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.

Hi Allen, I am a Dutch guy who plays classical guitar (solo and together with a flute player). Unfortunately I have been suffering from focal dystonia since begin 2016. Of course I tried physical therapy which didn't help… But I tried some of your [technique] lessons (I had teachers before but I was never taught your techniques) and to my big surprise the nasty feeling in the back of my right hand which pulls my index finger upward was gone! So now I practice your lessons. Anyway, I am very happy to have found you on the internet. Thanks very much!


~ Arnoud Reinders

-Arnoud Reinders

I have lost my entire metallic sound while I am playing now. Even my single note practice sounds more melodious, less tinny. [The Woodshed technique practice] has made a major difference in my tone. Thank you.


~ Harlan Friedman

-Harlan Friedman

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