Smooth Shifts and Leaps on the Classic Guitar

The Prime Directive

Whenever we set out to solve some specific problem, it helps to review the ultimate outcome we’re going for.

In this case, it’s easy to say that we want to be able to easily land big shifts and position leaps in our pieces, but that’s not really the “big thing”.

What we really want is to play so that the music comes out fluid and sounding effortless. We want our melodies connected and lyric, and our bass and accompaniment consistent and solid.

In other words, beautiful, with no bumps in the road.  This is an entirely different goal than “smooth shifting”, and will get us to a much better place.

What Goes Wrong with Shifting Positions on Guitar

However, to make the “big thing” happen requires that a whole lot of little things come off without a hitch. Hence this article.

Often when we jump to a different position on the guitar neck, anyone listening can tell that something “hard” just happened.

What happened?….

  • The melody was clipped.
  • There was a lot of “foot shuffling” and string noise.
  • The new notes were buzzy and not-so-clean.
  • A mess-up happened just after the shift.
  • The player squinted his eyes and stuck his tonque out to the side.
  • The music stopped making sense for a few bars.

A tricky shift can completely derail us, break our focus, and start a domino-like cascade of problems.

What follows are some tips and considerations for working with shifts and leaps in your music.

Guitar Shifting Tip #1: “The Hurry Up and Wait”

Any time we move, we face a compromise. In order to get to the new note, we have to let go of the prior note. that breaks the melody and creates a musical issue based on a technical problem.

Remember, our “big thing” is to create beautiful, connected music.

Quite the conundrum: We have to let go of one note to get to the next, but we want them to sound connected (so the listener isn’t aware of the shift).

In order to sustain the musical line, we have to hang out on the first note (just before the shift) as long as humanly possible, then move like lightning to the new note (or chord, whatever).

However, the problem with this is that we start to panic just a bit, thinking we won’t have enough time. So we lunge and snatch at the new notes: massive tension. The result is not-so-pretty, and doesn’t feel secure.

In our practice, we can train for a better scenario. It’s what I like to call “The Hurry Up and Wait”.

Move quickly, get there early and hover over the note, then drop straight down on it, solid and secure.

If you accidently touched a hot stove, how fast would you move?

You might not feel (at first) as if you can move quickly on the guitar.  But you can.  Just imagine: if you accidently touched a hot stove, how fast would you move?  You can also move that fast at will, on the guitar.  That’s how fast we’re talking here.

Ideally in all our playing, we move quickly and get everywhere we can early (when possible). This way our playing sound in control, as opposed to sounding like the piece is a runaway horse that we are trying to hang on to.

Guitar Shifting Tip #2: Lead with the Thumb and Arm

How we choose to move makes a difference in our success rates when shifting and leaping around the neck. Ponder this….

Sabotage Behind the Scenes

One of the main ways players go wrong in moving positions is the tendency of dragging the thumb when they move up the neck.

As the hand moves up the neck, the thumb slides out of position behind the fingers and ends up pointing back at the headstock and tuning keys.

When this happens, the rest of the hand is severly handicapped. The fingers aren’t supported, and have a fraction of their usual range of motion.

This is why so many mistakes happen right after shifts and leaps. We think there’s something else going on, but in fact, the thumb is the culprit.  (“You dirty…”)

Here’s the solution:

Instead, lead with the thumb. Start the shift up the neck with the thumb, and allow the hand to follow.

It’s a simple solution, and it works divinely. When you get to your new position, your hand is in the same position it was when you left your last one (or better!).

This way you’re ready to execute whatever comes your way.

Leading with the Arm

When we have large leaps from one place to another, we can take a look at what muscles we’re using to get there.

Here’s a scenario: You are playing up in the 9th position. High on the neck. You need to get down to the 1st position (elegantly and discreetly).

If you keep your elbow down, you move your hand away from you using large muscle groups: your bicep and shoulder.

However, if you first lift your elbow, you can make the move by rotating your shoulder (bringing your elbow back down in the process). This way doesn’t have to engage the bicep at all (other than the minimum it has to do to keep your arm up in space).

All the motion comes from the shoulder joint, instead of by extending the arm (which uses the big muscles).

[note: I am not an anatomist, and am not trying to play one on the internet. This is cleary a simplistic explanation, but just make both motions now and you’ll see what I’m talking about.]

Guitar Shifting Tip #3: Look Before You Leap

Another culprit in “The Case of the Splatty Landing” is how we use our eyes.

Often, our eyes are glued to our left hand (or the music in front of us). When we leap to another position, we move first, then have a minor freak-out because we are not completely sure where we are supposed to land.

This increases the tension, and typically results in much scrambling about to try and secure our footing.

The Solution

If, in our practice and when first learning the piece, we look ahead to the new (desired) position, we can move comfortably and directly to it.

It can be a bit scary at first to look away from where we are currently in order to look ahead. This is much as new drivers grip the steering wheel for dear life and can’t look away from the road.

With practice, you can choreograph your gaze just as you do your fingers.

You can make it part of your muscle memory to move your eyes to the new position a beat ahead of the actual shift.

Combine this with the other 2 tips, and you will be shifting cleanly and securely in no time.

Guitar Shifting Tip #4: Know the Best Case Scenario

This is very helpful. Before we deal with the actual move from one place to another, it’s extremely advantageous to know what the absolute best case scenario would be.

For every chord or note we play, there is a most comfortable and effective positon for the arm, wrist, hand and fingers.

Action: Take a moment to shake everything out, and find the “sweet spot” for the notes or chord you’re shifting to. Make it completely easeful. This should feel good: You don’t even have to actually press the strings down. Just note where your arm, wrist, hand and fingers are in space.

If all were perfect and your skills were otherworldly, what would be the most optimal position to land in? Explore this on it’s own terms, without worrying about what comes before (though you may consider what comes just after).

Knowing this optimal position will help you to acheive it!

Or at least come closer. When making the shift, you may not get to this actual best-case-scenario, but you’ll be much closer than you would otherwise (and potentially avoid some problems in the process).

Red Flags: Common Pitfalls to Avoid

Of course many things can go awry when we are jumping and leaping all over the neck. But assuming you are keeping the above tips in mind, here are a couple of common pitfalls to avoid.

Pitfall #1: Slowing Down for the Shift

This is very common, and otherwise logical people can convince themselves of all kinds of nonsense. It happens like this:

As we’re learning a piece, we know that the “hard part” is coming up. (Here we’re talking about shifts and leaps, but it could be any difficulty).

Well, we instinctively slow down so we feel more secure and in control.

We instinctively slow down so we feel more secure and in control.

After practicing it in this way over and over, we become convinced that it actually sounds good slowing down like this. In truth, it probably doesn’t sound “good”, but only “familiar”, which we like to call “good”.

In all fairness, our biological disposition towards homeostasis has us craving familiarity, so we can hardly be blamed. Still, it’s our job to spot the tendency, and correct for it.

If you ask someone about this in their playing, you’ll often hear answers about “expressive playing”, “romanticism”, or “passionate feeling”.

Not to mock any of those (I love expressive playing, just not schmaltz), but in this situation, ask yourself:

– Can I play this (and well) at tempo?

– Am I making musical choices based on physical shortcomings or difficulties? (if so, it may well not be a very musical choice!).

One last note here: Many players will base their musical decisions on recordings that they’ve heard. The problem arises when the artist on the recording fell into this trap, then we imitate it.

Pitfall #2: Accenting the Landing

When we take the big leap up the fretboard, we can easily tense up a bit too much and play the landing too loudly.

This happens when we get some “crosstalk” between the hands.

In other words, if the left hand/arm tenses up on the shift, then the right hand/arm tenses up in sympathy with it.

Now when we play with the right hand, we are overly tense for the first notes (after the shift) and those notes come out too loud.

What’s the answer to this? Troubleshoot the shift using the tips above and pay close attention to the tone and volume of the “landing”.

Quick Review on Shifting on the Classical Guitar

So as a quick review, here are some tips for shifts and leaps on the guitar:
1. Always move quickly (“touch the hot stove” fast) and directly to the new position. Don’t mosey.

2. Lead with the thumb when shifting up the neck (in pitch, toward the body).

3. Prepare for a shift by sending the elbow in the direction of the shift first, then “spiking” back to quickly send the hand forward. (Especially useful for large, quick shifts)

4. Look before you leap. Eyes on the prize.

5. Determine the optimum position for your arm, wrist, hand and fingers on the landing.

6. Practice so that you can play all shifts in tempo, before making any musical decisions (such as sticking in a ritardando to cover your dragging).

7. Keep your volume appropriate to the line. Don’t accent the landing. Ideally, your audience would never even know there was a shift.

Find examples and practice

To really ingrain these shifting maneuvers, notice where they happen in your tunes, and make a list of them. (if you don’t play tunes with shifts, just decide to move from here to there.)

Spend a little time in your practice working on the shifts all together, one after the next. Notice the similarities, and insist on absolute ease. (Not feeling easy?  Pretend it’s easy, then pretend you’re not pretending!)

How About You?

What’s your take? Have you ever triumphed over a tricky shift? Or are you aware of places where you could be smoother in your transitions? Let’s hear about it in the comments!


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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