Classical guitar technique
- 1 General
- 2 Posture
- 3 Guitaristic Technique and Independence
- 4 How are fingerings marked?
- 5 Right hand technique
- 6 Left hand technique
- 7 Studies
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Classical guitar technique can be organized broadly into subsections for the right hand, the left hand, and miscellaneous. In guitar performance elements such as musical dynamic and tonal variation are mostly determined by the hand that physically produces the sound. In other words, the hand that plucks the strings defines the musical expression. Historically, this role has been assigned to the dominant hand which, for the majority of players, is the right hand. Similar reasoning is behind string players using the right hand for controlling the bow. In the following discussion the role of the hands should be reversed when considering left-handed players.
An introductory overview of classical guitar technique is given in the article Classical guitar (Section: Performance).
For items such as accessories and construction, see the Classical guitar portal.
The classical guitar is generally held on the left leg, which is supported by a foot stool or some other device to bring it to a position central to the player's body. The foot stool is most commonly oriented pointing slightly to the left of the audience (from the performer's perspective), and slanting upward toward the audience. However, as it is a goal to eliminate general muscular tension (see below), the foot stool can be placed slanting downward toward the audience. This lessens the tension in the legs.
Basic considerations in determining a chosen playing position include:
- the physical stability of the instrument
- ensuring the freedom of both hands such that they have free access to the instrument and can meet all technical demands without having to be occupied with support the instrument or keeping the instrument upright
- elimination of general muscular tension in the assumed body position
Guitaristic Technique and Independence
Over the history of the guitar, there have been many schools of technique, often associated with the current popular virtouso of the time. For example, Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) is associated with arpeggio playing and his compositions are largely based on "broken chords", or arpeggios. Giuliani's solution to achieving independence between the fingers (evening out constraints or differences between the fingers) in the right hand was playing his "120 Right Hand Studies". By contrast, the great Andres Segovia maintained that playing scales two hours a day "will correct faulty hand position" (1953) and, for many years, this was the accepted practice. In both schools -- one being all free-stroke (Giuliani arpeggio practice) and the other rest-stroke (Segovia scale practice) -- the basis for learning the technique is hours of repetition.
In 1983, Richard Provost published the first edition of "Classic Guitar Technique" (Professional Guitar Publications, West Hartford, Conn.), outlining modern principles of scale and arpeggio technique based on a knowledge and understanding of the anatomy, and making the inherent kinesthetic tendencies of the human body (i.e. our limitations) work for the player. Rather than working around them, our goal in order to produce a musical, articulated sound within our physical limitations. A second, revised edition of Provost's work, reflecting how our understanding has changed, was published in 1992. They are published in three volumes: Vol. 1 - Scale Source Book (Scale Technique & Studies); Vol. 2 - Basic Arpeggios & the Tremolo (Arpeggio Technique & Studies); and Vol. 3 - Advanced Arpeggios (Advanced Arpeggio Technique & Excerpts).
This modern approach to acquiring technique, namely understanding our constraints and making them work for us, acknowledges the need to play scales and studies in order to develop a technique that is suitable for the modern classical guitar. In this way, the guitarist is able to play the complete repertoire, which spans many centuries, geographical regions, and historically different instruments.
And, instead of two hours a day of repetitions, scales or arpeggios, one is able to learn the guitar within the average person's schedule. Rather than learning technique by sheer repetition, this approach seeks to find the simplest and most direct path to connecting with the music through the guitar. The result is a robust technique that holds up under performance conditions, requires minimum warm-up time, makes acquiring and retaining new repertoire simple, and is easy to maintain, given our busy lives.
The basis of this technique is what is referred to by Charles Duncan, in his book The Art of Classical Guitar Playing (Summy-Birchard) as "the awareness of the release of tension".
How are fingerings marked?
In guitar scores the five fingers of the right-hand (which pluck the strings) are designated by the first letter of their Spanish names: p = thumb (pulgar), i = index finger (index), m = middle finger (mayor), a = ring finger (annular), c = little finger or pinky (chiquito).
The four fingers of the left hand (which stop the strings) are designated 1 = index, 2 = middle, 3 = ring finger, 4 = little finger; 0 designates an open string, that is a string that is not stopped by a finger of the left hand and whose full length thus vibrates when plucked. On the classical guitar thumb of the left hand is never used to stop strings from above (as is done on the electric guitar): the neck of a classical guitar is too wide and the normal position of the thumb used in classical guitar technique do not make that possible.
Scores (contrary to tablature) do not systematically indicate the string to be plucked (although in most cases the choice is obvious). When an indication of the string is required the strings are designated 1 to 6 (from the 1st the high E to the 6th the low E) with figures 1 to 6 inside circles.
The positions (that is where on the fretboard the first finger of the left hand is placed) are also not systematically indicated, but when they are (mostly in the case of the execution of barrés) these are indicated with Roman numerals from the first position I (index finger of the left hand placed on the 1st fret: F-B flat-E flat-A flat-C-F) to the twelfth position XII (the index finger of the left hand placed on the 12th fret: E-A-D-G-B-E; the 12th fret being placed where the body begins) or even higher up to position XIX (the classical guitar most often having 19 frets, with the 19th fret being most often split and not being usable to fret the 3rd and 4th strings).
Right hand technique
The thumb and three largest fingers of the right hand pluck the strings. The normal position is for the hand to be shaped as if it were loosely holding an apple with the wrist slightly bent, the forearm resting on the upper large bout of the guitar, and the fingers near the strings.
The thumb is held at the side of the other fingers, so that it can work independently of them. The height of the wrist and hand depends on the thumb: It is such that the fingers can comfortably move - the wrist is normally not too low, but bent.
Plucking the strings usually involves making contact first with the (usually lefthand side) fleshy part of the fingertip (and often also left part of the nail, or only the left part of the nail given very long nails) and then letting the string glide smoothly along the curvature of the fingernail until the string is released at the fingernail's tip: the string is plucked (see also section Nails below). The two primary plucking techniques are:
- Rest-stroke (apoyando), in which the finger that plucks the string rests on the immediate upper string afterwards; and
- Free-stroke (tirando), in which the finger hits nothing after plucking the string.
Rest stroke produces a more deliberate sound and may be used for bringing the melody out in music where the harmony competes for attention. Free-stroke sounds "lighter" and makes it possible to play fast passages more easily, though some guitarists (esp. with long nails) use the free-stroke exclusively and are able to produce a strong sound with it.
Some guitarists with rather long nails avoid the rest-stroke altogether; others commonly avoid it when they feel they have more control over the free-stroke. The free-stroke is the more natural stroke, since it can always be used. When two neighbouring strings are to be plucked simultaneously, the rest-stroke cannot be used. Also, arpeggios are usually played free-stroke, except possibly for the thumb or if appropriate (effective and possible due to nail-length / hand position) the annular finger if it plucks a melodic line. In the free-stroke, a finger's motion is not brought to an abrupt stop on the following string, as is the case in the rest-stroke.
Guitarists that use both free-stroke and rest-stroke require nails of the correct length: if the nails are too long, a good-sounding rest-stroke is no longer possible. Many guitarists who prefer using quite long nails do not use the rest-stroke.
An important factor for a good sounding note is the angle that the finger over the string makes with it. This angle is usually not a right angle to strings, but at a more natural angle, where the outstretched fingers would point slightly to the left: this has the benefit of a warmer tone and creates less noise due to nail contact, since the string can glide over the rounded nail, rather than being hooked or caught by it.
Holding the fingers and hand perpendicular to the strings may cause difficulties, since the string is aligned with the groove between fingertip and nail: this may cause clicking noises or double sounds (fingertip sound, then nail sound). By holding the fingers and hand to the left (as opposed to perpendicular), it is impossible for the string to land in the groove, since the left side of the nail will touch the string first (often together with the tip of the finger; possibly aiding an additional minimization of clicking noise). The nail will be at an angle less than 90 degrees to the string and the string may glide smoothly over the nail's left side until it is released.
One of the tenets of right hand technique in scale passages is alternation. That is, no right hand finger should be used to play two notes in a row (excluding the thumb, which is often called upon to play a sequence of bass notes). Typically for runs of notes, the index and middle fingers alternate. When an arpeggiated harmony is being played with the thumb (p), index (i) and middle (m) fingers, the ring finger (a) may play a melody above the harmony. In the tremolo technique, the thumb plays a bass note followed by the fingers which play the same treble note three times: pami, pami, pami etc. (Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega is a famous example of this technique).
The position of the right hand can be used to influence the tone of the sound produced by a classical guitar. The wealth of sonic possibilities enables performers to add contrast and color to their performances well beyond the simple volume changes available to, say, pianists. When the strings are plucked close to the bridge, the position is called sul ponticello and the notes sound "twangy" and "nasal". When the strings are plucked over the fingerboard of the guitar the position is termed sul tasto and the tone becomes fuller and "sweet" (termed dolce in Italian, see List of musical terminology page). The angle at which the fingers hit the strings can also affect the timbre of the sound.
The term pizzicato simply refers to plucking the strings in music for bowed instruments. In classical guitar however, it refers to placing the side of the hand below the little finger across all of the strings very close to the bridge and then plucking the strings with the fingers. This produces a muted sound and is referred to as palm-muting in electric guitar parlance. Tambour is the technique where many or all of the strings are played at once by hitting them (usually near the bridge) with the side of the (outstretched) thumb. Both tambour and pizzicato can be heard in Aconquija by Barrios.
The right hand fingers are used to stop notes from ringing past their duration as indicated by the music. This is more often an issue with open string bass notes which tend to ring on for some time. To stop the notes, the right hand thumb (usually) touches the ringing string to stop it. This can pose a significant challenge to the guitarist as he or she needs to attend to each bass note twice, once to start it and once to stop it. The same technique can be used to create a staccato effect.
Trills are usually played on one string using various combinations of left hand slurs, also known as legados or hammer-on and pull-offs. Cross-string trills utilising two or three strings are also possible. In this case the trill usually takes the form of low-high-low and can be executed thus: The left hand stops, say the D# on the fourth fret of the second string, the right hand middle finger plays that note then the index finger "strums" the first and second strings producing: D#-E-D#. The difference between a cross-string trill and an ordinary trill is that the cross-string trill allows both notes to sound against each other. This technique is often used in Baroque music although it is debatable as to whether it was the most common practice of the period.
There may be different hand positions depending on the motion of fingers/hand/arm and effect that is intended. Standard positions might include the following (or variations thereof):
- "arpeggio position", with the thumb playing bass strings and the index, middle and annular finger plucking a pattern on 3 upper strings respectively.
- Scale playing: Usually an alteration of the index and middle finger; however other alterations using the annular finger (or even an alterations with the thumb) are common as well
Factors that influence the choice might be the speed of the scale and the progression of the melody over more than one string, i.e., a scale usually starts on one string and continues on another.
However, during slower movements (especially of contrapuntal music) guitarists occasionally do not alternate the fingers strictly if this facilitates the interpretation by preserving tonal similarity: An example of this might be when the index finger (possibly the thumb) is used to play one melody line on the 3rd string while the annular finger might be used for a melody on the first string. However, the melody lines very often move over various strings so that many adaptations and a flexible approach is needed. Moreover, there is no common rule or guideline - there is no predefined technique: a guitarist will experiment and use the pattern of finger pluckings that personally suits the player best.
It is important to note that not only the fingers are involved in the plucking of the string, but the hand should also be held comfortably loose and may move slightly as well - even the arm is involved. For example when playing scales (usually with alternating fingers, e.g., index, middle, index, middle, ...) and moving from the top strings down, or the bottom strings up, the hand moves up and down as well in order to adjust the placement of the fingers to be at an optimum.
Tirando versus Apoyando
Tirando (also known as free-stroke) is where the plucking motion is made in such a manner that, after plucking, the finger stays in the air - it does therefore not land on an adjacent string. Apoyando (also known as the rest-stroke) is a plucking motion made in such a manner that after the desired string has been plucked, the fingertip lands on the next adjacent string.
Historically (for baroque guitars, right up to classical or romantic repertoire of Sor and Mertz) the free-stroke was used. One of the first classical guitarists to use the reststroke was the Spaniard Julian Arcas (1832–1882) (and it may have been used by Jose Ciebra as well), though it was already in use for flamenco music.
The rest-stroke was regarded as a fundamental way of plucking the string during much of the 20th century; this changed towards the very end of the 20th century and is generally viewed rather differently today. Today the free-stroke is often the preferred stroke of professional classical guitarists:
Roberto Aussel (Professor of Classical guitar at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln) has said:
- "Particularly, apoyando as a main principle, is today hardly used anymore."
- (German)"Speziell Apoyando als Grundprinzip findet sich heute kaum noch."
Aussel also notes that this preference of using primarily a free-stroke, was already common in Argentina in the 1950s, and in other South American countries. His teacher, Jorge Martínez Zárate, abandoned the rest-stroke completely and used only free-stroke, achieving an exceptional tone with it. Abel Carlevaro was also a strong proponent of the free-stroke. Carlevaro and Zárate advocated an "effective use of musclegroups and with it an equilibrium of energy and relaxation".
Manuel Barrueco has said that he used almost exclusively free-stroke in baroque music:
- "[...] In baroque music I use probably at least 95% to 99% free strokes, as I feel it is more stylistically correct and it is the best way to fully control dynamics and tone in polyphonic music."
Today, the choice of stroke that a guitarist will use is motivated more by tonal beauty, dynamic control and efficiency; this often leads to a preference for free-stroke, and thus a discrepancy from earlier trends or textbook "rules", such as the mid-20th century reliance on reststroke.
Furthermore, by experimenting with hand positions and nail angles, it is possible to achieve satisfactory volume with the free-stroke which is comparable to that of the rest-stroke: this often requires the use of a smoothly filed fingernail. Again, this can be just a matter of preference and taste of the individual guitarist.
Stroke eyebrows with pick
"Preparation" (known as planting) is the placing of the finger on the string such that the flesh — as well as part of the nail — touches the string, before a plucking motion is made.
This is the standard way of plucking a string. Before plucking, usually both the left side of the nail and the finger touch the string; this enables the finger (and hand) to rest on the string in a balanced way. When the plucking motion is made, only the nail-contact remains: The curvature of the nail (starting from its left side) allows the string to be pulled back while the string slides towards the tip of the nail, where it is released. This occurs so quickly that the gliding of the string over the fingernail is not perceived (but: a smoothly filed nail is required and the position of the hand needs to be adjusted if plucking metal wound strings using anything but the thumb. Otherwise, the angle of attack will cause a very distasteful grating noise, unless of course, this is the desired effect).
The act of planting is quickly followed by the plucking of the string, so that this stroke can be used (is usually used) without a break in sound becoming noticeable.
For practice purposes, the use of preparation can be used to accentuate a staccato note: Here the finger is placed on the vibrating string to stop its sound, and only after a delay this finger plucks the string. Finger alterations that are commonly used are: i, m, i, m; "p, m, p, m" and "i, a, i, a" for faster progressions. The last two are used because they eliminate the friction of the two neighboring fingers' passing in fast progressions (as i and m tend to rub together in unpracticed musicians).
Tremolo is the rapid reiteration of a string: plucking of the same string, although not necessarily on the same note many times, quickly and next to each other (although usually separated by a melody in the thumb). In this instance, while there will still be "preparation," per se, it will not be evident and will definitely be lacking if the speed has not been gradually increased.
Finger alterations that are commonly used are:
- "p, m, i" for slower, three note tremolos, with the thumb picking out the melody
- "p, a, i" for faster three note tremolos, with the melody in the thumb
- "p, a, m, i" for a four note tremolo, with the melody in the thumb
- "p, c, a, m, i" for a five note tremolo, although it is rarely used. Also, as the pinky is not a very popular finger to be used, and guitarists usually find a substitute fingering, derived from either a three note and a two note alteration ("p, a, i" followed by "p, m" or "p, i")
Arpeggiation is similar to the tremolo technique, except almost always the fingers pluck separate strings. Usually, the pattern of finger pluckings is such that it begins with the fingers resting on the strings as follows - thumb (p) on a bass-string and index (i), middle (m), third finger (a) each on one of the three treble strings respectively.
Finger alterations that are commonly used are:
- "p, a, m, i"
- "p, i, m, a"
- "p, a, m, i, m, a"
- "p, i, m, a, m, i"
The last two patterns are interesting, however, as if they are to be played quickly, the last m and a or i must be played with slightly less preparation, as it would be extraordinarily difficult to move the fingers to their correct strings for the second note and still have time for a normal preparation.
Note: It is important to realize that as the right hand progressions become faster, rest strokes become very impractical, and can wreak havoc upon one's technique. Free strokes are always best for the index, middle, and third fingers, when playing fast arpeggios or sections of tremolo.
A guitarist will individually choose how much preparation to use for each stroke, depending on personal choice and the effect that is to be produced. Most guitarists make this choice intuitively, and will vary and adjust strokes while playing.
Note: The following discussion presents points that may differ from guitarist to guitarist. In any case the angle of the right hand's fingers (when outstretched) to the strings is not varied greatly.
Angle of Attack
- Slow: More parallel angle (right-hand fingers more to the left)
The hand is usually held at such an angle, that the outstretched fingers point slightly to the left (rather than perpendicular) to the strings. But this angle can be actively varied (albeit only slightly) and results in different tones, but also has some consequences:
The more the fingers point to the left of the strings (the more parallel they are to the strings), the longer the fingernail is in contact with the strings, since the string glides over more of the fingernail: This angle requires preparation - placing the nail (and finger) on the string, and then following through in a controlled manner. This angle creates a warmer tone, but because the string glides over more of the nail, this is not good for fast repetitive plucking.
- Fast: More perpendicular angle (right-hand fingers)
For fast repetitive plucking, the vibrating string is immediately plucked again with the nail: an impulse is shot into the string so that it maintains its motion - there is no time for "preparation".
At high speeds it is not easily possible to produce a strong clear tone, if the fingers are angled too far to the left, since there is no time for "preparation": "preparation" is the placing of the left side of the nail (and often also finger) on the string.
The faster the plucking, the more a gliding over the nail (more parallel) delays the sound.
Thus for fast plucking the guitarist may choose to hold the right-hand fingers at a more perpendicular angle to the strings (though the fingers might still point slightly to the left) and strike them more with the tip of the nail.
The above discussion was mainly focused on the angle as a dependency on the speed of plucking. Even more important is the dependency of the angle on the tone. As usual there is always some sort of trade-off involved and the ultimate details depend on each individual guitarist separately, as well as the players fingers/nails.
- Consequences on practising speed build-up
When practising at slow speeds, the hand position and stroke used should ideally be the same as the one for the fast tempo.
Usually the hand might be in different positions for fast and slow playing. More importantly a different stroke may be intuitively used for slower playing (i.e. stroke with preparation) than for faster playing (stroke without preparation). This means that when building up accuracy and evenness by practising pluckings (such as tremolo) at slow speeds, the hand position and stroke used during this slow practice should be identical to the hand position and stroke that will be used when the pluckings are performed up to speed.
This means that slow tremolo practice (for example) requires the practising of "stroke without preparation"! This may be difficult since most guitarists intuitively choose a stroke with (at least) a bit of preparation during slower playing. However in this respect, the practice-method of playing with short speed bursts in-between slow practice, can prove useful, by reminding the guitarist of the correct hand position and stroke (without preparation).
On the other hand, tremolo (etc.) should not be exclusively practised with "speed-stroke", but also at slower speeds with a normal "stroke with preparation": the reason is that this normal stroke aids the guitarist in getting a better intrinsic feeling for the location of the strings.
Right hand wrist/hand position
There is a lot of freedom in the positioning of the right hand, which affects the angle at which the fingers will attack the string. Guitarists spend a lot of time finding their own individual positions (as there can be more than one) that allow the fingers/nails to pluck the strings with
- a beautiful tone (possibly variations of tone with different positions)
- a minimum of tension in fingers, wrist, or forearm
- a healthy position (without strain)
The hand's position is influenced by the arm:
- changing where the right arm rests on the guitar (either more to the left or more to the right):
- This can be very helpful when changing timbre from near the bridge to closer to the fretboard
- changing what part of the right arm rests on the guitar (either)
The hand can be varied in the following ways:
- the height (bending) of the wrist, although (note that the more the wrist is bent, the more strain is placed upon it. This can informally lead to wrist injuries)
- bending of hand to the left or right from the wrist (this is usually considered a strain, and today many guitarist hold the hand almost straight compared to the arm)
- the rotation of the hand (it can be rolled to the left or to the right. Often guitarist might occasionally roll the hand slightly to the right - opening up the hand and changing the angle of plucking; whilst others might generally use an open position with the hand rolled slightly to the right)
Modern practice generally makes use of the nails of the right hand in combination with the flesh of the fingertips in order to pluck the strings. During the 19th century many players, including celebrated guitarists such as Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega and his pupil Emilio Pujol played using the flesh of the fingertip, in common with lute technique.
Plucking the strings usually involves making contact first with the (usually lefthand side) fleshy part of the fingertip (and often also left part of the nail, or only the left part of the nail given very long nails) and then letting the string glide smoothly along the curvature of the fingernail until the string is released at the fingernail's tip: the string is plucked (example fingernail-shape images for playing from left side of the nail: figure 16A, fingernails of David Russell fingernails of Emmanuel Rossfelder. Note that some guitarists play with the right side of the nail: example - figure 16B, fingernails of Thomas Viloteau).
- Rasgueado See main article Rasgueado. Rasgueado or rasgueo is a technical strum in flamenco and classical guitar that includes the use of the back of the fingernails. More commonly, the term refers to using the backs of the nail in sequence to give the impression of a very rapid strum. There are several types of rasgueado that employ differing combinations of fingers and thumb allowing for a variety of rhythmical accentuations and subdivisions of the beat.
- Use the palm-side of the thumb joint to lightly strum strings, producing a soft, low sound.
- Use the thumb nail to produce a bright sound.
- Use the thumb nail to strum from lowest string to highest, followed by a stroke by the thumb nail from highest string to lowest, and finally by the middle finger coming from highest string to lowest. This pattern is most commonly used in the form of triplets for a 4/4 measure, or used four times in a 12/8 measure.
- A simple combination of both fingers and thumb, the thumb striking the lowest strings and fingers picking the upper notes of the chord from lowest to highest strings in rapid succession.
Left hand technique
While the right hand is responsible for the sound of the guitar, the left hand performs two functions: pressing on the strings (to shorten their effective length and change the pitch) and articulation, i.e. slurring (commonly known as 'hammer-ons' and 'pull-offs') and vibrato. In musical notation, the left hand fingers are referred to as 1, 2, 3, and 4 (starting with index).
The basic position for the left hand is much the same as that of the right, except upside down. Unlike many players of steel-string and electric guitars, which have a narrower neck and fingerboard, classical guitarists do not place their left hand thumbs over the top of the neck. Instead, they place them behind the neck, usually behind the second finger.
The thumb then rolls back so that the thumb plays 'off the bone'. The bone of the thumb 'hangs' off a shoulder that is carved into the back of the neck of the guitar and, eventually, a hard, dry callus forms on the thumb, allowing the left hand to shift without sticking to the guitar.
By keeping the thumb behind the second finger and playing off the front of the third finger, the classical guitarist sets the left hand shape.
Playing with the left hand more or less parallel to the neck requires a certain amount of stretching between the fingers. There is a tendency, especially when one first begins guitar, to collapse the first and second fingers together to press on the string. For example, in playing the F on the first string, first fret (often the second note ever fingered after open E, first-string) there is a tendency to put the second finger on top of the first to hold the note. Holding a note with two fingers, 1 & 2, however, puts the reach between the fingers between the second and third, the hardest reach. The easiest reach is actually between the third and fourth (pinky) fingers. The next easiest between the first and second and the hardest between the middle fingers, between 2 & 3. Therefore, in order to put all the fingers on the strings (one finger per fret), the reach would best go between 1 & 2 and 3 & 4. Care should be taken to unlock 1 & 2. One way train the hand to unlock 1 & 2 is to place a pencil between 1 & 2 with the other end behind the thumb while playing.
Classical guitarists have a different set of left hand calluses on their fingertips than the steel-string players. In the steel-string, played with the guitar under the arm and on the right hip (called 'playing off the hip'), the left hand fingers of the steel string guitarist play on the diagonal, or 'for the reach', and the fingertip lands on the pad of the finger, forming a callus on the pad. The classical guitarist has a different set of left hand calluses as the hand of the classical player falls more parallel to the neck and plays on the "front" (nail side) of the fingertip. As a general rule, in classical, if the player concentrates on playing on the front of the third (or ring) finger, the other fingers will follow.
To play a note clearly, the fingertips of the left hand should be pressed against the string just behind the appropriate fret. Allowing the left shoulder to relax lets the highest finger in the chord or scale slide against and rest on the fret, giving the best sound—and the easiest reach with other fingers. The fingers are, thereby, placed closest to the frets.
Often the index finger is required to play more than one string, called the "barre" technique. The guitarist places the index finger across some or all of the strings at a particular fret and uses the remaining three fingers to play other notes. Rather putting down the barre first, it is often easier to place the fingers and add the barre last, according to which notes are needed first.
When playing notes above the twelfth fret, called "on the body", the left shoulder is dropped and the thumb stays behind, on the neck (as opposed to cello technique where the thumb jumps on top of the fingerboard).
It is possible to play the same note on different strings, called "registration" or "registering". For example, the note "e", first string open, may be played, or "registered" on any string.
The guitarist often has choices of where to 'register' notes on the guitar based on:
- Ease of fingering. Beginners learn the open, first position before anything else and might be more comfortable registering notes on open strings in the first position. Advanced players might find solutions in higher positions based on musical expression or using a shift on a string as a guide.
- Playing "on the string"—Keeping a melody or musical line on one string for continuity of tone or expression.
- The advent of nylon strings. Historically, the early guitar (pre-WW II) was strung with catgut rather than the nylon to which we have become accustomed. Earlier editions often kept the melody on the second string for two reasons; the second string had a beautiful, romantic sound in the higher positions that was appropriate to the style of the times and secondly the first string had a 'thin' sound and unreliable intonation. With the advent of nylon strings, position-playing (playing in a block-style) became more in-vogue. Further. refinements in the manufacture of strings and innovations in modern guitar design continue to bring this issue into focus.
- For reasons of counterpoint: allowing a voice on one string to vibrate for its duration while playing a moving voice on another string.
Slurs, trills and other ornaments are often played entirely with the left hand. For example; in a simple case of an ascending semitone slur (Hammer-on), a note stopped by the first finger of the left hand at the fifth fret is first played in normal manner, then, without the right hand doing anything further, the second finger of the left-hand is placed straight down at the sixth fret on the same string, using its momentum to raise the tone of the still-ringing string by a semitone. A descending slur (Pull-off) is simply the opposite of the above, the slur begins on the higher note and it is common that the finger pressing the higher note actively plucks the string as it lifts, causing the string to vibrate from the fret that the lower finger is depressing. The lower finger is usually in position and pressing before the procedure begins. Three specific descending slurs exist, (1) the active finger lifts directly up and off the string, (2) the active finger rests against the adjacent string immediately after, and (3) a hybrid of these two in which the finger bumps the adjacent string before lifting off.
If these procedures are repeated a few times the result is known as a trill. Because the note is being plucked repeatedly it is possible to continue a trill indefinitely. Occasionally, the upper note in such a trill is played by alternating fingers thus: 2-1-3-1-, etc.
The classical guitar Vibrato is executed by rocking the tip of the left hand finger(s) back and forth horizontally within the same fret space (i.e. along the string axis, and not across it as for a vertical "bend" in rock or blues music) producing a subtle variation in pitch, both sharper and flatter than the starting note, without noticeably altering the fundamental tonal focus of the note being played. When vibrato is required at the first or second fret it is sometimes beneficial to push the string across its axis as it produces a more noticeable vibrato sound there. This second method will only vary the pitch by raising it sharper than the starting note which is the most common method of vibrato used by steel string and electric guitar players.
Natural harmonics can be played by touching a left hand finger upon specific points along an open string without pressing it down, then playing the note with the right hand. The positions of both the left and right hand are important. The left hand must be placed at a nodal point along the string. Nodal points are found at integral divisions of the string length. The simplest example would be when the left hand finger divides the string in two and is placed at the twelfth fret. The note then played is one octave higher than the open string. If the string is divided in three (left hand finger near the seventh fret) the note played is one octave and one fifth above the open string. The player must be careful not to pluck the string at another node (nearer the bridge) otherwise the harmonic will not sound. This can be easily demonstrated by resting a left hand finger on the fifth fret and trying to play the note by plucking the string at the twelfth fret with the right hand - no note will be produced. Ideally the right hand should pluck the string at an antinode.
Artificial harmonics are played by stopping the string as usual with the left hand then resting (not pressing) the index finger of the right hand on the string at a nodal position (commonly 5, 7, 9, or 12 frets above the left hand finger) and plucking the string with the ring finger or thumb of the right hand.
In the left hand, each finger is responsible for exactly one fret. For each hand-position of four frets, the left hand is stationary while its fingers move. Consequently, three hand-positions (of frets 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12) cover the 12-fret octave of each string.
In common with other classical stringed instruments, classical guitar playing and notation use formal positions of the left hand. The 'nth position' means that the hand is positioned with the first finger over the nth fret.
There are many exercises that can be used to develop right and left hand technique on the classical guitar.
- Leo Brouwer
- Etudes Simples - Volumes 1-4
- Matteo Carcassi
- Mauro Giuliani
- Etudes Instructives Faciles Et Agreables, Opus 100
- Xviii Lecons Progressives, Opus 51 (18 Progressive Lessons)
- Studio Per La Chitarra, Opus 1 (The Study Of The Guitar)
- Studi Dilettevoli, Opus 98 (Entertaining Studies)
- Esercizio Per La Chitarra, Opus 48 (Training for the Guitar) 24 Studies
- Primi Lezioni Progressive, Opus 139 (First Progressive Lessons)
- 120 Studies for Right Hand Development
- Fernando Sor
- 12 Studies, Opus 6
- Douze Etudes, Opus 29
- Vingt Quatre Leçons, Opus 31
- Vingt Quatre Exercises, Opus 35
- Introduction a l' Etude de la Guitare, Opus 60
- 20 Studies for Guitar, (a compilation by Andrés Segovia)
- Heitor Villa-Lobos
- Douze Etudes (1929)
- The little finger whose use is not completely standardized in classical guitar technique can also be found designated by e or x. There are several words in Spanish for the little finger: dedo meñique, dedo auricular, dedo pequeño, but their initials conflict with the initials of the other fingers; c is said to be the initial of the dedo chiquito which is not the most common name for the little finger; e and x are not initials but letters that were picked, either with its own rationale, by people who didn't know what else to pick
- "Two String Trills". Tip of the Season. David Russell.
- "Interview with David Russell - mp3 (tracktime 10:35 - 24:00)". Two string trills. Classical Guitar Alive.
- Handbook of Guitar and Lute Composers by Hannu Annala, Heiki Mätlik
- An Early Sighting of the Use of Reststroke Technique in Northern Europe by Randy Osborne
- Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln
- Akustik Gitarre Feb 2010
- "Manuel Barrueco Interview (Dynamic range, free stroke, amateurs)".
- Tone Production and the Nails (Aaron Shearer Foundation)
- Denyer (1992, "Playing the guitar": "The beginner, Left-hand technique, The 'one-fret-per-finger' rule", p. 72)
- Denyer, Ralph (1992). "Playing the guitar". The guitar handbook. Robert Fripp (foreword) (Fully revised and updated ed.). London and Sydney: Pan Books. pp. 65–160. ISBN 0-330-32750-X.
- Complete method for the guitar by Otto Feder published by Ditson, 1858
- The Humane Guitarist Site dedicated to the technique and health of the classical guitarist.
- Musicians and Injuries
- Brad Conroy's Lesson on Right Hand Arpeggios
- Building Blocks of Classical Guitar Technique
- CREATIVE GUITAR - Classical Guitar resource website and blog.
- Left-Hand Trouble Shooting by Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music • University of Hawaii, Leeward.
- The Classical Guitar Express Free newsletter on practicing Classical Guitar by Tom Prisloe
- "Rest Stroke and Free Stroke Revisited" by Ricardo Iznaola, in PDF or HTML