" into Google, let’s have a look at a few basic things beginners need to get right in order to position their fingers at an optimal angle on the fretboard:

  1. Guitar position: Make sure you are holding the guitar properly. Supposing you are playing a right handed guitar, the body of the guitar should be resting comfortably on your right lap, the back of the guitar on your stomach, and the neck of the guitar tilted slightly upwards relative to the body of the guitar. If you look down at your guitar, the guitar should not be parallel with your chest, rather the left side should be slightly moved forward with your fretting hand, and the right side moved backwards with your plucking hand.
  2. Hand position: Don’t grab with guitar neck with your palm. When you are starting you’re your thumb needs to press against the back of the guitar neck, and your palm isn’t touching the neck at all.
  3. Finger position: When fretting a string, use just the very tip of your finger, making sure your finger is arched, pointing straight down onto your fretboard (perpendicular). The lengthy side of your fingertip should be parallel with the guitar neck.
    Most beginners have no problem with this when fretting just a single string, their finger fits just fine. The problems arise when they have to hold down a chord. That’s when their fingers start touching adjacent strings, since they can’t stay arched and perpendicular to the neck.
    All beginners have this problem, which will be cured naturally, once your fingers start stretching.

Have a look at this caricature, it's not only stylish, but very informative as well.

correct-guitar-position

Hold your guitar like a ninja

Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of how to hold the guitar, here are some tips on how to play guitar with “fat fingers”. Hehe, just kidding, your fingers aren’t fat at all, it’s just your technique which needs to be chiseled.

  • Make sure you are holding the guitar correctly as described above.
  • Make sure your hand is in the correct position as described above.
  • Do lots of finger stretching exercises, so those spider walking exercises that I talk about in basic lesson 1. With time, your fingers will get stronger, stretch, and your muscle memory will develop.
  • Practice a lot to harden your calluses. Once you start developing calluses, you won’t need to press on the string so hard, which means your fingertip won’t spread out that wide
  • Angle the headstock upwards towards your shoulder more, while keeping the body of the guitar in the same place.

Try Other Guitars? Only as a Last Resort!

If you fall into the 5% category, which the above tips don’t help, then, and only then should you have a look at guitars with wider fingerboards.

Again, let me emphasize this. I’m 95% sure you don’t need a new guitar. Your first course of action is to follow the above guide for at least 2 months. If you’ve applied the above and nothing changes, you may want to go into a local guitar shop, one with lots of guitars, and try a few with wider necks.

Different guitars have different neck widths, which is measured as the width at the nut. Electric and acoustic guitars are pretty much the same (usually 1 11/16" width at the nut), but slight differences can definitely count.

Give it a try! Go to a guitar shop and try a Fender Strat, then a Gibson Les Paul. You’ll definitely feel the difference.

Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when looking for a guitar with a wider neck for those chubby fingers:

  • When you go to the shop, ask to see guitars with wider string spacing, so ones that have at least a 1.75" nut width. Here are a few I know of:
  • Guitars equipped with a Floyd Rose tremolo system have slightly wider string spacing.
  • Classical Spanish guitars have the widest necks, the standard is 2” at the nut. Try it after a normal electric or acoustic, it’ll feel like you have a football field to play on.
  • As a last resort, start playing bass 😉
classic guitar vs electric guitar neck

The classical guitar's neck is much wider

In closing, keep in mind that as frustrating as it may be right now, all beginners go through this. Your fingers are most likely not too fat for the guitar, you just need to develop your technique.

Before you run out to Guitar Center and buy the widest necked classical guitar, take a few weeks to work on the exercises I gave you above. This will probably deal with your problems in a few weeks.

37 replies
  1. Lukáš Kroupa
    Lukáš Kroupa says:

    I want to tell you guys something too, I don´t have a too chubby meaty hands and fingers, I rather have them short and my palm is rather small, but the problem I am having is not that I can´t curl my fingers correctly, but my fingers are too ” deep ” so the finger is touching lower strings and muting them, I think this is rather bigger problem than having wide fingers. It is hard to explain it for me, so it is like the bottom of the finger is too deep, it looks like big fat V shaped guitar neck or something like that 😀 I think my fingers are weird

    Reply
  2. Ridley
    Ridley says:

    Thanks for the guitar playing tips. I’m trying to learn, but my fingers are short and fat, so it’s been hard. I’ll try fixing my position and posture, like you said here, and hopefully the problem will be cured naturally!

    Reply
  3. K
    K says:

    Lol at the picture – you’ll notice the portly gentleman is playing a *ukulele*. I’ve been trying to switch from a uke to a guitar, and it turns out that to get the same string spacing, I’d need a 2.25″ fretboard for the guitar. I’m not sure that featuring someone who plays with, effectively, a 50% wider than standard fretboard is really the best poster child for “you don’t need a wider fretboard!”. Sadly, I think me and my spatulated fingers may fall into the guitar-is-not-for-you camp…

    Reply
    • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
      Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

      If you’d only try as hard with the guitar, as you do with the calculator 😀
      I don’t usually take offense at these types of comments, but come on man. That’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole you’re talking about, not just any “portly gentleman”.
      What excuse can you come up with when you look at Chris Burney?

      Reply
      • Luke Robbins
        Luke Robbins says:

        the Issue isn’t the thickness of the fingers but the thickness of the fingertips. Mine are very thick and fleshy and do not physically fit!
        They are also short so when playing a G chord for example it is impossible to arch over properly. When I play the low E, they A string will mute. They is no way around it.
        I cannot fit them in to play an A major correctly either.
        I have been playing for 2 years

        Reply
        • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
          Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

          Hi Luke, I’ve noticed that when students have problems arching their fingers, it’s usually because of the grip. You want to make sure your thumb is right smack in the middle of the rear side of the neck. Holding the neck like this will mean your palm is not touching the neck at all, only your fingers are in contact with the guitar.
          This should give you enough distance to be able to put your fingertips onto the fretboard perpendicularly, so they don’t touch the adjacent strings.

          With the A major, I hear you, I have trouble cramming all my fingers in there as well. I use fingers 2,3,4, but sometimes I just don’t bother and form a barre over the D, G, B strings and mute the high E with it. I’ll use the index finger or middle finger to form the barre, depending on what came before/after. Try it to see how you like it.

          Reply
  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I decided to learn to play guitar,since I amretired, with time to do it. My problem seems to be thesame thing…fat fingers. I have hands like a Sasquatch, and have not yet learned how to keep my sausage size fingers from hitting strings I don’t want to hit. I hope you are right, and I’ll eventually figure it out, because I would love to one day be able to enjoy sitting around playing some tunes.

    Reply
    • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
      Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

      Hey Tom, oh for sure, just practice every day. If you scroll up, the 4th paragraph of the article has links to 2 pretty big handed guys who play amazing guitar. Just proof it can be done 🙂 I know it seems difficult right now, but remember that they were in your shoes at one time as well. All pros were beginners at one point.

      Reply
  5. Mitch
    Mitch says:

    To be fair, some people do have some seriously meaty fingers. I started playing electric around 12 years ago, but gave it up after 2 or so years because I fell in love with acoustic guitar. About 6 months ago, I decided to start getting back into electric because of a band I’m starting, and for certain bar chords in the upper register, fat finger syndrome is literally unfixable without buying a wider-fretted guitar. For instance, in Goose by Polyphia, I can’t get the intro down because the 12th fret on the upper E is impossible for me to bar down, as the base of my first finger is literally too wide to fit within the frets. While I do agree that this guide should work for 90% of people, especially beginners that think it’s just fat fingers as opposed to bad technique, I will say that one size definitely does not fit all.

    Reply
  6. steve
    steve says:

    What I want is a dreadnought guitar with a thick V shape neck which is 48 mm wide at the nut; any suggestions? No more than a £1000/$1309

    If I don’t find one I’m going to get guitar luthier to convert a 12 string into a 6 for me but before I do that I will keep searching.

    Reply
  7. Rolyn
    Rolyn says:

    I tried some alternative chords but there’s some vary sounds to the standard chords one. What standard chords have the same tones with the easy chords?

    Reply
  8. Herb
    Herb says:

    I’m a retired 63yr old with lots of time on my hands. I just purchased a les paul electric guitar today to help fill my time, took lessons when I was a kid. I worked for 38yrs as a welder and have not only long, but large industrial worker hands and fingers.
    If Albert King could do it with those meat rippers, I’m certainly gonna give my all and learn to have fun with it.

    Reply
    • Tony Crouch
      Tony Crouch says:

      Hi Herb. My name is Tony. I to have just retired at 65 with the same ideas about playing guitar, I was also a welder fabricator so I know what your talking about when you say things about your hands and fingers. I’ve been at it now for a couple of months and this morning I was about to give it all up……. I was looking to see if there was anything at all I could do about my fleshy fingers when I came across you. Thanks to you I will keep going. Tony

      Reply
  9. Rufus McD
    Rufus McD says:

    You try fretting an A chord form with three large fingers with a capo on 5th. I have to do it with one finger, like a barre chord and if you have a A minor hammer on A major, forget it. You need thin fingers to do it, or a longer freboard. And I agree with the guitar position and finger position stuff but “stretching fingers” is complete bull**it. Fingers don’t stretch

    Reply
    • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
      Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

      Hi Rufus,
      It’s true that the higher up you go on the fretboard, the more squished your fingers will be. After a certain point, it becomes physically impossible.

      As for the finger stretching, maybe you misunderstood. You don’t stretch the length of your fingers. This refers to the breadth, so the reach you have from your index finger to your pinky when you stretch your fingers out. This breadth is what lengthens.

      Reply
  10. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    My tip is (and its not perfect but it does for me) is to discover the magic of open tunings.

    Lets take open E as an example.

    1) You’ll get a “free” E chord without having to do anything, just strum
    2) Just barre all strings at each fret and there are the rest of your chords

    It’s not perfect and wont work for some songs because you’re range will be shortened and there might be some chords you need that you wont get. But put it this way, yesterday I couldnt play Bad Moon Rising in standard because of Fat Finger Syndrome.
    24 hours later, in Open G, I’m stumming away happily, and happy in the knowledge that this is what stopped me from giving up. It opens doors.

    My second tip is this. Look at your guitar now. Look at it. See that guitar? Nobody ever said it HAD to be standard tuned. The cops aren’t going to knock on your door if you start looking for easier ways to get chords. Instead of the guitar bullying you into failure, make it work for you. Experiment with tunings. Not just open tunings, have a REAL good play around with those tuning machines and see if you can find your own custom tuning that will give you the chords you need easier.

    Jimmy Hendrix rose to the top of the guitar world because he had that mindset. He didn’t see laws or obstacles when it came to the guitar. I’m pretty sure that he would have been one of the first people to tell you not to be afraid to play with your own tuning machines. He would have, you can bet your backside on that.

    So my second tip after open tunings is to experiment with those tuning machines.

    It’ll be a cold day in hell and satsn will be ice skating to work on the day I let my guitar put obstacles in front of me. Or my fingers.

    —-

    Further to what I just wrote, let me elaborate how I got over the brick wall of fat finger syndrome.

    It started with trying to play Bad Moon Rising yesterday. I realised in the first 3 chords that it was going to take weeks to train my fingers to not mute strings, if it was even possible with my fingers at all (got those type of fingernails that just protrude beyond the end of finger no matter how short I cut, or how much I file). Ready to give up guitar there and then.

    Which made me think of the tune I had learned as my first tune weeks earlier. Gimme Shelter by the Stones. Written and peformed in the studio in Open E on the rhythm side, I remembered being able to form entire chords at the frets by just barring.

    Which bought me back to Bad Moon Rising. I recorded myself playing the first 3 chords of it in about 4 different open tunings, E, D, A, and G. After listening to them, my ears preferred the Open G version and thats what I’m currently working on learning the song in. It actually sounds pretty close.

    So thats an example of how I just went to town on it. Tried every different open tuning that I thought would come close and hey presto, stumbled onto open G.

    Thats how learning is done. You find your way around that dark room by touch. You try everything you can. And then you think of some more things to try.

    You dont give up just because……..well…..because. Your guitar is your friend but you’ve got to tell it what kind of friend you want it to be. If you let it, you will let it bully you into stopping. It’s not that your fingers are fat, its that your ideas are being limited by yourself. Set yourself free and experiment. There’s a way for you to play the guitar, but you have to stumble onto it. It wont be graceful on the way, but thats how geniuses are born. Keep trying.

    —-

    And my last offering is this (and then I really will leave you alone – I’m just trying to see some minds opened up first).

    The ideal situation is to have 2 guitars. One tuned to standard and the other you will use in various open tunings. The open tuned guitar is the one that will get you playing every day. It will sustain your interest in guitar playing by giving you the immediate gratification you crave. On that guitar you will be able to play chords easily and therfor songs can be played in the meantime. It’s not perfect but its a getaround.

    While thats going on, you use spare time to sit with the standard guitar and practise forming chords until you get it. You’re either going to get it or you’re not, but unless you try then I can tell you you definitely wont get it. Play the percentages and at least try – that way you stand a 50% chance of a breakthrough.

    And if you dont get it, you have your open tuned guitar to make you feel a bit better. There is nothing as nice as playing chords by just barring. It can re-assure you and push you to really learn those chords properly because then the world really is your oyster.

    See you around. Hopefully when I do, you’ll be holding a guitar and smiling, playing something that moves people.

    Reply
    • Bill R
      Bill R says:

      Outstanding and very positive kinds of advice to not get discouraged or “defeated” by a piece of woods with steel strings on it…open tuning is an excellent thought for a second guitar while slaving away on the other to try and try again…thanks for the upbeat advice.

      Reply
    • gail
      gail says:

      Thank you!!! You’ve given me courage to pick up the guitar again. I have wanted to play all my life and have had a few goes at it, but despite hours upon hours of practice, I feel I have no aptitude for it.

      Reply
  11. Bob
    Bob says:

    How about some of us old dudes whose fingers and knuckles are just not as nimble anymore? Seems like my knuckle joints kill all the time, probably arthritis. I’m not an accomplished player, I gave it up a long time, I now want to play more and get better. I feel like I’m at a big disadvantage.

    Reply
  12. tranpeter
    tranpeter says:

    Great article…one thing I found out quickly is my nails have to be cut short to not mute the strings. I typically don’t leave long finger nails, but I notice I have to trim them more often to make sure I’m curving my fingers correctly and not mute the adjacent strings.

    Reply
  13. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    Very informative, thanks I think I’ve said just about everything you have covered here, I will try some of the finger exercises can you put a link up so I can start please, many thanks your a star, from a will be one day guitar player

    Reply
  14. Scott
    Scott says:

    I just got my guitar and I’m having these exact issues……that’s how I found this article…..,I appreciated this article very much……I realize this is going to take a lot of practice but I’m totally up to the task…..I really want to learn to play……I’m a big dude with big fingers so I’m sure it’s going to take time……but I liked this article a lot!!!! It was very understanding and supportive…..lol.
    Thanks.

    Reply
  15. Maulin
    Maulin says:

    Now I know that I don’t have fat fingers. But I’ve tried everything to play clean, resonant chords. Every time I try, one of my fingers (they probably have their own minds) decides to mute the strings, and make the chord sound awful. I’ve even considered cutting my fingers off (after thinking about the outcome, I decided not to 🙂 ), because they simply don’t cooperate like the little pieces of garbage they are! What to do now??

    Reply
  16. kevin
    kevin says:

    It’s my 2nd week still unable to play a single chord,, I think there is a prob with my nails shape,, and also my fingers are small,,, I’m fedup but still I don’t wanna quit I want to play

    Reply
    • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
      Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

      Keep at it Keving. To this day, I have never met anyone who couldn’t play because of short or chubby fingers. Maybe you should try a few private lessons, to get yourself going in the right direction.

      Reply
  17. Dan Hammack
    Dan Hammack says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t suggest a luthier set up the guitar for them. I have long skinny fingers and yet try as I might I just couldn’t fret chords without muting adjacent strings. I felt that if the strings were lower I would not be having this problem. I took my guitar to a well respected luthier and he confirmed the action as being too high and that the strings were even too high on the nut. After a setup my guitar plays a 100% better.

    Reply
    • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
      Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. Yes, getting a guitar set up properly is the first thing you need to do when you get it. It’ll play better and easier.

      Reply
  18. hal
    hal says:

    I don’t care what anybody says. Having short, fat, and/or thick fingers does make it harder to play guitar properly and fret certain chords. There’s a reason people with long, thin fingers never complain about this.

    Reply
    • Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com
      Tom - TheGuitarLesson.com says:

      You really need to leave these thoughts behind, I’ve seen plenty of fat guitarists that can play 10x better than I ever will. Don’t make this an excuse to quit learning guitar.

      Reply

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