Classical guitar technique

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This article is about the Contemporary classical guitar technique. For the baroque guitar technique see Baroque guitar and for the romantique guitar technique see Romantic guitar

The classical guitar technique is a fingerstyle technique used by classical guitarists to play classical guitar music on a classical guitar.

General[edit | edit source]

Classical guitar technique can be organised 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.

For items such as accessories and construction, see the Classical guitar portal.

Posture[edit | edit source]

The classical guitar is generally held on the left leg which is supported by a foot stool or the guitar is raised by some other device to bring it to a position central to the player's body. 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 thorough access to the instrument and can meet all technical demands without having to support the instrument
  • elimination of general muscular tension in the assumed body position

Right hand technique[edit | edit source]

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. Plucking the strings usually involves making contact first with the fleshy part of the fingertip and then letting the string glide over the tip of the fingernail as the string is plucked. The two primary plucking techniques are:

  • Rest-stroke (apoyando), in which the finger that plucks the string rests on the next string afterwards; and
  • Free-stroke (tirando), in which the finger hits nothing after plucking the string.

Rest-stroke produces a more "deliberate" sound and is good 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.

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 scale-like passages 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 tambor 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) rests on 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.

Nails[edit | edit source]

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.

Strumming[edit | edit source]

  • 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 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.
  • 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.

External links[edit | edit source]

Left hand technique[edit | edit source]

The fingers of the left hand press on the strings to shorten their effective length and change the pitch of the notes that the right hand plays. In musical notation the fingers are referred to as 1-4 from index to little fingers, with 0 indicating an open string. 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 narrower neck and fingerboards, the classical guitarist does not place her or his left hand thumb over the top of the neck, instead placing it directly behind the neck, usually opposite the second finger.

To play a note cleanly the fingertips of the left hand should be pressed against the string just behind (to the headstock side of) the appropriate fretwire. Often the left hand fingers are all required at once and many (sometimes awkward) hand positions are necessary. Chords requiring all six strings usually employ the barre technique. The guitarist places the first finger across all of the strings at a particular fret and uses the remaining three fingers to play other notes.

When playing notes on the treble strings above the twelfth fret (where the shoulders of the guitar meet the neck) the left shoulder is dropped down a little and the thumb is placed on the underside of the fingerboard to the left of the other fingers. For example if the middle finger is playing an F# at the fourteenth fret of the first string the thumb would be pressing upwards somewhere near the eleventh fret.

Slurs[edit | edit source]

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.

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. Often the upper note in such a trill is played by alternating fingers thus: 2-1-3-1-2-1-3-1...

Vibrato[edit | edit source]

Vibrato is possible with a classical guitar by pushing the left hand finger back and forth along the string axis (not across it as for a "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 and is the most common method of vibrato used by steel string and electric guitar players.

Harmonics[edit | edit source]

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.

Left hand positions[edit | edit source]

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.

Fretboard Knowledge[edit | edit source]

A solid knowledge of the fretboard is essential to playing classical style guitar. The fretboard is set up starting with the lowest to the highest strings in this fashion;

Key of Cmajor up to the 5th fret. (No sharps or flats).


         | E  A  D  G  B  E | Open Position
         |------------------|
         | F           C  F | 1st fret
         |------------------|
         |    B  E  A       | 2nd fret
         |------------------|
         | G  C  F     D  G | 3rd fret
         |------------------| 
         |          B       | 4th fret
         |------------------|
         | A  D  G  C  E  A | 5th fret
         |------------------|
This pattern continues all the way up the fretboard. Sharps (#) are produced by going UP 1/2 step (1 fret),
and flats(b) are are produced in like manner going down 1/2 step (1 fret).

External links[edit | edit source]

Studies[edit | edit source]

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 Andres Segovia)
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos
    • Douze Etudes (1929)

Classical guitar playing Injuries[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Anderson, Neil. "Aim Directed Movement." Guitar and Lute, July 1980, p. 24-25.
  • Artzt, Alice. The Art of Practicing. London: Musical News Services, Ltd., 1978. 28 p.
  • Bobri, Vladimir. The Segovia Technique. New York: Macmillan, 1972; reprint ed., New York: Collier, 1980. 94 p.
  • Bogle, James. "Guitar Forum: A Rationale for Fingering." American String Teacher 32 (Winter 1982): 30-31.
  • Cordero, Federico. "Avoiding the Zip and Bump Effect: A proposal." Soundboard 5, no. 2 (1978): 51-53.
  • Duarte, John. The Bases of Classical Guitar Technique. Sevenoaks, Kent: Novello, 1975. 36 p.
  • Duncan, Charles. "About Vibrato." Soundboard 5, no. 3 (1978): 69-72.
  • Duncan, Charles. The Art of Classical Guitar Playing. Princeton: Sunny-Birchard Music, 1980. 132 p..
  • Duncan, Charles. "Articulation and Tone--Some Principles and Practices." Guitar Review, no. 46 (Winter 1979), p. 7-9.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Corrective Filing of Problem Nails." Guitar Player, August 1979, p. 40.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Functional Tension and the Prepared Attack." Soundboard 6, no. 1 (1977): 10-11.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: A Violin Lesson for Guitar." American String Teacher 27 (Spring 1977): 22.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: The Importance of Goal Conception." American String Teacher 30 (Autumn 1981): 26.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: Machine--Gun Tremolo." American String Teacher 28 (Summer 1978): 29.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: Nails the Way the String Sees Them." American String Teacher 27 (Autumn 1977): 28.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: The Technique of Interpretation, part 1." American String Teacher 31 (Summer 1981): 27.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: The Technique of Interpretation, part 2." American String Teacher 31 (Autumn 1981): 18-19.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Guitar Forum: Thinking, The. American String Teacher 31 (Winter 1981): 39.
  • Duncan, Charles. "The Secret of Effortless Shifting." Guitar and Lute, January 1980, p. 30-31.
  • Duncan, Charles. "The Segovia Sound, What Is It?" Guitar Review, Fall 1977, p. 25.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Staccato Articulations in Scales," part 1. Soundboard 4, no. 3 (1977): 65-66.
  • Duncan, Charles. "Staccato Articulations in Scales," part 2. Soundboard 4, no. 4 (1977): 100—101.
  • Fox, Gregory. "Guitar Forum: Guitar Technique." American String Teacher 28 (Winter 1978): 24.
  • Green, Richard. "Guitar Forum: Some Thoughts on Fingering." American String Teacher 29 (Spring 1979): 40-41.
  • Hopman, David D. "Some Ideas on Practicing Villa-Lobos' Etude No. 1 in E Minor." Soundboard 8, no. 2 (1981): 88-91.
  • Leisner, David. "Breathing Life into Music." Soundboard 5, no. 2 (1978): 50-51.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: An Open-String Exercise." Guitar Player, August 1977, p. 10.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Fingernail Shape and Length." Guitar Player, February 1977, p. 14.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Free and Rest Strokes." Guitar Player, July 1977, p. 127.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Left-Hand Position." Guitar Player, December 1976, p. 101.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Nail Wear." Guitar Player, May 1977, p. 14.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Let the Music Guide Your Hands." Guitar Player, January 1977, p. 14.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Problems in Tone Production." Guitar Player, April 1977, p. 98.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Producing Good Tone." Guitar Player, June 1977, p. 127.
  • Lorimer, Michael. "Classical Guitar: Shaping and Polishing Nails." Guitar Player, March 1977, p. 105.
  • Lorimer, Michael."Master Class." Guitar Player, January 1979, p. 28.
  • Lorimer, Michael."Varying Tone Colors." Guitar Player, November 1977, p. 18.
  • Marlow, Janet. "What Every Great Guitarist Knows About Practicing." Guitar and Lute, October 1979, p. 20-23.
  • Marriott, David M. "Some Notes on the Advantages of Planting." Soundboard 9 (Spring 1982): 52-53.
  • Munson, Larry. "Guitar Forum: Expanding Technique to Improve Reading. " American String Teacher 28 (Autumn 1978): 39.
  • Munson, Larry. "Guitar Forum: Developing Position Shifts." American String Teacher 29 (Winter 1979): 42.
  • Provost, Richard. The Art & Technique of Performance. San Francisco: GSP, 1994. 62 p.
  • Provost, Richard. The Art & Technique of Practice. San Francisco: GSP, 1992. 53 p.
  • Provost, Richard. "Visualization: An Aid to Memorization." Guitar and Lute, July 1981, p. 17-21.
  • Prud' Homme, Bryan. "Fernando Sor: Study in C." Guitar and Lute, November 1977, p. 8-13.
  • Pujol, Emilio. The Dilemma of Timbre on the Guitar. Buenos Aires: Ricordi, 1960 .
  • Sicca, Mario." A New Look at Vibrato." Guitar and Lute, July 1974, p. 26-27.
  • Sherrod, Ronald J. Discovering the Art of Guitar Fingerings. California: Alfred Publishing Co., 1980. 64 p.
  • Stearns, Roland H. "Right Hand Lute Technique and Guitarist's History and Modern Reality." Soundboard 6, no. 2 (1979): 42-26.
  • Stearns, Roland H. "Some Additional Thoughts on Right Hand Lute Technique for Guitarists With a Brief Introduction to Lute Fingerboard Concepts for Guitarists." Soundboard 6, no. 4 (1979): 120-125.
  • Tanno, John C. "Reflections on Classical Guitar Technique," Soundboard 3, no. 3 (1976): 41-42.
  • Taylor, John. Tone Production on the Classical Guitar. London: Musical News Service, Ltd., 1978. 80 p.
  • Tennant, Scott. Pumping Nylon. Van Nuys: Alfred, 1995. 95 p.

External links[edit | edit source]