Matthew McAllister

Blog

Technical issues with specific regard to the left and right hands of a classical guitarist.

1.Overview

2.Books I found particularly helpful

3.Posture

4.Right hand

-4.1 tone
-4.2 dampening
-4.3 articulation

5 Left hand

-5.1 touch
-5.2 Pressure
-5.3 String clearance

Overview

This article is written in response to a question asked by ‘Jay’.

“Can you tell me what studies or exercise etc. you consider to be absolutely 
essential in the development of both left and right hand technique…ones 
which you yourself were perhaps required to master in your own development and ones which are routinely tackled by anyone aspiring to 
be a professional guitarist?”

After giving some serious thought to this I have written an article that contains exercises and studies I used to practice in order to expand and extend my technique and also the exercises I still do every day to maintain my level of technical ability.
I am putting forward these suggestions and comments to guitarists that already have settled on a comfortable and relaxed posture whether that be, with footstool, ergo play, dynarette cushion etc.

2. Books I found particularly helpful

Serie didactica, volumes 2 and 4 – Abel Carlevaro *
Complete technical studies – Francisco Tarrega
Das tagliche training – Luise Walker
Pumping nylon – Scott Tennant *
Nuevo metodo para guitarra, volume 2 – Dionision Agudao
Improvisation and performance techniques for classical and acoustic guitar – Ralph Towner

  • these books in my opinion encompass much of the material in some of the other books, therefore if you were going to splash out get them first

3. Posture

When you are taking up position with the guitar be careful that the you are sitting to the front of your chair / piano stool etc, hold the guitar upright and feel it rest against your chest. Your right forearm will be resting on the widest part of the guitar, helping the balance and rested position of the guitar.

The natural weight of your right arm should be taken by the guitar – thus balancing the instrument, don’t let your elbow slip or project over the edge as this will start to alter the natural position of the right hand.

Your left hand is free to move and is not helping support the guitar this is all taken care of by your right arm, chest and thighs.

Make sure your right hand feels loose and can approach the strings without tension, don’t let your wrist touch the front of the guitar, if it is this is because you aren’t supporting the guitar with the other aforementioned parts of your body.

Experiment with this until you are comfortable.

4. Right Hand

Within right hand technique three of the most important things in my opinion are how to generate a good tone, how to dampen a string and articulation. All three things are intrinsically linked and effect each other, so all though this section has been split into three groups it is worth thinking them as an overall guide.

Carlevaro book 2 was of particular help to me in the establishment of a clear defined right hand technique that was flexible, dynamic and could offer individual control of each digit whilst splitting / arpeggiating
a chord. The Luise Walker book helped me in the voicing of plucked chords.

4.1 tone

Extracts from Nuevo metodo para guitarra, volume 2 – Dionision Agudao.

Aguado does not merely recommend full, beautiful, and varied sounds on the guitar, he tells you how to achieve them. Above all they are achieved by a certain kind of right hand finger stroke, at a certain angle, with a certain degree of strength, with a certain position of the knuckles. And with a certain very exactly described combination of the nail and flesh of the fingers of the right hand.

Note the fact the word certain is used so much, this is leaning to the fact that it will be personal to the player but within the techniques Aguado lays out. I will, through talking about tone, dampening and articulation hit on many of Aguado’s “certain’s”

Aguado’s method of good tone production was to strike the string first with the flesh of the fingertip and then immediately with the nail:

“the string is first played with the fingertip…. and then the string is immediately slid along the nail”

As far as tone production goes I feel Aguado was completely correct.

Watch you don’t make the mistake of making a huge nail shape difference to accommodate flesh and nail, the flesh only slightly precedes the nail. It dampens any vibration already in the string and sets your finger up to slide along the string and back towards your palm while sliding up the nail and leaving the string with a rounded wholesome tone. The nail shape then actually moves with your stroke and in tandem with the string, the energy and movement all join up and create a sound. 
If your stroke is jabby and not embracing the string but almost in conflict with it as you go to strike, the sound will be sharp and unstable. Approaching the strings with this moving deep stroke will feel – (when practised very slowly) like a bowed string player drawing the beginning of a down bow or a brass player preparing their embouchure.

4.2 dampening

Here is an excersise I often do and also give many students,

Play through the six open strings of your guitar with your thumb playing the basses and your fingers playing the treble – they should be assigned to each string like this,

6TH String = P = E

5TH String = P = A

4TH String = P = D

3RD String = I = G

2ND String = M = B

1ST String = A = E

I want you to be able to rest the thumb on the D string when the fingers are playing and also rest each individual finger on it’s assigned treble string when the thumb is playing. This gives you a solid stable right hand position that isn’t floating in the air above the strings attempting to hit a moving target. Your fingers and thumbs are resting on the string waiting to strike. Make the transition smooth, so when replacing the thumb back on the D string pluck with the index and begin the trebles, therefore when coming back round sit your index, middle and ring fingers back on the treble strings as a unit. If you have a slight lift and shake in your right hand repeating this exercise slowly and listening for a good sound you will relax the hand and help it’s balance making your right hand stable.

Once you get comfortable with this exercise try drawing each treble string finger back into the palm of your hand as you stroke the string. This gives each finger a flight path and stroke, just like a golfer, footballer, snooker player etc you now have a stroke and swing. This adds depth and wholeness to your sound and it also means you can really connect with your right hand (you are really feeling the mechanics of your stroke and being aware of all the muscles).

Then get hold of the Carlevaro book 2 and start working through his exercises they are extremely helpful.

As this exercise and this way of approaching the right hand helps your balance, volume and tone the correct nail shape for you also massively improves your sound.

4.3 articulation

To help with articulation the Carlevaro exercises are also very helpful, they offer tricky arpeggios that will bring to the right hand patterns which are unfamiliar when normally arpegiating chords. This will help your individual control and focus on each string, it will also strengthen the stroke of the under developed and weaker fingers.

Here is another exercise I give to students to help with articulation, alternation and string crossing.

Whole tone scale in 1st position.
No sharps or flat.

6TH String = 0-1-3 Notes E-F-G

5TH String = 0-2-3 Notes A-B-C

4TH String = 0-2-3 Notes D-E-F

3RD String = 0-2 Notes G-A

2ND String = 0-1-3 Notes B-C-D

1ST String = 0-1-3 Notes E-F-G

Play through the scale in repetitions of 4’s, 3’s, 2’s and 1’s changing at the bottom and top of each scale. This will test your alternation ‘on the turn’ of a scale and with the different grouping will change the right hand finger which crosses the string. Careful to always alternate index to middle or middle to ring finger or a combination, always alternate..

When playing the repetition of 4 or 2 this is easier than 3 or 1, the odd numbers create almost a little skip as you cross the string, relax your hand and concentrate on shifting the weight from finger to finger.

Careful that you don’t bring your left hand to far from the fretboard, keep it close in so each finger it can be quickly depressed onto the strings. Tip of the fingers in the left hand at all times.

Often players are good at putting pressure into the fretboard and making a note sound but they don’t put any care and attention into what happens as soon as they release the note, keep the fingers close, no falling fingers, be in control of every movement.

This is then directly applied to all scales, try it with 2 octave majors and minors, then three octaves.

The fact that your are ‘on the turn’ changing your repetition helps your string crossing, the fact that you are doing this within scale practice which should be part of everyone’s practice routine, it helps you learn your fretboard and acquaints your lefthand with the whole scope of the fretboard. Also scales are found within many pieces; fragments of melodic line often follow parts of scales, having a practised left hand that can deal with string crossing while still alternating really keeps the level of rhythm and clarity up.

This exercise combined with trying it on scales also helps build speed. If you try starting with a quick repetition of 4 by the time you come to the single repition you have to be relaxed and moving fast to really get to grips with it. You will find it creeps up and you, and when reaching the lesser repetitions you will be playing them quicker than if you started playing a scale normally.