Should Classical Guitar Feel “Natural”?

Have you ever practiced a new technique on guitar and thought, “This just doesn’t feel natural!”

This is an experience we all share, at one time or another.

But if we’re not expert yet in the movement, position, form, etc., how do we know what should feel natural?

How can we tell if it’s just new, or if something really is going awry?

What Makes Something Feel Natural?

One of our ultimate goals as guitarists is to play fluidly and freely, with comfort and confidence. Our bodies do what they’re supposed to do, and our minds and emotions relish the music. This is the musical dream.

So why don’t we always experience this ecstatic “Calgon, take me away” moment?

To answer this, we’re prodded to ask the deeper question: “What makes something feel natural?”

Homeostasis and Lusting for What We Already Have

Our “reptilian brains” (the basal ganglia, if you’re into jargon) are responsible for all the automatic responses and functions of the body. Breathing, heartrate, fight-or-flight, all these and more are controlled by the “reptilian”, or “lizard brain”. Logic and emotion are found elsewhere. Here, we’re still cavemen and cavewomen.

And this part of the brain is mainly concerned with keeping safe. Anything unusual sets off alarms and triggers the lizard brain to send signals to the rest of the brain and body. We feel these signals as “uncomfortable”, “gut-feelings”, “intuition”, and “unnatural”.

All New Things Feel Unnatural

While the “reptilian brain” may be responsible for keeping us alive at times, it can also get in the way when we want to make a change in our lives.

Because any small change is seen as a mortal threat, we must overcome our primal instincts in order to build new habits, learn new skills, or step out of our existing comfort zones.

Anything we do differently than the way we already do it will trigger our survival responses and feel “unnatural”.

Anything we do differently than the way we already do it will trigger our survival responses and feel “unnatural”.

Even when we’re simply trying to get a better sound on classical guitar, we must overcome this age-old tendency toward what we already do.

The  Paradox of Feeling Natural on Guitar

There is a funny little truth about learning guitar comfortably and “naturally”.

If comfort and feelings of rightness led to high-level guitar-playing, we would all be experts. The best players would be self-taught.

But in guitar, as well as in just about everything else, we only reach high levels of performance with a teacher or coach. When we’re left on our own without a teacher, we consistently form bad habits and set ourselves up for future pitfalls.

What feels natural as a beginner rarely, if ever, leads to advanced mastery. We usually have to go back later and replace our self-taught, “natural-feeling” methods with more effective habits and movements.

The First Thing to Do When Something Feels Unnatural

So what are we supposed to do when something feels “unnatural”?

  • Should we ignore it?
  • Welcome it?
  • Double down?
  • Get bumper stickers proclaiming our stance?
  • Stop altogether and reassess?

The first thing to do in nearly every situation on guitar is to slow down. We need to mentally track everything going on. The fingers can be faster than the eyes and mind, so we have to put on the brakes and take a closer look.

The first thing to do in nearly every situation on guitar is to slow down.

Once we’ve slowed down, we can identify what feels weird and questionable. We can pull out our sleuthing hats and play detective.

Suspend Judgement

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” ~ Richard P. Feynman

Our feelings and first observations are not to be trusted. They may be accurate. But maybe not.

If we keep this in mind, we can pause and suspend judgement before reacting.

Put Uncomfortable Movements and Positions Under the Microscope

Ask, “Is this causing damage?”

Knowing the basic rules of guitar technique (avoid extreme angles and excess tension in muscles and joints), are we breaking any cardinal rules?
(Tip: Use a mirror for a better view.)

If we’re convinced we’re doing everything by the book, and it still feels funny, we can ask, “Does this feel unnatural because it’s new and different? Or is something else going on?”

When we objectively confirm we’re properly aligned, sitting well, and using good fundamental motions, then we may have to accept the unnatural feelings and stay the path.

We can also take a moment, stand up, move our bodies, and sit back down to it. In some cases, the same movements will produce different feelings. It’s certainly worth a try.

Living With the Lizard

Once we’ve exhausted all options, and we still feel unnatural, we may have to surrender.

In many ways, the amount of growth, learning, and personal adventure we get to experience is proportional to how well we’re able to live with our nagging worry-wort of a lizard brain.

When we accept that not everything will immediately feel natural, we can move past many of the blocks keeping us from reaching our goals and desires.

As long as some other educated part of our brain can critique the situation and ensure that we’re not in harm’s way, we can content ourselves to squirm a bit and keep moving forward.

Eventually, the reptilian brain will give up the fight and accept the new norm. At this point, what was previously “unnatural” will now feel more comfortable (or we won’t even notice it).

Summing Up

We can’t always trust our feelings. We have over-zealous parts of our brains that treat a new classical guitar sitting position the same as a hungry panther in the jungle.

When something feels unnatural, the first thing to do is slow down and objectively assess the situation.

We can ask, “Am I using good form, avoiding extreme angles in my wrists, and moving like I want to?”

We can determine whether what we’re doing is potentially causing injury, or if it’s simply different than what we’re used to.

If it’s simply different, we do our best to suspend judgement and give it some time. After a few practices, new techniques have a way of feeling more comfortable and “natural”.

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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