Advancing Your Classical Guitar Technique

Next Steps to Acing Classical Guitar Technique

Heads up: If you are new to this site, Welcome, and thanks for reading!  This article answers some common questions about the right hand classical guitar technique I suggest in the free arpeggio course, and that we work on extensively in The Woodshed.  Even if you are just beginning, you may find insights into the “why” of practicing intentionally.  You are welcome to read on, or you can check out the Start Here page and look around a bit. Cheers, Allen

Let’s say that you have gone through much of the arpeggio course. And let’s assume that you are going slow enough to practice the basic movements in the primary arpeggios.

If you did, you may have noticed that to perform the arpeggios as I suggest and describe, with your fingers coming all the way into your palm, this doesn’t exactly scale to faster speeds.

“Running is not the same thing as walking fast.”

Just as running is not the same thing as walking fast, actually “playing” with good arpeggio technique is a little bit different than “practicing” arpeggio technique.

Training: The Difference Between Practice and Playing

Let me explain what I mean by this.

One of the habits that we have to build into our arpeggio technique is moving through the string, instead of pulling up on it. In this way, arpeggios are all push and no pull.

When most people began learning classical guitar, they do what “feels natural”. Unfortunately, what feels natural as an absolute beginner has nothing to do with what actually works well.  And likewise, you cannot build a solid foundation of good technique on a pre-existing foundation of poor technique. You have to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Part of practicing the primary arpeggio patterns is re-training the way that the hand operates. We do this by exaggerating the motion of closing the hand to play the strings.

“Exaggerating in practice builds habits faster.”

The keyword here is exaggeration.

If you want a crooked branch on the tree to grow straight, you don’t simply tie it in a straight position. Instead, you bend it past the straight position, into a position where it is bent the other direction. That way, when you untie it, it will go straight.

This is the same concept that we are using here in retraining our hands to play with good technique.

We exaggerate the motion of closing the hand, and bringing the pads of the fingers all the way to the palm.  By actually contacting the pad of your fingers with your palm, you’re forced to follow through with the “pushing through the strings” motion (as opposed to pulling up on the strings, which I call “bicycling”).

With time, attention and focus, you’ll truly retrain yourself to move in this way without even thinking about it. This is a large part of creating a solid foundation of technique that you can continue to improve on and develop for decades (with running into problems).

From walking to running

So then the inevitable question is, “How do I actually play with this?”

When we are playing at tempo, we do not have the time to actually touch the pad of our finger all the way to our palm with every single stroke.

Sometimes we do have the time (like when we play chunk chords), and it will usually give you better tone and power if you actually follow all the way through in those instances.

But the large majority of the time, it takes too much time and too much effort to actually close the hand fully. So we don’t.

Finding the Neutral Hand Position for Classical Guitar

Instead, the fingers tend to float in a quasi-closed position. The fingers are still in the hand, but not all the way touching the palm.

classical guitar hand positionWe begin with a relaxed position with the fingers curved comfortably. This is our “neutral position”. This point of release and poise is a place that we want to return to whenever possible.

This neutral position is a point where the fingers are comfortably ready to do any action they are called upon to perform. They could extend or they could flex. They could come in or they could go out. They are ready for anything.

From this position, you should be able to push through a string from the big knuckle (play a string) without having to extend the finger first. Your neutral position should be in a place where no preparation is needed before playing through a string. You can simply close your hand, and the strings get played.

It is also this neutral position to which you throw your fingers out when performing the primary arpeggios.

Releasing the throw

In the primary arpeggio patterns, at some point in each, two fingers prepare at the same time. I often refer to this as “throwing”. In the PIM arpeggio, the P plays and the I and M “throw” (meaning they both quickly come out of the hand at the same time). This throwing is the preparation.

I have recommended actually planting both of these fingers on the strings when they prepare.   This is to emphasize and exaggerate the motion of them both moving together, simultaneously.  It’s also to ingrain the ideal placement of each finger on the string.

With a direct effort to prepare both fingers simultaneously before either plays, there’s a greater chance that this will actually happen.

When retraining your hand to move in this way, there is a tendency to skip this step if the strings are played individually, without both preparing first. The end result is that after a few seconds, you simply go back to however you were doing it before and nothing is changed.

“Practice is Solving Problems.”

So the act of putting two fingers on the strings before either of them plays helps to train the hand to move the fingers together.   This is called “sympathetic motion. Two fingers moving in sympathy together.

When you want to do this more quickly, or without muting the strings out each time, this throw changes a little bit.

Imagine a fly landing on your hand. The natural tendency would be to twitch. There would be a spike of muscle movement, which then instantly relaxed.  You can practice is now a couple of times by simply throwing all your fingers out and immediately relaxing them.

This sort of twitch, a very quick muscle impulse that immediately relaxes, is what our “throws” will become.

Like a caterpillar to a butterfly, our heavy-handed preparations will become light and practically effortless.

Why not just do it this way to begin with? Because it simply doesn’t work that way. We have to train our hands to do exactly what we want them to do.  After they are well-trained, we can loosen the reins a bit and move with more freedom.  Until then, it’s akin to letting the inmates run the institution.

Honing Your Attention to Detail

It is really, really important to note that you cannot shortcut the re-training process.  In addition to training the hands, it also (perhaps even more importantly!) trains your sense of awareness and your attention to detail.  And awareness and attention are the stuff beautiful music is made of.

“Awareness and attention are the stuff beautiful music is made of.”

In everyday life, there is no reason for us to be so acutely aware of these infinitesimally small finger movements.  So in our daily practice, we’ve got to develop and train the ability to actually notice how we are moving.

This sounds silly, of course. It seems like we would be able to know what we are doing with our own hands. But we don’t.  As soon as we start moving quickly, all awareness of the details goes out the window – unless, of course, we’ve trained well enough to maintain attention. And this simply takes time and (you guessed it!) attention.

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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