Problem Solving: Reverse Engineer to Polish and Clean Guitar Playing

When we learn classical guitar pieces, we have to use different practice methods at different stages of the process. The practice method that gets the piece 90% mastered will usually not work to get that last 10%.

Playing music so that it flows beautifully and sounds easy is a process. There are many obstacles on the road to mastery of any piece. And how we overcome those obstacles determines the ultimate outcome.

In most pieces, there is some spot that’s trickier than the rest. It poses some unique challenge. For some particular reason, we have trouble playing through this spot cleanly and smoothly.

One method of working through tricky spots is to reverse-engineer them.

Mistakes Don’t Help: Avoid Wrong Repetitions

One common strategy of working through tricky spots is to just play through it repeatedly. The assumption here is that it will all work itself out eventually.

This rarely works. And in fact, the mistakes and errors that create the problem in the first place get trained in even deeper.

To repeat mistakes is to practice making mistakes. Every time we repeat a mistake, we train ourselves to make that same mistake next time.

Every wrong repetition just ingrains the problem deeper.

If we want to learn the music and play it beautifully, wrong repetitions will not get us there. Wrong repetitions undermine our practice efforts, and keep us away from succeeding at our goals.

Bottom line: Mistakes don’t help. We’re better off avoiding wrong repetitions and trying something else.

Use Reverse Engineering to Clean Guitar Tricky Spots

Instead of bludgeoning the piece with wrong repetitions, we can use a variety of practice methods. One tried-and-true method to dissolve tricky spots is to reverse-engineer them.

There is a point before the tricky spot where everything is fine. We are in control and feel confident. Then we hit the tricky spot.

At some point after the tricky spot, we come to a point where everything is fine again. We again feel in control and comfortable.

To reverse-engineer the tricky spot, we begin at the end, and work backward. We start with the end in mind, then look at each movement that comfortably gets us there.

Step One: Identify the Optimal Landing

Step one in reverse engineering a tricky spot is to identify the optimal landing point.

To do this, first take your hands off the guitar. Shake them out and mentally separate yourself from any frustration, fear, or other negative thoughts about the tricky spot.

When you calm and collected, play the final note or chord of the trouble spot. This is the landing point. It’s the place in the music where you previously regained control.

For instance, if you are working on a tricky shift, the landing point would be the upper chord or note of the shift.

Make It Optimal

Once you’ve identified the landing point, determine the absolute most ideal way to play it.

Note the position of your

  • fingers,
  • thumb,
  • wrist,
  • arm,
  • shoulder,
  • and anything else.

Feel freedom in your hands, arms, and body. Play this note or chord as if that’s all you had to do.

Make it feel exactly as you would like it to feel when you play through the piece, with all the ease, grace, and comfort you can muster.

Now store that in your memory and move to step two.

Step Two: Identify the Starting Point

In step two, use the same process you did for step one, but for the starting point.

Find the most efficient and comfortable position to play. Take note of every detail.

The goal will be to move securely and gracefully from this point to the optimal landing spot you identified in step one. And to do that…..

Step Three: Plot the Choreography

To move from the starting point to the optimal landing, we plot the choreography.

Choreography is the specific sequence of steps or movements involved in a scripted movement (such as dance, figure skating, or playing a piece on classical guitar).

When we think of our movements as choreography, we bring focus and awareness to each detail of movement, positioning, and form. It allows us to be more intentional and alert.

In steps one and two, we identified two moments in time. We took a “snapshot” of the ideal starting and ending points. Here in step three, we connect the two with as much efficiency and grace as possible.

This is an important step because we may be doing something along the way that puts us out of position for our ideal landing.  When we take a moment to plan exactly how we’ll move, we avoid many potential pitfalls and gain clarity on how to play the passage.

Track the Most Efficient Trajectory

Slowly connect the dots from the beginning to the end. Make these movements as efficient as possible.

Plan each and every aspect and movement of:

Let no detail go unnoticed or unplanned. When we reverse-engineer tricky spots with the goal of clean guitar playing, we put ourselves “under the microscope”. Nothing is left to chance. Each movement gets examined and planned in turn.

Caution: You are just one person – We’re all human, so we’re not generally not able to look at every detail all at once. We’ll need to go through the motions several times, giving attention each time to a different aspect from the list above. We’ll also need to go slow enough to remain conscious and intentional of each movement. Speed is the enemy here.

Speed is the enemy.

Note: You May Find Smaller Issues

In working through each movement that gets you from point A to point B, you may find that the tricky spot is actually a series of tricky spots.

If your problem-area is more than just one thing connecting to another, you may need to think of it as multiple spots.

In this case, do the same process as above for each of the spots: Identify the ideal way to play the arrival point. Then find the ideal way to play the starting point. Then decide the most graceful, easeful way to get from one to the next.

It’s quite common for particularly “thorny” passages to be a string of tricky moves in quick succession. If we break them down into individual moves, and reverse-engineer each, we can separate them in our minds. Once separated, we can practice moving from one to the next, intentionally.

Step Four: Practice Intentionally

Once you’ve gone through steps one, two, and three, you’ll know exactly what needs to happen to move cleanly and comfortably through the tricky spot.

The goal at this point is to train yourself to do it this way each and every time you play it. To do this, we have to practice intentionally. We must be alert, aware, and focused. No phoning it in while daydreaming of food, sex, or to-do lists. We have to stay engaged, or we run the risk of backsliding into our previous mistakes.

Aim for Clarity

For each repetition, aim for clarity. Talk through the moves as you perform them. Remind yourself verbally and physically what you want to happen. Remember your ideal starting and landing points, and exactly how you want to connect them.

Keep It Under Tempo

As you practice your tricky spot, keep it under tempo. Tempo refers to speed. Practice only as fast as you can play through the section as you have planned.

Speed and ease come from mental and physical clarity. If you yield to the temptation to blaze through your practice, you’ll likely make more mistakes and undermine the good work you’ve done to reverse-engineer your tricky spots.

Instead of rushing forward wildly, gradually increase the speed. Ensure that you maintain all the nuances you noticed and planned at the slower tempo.

To repeat from above, avoid mistakes.

Related: How to Use a Metronome

Until the Section is Up to Speed…

Note: You may be able to play the rest of the piece faster than the tricky section. If so, go to exactly half-timewhen you come to the tricky spot (half the speed: 8ths become quarters, quarters become half notes, still in time and rhythm).

But beware: if you become comfortable hearing the section in a different tempo you run the risk of playing it that way unintentionally.

Instead, slow down the section as a temporary measure while you are also actively working the section up to speed. As soon as you are able, keep the piece in tempo throughout (don’t slow down for the section).


To reverse-engineer a tricky spot and work through spots that have you stumbling, do the following:

  • Identify the optimal landing point (end of tricky spot)
  • Identify the starting point
  • Plot the choreography to get from start to finish
  • Practice slowly and intentionally until up to speed.

As you progress on classical guitar, and play more and more pieces, you’ll develop numerous practice methods to work through problems. For more practice methods you can use to work through tricky spots and clean your guitar playing, see these articles:


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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