I and M Alternation: Classical Guitar Scale Technique

When we play melodies or scales on the classical guitar, we need a comfortable, reliable classical guitar right hand technique to execute them.   In this tutorial you will discover a method of approaching right hand scale technique that uses the natural movement of the hand as an ideal to strive for.

This tutorial is on the right hand technique used for classical guitar scale and melodic playing.

For left-hand scale patterns and resources click here.

  I = index finger on right hand ||  M = middle finger on right hand

Free Stroke vs. Rest Stroke

There are two main types of right hand stroke classical guitarists use.  Playing free strokes, the right hand fingers release from the string into the air.  Playing rest strokes, the fingers come to rest on the adjacent string.

For many reasons, it’s more practical to begin with free strokes.  The right hand position and form are identical to that of arpeggio (fingerpicking) technique.  So no shift in hand position is needed.

Rest strokes can be useful, but require a different hand position. Moving between the arpeggio hand position and rest stroke scale hand position can create problems for novice players.  Read more about avoiding rest strokes here.

Classical Guitar Technique

To learn to play classical guitar scales (the right hand technique), first work on the movements off the guitar.  You can do these in the air in a comfortable position.  Once this is mastered, add the guitar.  The guitar strings add complexity and resistance.  So it’s easier to learn without the distraction of the strings.

If you master this off the guitar, you can always refer back to these movements to check and troubleshoot your playing on the guitar strings.

Off the guitar:

  • Clap your fingers closed so that the fleshy pad of the fingertips land on the palm toward the wrists.  The thumb can remain passive and the index finger may graze the pad of the thumb.
  • Turn your hand palm up and look to make sure that the tip joint in straight, not curled in.  The nails should not touch the palm at all.
  • Allow the I finger to gently release out an inch or two, then come back to rest with the others.
  • Allow the M finger to gently release out an inch or two, then come back to rest with the others.
  • Begin alternating I and M, such that one is always touch the palm, and the other is out.
  • Seek to keep the entire hand, arm, shoulder and body supple during the exercise, avoiding any excess tension.
  • This should all be performed with as much ease as possible.  While the action may be foreign at first, remember that it is through conscious ease of motion that you will most quickly improve.


-As fingers clap closed into the hand, be sure that the trajectory is aimed at the elbow.  Imagine a string, tied to the index or middle finger and extended through to the elbow, would maintain a straight line when pulled from the elbow.  (This will give a good tone quality, with or without nails.)

-Keep the thumb gently resting beside the I finger.

-Avoid extreme angles in the wrists.

On the Guitar:

  • Perform clapping/closing right hand motion as described for off the guitar.  Loosely maintain the closed hand position.
  • Place RH thumb (P) on second string.
  • Let your right wrist float out away from the guitar, keeping contact to the top/corner of the guitar with your arm.  Think lots of space under the wrist.
  • Allow your Index (I) finger to release out and fall easily on the first string.  Remember: the I finger should be curved and able to depress the string up at an angle and towards the sound hole.
  • Allowing the tip joint to remain passive, bring your finger through string and into all the way into the palm.  This is exactly as when performing this action off the guitar.  Keep your thumb on the second string throughout.
  • Allow your middle (M) finger to release out and fall onto on the first string.  Proceed exactly as with the I finger.
  • Gradually, you can allow your follow-through to stop before you actually touch your palm.  But make sure that the tip joint stays released and that you are leading the motion with the flesh pad of your finger (instead of the tip and nail)


-You can always go back to performing the action off of the guitar and use the free motion as a reference as to how to move.  We want our right hand movements on the strings to be as close to the ideal (off guitar) as possible.

-If your nail ever touches your palm, you are doing it wrong.  In this case, reference the motion off the guitar and start over.

– If your right hand middle knuckle ever moves away from the palm during a stroke, you are “bicycling”, and should stop.  Reference the motion off the guitar and start over.  You can check for this by touching the middle knuckles with left hand fingers.  The right hand finger should move directly away from the left hand fingers without bouncing off of them.

– When alternating, ensure that one finger is always in and the other out.  If both are out, stop and start over. -Practice all this using open strings at first, so that your attention can stay on the right hand.

-The right hand thumb is always on the string just behind the one being played.

-When crossing strings, make sure that you do not reach for the new string.  Instead, perform the motion, letting the finger come out and to land on the original string.  Then move the entire hand over a string, letting the thumb land on the string directly behind the one to be played.

-Ideally, your hand position and movements remain constant.  As you move between strings, your entire hand moves.  This way, you can master the movements and put them where needed (by placing the thumb on the adjacent string).

Click here for a list of other great exercises to build Strength, Flexibility, and Independence on Guitar.

Building Scale Speed

Once you have the movements consistent, you can begin to speed up your I&M alternation (index and middle finger alternation).  When you do, increase the speed a little at a time.  Ensure that the movements continue to come from the big knuckle.

As you speed up your classical guitar technique, you will not have time to bring the finger all the way into the palm.  This is normal. Let the finger follow through as much as it can without over-exertion.  The movements will become smaller, but they will still activate from the same place as the larger movements (the big knuckle).

As a classical guitarist, you can use speed bursts or dotted rhythms to build scale speed and velocity.  These are great for both right hand and left.

And remember the old adage: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”  Clarity and precision will lead to speed.


Other Scale Tutorials:


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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