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In classical guitar, the right hand is developed in such a way that it can sustain two, three, and four voice harmonies while also paying special attention to tone production. The index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers are generally used to play the melody, while the thumb (p) accompanies in the bass register adding harmony and produces a comparable texture and effect to that of the piano. The classical guitar is a solo polyphonic instrument, and it is difficult to master.
Classical guitar techniques can be organized broadly into subsections for the right hand, the left hand, and miscellaneous techniques. In guitar, performance elements such as musical dynamics (loudness or softness) and tonal/timbral variation are mostly determined by the hand that physically produces the sound. In other words, the hand that plucks the strings defines the musical expression. Historically, this role has been assigned to the dominant hand which, for the majority of players, is the right hand. Similar reasoning is behind string players using the right hand for controlling the bow. In the following article the role of the hands should be reversed when considering left-handed players.
An introductory overview of classical guitar technique is given in the article Classical guitar.
The "classical" guitar is the traditional guitar of Spain. It is built so that the right-hand side falls at the back of the sound hole when it is placed on the left leg. Basic considerations in determining a chosen playing position include:
- the physical stability of the instrument
- ensuring the freedom of both hands such that they have free access to the instrument and can meet all technical demands without having to be occupied with supporting the instrument or keeping the instrument upright
- elimination of general muscular tension and physical stress by assuming a comfortable and balanced body position.
A number of different approaches have been taken.
This is the traditional position and still the most common. The player sits on the front of the chair and the left foot is supported by a foot stool or some other device. The right elbow is placed on the box of the guitar so that the hand falls over the strings, with the fingers at an angle to the strings. The right foot tucks underneath the player to make room for the guitar, while the guitar is turned to the player's right so as to rest against the ribs on the player's right side.
Guitar supports on leg(s)
A number of guitar supports have been designed to allow the guitarist to sit in a posture recommended by the Alexander Technique: with a straight, untwisted spine, even shoulders, horizontal upper legs and both feet flat on the floor. The idea is to use the support to place the guitar in the correct position above the legs rather than conform the body to the guitar.
The tripod used by Dionisio Aguado y Garcia is shown here.
Over the history of the guitar, there have been many schools of technique, often associated with the current popular virtuoso of the time. For example, Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) is associated with arpeggio playing and his compositions are largely based on their use. Giuliani's solution to achieving independence between the fingers (evening out constraints or differences between the fingers) in the right hand was playing his 120 Right Hand Studies. By contrast, Andres Segovia maintained that playing scales two hours a day "will correct faulty hand position" (1953) and for many years, this was the accepted practice. In both schools—one being all free-stroke (Giuliani arpeggio practice) and the other rest-stroke (Segovia scale practice) -- the basis for learning the technique is hours of repetition.
In 1983, Richard Provost outlined principles of scale and arpeggio technique based on his study of anatomy to make the 'inherent kinesthetic tendencies' ("our limitations") of the human body work for the player. Rather than working around them, the intention being production of "a musical, articulated sound within our physical limitations". The basis of this technique is referred to by Charles Duncan as "the awareness of the release of tension".
The traditional names of the right-hand fingers are pulgar, índice, medio, and anular, derived from Spanish. They are generally called p, i, m, and a, "p" being the thumb and "a" being the ring finger. (c = little finger or "chiquito").
The four fingers of the left hand (which stop the strings) are designated 1 = index, 2 = middle, 3 = ring finger, 4 = little finger The number 0 designates an open string, one not stopped by a finger of the left hand. On the classical guitar the thumb of the left hand is rarely used to stop strings from above (as may be done on other guitars): the neck of a classical guitar is too wide and the normal position of the thumb used in classical guitar technique do not make that possible.
Scores (in contrast with tablature) do not systematically indicate which string is to be plucked (although in most cases the choice is obvious). When indication of the string is required, the strings are designated 1 to 6 (1 for the high E, to 6 the low E) with the string number inside a circle.
The fret/position where the first finger of the left hand is placed on the fingerboard is usually not systematically indicated, but when necessary (mostly in the case of the execution of barrés) indicated with Roman numerals corresponding to the fret number from the string nut (which has no numeral) towards the bridge.
Right hand technique
The two primary plucking techniques are:
- Rest-stroke (apoyando), in which the finger that plucks the string lands on the next string; and
- Free-stroke (tirando), in which the finger does not land on the string behind, but, rather, continues until the energy of the stroke is dissipated.
Rest stroke is useful for single-line melody playing. Free-stroke is mainly used in arpeggio ("broken-chord") playing. They are often combined to provide contrasting voices, between melody and harmony. "Rest-stroke on the melody" is a common approach to balancing the voices.
One of the tenets of right-hand technique in melody playing is strict alternation of i and m. That is, no right-hand finger should be used twice in a row (excluding the thumb). The a finger is occasionally used if i-m alternation creates an awkward string-crossing in the right hand. Otherwise, the default is strict alternation of i and m. Where the a finger is used, i-a or a-m fingering is preferred to m-a, due to the physical constraints of the hand.
- Scale playing: Usually an alteration of the index and middle finger; however other alterations using the annular finger (or even an alterations with the thumb) are common as well
Factors that influence the choice might be the speed of the scale and the progression of the melody over more than one string, i.e., a scale usually starts on one string and continues on another.
However, during slower movements (especially of contrapuntal music) guitarists might not alternate the fingers strictly if this facilitates the interpretation by preserving tonal similarity. An example of this might be when the index finger (or the thumb) is used to play one melody line on the 3rd string while the annular finger might be used for a melody on the first string. A melody line can move over various strings, so a flexible approach is needed, experimentation and development of patterns that suit individual preference.
Historically (for baroque guitars, right up to classical or romantic repertoire of Sor and Mertz) the free-stroke was used. One of the first classical guitarists to use the rest-stroke was the Spaniard Julian Arcas (1832–1882) (and it may have been used by Jose Ciebra as well), though it was already in use for flamenco music.
The choice of stroke that a guitarist will use is motivated by personal choice of tone quality, dynamic control and efficiency.
"Preparation" is the placing of the finger on the string such that the flesh — as well as part of the nail — touches the string, before a plucking motion is made, producing an articulated sound, found in other instruments.
Tremolo is the rapid reiteration of a string: plucking of the same string, although not necessarily on the same note many times, quickly and next to each other (although usually separated by a melody in the thumb). In this instance, while there will still be "preparation," per se, it will not be evident and will definitely be lacking if the speed has not been gradually increased.
Finger alterations that are commonly used are:
- "p, m, i" for slower, three note tremolos, with the thumb picking out the melody
- "p, a, i" for faster three note tremolos, with the melody in the thumb
- "p, a, m, i" for a four note tremolo, with the melody in the thumb
- "p, i, a, m, i" or "p, m, a, m, i" for a five note tremolo, although almost exclusively used in flamenco. "p, c, a, m, i" is rarely used, if ever, as the pinky is not a very popular finger to be used.
Arpeggiation is similar to the tremolo technique, except almost always the fingers pluck separate strings. Usually, the pattern of finger pluckings is such that it begins with the fingers resting on the strings as follows - thumb (p) on a bass-string and index (i), middle (m), third finger (a) each on one of the three treble strings respectively.
Finger alterations that are commonly used are:
- "p, a, m, i"
- "p, i, m, a"
- "p, a, m, i, m, a"
- "p, i, m, a, m, i"
Modern practice generally makes use of the nails of the right hand in combination with the flesh of the fingertips in order to pluck the strings. During the 19th century many influential guitarists such as Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega and his pupil Emilio Pujol played using the flesh of the fingertip, in common with lute technique. This was more easily done with gut strings due to the surface texture, but became more difficult with the introduction of nylon strings where the surface was smooth.
Plucking the strings usually involves making contact first with the fleshy part of the fingertip, the tip of the nail and then letting the string glide smoothly along the curvature of the fingernail until the string is released at the fingernail's tip.
- Rasgueadoflamenco and classical guitar that include the use of the back of the fingernails. More commonly, the term refers to using the backs of the nail in sequence to give the impression of a very rapid strum. There are several types of rasgueado that employ differing combinations of fingers and thumb allowing for a variety of rhythmical accentuations and subdivisions of the beat. Rasgueado or rasgueo is a Spanish term for different forms of strumming the strings on the
- Use the palm-side of the thumb joint to lightly strum strings, producing a soft, low sound.
- Use the thumb nail to produce a bright sound.
- Use the thumb nail to strum from lowest string to highest, followed by a stroke by the thumb nail from highest string to lowest, and finally by the middle finger coming from highest string to lowest. This pattern is most commonly used in the form of triplets for a 4/4 measure, or used four times in a 12/8 measure.
- A simple combination of both fingers and thumb, the thumb striking the lowest strings and fingers picking the upper notes of the chord from lowest to highest strings in rapid succession.
Left hand technique
While the right hand is responsible for the sound of the guitar, the left hand performs two functions: pressing on the strings (to shorten their effective length and change the pitch) and articulation, i.e. slurring (commonly known as 'hammer-ons' and 'pull-offs') and vibrato. In musical notation, the left-hand fingers are referred to as 1, 2, 3, and 4 (starting with index).
The basic position for the left hand is much the same as that of the right, except upside down. Unlike many players of steel-string and electric guitars, which have a narrower neck and fingerboard, classical guitarists do not place their left-hand thumbs over the top of the neck. Instead, they place them behind the neck, usually behind the second finger.
It is possible to play the same note on different strings, called "registration" or "registering". For example, the note "e", first string open, may be played, or "registered" on any string.
The guitarist often has choices of where to "register" notes on the guitar based on:
- Ease of fingering. Beginners learn the open, first position before anything else and might be more comfortable registering notes on open strings in the first position. Advanced players might find solutions in higher positions based on musical expression or using a shift on a string as a guide.
- Playing "on the string"—Keeping a melody or musical line on one string for continuity of tone or expression.
- The advent of nylon strings. Historically, the early guitar (pre-WW II) was strung with catgut rather than the nylon commonly used since then.
- For reasons of counterpoint: allowing a voice on one string to vibrate for its duration while playing a moving voice on another string.
Slurs, trills and other ornaments are often played entirely with the left hand. For example; in a simple case of an ascending semitone slur (Hammer-on), a note stopped by the first finger of the left hand at the fifth fret is first played in normal manner, then, without the right hand doing anything further, the second finger of the left-hand is placed straight down at the sixth fret on the same string, using its momentum to raise the tone of the still-ringing string by a semitone. A descending slur (Pull-off) is simply the opposite of the above, the slur begins on the higher note, and it is common that the finger pressing the higher note actively plucks the string as it lifts, causing the string to vibrate from the fret that the lower finger is depressing. The lower finger is usually in position and pressing before the procedure begins. Three specific descending slurs exist, (1) the active finger lifts directly up and off the string, (2) the active finger rests against the adjacent string immediately after, and (3) a hybrid of these two in which the finger bumps the adjacent string before lifting off.
If these procedures are repeated a few times the result is known as a trill. Because the note is being plucked repeatedly it is possible to continue a trill indefinitely. Occasionally, the upper note in such a trill is played by alternating fingers thus: 2-1-3-1-, etc.
The classical guitar vibrato is executed by rocking the tip of the left-hand finger(s) back and forth horizontally within the same fret space (i.e. along the string axis, and not across it as for a vertical "bend" in rock or blues music) producing a subtle variation in pitch, both sharper and flatter than the starting note, without noticeably altering the fundamental tonal focus of the note being played.
Natural harmonics can be played by touching a left-hand finger upon specific points along an open string without pressing it down, then playing the note with the right hand. The positions of both the left and right hand are important. The left hand must be placed at a nodal point along the string. Nodal points are found at integral divisions of the string length. The simplest example would be when the left-hand finger divides the string in two and is placed at the twelfth fret. The note then played is one octave higher than the open string. If the string is divided in three (left hand finger near the seventh fret) the note played is one octave and one fifth above the open string.
Artificial harmonics are played by stopping the string as usual with the left hand then resting (not pressing) the index finger of the right hand on the string at a nodal position (commonly 5, 7, 9, or 12 frets above the left-hand finger) and plucking the string with the ring finger or thumb of the right hand.
In the left hand, each finger is responsible for exactly one fret. For each hand-position of four frets, the left hand is stationary while its fingers move. Consequently, three hand-positions (of frets 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12) cover the 12-fret octave of each string.
In common with other classical stringed instruments, classical guitar playing and notation use formal positions of the left hand. The 'nth position' means that the hand is positioned with the first finger over the nth fret.
- "Why classical guitarists should use a guitar strap". YouTube.
- "The Remarkable Paul Galbraith".
- Provost, Richard (1983). Classic guitar technique. Professional Guitar Publications.
- Duncan, Charles (1980). The art of classical guitar playing. Princeton, NJ, USA: Summy-Birchard. ISBN 0-87487-079-8.
- Handbook of Guitar and Lute Composers Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine by Hannu Annala, Heiki Mätlik
- An Early Sighting of the Use of Rest-stroke Technique in Northern Europe Archived 2010-05-22 at the Wayback Machine by Randy Osborne
- Denyer (1992, "Playing the guitar": "The beginner, Left-hand technique, The 'one-fret-per-finger' rule", p. 72)
- Denyer, Ralph (1992). "Playing the guitar". The guitar handbook. Robert Fripp (foreword); Special contributors Isaac Guillory and Alastair M. Crawford (Fully revised and updated ed.). London and Sydney: Pan Books. pp. 65–160. ISBN 0-330-32750-X.
- Complete method for the guitar by Otto Feder published by Ditson, 1858
- The Humane Guitarist Site dedicated to the technique and health of the classical guitarist.
- Musicians and Injuries
- Brad Conroy's Lesson on Right Hand Arpeggios
- Building Blocks of Classical Guitar Technique
- CREATIVE GUITAR - Classical Guitar resource website and blog.
- Left-Hand Trouble Shooting by Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music • University of Hawaii, Leeward.
- The Classical Guitar Express Free newsletter on practicing Classical Guitar by Tom Prisloe
- "Rest Stroke and Free Stroke Revisited" by Ricardo Iznaola, in PDF or HTML
- How to play Classical Guitar Advices by Guitarists for Guitarists