Adding Variation to Arpeggio Practice on the Classical Guitar

Before we dive in, please note that this article is not a starting point.  It is more of an advanced step in the arpeggio practice process.  If you are coming to this as a new reader to CGS, you may want to begin your arpeggio exploration with the free arpeggio course, or you can start here.

Ok, that said, let’s jump in.

Adding variation to arpeggio practice on the classical guitar

Now that you’ve gotten the basic movements of some primary arpeggio patterns, and incorporated some left hand progressions to make it all sound more like real music, now what?


Well first, let’s ensure that you’ve gotten the basics before moving on.  Answer the following questions about your arpeggio patterns.  If you can answer yes to everything, great.  If not, make a note of which ones you still have work to do with.  As you add some of the variations in the video and this article, you may notice that these basics take care of themselves.  (But maybe not, so stay alert either way!)

  1. Do you know each movement that makes up each arpeggio pattern?
  2. Can you stop (freeze) between each movement?
  3. Can you play with a steady beat, keeping true to the movements?
  4. Can you play some or all of the primary arpeggio patterns with a steady rhythm using a left hand chord progression?

How did you do?  Remember you can always back up and return to the basics.  Returning periodically to the basics of good form and motion is probably one of the best things you can do when learning classical guitar.

Note:  No extra points for speed, unless your form and motion are flawless.  Speed creates the illusion of perfection.  If you can’t ace it slowly, you can’t ace it.  Period.


Altering Timbre (aka tone)

One variation we can bring in is to to alter the tone, or sound of the notes.  There are two main ways to do this.  We can either change where on the guitar our right hand is placed, or we can change the angle with which we are striking the strings.

The different tone centers of the classical guitar

On the classical guitar, we play generally over the soundhole, as a rule.  However, we can get some really interesting tonal “colors” if we play in other places.

The two extremes of this are:

1. Over the neck:  When you move your right hand position more toward the neck of the guitar, actually over the frets, we can get a very warm, “wooly” sound.  This sound has also been described as “dark”, or “wet”.  While we generally want a rich, warm sound in the pieces of music we play, there is a point of diminishing returns here.  Past a certain point it becomes more of an effect.

2. Close to the bridge:  When you play very close to bridge, at the very end of the strings, the sound is metallic and bright.  It can almost sound like a harpsichord or a steel-string guitar when played here.

For practicing, try moving between the extremes of both these directions (over the frets to near the bridge).  Take each as far as you can.  All the way to the 12th fret, to all the way to the bridge.

To move between these, you can go about it in (at least) two ways.  You can smoothly and steadily move your hand/arm back and forth, always in motion.  Or you can quickly shift from one position to the other.  I recommend mastering both ways of moving.

Using hand position to change tone

The other way of changing timbre (or tone) is to alter the angle through which you play the strings.

In the lesson on fundamentals of playing classical guitar, I talked about alignment.  In general, you want your fingers to move in such a way that, if your fingers were long enough (say, 2 feet long), they would tap your elbow with each stroke.  This way, your wrist is straight and aligned with your forearm.

Well, if instead of keeping this alignment you instead move the hand position around, you can get a multitude of different sounds and “colors”.

At the level of the string, we usually play through the string at about a 45 degree angle.  In this technique, we vary that angle all the way from perpendicular (90 degrees to the string), to nearly parallel to the string (you may notice that the wound strings will be very noisy, as your nails scrape them).

How to practice

For practicing, you can again switch quickly or slowly between extremes.  Make sure that you are always exaggerating everything in your practice.  Take everything to the limits.  Later, if performing, you will naturally mellow some of the exaggeration out.  If you have not been exaggerating in practice, your playing will likely come off somewhat bland to your listeners.  (they won’t tell you this, but it happens all the time.)

For both of the exercises above, you could choose a number of repetitions for each position, and play with steady tempo.  For instance, two times through the arpeggio pattern over the neck, then move quickly and play two arpeggio patterns near the bridge.  The same concept applies to number two from above, but simply move from one hand position to the other.

Likewise, you could move move smoothly between the two points, reaching the extreme of each within a set number of repetitions.  The challenge here is keeping the arm moving at a steady pace, while also playing with good rhythm.  Again, you can modify this same idea for number 2 from above.


Altering Dynamics (aka volume)

In the music we play, one of our main goals is to play expressively, and beautifully.  One of our most powerful tools in this art is our ability to control dynamics.

Dynamics are how loud and/or softly we play.  This could include a whole piece, a section, a phrase, just a few notes, or a single note.  (We deal with single notes in the “Accents” section below.)

The better we can control the volume of our playing, the better we sound.  This is huge, so please hear it.  The better we can control the volume of our playing, the better we sound.  If you want to play so that your music affects people in a positive way, practice and master dynamics.

There are two ways of altering dynamics that we will talk about here:  terraced dynamics, and crescendos/decrescendos.

Terraced Dynamics

Imagine the terraced rice fields of southeast Asia.  Each level is flat, then moves suddenly to the next level, which is also flat.

Besides being a metaphor for practice in general, terraced dynamics are the same way.  You are playing at a nice fortissimo (very loud), and all of a sudden you are playing pianissimo (very quiet).  There is no transition between the two.  It’s like black and white.

For practice, vary between extremes (as I’ll say again and again).  As loud as you can to as soft as you can.  Remember to keep the rhythm steady.  You may need to turn on the metronome to stay honest.

Note: Always (really, always!) exaggerate wildly in your practice!

Crescendos and Decrescendos (swells and fades)

The other way to get from  your loudest playing to your softest playing is to go there gradually.  You can do this by swelling louder, or fading down softer.

Crescendos (getting louder) and decrescendos (getting quieter) are one of the most powerful tools you have to play beautifully and expressively.  The better you get at controlling your dynamics in this way, the better you will sound and the more people (and yourself) will connect emotionally with the music you are playing.

How to practice

To practice, decide exactly what you are doing, and then do it while keeping the rhythm absolutely steady.

A couple of examples (you can come up with different ones as well):

  • Starting quietly, play the arpeggio pattern twice getting louder (arriving at your loudest by the end), then twice getting quieter (arriving at your softest by the end).  Then change harmony in your left hand and repeat, all in rhythm.
  • Starting loudly, play the arpeggio pattern twice getting softer, then twice getting louder.  Change harmony and away we go.

(note: I like this second one better than the first, because it crescendos TO the left hand harmony change, which is usually more musical and moves the music forward more organically.  But master both of these, and every other one you can come up with)


Using Accents

I love accents.  Accents tell your listener what exactly to listen to.  They can create a melody line that rises above all the muck and mire that can come with classical guitar music (bass notes, middle voices, chords, etc.).

We play so many notes.  It’s a service to your listeners to show them precisely what the main point of the music is.  Otherwise, it can just be a river of notes (which is cool, but not really THAT cool.)

What often happens is that players often accent notes that don’t make sense to accent, and undermine the flow and beauty of the music.  They don’t mean to, it’s just that they don’t realize that they are doing it, or have habits (like accenting the highest note of a phrase, or accenting any place where the thumb and finger play at the same time) that they do without thinking or questioning whether it’s the best musical choice.

There are places in music that work really well to accent, and others that don’t.  Where those places are is a subject for another day.  But for now, just work on being able to accent at will.

By mastering your ability to use accents, you become more able to create the “three-dimensional” sound that can be so interesting and captivating to listen to.  It’s a huge step on your path to learn classical guitar at a high level.

Sure, it’s hard work, but what else are you going to do with your life?

What is an accent?

An accent is a note that stands out from the notes around it.

“An accent stands out from the notes around it.”

This is a deceptively simple statement.  Most people’s first impulse is to just play that note louder.  Easy, right?

The problem with just playing the note louder:

On the classical guitar, we have a fairly small dynamic range.  That means the difference in our loudest and softest playing is not very big (when compared to a piano, or an orchestra, or any car stereo).

If we are just playing at a “normal” volume, then make one note louder, the difference is pretty small.  And it takes more effort to play the loud note, which can add tension, which carries over to the next note, so on and so forth until we are all tensed up and everything (and therefore nothing) is accented.

The solution:

To play an accent, first make all the notes around it much quieter.  This way, you increase the contrast between the accented and un-accented notes, which makes the accented note stand out.

So the major task to focus on when playing accents is not the note itself, but the surrounding notes.  They are where to put your attention.

Caution:  Watch out for the note right after the accented note.  It often will want to be loud as well.  Keep it black and white, loud and quiet.  If you need to, put a pause before and after the accent so that you can organize the levels of sound in your mind.  (This is like playing with terraced dynamics, only note-by-note.)  Then put it back in rhythm, keeping the contrast between notes.

Practicing using accents

To practice playing with accents, first play your chosen arpeggio pattern with a steady rhythm at a very low dynamic (that means quietly).

Then choose a particular note to accent. Keep everything else really quiet, while letting the accented note be louder.  Ideally for practice, we exaggerate the contrast (told you I would bring up exaggeration again!).

note: In actual pieces, the level of accent depends on the individual situation.  But for practice, we want to just isolate the skill and get a strong grasp on it.  We can always do less later if we need to.

One at a time, accent each note in whatever arpeggio pattern you are practicing.  You may only have time for one arpeggio pattern in a practice session, because you are repeating it so many times accenting the different notes.  That’s fine.  This is time well spent.

So as an example, using the PIM arpeggio pattern:

  1. Play everything quietly (super rhythmic)
  2. Accent just the P.  Play through your entire progression.
  3. Accent just the I.  Play through your entire progression.
  4. Accent just the M.  Play through your entire progression.
  5. Pat yourself on the back for your great focus and good practice.


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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