Hand and Finger Positions for Violin

Video 1: Hand and finger positions on a fiddle.

One of the keys to playing the fiddle is knowing where to put your fingers. At BGD, I provide both notation and tablature (a numbering system) so that all players will know what note to play and which finger to use.

Before we begin, I would like to distinguish between finger positions and hand positions. In fiddle tablature, the fingers are numbered 1 through 4, with the index finger being finger number 1 and the pinky being finger number 4. Let’s focus on the G string. If you start near the nut and slide your finger toward the bridge, you will eventually get to another G note, exactly one “octave” higher than the open G. Fiddle music uses a chromatic scale, which divides this octave into 12 even-tempered intervals called half-steps. A half-step is commonly known as the distance from a natural to a sharp. From the open G to the octave G are 12 half-steps, and so there are 12 possible finger positions. Fiddle tablature actually goes one half-step higher, to the note above the octave position. Since there are four strings (G, D, A, and E), and 13 finger positions, there are a total of 52 possible finger positions (56 counting the open notes). Since you must move your hand in order to play all those finger positions, we will also define a total of six different hand positions.

One might think that the finger positions would be numbered simply one through thirteen. However, this is not the case. The finger positions are actually based on the natural rest position of the hand in the 1st, 3rd, and 5th hand positions. I know this seems confusing, but hopefully I will explain it well below. I will go over those hand positions first.

The 1st hand position

The first seven finger positions are based on the natural rest position of the hand in the 1st hand position. Do this exercise: Curl your fingers at the knuckle and then turn your hand toward you as if you are examining your nails. Now try to spread your knuckles apart. You probably find that you can easily make a gap between your 1st and 2nd knuckles, and your 3rd and 4th knuckles, but not between your 2nd and 3rd knuckles. Now imagine that your fingers are curled around the neck of a violin, with your first finger exactly two half-steps up from nut. This is actually the “default” location for placing your fingers on the violin. There are two half-steps from the 1st finger to the 2nd finger, one half-step from the 2nd finger to the 3rd finger, and two half-steps from the 3rd finger to the 4th finger.

These finger positions are numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4. The half-step between the 1st and 2nd fingers is called 2L, meaning “2 lower.” The half-step between the 3rd and 4th fingers is called 3H, meaning “3 higher.” If it is played with the 4th finger, it is commonly called 4L meaning “4 lower.” Therefore, 3H and 4L are the same note, but played with a different finger. The half-step between the 1st finger and the nut is called 1L. The nut position is called “0,” meaning “open.” These finger positions define the first hand position.

finger-positions1

Figure 1. The fingers in the first hand position, over a “Don’t Fret” sticker. The first hand finger positions are at 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Below is a line of sheet music that includes both notation and tablature. The tablature is below the notation. Notice how the tablature staff has only four lines, labeled G, D, A, and E. These four lines correspond to the four strings of the fiddle. Therefore, when you see an ‘0’ on the G line, that means to play the G string open. Although this seems redundant, there are many times when it is desirable to use the 4th finger (for example, fast songs where it takes less time to play the 4th finger than change to another string for the open note). The two measures below include the “natural position” notes (no “L” or “H” notes) on the G and D strings in the first hand position. That is how you can remember the correct finger positions for the 1st hand position. Notice that the 4th finger on the G string should be played in unison with the open D string. If these make the same note, you will know that your pinky is in the correct location.

finger-positions5

Figure 2: “Natural position” notes in the first hand position.

For practice playing notes in the various hand positions, please download the sheet music using the link below. First, notation and tablature are given for the “natural position” notes for all four strings. Next, notation and tablature are given for the entire chromatic scale in the 1st hand position. The first hand position is on page 1.

Sheet music for practicing six different hand positions (download PDF, 2 pages)

Video 2: Play-along video for practicing six different hand positions with a metronome.

The first hand position is perfect for playing fiddle tunes in G, A, B, C, D, and E, while other keys lend themselves better to other hand positions. Now that you are familiar with the 1st position, let’s take a quick look at the some others.

The images below are quick guides to the first six different hand positions. You may click the image for a larger version. In the left-most image, the chromatic notes for one octave on the G string are on the left side, while the tablature numbers for those same notes are on the right side. I want to start with the three odd-numbered hand positions first, because they work together to define our tablature numbering system. We have already discussed the first seven finger positions which are based on the first hand position. These are colored red. In the center image, you see the 1st, 3rd, and 5th hand positions, colored red, green, and blue respectively. Notice the brackets that indicate the first position. The brackets point to the where the 1st finger and the 4th finger go. The 2nd and 3rd fingers go in the center of the bracket.

finger-positions2-600

Figure 3: Quick-reference diagram for the first six hand positions. Click for a larger image.

finger-positions3-600

Figure 4: Visual reference: Six different hand positions. Click for a larger version.

The 3rd Hand Position

The 3rd hand position (green) is found by placing your first finger where the 3rd finger would normally go in the 1st hand position. The 2nd finger would therefore go where the 4th finger would normally go in the first hand position. This means that the 2nd finger should be in unison with the adjacent higher string played open. This is how you “locate” the 3rd hand position.
The next three numbered positions in fiddle tablature come from the 3rd position. Using parenthesis, the tablature indicates where the 3rd and 4th fingers go when you are in the 3rd hand position: (3), (3H), and (4). In the image above, these are colored green.

The third hand position is used a lot in bluegrass, particularly in the keys of D and A. Prominent examples include “Katy Hill” and “Sally Goodin.”

Below is notation and tablature for the natural rest position of the hand in the 3rd position, for the G and D strings. Sometimes it is difficult to know remember which finger to use when you are in the a higher position, and so I always include a small circle below the tablature that tells you which finger to use. For all the notes in the 3rd position, please download the tablature linked above.

finger-positions7

 

Figure 5: “Natural position” notes in the third hand position.

The 5th Hand Position

The 5th hand position (blue) is found by placing your 1st finger where the 3rd finger would normally go in the 3rd hand position. The 2nd finger would therefore go where the 4th finger would normally go in the 3rd hand position. The final three numbered positions in fiddle tablature come from the 5th position. Using brackets, the tablature indicates where the 3rd and 4th fingers go when you are in the 5th hand position: [3], [3H], and [4]. In the image above, these are colored blue.

The fifth position is rarely used in bluegrass.

Below is notation and tablature for the natural rest position of the hand in the 5th position, for the G and D strings. For all the notes in the 3rd position, please download the tablature linked above.

finger-positions9

Figure 6: “Natural position” notes in the fifth hand position.

Now that you know where the number in the tablature come from, let’s go back and look at the other three hand position. The brackets for these positions are shown in the right-hand image of Figure 3 above.

The 1/2 Hand Position

The 1/2 hand position is located by putting your hand in the 1st hand position, then moving your entire hand one half-step toward the nut so that the 1st finger is in the 1L position.
The 1/2 hand position is common in bluegrass, and will be used when learning tunes in F and Bb. Prominent examples include “Beaumont Rag” and “Daly’s Reel.”

Below is notation and tablature for the natural rest position of the hand in the 1/2 position, for the G and D strings. Notice that the 3H had been replaced with a 4L. For all the notes in the 1/2 position, please download the tablature linked above.

finger-positions4

Figure 7: “Natural position” notes in the 1/2 hand position.

The 2nd Hand Position

The 2nd hand position is located by putting your hand in the 1st hand position, then moving your entire hand one half-step toward the bridge so that the 1st finger is in the 2L position. The 2nd finger would therefore go where the 3rd finger would normally go in the first hand position. This means that the 2nd finger should be one octave higher than the adjacent lower string played open. This is how you “locate” the 3rd hand position.

The 2nd hand position is common in bluegrass. It is used a lot when higher notes are needed in the keys of F, C, and G. One prominent example is the C part of “Jerusalem’s Ridge.”
Below is notation and tablature for the natural rest position of the hand in the 2nd position, for the G and D strings. For all the notes in the 2nd position, please download the tablature linked above.

finger-positions6

Figure 8: “Natural position” notes in the second hand position.

The 4th Hand Position

The 4th hand position is found by placing your first finger where the 4th finger would normally go in the 1st hand position. This means that the 1st finger should be in unison with the adjacent higher string played open. This is how you “locate” the 4th hand position.

The 4th hand position is not common in bluegrass. It is mainly used when the pinky plays an octave higher than the open string. One prominent example is “Lime Rock.”

Below is notation and tablature for the natural rest position of the hand in the 2nd position, for the G and D strings. For all the notes in the 2nd position, please download the tablature linked above.

4th Hand Position

Figure 9: “Natural position” notes in the fourth hand position.

Now you know all of the finger and hand positions used in tablature!

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Best Online Fiddle Lessons Forums Hand and Finger Positions

This topic contains 31 replies, has 11 voices, and was last updated by Steve Srader Steve Srader 2 months ago.

Viewing 32 posts - 1 through 32 (of 32 total)
  • Author
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  • #19654

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    One of the keys to playing the fiddle is knowing where to put your fingers. At BGD, I provide both notation and tablature (a numbering system) so that all players will know what note to play and which finger to use.

    Hand and Finger Positions

    #19667
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    That’s a great lesson”,   being self taught, I never understood much, or really any of this!  Thank you…I can see I’ve got more work to do!   This should be very helpful to me.  I’ve been grappling around in the dark.

    #19669
    Justine
    Justine
    Participant

    Your music with notes, tabs, chords, and bowings are unique, John. At the group I just joined, some people were passing around very rudimentary song sheets (some hand-written). I’m not going to take in any of your lesson sheets

    Your sheet music has notes, tabs, chords, and bowings. This is great for learning and I appreciate it. I’m eager to look into the hand and finger positions. I was watching Vivian Williams who is still playing. She does some up the neck stuff. Sometimes we need to get into higher p0ositions and you have given us the tools to do it.

    Cricket, you’ve done some very effective learning on your own. It’s nice to have John lay it all out for us, isn’t it?

    #19670
    Rock
    Rock
    Participant

    Thanks John, I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. I am glad you made this video. 🙂

    #19698

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    I think I am the one who learned the most while making this post. Lucy Pevensie threw the question out there just before the sky fell, and I realized that I was pretty rusty on my hand positions. I’m not sure if my essay was clear, but I am hoping the videos and diagrams will be very useful so someone!

    #19704

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    Justine, why wouldn’t you take in any of my lesson sheets? I am hurt!  😉

    #19713
    nagumaq
    nagumaq
    Participant

    That was so cool, very good read, and I will read it again. Thanks for taking the time to write all the details . The video 2 play along is on my list of play along like I might get addicted to that, really smart stuff John. I haven’t taken the video number one lesson yet. I was drawn to read first. Can t wait, love this stuff :O)
    Helps understand and visualize clearer !
    Thank you
    Gu

    #19718
    lucy pevensie
    lucy pevensie
    Participant

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ll be studying the tabs, re-reading and re-watching this one a lot.

    When I met notes higher than B on the E string (especially 1/8 notes coming at full speed), I began to question my chances as even a second violinist in the repertory orchestra. When the conductor said, “Seconds, try playing this section in third position,” I nearly cried. Now I’m more hopeful! I’ll just have to do a lot of memorization to learn the new note-to-position comparisons. I think it may be time for me to get a “Don’t Fret” sticker! 🙂

    Thank you again, sooo much!

    By the way, it’s great to see everyone back online. 🙂

    #19720

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    It is good to be back! I really hope this helps you, Lucy. It is very handy information!

    #19766
    nagumaq
    nagumaq
    Participant

    Priceless :O)
    Gu

    #19778

    Barbara
    Participant

    Thank you so very much, John. This is a great lesson! This is the “book-learnin” stuff that will help me, and also allow me to better help my 7 year old  grandson. We are both beginners, learning side-by-side. I started about 6 or 7 months before he did and am his current mentor, (poor kid).  The more technical stuff I can comprehend, the less it will be like the blind leading the blind.  🙂   I really appreciate your time and knowledge you share with  us.                                                A VERY HUGE MAHALO!!!

    #19780
    Justine
    Justine
    Participant

    “Justine, why wouldn’t you take in any of my lesson sheets? I am hurt!”

    John, I’ve been bragging about your lessons and this site but don’t want to make copies of your sheet music to pass around because I thought we were only supposed to make copies for ourselves.

    #19809

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    Thank you, Barbara! I hope you two are having fun with it. Hand positions may not be the most exciting part of fiddling, but they are good to know.

    Justine, thank you for asking about that. If is perfectly fine for you to use the music in your jam group. I only ask the people don’t sell them, or do any type of mass reproduction or online distribution. I have quite a few teachers on the site who use the music in their lessons, and that is also perfectly fine.

    #19874

    Elizabeth Perilloux
    Participant

    Very helpful! I’ve played piano for 60 years, the fiddle now for about 4 but haven’t ventured into that territory. Thank you for all your hard work for us.

    #19912

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    You are welcome, Elizabeth! I am planning a whole spate of helpful lessons like that one as part of my BGDU curriculum. 🙂

    #20892
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    Discovery: well, for me, anyway.  I don’t know if this would be helpful to anybody else.  I have seen somewhere on the forum some talk of “Sawmill Tuning,” GDGD or AEAE, both of which I use a lot.  There was a time when I thought that was how fiddles were supposed to be tuned!  Anyway, I also play clawhammer banjo, and there is a “sawmill” tuning used with that for working with so-called modal tunes…but really they are in a minor mode or a minor key…the mixolydian model things, like Old Joe Clark or something won’t work there in the banjo sawmill tuning.  But stuff like Cold Frosty Morning, Pretty Polly, etc., those old lonesome, minor-sounding things work great there.  Well they work great on fiddle sawmill too…but after this lesson I got to thinking about fingers, etc., and I think John said when playing in C, people often utilize the second position, which begins on a half space up, I learned from that lesson, if I got that right.  So anyway…I think a big discovery to me, maybe not to anybody else, but I’m just throwing it out for whatever reason, is that if you are tuned in a sawmill fiddle tuning, and you scoot your hand on up to that half space that puts you in second position, but instead of your fingers using the natural spaces, with the gap between index and second fingers, second and ring fingers closed in, and a gap between the pinky being the regular second position fingering in GDAE…well if you change the fingering to even gaps between second and third fingers and small gap at the pinky…in other words, I guess high ring finger and low pinky…you have the equivalent of banjo’s sawmill tuning…you’re in the perfect setup for some of those minor-model tunes and have easy fingering plus good drones.  If you suddenly have to go to the 7 chord…like for example if the other instruments, let’s say playing in G and you are tuned GDGD…if they go to F ( which might make it mixolydian, but sometimes tunes do that but don’t stay there), then you just scoot your hand on back into first position to cover those notes.  Maybe this isn’t any big revelation to anybody but me, but to me it seems like one of the secrets of the fiddle’s fingerboard…at least in sawmill tuning.  Hope that made sense…hard to say!

    • This reply was modified 47 years ago by .
    #20902

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    Hi Cricket, that is an excellent observation.

    Beginners here — this discussion may seem a little out of our range, but give it some thought! I am going to create a short tutorial on scales and modes, and also on chord structures, in order to build a base for playing improv and backup. To become good at improv, a working knowledge of chords and scales is very important.

    Cricket — one reason the second position works so well out of the lower strings in sawmill tuning is because the strings are already tuned up two half-steps. This means the second position is actually the third position with respect to the higher two strings.

    For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we are in sawmill tuning AEAE. If I put my hand in the second position on the lower two strings and sharp the third finger, I find I am playing a C major scale, also known as the Ionian mode. This would be like playing the white notes on the piano, starting on the key of C.

    However, in sawmill AEAE, you are usually playing songs in the key of A, not C. If you play the white keys on the piano starting on the key of A, you are not playing an A major scale. You are flatting the 3rd and 7th keys, and this is called the Dorian mode. The Dorian mode is a type of minor scale.

    Therefore: If you are in sawmill tuning and play out of the second position on the lower two strings, you are on the C major scale, but also the A Dorian (minor). In order to continue this scale to the upper two strings, you must now flat the 3rd and 7th notes of the A scale.

    As simply as that, you are suddenly playing hauntingly beautiful songs in A Dorian mode out of sawmill AEAE. Isn’t the fiddle wonderful?

    On a side note: This is also the reason almost all songs in the key of C major will likely go to A Dorian (minor) at some point — but I’ll save that for my lesson on chord structures! For now, suffice it to say it is a VERY beautiful and natural combination.

    #20905
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    John, thanks…this would be a great lesson…this is the kind of stuff, if you remember, a while back I was trying to see patterns and connections to … I was thinking imagine the fingerboard is a bigger place and then fill in the gaps…but this is one if the ideas I was grappling to see.  But there are other things I still grapple with…that I know are secretly hiding in the fingerboard…but cannot grasp…but this is becoming clear….if you know the finger placement patterns, you can shift gears, so to speak, and find new ways they can help you.

    #20913
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    This lesson helped me to see beyond what I was grappling about with…if I’m allowed to use that many prepositions in a sentence!  Just a nudge in the right direction.  Like I said before, some of these things are simple and make playing easy IF you know about them…otherwise, things seem tougher than they need to be.  I’m all for learning little secrets and how to utilize them.  I’ve lived my entire life that way: looking for the shortcuts…getting straight to whatever it is, the quickest, easiest way.  That’s how I do my gardening now…I’ve watched how nature does it and try my best to just copy…much easier than a bunch of work.

    #20923

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    It is good to grapple with something, Cricket — it keeps the mind exercised! My lesson will only be an introduction to the basics, but I hope it will help.

    #20927
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    I’m sure it will help!

    #52147
    Steve Srader
    Steve Srader
    Participant

    What are the notes for each string like D string is G-G#/Ab-A-A#/Bb-B-G-C#/Db-D-D#/Eb-E-F-F#/Gb-G is their a finger board chart for the D-A-E strings like their is for the D string ?

    #52151

    Angela
    Participant

    • This reply was modified 2 months ago by  Angela.
    #52179

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    Steve, I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean!

    #52207
    Steve Srader
    Steve Srader
    Participant

    On the finger board illustration it shows G through G for notes is that the same for every string E-A-D-G

    #52209

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    Oh, sorry! No, that’s just for the G string. The D string would start on D, etc. (See the image above that Angela posted.) I don’t have a similar diagram for all the strings.

    #52219
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    Elephants Always Do Grow Big Ears…take off the big ears and the sentence is still true plus you have the tuning for an upright bass or an upsidedown fiddle…from there…well I guess that’s the only easy part.  But, Steve, have you seen youtubes explaining the CAGE method of guitar chords?  It’s kind of an interesting illustration of something guitar players sorta knew, but might have never seen the whole picture of at one time…sort of the visual cascade of one chord morphing into another.  Why I bring this up, I have no idea…but I understand it on the guitar…and I keep thinking there is something like this going on along the fiddle neck, but hard to grasp at one time.

    #52220
    cricket
    cricket
    Participant

    Sorry…CAGED, not CAGE…I can’t type!

    #52223
    Nancy Parker
    Nancy Parker
    Participant

    Steve:  Check out the following youtube.

     

     

    #52225
    Steve Srader
    Steve Srader
    Participant

    Thanks everyone I think I got it . Click on the image and tell me have I got it figured out or not ?

    #52254

    John Cockman
    Keymaster

    YES! Great work, Steve.

    #52273
    Steve Srader
    Steve Srader
    Participant

    Great and thanks

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