How To Play Guitar Expressively, In Layers

We all want to play music that is flowing is fluid, rising and falling, floating and soaring. We want to sound great, and for the time we invest in practice to return the ability to play beautifully.

But there are many facets to expressive playing. So it makes sense to take a look at these various elements one by one.

When we do, we can choose what is best for the piece of music in each musical moment. Instead of hoping to play well, we have a strategy. This gives us focus in practice and confidence in our playing.

Music Has Many Elements

Music is a combination of several elements. These are large, finite parts of the music. These elements exist in nature. They exist in time and space. And like building blocks, we combine them to create meaningful music.


Rhythm is how the notes exist in time. The start of each note is the moment we play it. The duration is how long we hold it. And the end of the note is when it stops ringing. This could be when it connects to another note, dies out, or is stopped.

Silence is also a part of rhythm.

In a composed piece of music, we are given the intended rhythms. Still, we have major input on the rhythm of each note. We decide the exact placement in time, how long it holds, and how it connects to the notes before and after.

Notes (Pitch)

The element we may think of first is the notes. This includes every note and chord.

In composed music, we are given the notes. In improvised music, such as jazz, the player chooses the notes.

In classical guitar music, we often have two or three separate lines of music playing at the same time. We can look at each line, or the conglomerate whole.

When we play more than one pitch at a time, we have a chord. So chords are a collection of notes.

This element also includes every sound, intended or not. So buzzes, squeaks, and clicks are also in this box.

Dynamics (volume)

“Dynamics” is the musical term for volume. This the intensity of each note. In a melody or musical line, each note has a volume. In a chord, each note has a volume.

We can play loud, soft, or somewhere between. We can grow louder or softer. And we do this gradually or all at once.

Each note has a volume, whether we choose it intentionally or not.

Rubato (slowing down or speeding up)

Rubato is part of rhythm, but we can think of it as a separate element for ease of practice. Rubato is slowing down or speeding up. It involves stretching or compressing time to create the desired effect.

How fast and how predictably (structured rubato) we slow down or speed up will add to the psychological character of the music.

Ornaments (grace notes, trills, etc.)

Ornaments are made of notes in a given rhythm. For practice purposes, we can isolate them. We can practice these with intention.

Ornaments have rules and can be a study unto themselves.

Divide and Conquer: Practice Elements First Separately, then Together

We can look at a piece of music and isolate the elements listed above and more. We can decide to focus on just one at a time.

When we do, we get to know the music in exquisite detail. We become intimately aware of all the layers and facets of the music.

We can make musical decisions for each element – the volume, the sound, the way each note connects to the next. When we combine the elements. We create the emotional communication that is the benchmark of masterfully-played music.

Sacrifice: Not everything all the time

To isolate any one element, we must, by definition, ignore others. This is not always easy. We tend to want to do everything at once.

But when we use the discipline to practice elements separately, we put our full attention on each in turn. Then, when we play them together again, we have a richer experience of the music.

When we understand and can play the elements separately, we hear more. And we are more likely to hear when things go right or wrong in the music. We are more able to identify ways to improve our playing.

Isolate Tricky Bits

Practicing the different expressive layers separately is a wonderful tactic for polishing tricky bits. Tricky bits are the parts of a piece of music with which we struggle.

Work Out Rubato Off the Instrument

Rubato (slowing down and speeding up) can be challenging. To do it well takes practice. And this practice is best done without the guitar.

We can practice rubato by simply clapping and counting.

Put Ornaments in Rhythm

Ornaments also are a potential hazard for guitarists. These can interfere with the underlying rhythm. And this can confuse the listener.

A good practice method for ornaments is to put them in rhythm. When we structure ornaments in time, we can “tuck” them into the music while maintaining the general momentum of the piece.

Practice Sounds Different than Playing

While practicing the layers above, the music may not sound how we intend the music to eventually sound. This is normal. Practice sounds different than playing.

When we practice in layers, it doesn’t always sound good. But if we do this well, the end result will be much better for the effort.

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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