When we first start classical guitar in earnest (playing pieces of music), it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are many different demands on our brainpower.
We have to keep up with melodies, basslines, chords, and the rest. We have to play specific strings, instead of strumming all the strings. We have to perform finger acrobatics at speed and in rhythm. All very tricky.
So it’s no wonder that many players ask: “Does it really matter which finger I use? As long as the note comes out, who cares?”
The answer: Well, it depends.
No One’s the Boss of You
First, we don’t have to anything we don’t want to do.
We each choose whether to put in the work. Be it consistent fingerings, steady rhythm, reading musical notation, or anything else,
Sometimes, it’s not worth it. Sometimes we’d rather just do what we can already do, and not take on the challenge. Or at least not right now.
And that’s neither good nor bad. It’s the fact of the matter: there are always ways we can improve, and it’s always up to us to either commit to those ways or not.
The Trouble with Classical Guitar Fingerings
When we first set out to learn guitar, it takes everything we’ve got to put our fingers in the right place and make a sound.
We have to somehow get our right and left hands to play the same string. And we’ve got to put this into a steady rhythm.
But as we progress, we play more difficult pieces of music at faster speeds.
And here we find that where we used to be able to get to all the notes on time, now we can’t. Where our right-hand fingers used to find the right string, now they don’t.
In advanced classical guitar music, there is often only one fingering possible. There’s only one finger-combination that allows everything to fit. Any other way won’t work.
This means that we have to be intentional about which finger (in BOTH hands) plays every single note. We have to stay aware of each finger and make sure it’s in the right place at the right time.
And until we train that awareness “muscle”, this is can be really, really hard.
So is it worth the time to train ourselves to keep track of fingerings?
There are upsides to playing with consistent fingerings in both right and left hands.
The Benefits of Consistent Classical Guitar Fingerings
The shortest path between two points is a straight line. When training our bodies and minds to play a piece of music, that “straight line” is created by doing the action the same way each time.
As an analogy, we can make a trail across a field quickest when we walk the same path each time. If we meander back and forth, and take different routes, a single path takes a long time to emerge.
But what does the straight line get us? What is the payoff to putting in all that work to play with consistent fingerings?
Learn New Pieces More Quickly
We can take our time in the initial stages of learning a new piece of music to train each hand. When we do this, we learn it faster.
It may “feel” like we’re learning slower, and that it’s quicker to play the piece over and over. But that’s just a feeling, and not the way it is.
This is because when we ignore fingerings and start thwacking away at the music, we get the immediate gratification of hearing the notes . However, this also trains us to make more mistakes. To fix these mistakes, we have to come back later and re-train our hands and minds. But by then, we’re off to the next piece, so mistakes may slip through the cracks.
So while it’s a bit more work on the front side, consistent fingerings reduce the total amount of work. The net effect is that we learn music much more quickly, and to a higher level.
Likewise, we memorize best when we practice a new piece the same way each time.
In classical guitar music, practicing consistent fingerings gets us familiar with the music. This aids in memorization, which often happens with no effort on our part.
More Reliable Muscle Memory
In performance we rely in part on muscle-memory. (Performance here is any time we play the piece from beginning to end with the intention of making music.)
We have other types of memory, but the physical act of playing guitar uses a hefty dose of muscle-memory.
When we get distracted or “space out” for a split second, it’s muscle-memory that keeps the fingers moving. Our fingers take over until we get our heads back in the game.
If we train with consistent fingerings, our muscle-memory is more reliable. If we always play a given note with a specific finger, we increase the chances we’ll do it that way in performance.
But if we play a piece differently each time we play it, we have to make loads of small decisions. These decisions are often “under the radar” and not made with our conscious minds. When it counts, this increases the chances of a poor decision… or a complete wipeout.
More Confidence in Performance
And all this helps us to be more confident in performance.
Performing for other people can be scary. As we’ve discussed in other videos and articles, we can have all sorts of physical changes that make it more difficult to focus. We may see changes in breathing, tension, sweating, pulse, and more.
When we know exactly how to play each note, we can be more confident that the music will come out. We can rest easy knowing that we’ve done the good work and are prepared.
This isn’t to say that mistakes won’t happen or we won’t get nervous. But at least we know what we’re trying to do. We’re not relying on luck or “feeling it”. Quite the opposite. We’re prepared.
Increased Awareness and Control
Another effect of playing with consistent fingerings is increased personal awareness.
To stay in control of our fingerings, we have to stay focused and present to the task at hand.
As soon as our minds start wandering, we lose awareness of our fingerings. Playing with consistent fingerings trains us to stay focused and aware in the moment.
And this leads both to more enjoyable daily practice, and better control on the guitar.
At first, it takes enormous mental energy to stay aware of our fingerings. This is true especially of the right hand fingerings. Over time, we get better at it. Then we can also listen, make musical choices, and adjust our tone quality from moment to moment.
How to Get Started Using Consistent Fingerings
So how do you make the leap from playing “off-the-cuff”, with no awareness of fingerings, to playing with consistent fingerings?
One day at a time. One minute of practice at a time.
Ease into it bit by bit, instead of all at once. Spend a moment, then go to something else. Then come back and do it some more, then go to something else.
Too much at once can be frustrating or mentally taxing. Take small, frequent practice sessions to build the “focus muscle”.
Take the long view, and be willing to keep showing up. It will happen.
Play the Right Hand Alone in Small Sections
Many players find the left hand easier to keep consistent than the right. This may be because the left hand is more visual, being on the neck.
To train your right hand, allow all your attention to go there. Give your left hand a hiatus and play open strings with your right.
Take a small section of a piece of music you’re working on, and play it “right-hand alone.”
It won’t sound like the music, because it will be all open strings. But it will make you look at the music in a different way.
And playing the right hand alone can also let you focus on how your fingers move (your technique).
After you can play the right hand alone for a small section of music, add the left hand back in. Play only as fast as you can maintain attention on the right hand. If you make ANY mistakes in either hand, you’re playing too fast.
Let Your Old Pieces Off the Hook
You may be tempted to go back to pieces you already know and start paying attention to the fingerings there. This can be dangerous.
While it would be wonderful to clean them up and bring your new skills to them, there are risks involved as well.
For one, it can suck the fun out of them. If you love playing a piece, and usually play it for fun, let it be.
If you want to smooth out a tricky spot or fix a habitual mistake, then feel free to work on it.
But don’t relearn all your music just for the sake of it. Allow yourself to have your previous pieces as they are. If they bring you joy, then let them continue to do so.
With any new music, insist on consistent fingerings, from day one.
Progress, Not Perfection
Again, it takes work and attention to use consistent fingerings. If you don’t already have the habit, it will be a journey to get there.
And that’s fine. All guitar is a journey. The main thing is that we keep placing one foot in front of the next.
We all stumble some days, and rock it on others. Some days feel good, others like a chore. These are the natural cycles, and nothing to get bent out of shape about.
Focused practice with intention and full attention propels us forward. The work is moment by moment, and detail-oriented. If we keep showing up and giving it time, we get better.