3 Steps to Change the Fingering in a Piece of Classical Guitar Music

Sometimes, we see fingerings marked in a piece of music, and it seems like a bad choice.

We think, “there’s a much easier way to play this…”.

So do we play the given fingering, or use our own? Here’s a process you can use to test whether to change the fingering.

What is a “Fingering?”

To begin, a “fingering” is the fingers a composer or editor tells us to use in a piece of music.

This could be for the left or right hand.

Steps to Changing a Classical Guitar Fingering

There are many reasons to change a fingering. But given our current abilities and knowledge, we may or may not benefit from changing it.

Therefore, it helps to have a reliable process we can use before making changes.

Step 1: Understand why the given fingering was chosen

This step is most important, and the most-often skipped by novices.

The given fingering may be a mistake. Mistakes and typos do happen. But more likely, the composer or editor had a specific benefit in mind.

It’s our first job to understand the benefits of the given fingering. These could be physical benefits, to make something easier in the hand. Or it could be musical, such as to connect notes in a melody, or to letting a note continue ringing.

Step 2: Master the given fingering

Step Two is to master the given fingering. While we may be convinced of a different route, it’s important that we are able to play the fingering at tempo (speed). This is so we can go to Step Three.

This step is especially vital if we do not understand the benefits.

If this is the more difficult option, so much the better. We’ll improve as guitarists as we do things in new ways.

Step 3: Make an educated decision

So now we know the benefits of the original fingering. And we can play it. Now, at last, we can make an educated decision.

Based on a logical comparison of the benefits of their vs. our fingerings, we can choose.

If we skip steps one and two above, we make an uneducated decision, and may succumb to one of the pitfalls below.

Common Pitfalls of Changing Fingerings

There are several reasons we feel compelled to change fingerings we see in music. Even if we respect the composer, arranger or editor, we may still think we know better.

Here are a few common motivations for changing fingerings prematurely.

Seeking the “natural” feeling

“Natural” feelings are simply what we are used to. They do not imply any benefit, and often mask or ignore the downsides.

People who walk hunched over feel natural that way. But it doesn’t make it a good way to walk.

If the only reason we want to change something is to make it feel more natural, we’ll limit our growth and progress.

Not fully understanding why the fingering was chosen

This speaks to Step One above. Most often, there is a specific reason a fingering is given. If we can’t spot it, we tend to think it’s a mistake.

Commonly, musical choices are missed or misunderstood. These are fingering choices based on the sound, rather than convenience or comfort.

Avoiding challenges, entrenching weaknesses

This is similar to seeking “natural” feelings. We may be tempted to avoid challenging fingerings in favor of easier ones. While this is not bad in itself, it may further entrench our weaknesses.

We may miss the opportunity to strengthen some aspect of our playing. And as time goes by, we improve far less than we may otherwise.

Not being consistent with fingerings

Lastly, we may not be used to playing with intentional fingerings. This is especially true for right-hand fingerings.

If we haven’t built the control and attention to play consistent fingerings, the given option may prove difficult.

As we move to more advanced music, consistent fingerings become paramount. This is especially true with fast, technical music. If we fail to train this ability, we’ll falter later.

Know When to Hold ’Em, and Know When to Fold ’Em

There does come a time with some fingerings when we need to throw in the proverbial towel.

There may be a looming performance, and we consistently struggle with the fingering. When it comes down to it, we may need to abandon the rules and do whatever we can to play the piece.

Likewise, we may be faced with a stretch or position that is physically challenging for us. This could be a stretch that’s very large for our hands. Or it may be a pretzel-like acrobatic feat. It may demand more flexibility and independence than we can currently muster.

However, we can still return later and continue to work on it over time. Or not, if we decide.

At the least, we’ll know that we have given the issue proper thought. We’ve used critical thinking and aren’t making lazy choices. We can give ourselves the “A for effort”, and move on.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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