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Classical Guitar Playing Guide

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Archive-Name: music/classical/guitar/playing_guide
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See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge  Classical Guitar Playing Guide

RMCG-CGPG Edition 1     7th November 1994

Edited by Joshua Weage (
Thanks go to Chris Goodwin who suggested this format,
and everyone else who may have contributed to this
section.  (Send me your name if you contributed and I'll
put it here).

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.  If anyone
has ideas on how to change the format from questions
to a document, let me know.

Classical Guitar Playing Guide

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

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
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 any finer adjustments are necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 <click> 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.

        GOOD LUCK!

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.

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