Play Classical Guitar Now!

By Francis, Patrick | Acoustic Guitar, January 2009 | Go to article overview

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.

Seating Position

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.

Left-Hand Positioning

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. …

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