I'm one of the teachers who strongly advocates for the 4th finger approach on the treble strings for absolute beginners, as is detailed in Anthony Glise' seminal work "Guitar Pedagogy". I am also the guy who claims that "the 3rd finger approach" [my term] is out dated beginner pedagogy on our modern 650mm guitar. I treat the 3rd finger on the 3rd fret as an exception, not the rule.
The 3rd finger approach embeds dysfunctional tension in beginners. Here is why:
1) If you play and hold an "F" on the 1st string with the 1st finger, which finger naturally falls onto the 3rd fret when the fingers are in their normal unflexed or unextended relaxed position? It's the 4th finger, not the third, assuming that the l-hand knuckles are mostly parallel to the fingerboard.
2) Spreading the webbing in the fingers to get the 3rd finger to the 3rd fret causes dysfunctional tension in the interoseus muscles intrinsic in the hand, and I will never, ever, introduce dysfunctional tension as a default in a beginning student's hands.
3) Also, when the student attempts to get the 3rd finger to the third fret, they inevitably pronate (turn the left hand counter-clockwise) away from the neck. This is a terrible default position to teach, but, on the other hand
, I've earned a very good living correcting this problem. This default pronation begins to impede the students progress starting around level 6. While some can push through and become advanced players, most students stall out when it comes time to play more difficult music at higher tempos, such as Bach's Bourree in Em (see Paul McCartney).
4) when the student uses the 4th finger on the third fret, the left-hand elegantly mirrors the right-hand, the same ergonomic symmetry that is taught on piano [the guitarists left hand is simply upside down and raised. Try it, play air piano and make the change. The right-hand will come into the body, too]. So once you establish the right-hand default position in the first few lessons, you can easily teach the left.
5) If you use the 3rd finger on "G" on the 1st string, the fourth finger is "out in space". There are no notes over there.
I will always attempt to establish an ergonomic, safe, effortless, and twitchy-fast left hand. While one finger per fret seems logical, that just isn't how our hands fit a modern guitar. As Professor Stanley Yates said about the 3rd finger approach, "Nobody teaches this way anymore, do they?"
Once I made the change to the 4th finger approach in my early years of teaching, I have made one exception to my firm stance and allowed a student to use the third finger as a default. This student was 6' 4" tall with freakishly long fingers. It worked for him, and even his finger-fall speed was great. So, I'm not completely dogmatic, but 45 years of teaching has convinced me that dysfunctional tension is a game changer -in a bad way, and retards later advancement.
I hope this helps,
Dr. Lawrence A. McDonald, D.M.A., Art Kaplan Fellow
Author of The Conservatory Tutor for Guitar
2018 Michael Thames "Ancient Dragon" Cd/Ir
2008 Michael Thames Cd/Br
Royal Conservatory Advanced Guitar and Theory Instructor