Ok, I'm sorry for the catchy title of this. I've read many articles over the years that have suckered me in because of the irritatingly irresistable strapline but in this in stance it seems appropriate to use such a hook to get people into this article.
What most guitarists don't realise is that they are not making the most out of their playing. What most guitarists don't realise is that they no matter the amount they work on fretboard knowledge, aural training, theory, repertoire, improvisation etc they are still missing a key piece of the puzzle. What most guitarists don't realise is how one seemily obvious aspect of their playing is letting them down and will continue to do so until addressed. What most guitarists don't realise is they they have forgotten about their picking hand.
For me this sort of picture sums it up, the fretting hand of the guitar in focus and the picking hand in the background. For the vast majority of students I've taught and even for myself for at least half of my guitar playing life this is the view of things. As a right handed person I've always been aware that my weaker, least dexterous hand is doing the most dexterous job. Holding down barre chords, learning awkward scale patterns, attempting Hendrix-esq two-step bends, it's all very taxing on your fretting hand. As a piano player first I suppose I had a slight advantage when I started playing guitar but for many people new to guitar it's certainly difficult.
However, because of the perceived difficulty of the job of the fretting hand many people overlook the role of your right hand in their playing. Let's take a quick look at some of the roles of the picking/strumming hand.
1. To create the notes in the first place! Your picking hand is in the vast majority of cases responsible for the note sounding when it needs to be played.
2. How the note sounds. There are so many ways that a note can sound just by the picking hand alone. The first would be whether you choose to use a pick of your fingers. Then, where do you pick the string to get the note, near the bridge, the neck, or somewhere in between? Also, how loud the note sounds is entirely dependent on your picking hand too.
3. Muting. Ok, in this case some muting can be done by the fretting hand, either on the lighter strings or by using your thumb over the top of the neck to mute heavier strings. However for muting some of the thicker strings you can use the inside of your thumb (check out George Bellas to see the master at work) or use your palm to mute the strings at the bridge. Also, consider semi muting techniques such as percussive strokes or palm muted string sounds which is all created by the fretting hand.
4. Speed and dexterity. This is a big issue as already people can place a glass ceiling on how fast they can play by ignoring this. If you are picking the strings and your pick is not close to the strings then your movement and efforts can be very inefficient. Similarly, if you only play with downstrokes of the pick then you will have to work twice as hard as someone picking the strings in an up/down alternate picking movement and significantly more than someone using an economy picking style of always taking the shortest path to the next string that you are playing.
I don't want to go into specifics of what you should and shouldn't do as it depends on your style and what you need to do, for example a metal shredder would need to consider things very differently to an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist. However in both instances I've seen people working so had on their fretting hand that they almost forget that they have a second hand. Often by correcting one little thing like this can make a huge difference to someone's playing.