Play Classical Guitar Now!
Francis, Patrick, Acoustic Guitar
The beauty of classical guitar rests in a few time-honored playing techniques. These tips and exercises will help you start exploring classical pieces while improving your playing in all styles.
ever since Andrés Segovia strode onto a Paris stage in 1924 armed with virtuoso chops, a powerful artistic vision, and a Ramírez guitar, the classical guitar has not been the same. Bringing new works and his formidable ego to the concert stage, Segovia almost singlehandedly rescued the instrument from obscurity, inspiring future generations of players in the process. A host of concertizing luminaries carry on Segovia's work of bringing classical guitar to the masses, and today, classical guitar is studied at conservatories around the world, spawning a new generation of players who perpetuate the maestro's legacy while pushing the level of playing ever higher.
The instrument's status as a serious concert instrument-requiring intensive training, isolated and meticulous study, and a way of sitting just so-has given the classical guitar something of a lofty, inscrutable quality that sets it apart from other fretted brethren. Many steel-string players, inspired by a piece they heard or a performance they attended, are interested in learning the classical guitar but find that it can be difficult (or intimidating) to get started.
While it's true that classical guitarists, like most musicians, can spend years perfecting the intricacies of their technique and repertoire, players of any style can begin playing classical guitar music by working on a few "core" techniques. In this lesson, we'll take a look at some of these basic classical playing techniques for both the right and left hands. We'll also explore examples of music from the classical repertoire to help reinforce the techniques and introduce you to some of the better-known pieces and composers.
If you already know basic fingerstyle techniques, playing classical won't be much of a leap. As in fingerstyle guitar music, classical music can be contrapuntal or feature a melody that moves over an independent bass line, arpeggio, or chordal accompaniment. The fundamental difference between classical guitar and other types of guitar playing is in the standardized seating and posture of the player, the focus on pedagogy, and a repertoire that goes back to the 1500s. You'll be happy to know that these principles and specific techniques aren't exclusive to classical guitar, so what you learn here will easily transfer to and improve your playing in other styles. Let's get started.
Classical seating traditionally involves propping the left foot on a footstool to lift the guitar into an effi- cient playing position. If you don't have a foot-stool, a gui- tar case or something else that raises your left foot six to seven inches off the ground will work (see photo below at left). In the traditional playing position, the guitar should touch your body at three points: the left thigh, near the heart, and the inside of the right thigh. This "leg up" position has endured because it gets the guitar neck up into a comfortable playing position and affords optimal placement of both hands, facilitating precision and efficiency. This is important in part because the standard classical guitar neck is wider than other guitars and the string spacing is also wider.
If you're used to playing a steel-string guitar with the typical method of propping the guitar on your right leg and letting your thumb hang over the top of the neck, classical playing position may feel downright wrong. Stick with it and the position starts to feel more natural. You can hold and play the guitar many ways, of course, but if you want to investigate classical guitar, it's worth giving the standard classical playing position a try.
To find your left-hand position, let your left arm dangle toward the floor, fully relaxed. Holding the guitar in playing position, bring your arm up and cradle the guitar neck in your still-relaxed hand, placing all your fingers flat on the fretboard (barred, stretching from the first string to the sixth string) with your thumb gently touching the back of the neck, in the middle. Slowly slide your hand, still flat, up and down the neck while keeping the ball of your thumb flat and relaxed and lined up opposite your index and middle fingers. Your thumb should remain in the middle line of the neck or just slightly above the midline. After you've tried this shifting motion a few times, bring your hand to rest with your index at the fifth fret and all your fingers flat.
Curl your fingers now, placing them all on the third string with your fingertips as the point of contact, and assign each finger to a fret, with your index finger on the fifth fret and your pinky on the eighth. Notice how the graceful arch of your fingers terminates at the string. This position results in the most efficient use of the left hand, optimal alignment of the tendons and joints, and allows a piston-like motion of the fingers that can give you a high degree of precision. Your hand should look like the photo at the bottom right on page 61. When not active, keep your fingers in "ready position"-hovering about ¼ inch away from the strings.
Let's try out this left-hand position on an excerpt from Fernando Carulli's Andante (Example 1), a Classical-era study that addresses two important left-hand techniques: the pull-off and the hammer-on, known in the classical lexicon as ascending and descending slurs. To play a hammer-on, "slam" your finger down onto the string and into the fret. For the pull-off, pluck (pull) the string downward with your fingertip. Each slur should produce a clearly articulated note.
Now let's look at your right hand. To find a basic "default" position, lift your right arm over the guitar, as if to play. Keeping your forearm off the guitar and your hand relaxed, place your middle finger on the third string directly over the rosette at the back of the soundhole, and allow your forearm to rest on the upper edge of the guitar. (Your arm should touch the guitar at your forearm, not at the crook of your elbow.) Rest your thumb on the sixth string. Looking down at your hand, you should be able to see the floor through the gap between your wrist and the guitar strings. Avoid letting your wrist collapse toward the strings, because this will result in a clawing motion and a thin sound. Hold your wrist flat or so that your hand is positioned with a slight downward tilt toward the strings. Your hand should look something like the photo to the left.
The Free Stroke
In classical technique, there are two righthand strokes used to play individual notes-the free stroke and the rest stroke. We'll look at the free stroke first, using an excerpt from a piece by Matteo Carcassi (Op. 60, No. 19) that features a moving melody over an arpeggio pattern (Example 2).
In this excerpt, the thumb and ring fingers of the right hand begin by playing together, followed by repeated alternation of the index and middle fingers. The arpeggio-one of the most common guitar techniques-is a succession of free strokes played by different right-hand fingers, usually with a chord shape held in the left hand. Practicing arpeggios in a variety of patterns can really help dial in your right-hand technique. Remember that in classical guitar notation, the letters p, i, m, a denote the fingers of the right hand: thumb, index, middle, and ring. (The letters come from the Spanish words pulgar, indice, medio, and anular.)
To execute the free stroke, pluck a treble string and allow your finger to travel in an arc past the adjacent string. Start with your index finger on the E string in the first measure of Example 2 and play through the string. The movement of your finger should originate at its base-where it meets your hand-not at the tip or knuckle joints. If your hand makes a "clawing" motion, with the fingers pulling up and away from the strings, stop and play the stroke slowly until you get it right. Look at the path your finger takes from the point where it touches the string to the arc it must travel to pass the B string. Play the note and let your finger return to the E string, relaxed and ready to play again. If this stroke is new to you, it might be helpful to exaggerate it by making the finger travel all the way to your palm.
Once you get the hang of the free stroke with your index finger, try it with your middle and ring fingers, playing any of the treble strings. Beware of tension in your arm or shoulders as you play. If you feel any tension, allow it to dissipate while you continue practicing. (See "Learn to Relax" on page 67 for advice on how to reduce tension.) The stroke should feel almost effortless and can be used almost anywhere.
The Rest Stroke
In the free stroke, you want the finger to travel in an arc past the adjacent string once it has played the note. With the rest stroke, you want your fingertip to come to rest on an adjacent string below the string you've just played. For example, pluck the first string and end the stroke with your finger resting on the second string. A rest stroke can result in a punchier sound, which is good for situations such as bringing out a melody or adding oomph to a passage. To get an idea of the sonic differences between the strokes, play the top voice in Example 1, first with a free stroke and then with a rest stroke.
Now we'll combine the rest stroke and free stroke in two contrasting pieces. First, for a little Spanish flavor, try an excerpt from Francisco Tárrega's popular waltz "Adelita" (Example 3). Use the rest stroke for the melody (the top voice) and free stroke for the accompaniment (the chordal figures). Then try a passage from the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998) by Johann Sebastian Bach (Example 4). This example offers opportunities to use both of the strokes you've learned. Try playing the theme that moves stepwise with rest strokes. When you notice chord shapes emerging in the musical texture, trying holding down the chord and letting the notes ring as you arpeggiate them with free strokes.
Next, let's try some chords. The following excerpt from Mauro Giuliani's Larghetto, Op. 50, No. 17 (Example 5), features three- and four-note chords that require your right hand to find different string combinations. To play the chords, move your right-hand fingers in an arc toward your palm, plucking the strings simultaneously to produce a block chord with as full and balanced a sound as possible. Completely relax your hand between chords. Once you have that down, experiment with slightly "rolling" the chord that ends each phrase.
Spanish Music and Tremolo
"Classical music" is a broad generalization and a label for music from a number of historical periods, each with its own distinctive stylistic hallmarks, musical forms, and repertoire. When we say "classical guitar music," we are really talking about hundreds of years' worth of music in myriad styles. In addition to those style periods, any discussion of the classical repertoire would be incomplete without a special look at Spain. The guitar is integrally woven into Spanish culture and history more than any other country's. Of the many great Spanish composers, Francisco Tárrega, composer of the immortal tremolo piece "Recuerdos de la Alhambra," remains perhaps the most widely performed.
Thinking of tremolo as an arpeggio played on one string helps to make learning this challenging technique less daunting. The standard tremolo pattern is p, a, m, i, with the thumb typically playing a bass note and the fingers plucking a melody on a single treble string. Flamenco players often use a five-note pattern for tremolo: p, i, a, m, i. This asymmetrical quintuplet grouping makes it harder for the ear to discern a subdivision and, as a consequence, can result in a smoother-sounding tremolo. Try this excerpt from "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" (Example 6) with the traditional tremolo first and then with the flamenco tremolo.
The Future of Classical Guitar
The classical guitar's centuries-spanning repertoire contains works dating from the Renaissance to the present as well as an increasingly large number of modern works coalescing folk, jazz, and classical influences. Throughout history, virtually all of the best pieces for guitar were penned by guitarist/ composers. That same tradition continues today, but with an intensification of exchange and interweaving of musical styles. Shades of rock, jazz, and folk music from all quarters can be heard in the new repertoire by such guitarist/composers as Sérgio Assad, Nikita Koshkin, Andrew York, Dusan Bogdanovic, and Roland Dyens. While their music runs the stylistic gamut, each brings a fresh voice to the repertoire.
This article has introduced you to just a few classical guitar techniques. Whether you want to be the next John Williams, play Segovia's greatest hits, master "Classical Gas," or incorporate classical techniques and sounds into your own genre-defying music, I hope that I have piqued your curiosity and given you some technical concepts to ponder and practice. AG
See the video of music examples at acousticguitar.com/playclassical
Like steel-string fingerstyle guitarists, classical players take pains to shape and maintain their fingernails. Your nails should be smooth-free of dings and nicks that might snag a string or result in a scratchy tone. Depending on the natural shape of your fingers and nails, the nails can be filed in a variety of ways: a ramp, a smooth arc, completely flat, etc. The shape and length of your nails will affect your hand position significantly. For example, nails that are too long and/or shaped incorrectly can cause you to adjust your hand position in a way that may negatively affect your playing. Finding the right nail shape and length requires experimentation, but the payoff is better tone and more volume. For a more comprehensive discussion on nails and nail care, see "Fingernails 101" on acousticguitar.com or in the August 2006 issue.
LEARN TO RELAX
Learning a new technique or playing in an unfamiliar position is bound to increase the tension in your arms and body at some point. The best way to remain relaxed while playing is to conscientiously check in with your body while playing to determine if unnecessary tension is present. Tension can be held just about anywhere in the body: hands, shoulder, legs, feet, jaw, etc. Allowing a part of the body to relax while continuing to pfay is a skill crucial for any performer who wants to avoid injury in the long term. Another approach is to stop playing whenever you notice tension and "reset" your muscles to a more relaxed state. The theory is that if you stop and reset enough times, eventually your brain will cease sending tension where it isn't needed. This method may produce results, but is obviously impractical at a gig.
CLASSICAL GUITAR REPERTOIRE
Classical guitar pieces fall into two categories: transcriptions and original works. A transcription adapts a piece written for some other instrument or instruments to the guitar. Any piece by Johann Sebastian Bach you have heard on guitar, for example, has been transcribed from an instrument like the lute, cello, violin, or organ. If you are fond of the works of the great classical composers-Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Mozart, etc.-it takes just a little searching to find them. There is a dizzying array of music from the classical music world that has been adapted to guitar and is literally at your fingertips.
If you're just getting started, however, here are some introductory classical guitar pieces from several style periods.
"Six Pavans," Luis Milan
"Fantasias," Francesco Canova da Milano
"Folias," Gaspar Sanz
"Bourée in E minor," J.S. Bach (See the November 2006 issue)
Study in E minor, Op. 48, No. 5, Mauro Giuliani
Allegretto, Op. 35, No. 22, Fernando Sor
Study No. 3, Op. 60, Matteo Carcassi
Andantino, Op. 241, No. 19, Fernando Carulli
"Lágrima," Francisco Tárraga (See the January 2008 issue)
"Estudios Sencillos 1-6," Leo Brouwer…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Play Classical Guitar Now!. Contributors: Francis, Patrick - Author. Magazine title: Acoustic Guitar. Volume: 19. Issue: 7 Publication date: January 2009. Page number: 60+. © String Letter Publishing Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.