There are very few techniques that I can think of for right hand guitar playing across all genres of music. Since this post is specifically to do with Classical, or more generally nylon strung, guitar technique I will focus on the two that are most commonly used and should become second nature to any serious guitarist. I will talk about the rest and free strokes. They have Italian names too, but I don’t want to confuse the matter (and I can’t remember what free stroke is in Italian either!).
Firstly the physics of how a guitar makes noise. The string vibrates up and down, or perpendicular the plane of the soundboard. This came as a surprise to me when I first heard it, I assumed they vibrated parallel to the plane, but it is an important fact to remember when practicing the techniques I am about to describe. This vibration goes through the bridge and is amplified by the top surface of the guitar and the air inside. The guitar body acts in a similar way to a speaker and pushes air backwards and forwards creating sound.
The Rest Stroke
The rest stroke is probably the singular most used technique a guitarist will use so it is very important to get it right. The hand position should be right over the sound hole. There are 4 phases of the rest stroke:
- Guitarist pushes down on the string
- String slips over nail pushing it down and is released
- Finger follows through onto next string and rests on it momentarily (where the name rest stroke comes from)
- Guitarist repositions finger ready for next stroke
This is the technique used by bass players who play with their fingers for the most part. It is a very direct and punchy style of play, allowing each individual note to be heard. It should be used whenever only a single note is being played at a time, in melodic passages.
The first stage is probably the most important. Remember at the start of the post I said that the string needs to be vibrating up and down? If you push the string at an angle towards the string above it, the string will vibrate at an angle. It will settle down to the perpendicular path it naturally wants to follow but it won’t be immediate. Only the component of the movement which is perpendicular to the soundboard will be amplified and by the time the string has found it’s natural path, the stroke’s initial amplitude will have decayed away.
Techniques to improve this include 4, 3, 2 and 1 notes on each string with varying right hand finger patterns, for example:
6i 6m 6a 6i 5m 5a 5i 5m 4a 4i 4m 4a 3i 3m 3a 3i 2m 2a 2i 2m 1a 1i 1m 1a and back
Where the number is the string and the letter is the finger (i = index, m = middle and a = annular or ring finger). Finger patterns to use include alternating i-m-a, as seen above, i-m, i-a, and m-a. When doing these exercises, don’t do anything with your left hand but focus on the smallest movements of your right. Focus on the following:
- Pushing down as close to perpendicular to the soundboard as possible
- Only moving one finger at a time (also known as individuation)
- Hand position try varying slightly and seeing what the effect in tone is
I like to try and get into a zen state where I concentrate on perfecting each individual movement no matter how small so I can get the maximum potential out of my hand and instrument. You can spend a long time on this. Everyone wants to play the cool pieces because they sound good.
The Free Stroke
The free stroke is different to the rest stroke because you don’t have the rest. It is used for playing chords, arpeggios and passages where the notes should ring together. The technique is subtly different but leads to a noticeable change in the way the instrument sounds. It is probably easier for a beginner as the technique always felt more natural to me but it isn’t as widely used and is only used for certain effects. The rest stroke should still be your main stroke. The technique goes something like this:
- Guitarist tries to rest nail underneath the string and pulls upwards
- String slips over nail and is released
- Guitarist positions finger ready for next stroke
Again, the first stage is probably the most important. It is difficult and impractical to get the finger completely under the string and even if you were to, you would really only have an inverted rest stroke. You should be pulling the string back softly and letting the string follow it’s natural path in space rather than trying to direct it to only go perpendicular to the sound board. This results in a softer, more airy tone.
The same exercises can be used to practice this technique as before. Again, trying to focus on getting the most out of every movement and maximizing the potential of you and your instrument.
I was told to spend 10 – 20 minutes a day practicing these techniques but really you can’t do enough of this. You should keep doing this, no matter how good you are for at least 10 minutes a session and if this is the first you have seen of them, it might be worth spending a minimum of 20 minutes a session on them with the upper time limit being up to you. The more the better! Remember: Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong.