Saturday, April 10, 2010

Left Hand Position

Thumb Position

The thumb is key to being agile on the fretboard.  The thumb should be square on the back of the neck.  It should not wrap round even a little.  Someone sitting directly in front of you should not be able to see any of your thumb.  The reason for this is that your thumb provides a stable and solid base for the fingers to fret against.  The thumb should be pushing in the exact opposite direction your fingers are pushing on the fretboard.  If it is pointing at an angle away, the neck is less stable and more likely to slip.  Also the fingers can accidentally stretch the strings and change the note you are playing.  This effect can be desirable in many situations but it should always be under control.

Active Fingers

The active fingers are the fingers which are actually pressing down on strings at any one time.  The position of these is very important.  The final joint should be as close to perpendicular to the fretboard as possible and as close to the fret wire as you can manage without actually touching it.

I find that a little nail is useful on my left hand since it provides support for the rest of the finger but you should always aim to be making the contact with the fleshy tip of your finger.  This gives a much smoother tone and lessens the hammer effect of banging your fingers so hard onto the fretboard that they create a note without any right hand action.  Often the hammer and snap are desirable but, as with everything else to do with the left hand, control is so so important.  You only want to be hammering notes when the music tells you to.

Inactive Fingers

The inactive fingers are the ones that aren’t fretting strings at any given time.  They should be hovering as close to the fretboard as possible without touching the strings.  It is unlikely that any finger is going to be inactive for very long so it should always be in a position where it can fret a string quickly.  It also looks a lot nicer for someone watching the artist.  The hardest finger for me to control in this way was my little or fourth finger.  It is so important to be able to control this finger and it took a lot of practice and concentration to reign it in but it is totally worth it.  A fourth finger which is under control is one of the greatest assets a classical guitarist can have as it makes longer stretches and intricate holds possible and, with practice, easy to do quickly.

As with the active fingers, the final joint of the inactive fingers should be as close to perpendicular to the fretboard as possible.  The actual fretting should come from the first finger joint and the angle between the second and final joint should hardly change through fretting and releasing the strings.


Each finger should be able to move independently of the others on your hand.  This is especially hard considering your fingers often share tendons but with a lot of practice it is possible to get close to total individualization.  It is something that every guitarist should work on every time they practice.  Here is an example of an exercise:

(6i) 4 2 3 1 (5i) 4 2 3 1 (4i) 4 2 3 1 (3i) 4 2 3 1 (2i) 4 2 3 1 (1i) 4 2 3 1

Where the bracketed number and letter represent the string and the position in Roman numerals.  (6i) represents first position on the sixth string.  This pattern should be repeated up and down the strings.  Take time with every note you fret and make sure that it is as close to perfect as possible, each and every time.  I mentioned before that being in a zen type meditative frame of mind when doing these exercises is the best way and this is no exception.  It is harder than the last one for me and requires a great deal of concentration to make sure everything is as perfect as it can be.


I can guarantee your hands won’t thank me for this exercise at first but persevere.  At least 10 minutes every practice session along with the other exercises presented in the previous article and you will be well on your way to having a strong and dexterous left hand to match your finely tuned right hand.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rest and Free Strokes

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.


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