John Gall Guitar System

John Gall on a Guitar System that Works

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

John Gall

In his book, Sytemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail, John Gall speaks of forming a simple system that works, then building on it to accommodate complexity.

This is also a proven method for classical guitar technique.

To play classical guitar, we must use both hands and synchronize them. So to build our skills, we can develop the hands separately, then put them together.

In the right hand, we need to play right-hand patterns (arpeggios) and melodic passages (scales). Depending on the style of music, we may also need various strums (rasgueados).

In the left hand, we need to play single notes (scales) and multi-note patterns (chords). We also need to shift up and down the guitar neck.

In pieces of music, we combine these core elements in myriad ways. We may also add in a few special techniques, such as harmonics, slides, muting, and others. But 99% of what we do includes the above.

To ascend to high levels of mastery, we must hone these elements (arpeggios, scales, chords). To this end, we need a system.

An amateur has little chance of developing such a system on his or her own. The technique will break down at a relatively low level. The playing will be unreliable and disorganized.

This is why many experienced guitarists find themselves hitting a “glass ceiling.” They reach a point where they cannot seem to progress any further. This ceiling is imposed by a needlessly complex, homemade system of playing.

These players then need to back up and rebuild. They can slow down and ingrain new movements that will scale to high tempi (speeds). They can rework their form and positioning. They can release old habits of tension and create new habits of ease.

A workable system has as few components as needed. As Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

In classical guitar, this means we can train a small set of movements. This small set then combines to make the complex patterns we see in pieces of music.

This way, we can create a consistent right-hand technique, in both scales and arpeggios.

We can come to know these fundamentals, then continue to absorb them more deeply. In time, these movements become automatic.

When this happens, we are more able to put our attention on other aspects of music. More intentional phrasing and expression are then possible.

We cannot much improve a faulty system. It is therefore worth the time and effort to adopt what works, and abandon that which doesn’t.

This may feel like a step backward in the short term. But the perpetual advancement that follows makes it time well spent.

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.

As I said before, I think your site is outstanding. I have spent my life teaching adults difficult stuff that they really wanted to learn but didn't have the time to learn at the speed we teach university students. Thus I understand only too well how many hundreds of hours you must have spent perfecting your lessons to make my learning as quick and easy as possible.


~ Mike Barron

-Mike Barron
I just started level 1C...I was able to look at a Carulli piece, albeit a simple one, and understand it. And that understanding allowed me to play it much more easily on the first run through, and I expect it will allow me to make it fully musical at tempo quite soon. That's a huge personal victory for me. Until very recently my mindset was: "Notes on a page. Jimi didn't need them and I don't either." But I ain't Jimi, and now I want those notes on a page.
My work in CGS, even at these early levels, got me to that personal breakthrough. And that's given me more confidence that continued work will get me to greater places in due time. So to answer your question: yes, I absolutely feel like I'm making headway and moving forward in my playing. Thank you for that.
~ Matthew Ecker


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