Beautiful Ornaments and Trills: Exercises for Practice

Musical ornaments add interest and psychological insight to our music. Trills, mordents, grace notes and other ornaments pull the music forward. They bring attention to special moments in the music.

But ornaments also need to play by the rules. They shouldn’t alter the rhythm or timing of the piece. Instead, they should fit between the notes and flow elegantly from one to the next.

Easier said than done. Ornaments can be challenging.

We can use exercises to build the necessary skills. With work, we can play ornaments and trills beautifully on classical guitar.


Rule #1: Ornaments are Musical (not just technical)

When we first learn a musical phrase with an ornament, the challenge lies in simply playing it. We must figure out the timing and the fingering. Then we work to get the ornament up to speed so that it fits within the rhythm.

But this is only the start. If we only look at ornaments as a technical exercise, they won’t reach their musical potential.

Ornaments usually either lead to an important note, or away from one. In other words, the main melodic note is usually either the first note, or the last note of the ornament.

Grace notes commonly sound before the main beat and note, leading to it. Other ornaments often fall after the beat.

We can decide the placement of the ornament before or after the main note. We may consider:

  • the musical time-period (Such as Medieval or Baroque)
  • the placement of the ornament within the melody.
  • the surrounding rhythms
  • and the overall sound of each option.

We can explore the fine details of the individual context. Then we can make and educated decision.

The other notes in the ornament should all stay organized around the main note. When we figure out or decide which is the main note, we can sculpt our ornaments accordingly. More on this below.

Left-Hand Ornaments on Guitar Use Slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs)

To play ornaments with the left hand on guitar, we use hammer-ons and pull-offs, also called “slurs”.

The better our slurs, the better we’ll play our ornaments.

So one reliable way to build our ornament skills is to build our slur skills. (As a bonus, slurs are one of the most beneficial exercises for the left hand in general. So working on ornaments will raise our playing level)

The first step to mastering ornaments is to master basic hammer-ons and pull-offs.

basic guitar slurs

Basic slurs: Aim for equal volume of each note. Practice with each pair of adjacent fingers.

For more on classical guitar slur technique, click here.

To Practice Ornaments on Classical Guitar, Use Accents

Once we feel confident with basic slurs, we can begin to make one of the two notes louder than the other. We do this by accenting one of them.

For more exaggerated accents, we can make the unaccented note very quiet. This increases the contrast between the two notes.

It takes practice to make a slurred note louder than the note activated by the right hand. We can play the first note very quietly, then use great force to play the second note as a hammer-on or pull-off.

ornament practice using accents

Next, accent each note in turn. Adapt the exercise for all finger pairs (1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 1/3, 2/4, 1/4)

Start Simple, then Add Challenge

As we gain facility with the basics, we can add complexity and challenge.

We can begin with the basic slurs, striving to keep the volume of the notes equal. Then we can accent each note in turn.

We can then add more notes. So instead of just two notes, we now have three. Then four, and so on. As we add more notes, we continue to accent the first or last note.

guitar ornaments chart

Effective Ornaments Use Shapely Dynamics

For an ornament or grace notes to lead to the primary note and beat, we can use dynamics. Dynamics are swells and fades, louds and softs.

We’ve already been practicing with accents. Now we can grow or diminish the volume of the notes within the ornament.

how to play guitar ornaments

With practice we can create longer ornaments, containing more slurred notes. When we use these in our music, we can create flowing lines that sound effortless and natural.

Start With a Strong Foundation

Complexity can be a distraction. When playing ornaments, either as exercises or in a piece of music, it’s easy to lose focus.

At a fundamental level, left-hand ornaments are hammer-ons and pull-offs.

The better we master the basic movements of these, the better everything else will be. Likewise, if we have a shoddy slur technique, our ornaments will never be quite right. We will always struggle with them.

As Josh Waitzkin said, “If you’re not cultivating quality, you’re cultivating sloppiness.”

The most important skill to master is the basic slur. As we progress, we get stronger and our ears can better gauge the accuracy and precision of each note.

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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