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Get Started With Classical Guitar

Contributor: TC Staff    Rating: 4/5    Views: 8121773

This document was put together to aid everyone in playing the classical guitar. It is not meant to be a FAQ, just information on how to become a better player.

Classical Guitar Playing Guide Contents:

1.1 What is the best posture to adopt when playing?
1.2 What is the best position for the right hand?
1.3 What is the best position for the left hand?
1.4 I want to play faster - how?
1.5 I want to do tremolo - how?
1.6 Should I practice scales?

1.1 What is the best posture to adopt when playing?

This is a reasonably controversial subject, with reasonable people differing in views. There tend to be three broad groups of people - the 'no posture needed', the 'some posture needed', and the 'exact posture mandatory for good playing and health'.

What is given here is something approaching the latter. If you wish to join one of the other groups, just don't do everything advised.

Seating and positioning the guitar

Establishing good seating and positioning of the guitar is fundamental to the development of technique. Proper habits of sitting and holding the guitar contribute to basic security, comfort and ease, which bears on all other aspects of technique.

The general aim of seating is to establish a stable and relaxed position to serve as a foundation to support the guitar, while maintaining a free and relaxed posture to provide the best freedom of movement for the arms and hands.

o Begin by sitting up straight and on the edge of the chair. Your back should be straight, aligning the back muscles with the spine. Your shoulders should be relaxed and level. Basic good posture is the objective here: avoid any slouching, leaning against the back of the chair, hunching or twisting of shoulders.

o Adjust the footstool to about seven inches in height, and place it on point aligning it with the left legs of the chair, and beneath your left leg. Place your left foot on the footstool, and adjust the position of the footstool forward or backward so that the lower leg is perpendicular to the floor. Also, adjust the height of the footstool so that the upper leg is pointing very slightly upward (only a few degrees). After the footstool is properly positioned and the left foot placed upon it, check again to be sure that there is no tension or misalignment in the back or shoulders. The general aim of positioning the guitar is to hold the guitar in the most effective, comfortable and secure playing position, giving each hand best access to the strings and to the full range of the fingerboard.

Some terms involved in positioning the guitar:

front: the soundboard of the guitar side: the side of the guitar front rim: the joint formed by the front and the side waist: the inward curve of the sides formed in the middle of the guitar lower bout: the outward swelling of the sides formed below the waist

o Place the guitar with the waist resting snugly on your left thigh, with the back resting against your chest. The side should rest flat against the leg, so that the guitar leans neither forward nor backward. Your left leg should extend directly in front of you (not to the left), so that the guitar's soundhole is in the middle of your chest. Rest your right forearm on the front rim of the lower bout so that the right hand hovers in front of the soundhole. Be sure to avoid hunching or twisting the right shoulder.

o Pivoting the guitar on the point where its side rests on your left thigh, use your left hand to move the guitar's head in an upward/downward arc, changing the angle of the guitar's neck to the floor. Adjust this angle so that the guitar's head is at your eye level.

o Pivoting the guitar at the same point as before, move the guitar's head in a forward/backward arc, changing the angle of the guitar's neck to the line of your shoulders. Adjust this angle so that the guitar's neck points slightly backward (only a few degrees).

At this point, the basic position of the guitar is established. To check the effectiveness of this position, the mobility of the right and left hands must be checked individually, in case an

o Check the right hand position by moving the right forearm upward and downward from the elbow only. You should be able to comfortably reach all six strings with the fingers, without raising, lowering or twisting the right shoulder or wrist.

o Check the left hand position by placing the first finger of your left hand across the first fret. Slide the hand up the fingerboard, gradually bending the wrist inward, until the tip of your fourth finger is placed at the nineteenth fret. This should be accomplished without any strain or movement in your left shoulder or back.

If there is any problem in accomplishing either of these two checks, there is probably some need for adjustment of some aspect of the guitar's position. Each type of adjustment will have the described effect:

o Leaning the guitar forward or backward: Leaning the guitar backward reduces the impediment of the front rim against your forearm, but it strains the left hand by causing it to bend beyond its comfortable range. Leaning the guitar forward produces the opposite effect.

o Raising or lowering the guitar's head: Adjustment of this has little effect on the function of the right hand. For the left hand, adjusting this to a lower position forces the left wrist to bend and twist beyond its comfortable range of movement.

o Moving the guitar's head forward or backward: Pivoting the guitar to move the head forward improves right hand mobility by reducing the impediment  of the front rim against the right forearm; however, it forces the left  wrist to bend beyond its comfortable range of movement. Pivoting the  guitar to move the head backward produces the opposite effect.

o Raising or lowering the entire guitar by adjusting the footstool: This adjustment has little effect on function of the right hand. It significantly affects the left hand's access to the upper frets; if your shoulder dips or your back leans left to reach these frets, then raising the footstool can remedy this.

o Moving the entire guitar to the right or left by moving your left leg: This adjustment has little effect on function of the right hand. For the left hand, positioning the guitar too far to the left greatly reduces the ability of the left hand to access the first few frets. If your shoulder or back twists while reaching these frets, shifting your left leg slightly to the right can remedy this.

In general, the objective of these adjustments is to achieve a position in which the right hand can swing freely across the strings without being impeded by the rim of the guitar, and which gives the left hand the most comfortable access to the full range of the fingerboard. Some of these adjustments require a compromise for both hands, some do not. When establishing this position, commit yourself to a period of continually practicing it, making adjustments and checking them with the right and left hand checks. Once you have found it, make the optimum position a habit which you reinforce every time you sit down with your instrument. If you find yourself slipping, don't ignore it and pretend it doesn't matter--it does matter, and the eventual ease and fluency of playing which you can develop will depend upon it.

Stuart LeBlanc [email protected]

1.2 What is the best position for the right hand?

Positioning the right hand.

Finding an effective position for the right hand is very important, not only to maximize the development of technique, but also to prevent debilitiating injuries to the hand's tendons, musculature and neural pathways.

In discussing r.h. positioning, many people refer to two parameters for positioning the hand:

"knuckles parallel/angled to the strings," which involves curving the wrist upward/downward as the hand faces the strings, and

"low/high wrist (not arched/arched)," which involves arching the wrist toward/away from the soundboard as the hand faces the strings.

For purposes of discussion, the knuckles parallel/angled positioning is called "deviation" and the low/high angle of the wrist is called "arch." There is a third parameter called "tilt;" this is the degree of forearm rotation, which will affect whether your knuckles are parallel to the plane of the soundboard.

In adjusting arch, movement of the hand toward the soundboard to increase the angle of arch is called "flexion," and movement away from the soundboard to straighten the wrist is called "extension."

So the three parameters to work with are:

tilt: rotation of the forearm deviation: upward/downward curvature of the wrist arch: flexion/extension of the wrist

In determining your r.h. position, there are two obvious aims: comfort and efficiency. You want to be comfortable enough to maintain the position as long as necessary, and you want your position to afford the best access for and make the most efficient use of your right hand's muscular effort. To begin positioning the right hand, make sure your shoulders are relaxed and level. Place your forearm on the rim of the lower bout of the guitar, near the elbow. The elbow should not hang over the rim, and the rim should not rest in the crook of the elbow. The hand should hover directly in front of the strings. When this is accomplished, and your shoulders are still relaxed and level, you are ready to adjust the hand itself. Here's how each of the three parameters should be adjusted, and the reasoning behind each adjusment:

o tilt: the forearm should be rotated to the degree where the knuckles are parallel to the plane of the soundboard. Since the i, m and a knuckles are then equidistant to the strings, each finger will have equal access to the strings.

o deviation: the wrist should be positioned upward or downward to the degree where a straight line is formed by three points: the top of the i finger knuckle, the top of the wrist and the top of the forearm. This creates what physiologists call "muscular alignment," in which the muscles are aligned with the bone segments on which they pull. (We thus derive the term deviation, in consideration of whether we deviate from the alignment.)

Note that muscular alignment is a surprisingly simple thing which can either make or break your technical development; following introduction of the "knuckles parallel to the strings" concept early in this century, countless promising students and concert artists have had their careers ended by tendinitis, carpal tunnel, muscle damage or other afflictions caused by the determined application of this well-meaning but misguided principle. There are a few who have found a way to play "knuckles parallel" in a relaxed and efficient manner, but they are far and away the exception.

o arch: the wrist should be flexed enough to form a slight angle. If your fingers are adequately curled (middle and tip segments perpendicular to the soundboard, forming the Segovian "X" with the thumb) and your forearm is extended enough to place the hand well in front of the strings, 5 to 10 degrees of arch should suffice. There are two important benefits of this: first, the fingers are positioned in what physiologists call their "midrange" (the middle of their range of movement) which makes the most efficient and least tense use of their muscular effort; second, this sets your fingers at an angle of attack which will avoid the next string, thus allowing them to effect follow-through each time they pluck the string, which is necessary for efficient free-stroke. During rest stroke, the arch may be reduced, but the angle of attack (to effect resting on the next string) will be adjusted primarily by lessened use of the middle joint in the stroke.

Note that in order for this position to be most effective, you must first be sitting and holding the guitar properly (which is more involved than just raising your left leg and putting the guitar on it). Also, players who have poorly shaped nails or who have problems with fingerstroke often circumvent these problems by finding an awkward postion which appears to work better, but which does not allow for the best development of right hand technique. The position described above is easiest to maintain and provides the most effective foundation for development; finding and scrupulously maintaining this position to the point where it becomes habitual will serve you well. -- Stuart LeBlanc [email protected]

1.3 What is the best position for the left hand?

Positioning the left hand

Before considering left hand positioning, it should be observed that in the concert repertoire the technical demands placed on the l.h. are much more complex than those placed on the r.h. While the essential movements of the r.h. fingers occur in a planar (two dimensional) context, the movements of the l.h. fingers occur in a spatial (three dimensional) context, which as they become more complex must be assisted by constant adjustments in l.h. position. Thus, any ideal position of the l.h. must be considered as a basis from which it may depart more or less, depending upon the demands of any particular l.h. fingering. As with the right hand though, the considerations for determining that basis are comfort and efficiency. The position described below is the most effective for the performance of scales, the most fundamental material of music. When properly developed, this position will feel most natural, and will serve as the point of departure when necessary for the complex l.h. fingering demands of polyphonic and homophonic styles of music.

In positioning the l.h., muscular alignment is as useful and important as with the r.h. Another principle of muscular function which is critically important to l.h. technique, and which many ignore to their disadvantage, is midrange positioning of joints. This principle observes that muscles work most efficiently when the joints they control are positioned near the middle of their range of movement. It is not unusual to see players with their l.h. knuckle joints extended to the limit of their range of motion (often with the palm pressed against the side of the fingerboard), so that their fingers can barely move with the amount of tension required to maintain that overextension.

as in r.h. positioning, the following terms apply:

tilt: rotation of the forearm deviation: right/left curvature of the wrist arch: flexion/extension of the wrist

Begin with your forearm in front of the neck positioned nearly perpendicular to the floor, and with the knuckle and middle joints of your fingers in midrange position. Make sure your shoulder is not hunching up, twisting or otherwise tense. Without yet placing anything on the neck or strings, make the following adjustments:

o tilt: adjust tilt so that the palm of your hand is facing directly backwards. As in r.h. positioning, proper adjustment of tilt results in equal access of all fingers to the strings (including the often ignored fourth finger).

o deviation: there should be no deviation. Again, this results in effective muscular alignment as in r.h. positioning.

o arch: there should be no arch. A common problem seen in basic l.h. positioning is an excess of arch in conjunction with the overextension of the knuckle joints described above, usually found when zealous students attempt to always press with the tips of the fingers.

At this point, the fingertips should form a line parallel to the strings, with the 1st finger somewhat less curled and the 2nd 3rd and 4th fingers somewhat more curled. There should be no exaggerated effort to keep the fingers widely separated as in the "four-fret position" of prior teaching methods. Position the thumb opposite the 2nd or 3rd finger tip. Before moving the hand to the neck, try holding a pencil lightly between the thumb and fingers. If your wrist is very straight, your fingertips are all resting on the pencil, the pencil is parallel to the strings, and your fingers are in midrange position (holding the pencil well away from your palm), then you are ready to open your thumb up enough to place the fingers on the strings, with the thumb still opposite the fingertips. Try placing all four on the D string; the 2nd 3rd and 4th fingers should remain curled and naturally placed on their tips, with the 1st finger slightly straighter and placing slightly more on the pad. Then smoothly lift the fingers and place them on the G string, proceeding until the high E string is reached. With each movement to a new string, the thumb should move accordingly, and the distance between the palm and the side of the neck should change accordingly.

When this position is successfully achieved, try some slow scale practice, making sure the fingers are relaxed and controlled, and that hand (wrist) movement is minimized. If you start pressing with the pads of the 3rd or 4th fingers, or if your thumb is sticking out the top of the neck, or if the palm of your hand is generally resting against the side of the neck, you've probably lost the position and need to recheck. Always be watching for overextension of the knuckle joints as well.

As with all other aspects of technique, the benefits of this l.h. position are greatest when it becomes habitual; however, almost all music requires some departure from this position. It is therefore advisable to dedicate some time specifically toward developing this position, initially through simple finger movement exercises and then with position scales. With time and patience, the result will be a much liberated left hand technique. -- Stuart LeBlanc [email protected]

1.4 I want to play faster. How?

Invest in a metronome. Also used for tremolo (Q3.3), a metronome offers a regular tock-tock-tock... at a rate easily dictated by the user. Here is how to use it.

Say you wish to play a scale faster. Set the metronome going at a speed you can easily play along to. It is often better to play two, three or four notes to each tock of the metronome. Ensure you can play the scale at this speed exactly right before proceeding.

Push the weight on the metronome down by two notches. Play along at this faster speed, maintaining correct fingering, alternation, even volume etc. When the scale is mastered at this speed, increase the metronome speed by another two notches and play again.

If at any time you feel the metronome is going too fast, put it back by ONE notch. Hopefully, you should be able to manage at this speed.

Another aid to increasing speed is play notes in pairs, one as a dotted quaver, the other as a semiquaver. So, if you are playing a scale of C, play the C as a dotted quaver (count 1 e-and-) and then the D as a semiquaver (count (-a-), then the E on the next beat (count -2-...). You can also of course play the semiquaver first, and then the dotted note. So you'll get a dump-e-dump-e-dump-e-dump-e rhythm. Again, use the metronome.

When increasing speed it is important not to forget your technique. Its not too hard to play fast, but to play fast well, accurately and with tone control is another thing that takes patience and practise to perfect.

1.5 I want to do tremolo - how?

Tremolo is hard and to attempt to master the technique requires a significant commitment. It is also not a common technique, although one of the greatest pieces for the classical guitar, 'Recuerdoes de la Alhambra' by Tarregga, is a study of it and the desire to learn tremolo probably has its roots in this tune for most players. Other pieces which use tremolo are "Campanas del Alba" by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza, (check it out, it's worth it) and of course, flamenco in general.

Tremolo is performed as follows:

1. Pluck a bass note with p. 2. Perform a free stroke with a on a treble string. 3. Perform a free stroke with m on the same treble string. 4. Perform a free stroke with i on the same treble string. 5. Go back and do 1.

Simple! The difficulty comes in playing it at MM (crotchet)>=134. ie. In 4/4 time, there are sixteen notes to the bar, and with 134 beats a minute, this is 536 individual string plucks a minute. Further, they must *all* be played with even timing, otherwise an uneven, galloping sound is produced.

To learn how to do this not-mean-task well requires a metronome. I haven't heard of anyone learning tremolo without using some sort of metronome, although going with your tongue has been used! Set the metronome to a slow speed - you can't really make it go too slow, say 30 bpm (beats per minute), although you may find it easier to set it to an equivalent of 60 and count this as two clicks of the metronome to every beat. Then play along!

Start by making a simple chord with the left hand, say an E major, and plucking the bass strings with the thumb and the first string with the other fingers. Once this is familiar change the treble string on which you pluck with your fingers. A necessary skill of the tremolo player is to be able to switch strings smoothly. Also, you must be able to play the 2nd and 3rd strings without colliding with the next highest treble string. When this is becoming familiar, try changing the chord on the left hand.

From the beginning, accuracy is important. Each pluck of the string must be made with the same part of the nail. Failure to do this will result in 'halting' and an irregular rhythm. A further point is the idea of sympathetic motion of the thumb and fingers. At the start of a sequence, the thumb plucks a bass note and the other fingers are extended ready to perform free strokes. After the a finger has plucked, do not re-extend it, but wait for both the m and the i fingers. When all three are ready, extend them to their starting position at the same time as the thumb is moving in to perform its pluck. This is hard to do as speed increases - but I warned you.

Patience is the name of the game. And so is practice.

Practice a minimum of 5 minutes a day, anything up to 30 minutes a day. Increase the metronome setting by two notches when you feel confident at the current speed. If you then begin to have trouble, go back one notch. Using this idea, you can progressively increase the speed at which you can play the tremolo.

When the metronome is at roughly 90-100 bpm you will find your fingers getting mixed up, and this is where practice is more essential than ever. Hopefully at sub 90 bpm you can play a smooth tremolo and can play the thumb on any bass string and the i-m-a fingers on any treble string. To increase speed further the following tip can be used:

Simply play at a slightly slower speed than normal and then instead of playing pami, try other sequences, such as pima, pmia etc. Additionally, some have found that playing very slowly and emphasizing different beats of the pami sequence (or whatever sequence you are on at the time) can lead to improved smoothness. So, an aim is to be able to play tremolo near 90bpm with any sequence of treble fingers and emphasising any of the notes in that sequence.

Above all, patience and practice is needed. Without patience you will become tense, and your right hand will tighten up, reducing your ability to play the tremolo well, as well as decreasing the pleasure of playing. As always in guitar playing, but especially on tremolo when tension can easily build, you must be relaxed when playing.


1.6 Should I practice scales?

I believe scales are important for the following reasons:

- as a tool to improving physical dexterity and responsiveness. In practicing scales you must execute many of the physical movements required in playing music. Playing scales allows you to focus on this aspect, independent of a single piece of music. The benefits gained can then be applied to all the music you play.

- as a tool to improving sight reading ability. Melodies move stepwise, skipwise, or both. When you know the key and the associated scales you are able to recognize larger chunks of music. The ability to recognize and execute pieces of the music larger than the individual notes is an important sight reading skill.

- as a tool to improved understanding of music. Scales play a very important role in music. Understanding scales  and how they relate to music is important learning to make music. A thorough understanding of scales is fundamental to improving improvisational skills. You know, we've gotten kinda stodgy with classical music during these modern times. Improvisation played an important role in much of the music we strive to play note per note.

- TC Staff

Contributor: TC Staff    Rating: 4/5    Views: 8121773

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