Things are going to get a whole lot clearer after reading this list…
In all arenas, it pays to know the lingo. Even if you know a few of these already, read this list from beginning to end because the ideas connect as we go along.
#1 The left hand
We have four fingers on each hand and one thumb. The thumb is not actually a finger but we can refer to them all as digits. On the left hand, each finger is given a number: the index finger is 1, the middle finger is 2, the ring finger is 3, and the little finger is 4. The thumb doesn’t get a number. Poor little guy.
#2 The right hand
Where the left hand gets numbers, the right hand gets letters. The letters are derived from the Spanish words for the digits, and this time the thumb gets a very important role indeed. The thumb is p (pulgar), the index is i (indice), the middle is m (medio), and the ring finger is a (anular).
So, when you hear a guitarist start saying use your “P” there and your “i” on the first string.. you now know what is going on!
When strung together it makes PIMA
3. The little finger
The little finger is used in classical guitar music, but very rarely. The letter for the little finger is c. chicito – meaning little. You will find this frequently in Flamenco music, because of the rasgueado technique.
4. Free stroke/Tirando
The free stroke is by far the most common type of finger movement made by the right hand. It involves the finger moving through the string, clearing the adjacent string and back towards the palm.
Because it is such an integral part of classical technique, it will require some dedicated work to master. Even more important is to start out with the correct movement so as not to develop bad habits.
The free stroke is covered extensively in the Level 1 Technique Course
5. The rest stroke/apoyando
The rest stroke is the counterpart to the free stroke, although it is used far less. The rest stroke literally has the finger move through the string and rest on the adjacent string. This movement is strong and will create a powerful sound on the guitar.
Players often take advantage of the rest stroke’s strong quality by using it to bring out melodies or important musical lines.
6. Right hand alternation
When we play with our right hand we will either play the string with one digit, with multiple digits together (to play a chord), or play multiple strings by strumming across the strings. If we were to use only one finger all the time to play single notes, our hand would get tired and we couldn’t play the notes very fast at all. Because of this, classical guitar technique uses alternation in the right hand. The most common alternation is between i and m, but you can have all sorts of alternations: im mi ia ai ma am pi pm ami pima etc…
One very important aspect of alternation to focus on in the beginning is to keep it consistent. It is very easy to start repeating fingers, so record your self or get your teacher to check that you are alternating every single note.
Read the lesson on alternation here.
7. Which way?
Sometimes I find that a lessons can start sounding like a physics equation!
“1st finger, 2nd fret, 3rd string, played with the i finger…”
For the beginner this can be a bit overwhelming, so here is an explanation to clear things up.
The standard guitar has six strings and they each are assigned a number. When you hold the guitar, the string that is closest to your nose is the 6th string. It is the thickest string and has the lowest pitch. This string can also be referred to as the bottom string.
The thinnest string, the one that is closest to the floor when holding the guitar, is the 1st string and is also referred to as the top string.
It can often be a source of confusion when referring to the top and bottom strings because the top string is closest to the floor and can understandably be thought of as the bottom sting because it is furthest away from us.
Here is the key thing to remember:
We will always be referring to pitch when it comes to the terms up, down, top and bottom.
For instance the ‘higher note’ has a higher pitch, the ‘top’ note of a chord has the highest pitch of that chord.
Going up or down the fingerboard is referring to going towards the bridge of the guitar (up the fingerboard) and going towards the nut (down the fingerboard). If you stay on one string and go towards the bridge then the pitch will get higher, hence going ‘up’.
Going across the strings or across the fingerboard refers to the fingers moving from strings 6 to1 or 1 to 6. If the term up or down is used in this setting it is once again referring to pitch.
Phew! Clear as mud?
8. Playing in position
With the four fingers of the left hand placed down on the same string in a line, they can occupy four consecutive frets. By using those four frets and going across the strings, we can usually get all the notes we need to play a melody. By keeping one finger assigned to one fret, we are playing in position and the position name is taken from where the 1st finger lies. For instance if your first finger is on the fifth fret, your second finger on the sixth fret, your third finger on the seventh fret, and your fourth finger on the eight fret – then you are in the fifth position.
Using positions is a good way to communicate left hand movement around the fingerboard but by the nature of the instrument and its repertoire we go out of position all the time, so it is not too practical to try and play an entire phrase , let a lone piece in a singe position.
When we can’t find the notes we need in our current position we will most likely need to move the left hand up or down the fretboard to get access to more notes. This movement is called shifting.
10. String squeak
One of the side effects of shifting is string squeak. When the left hand finger moves, it will drag ever so slightly on the string as it takes off.
The treble strings (strings 1, 2, and 3) pose little problems in this process because they are made of smooth nylon. The bass strings, however, are not so forgiving. These strings, (4,5, and 6) are made of silk wrapped with steel. The wrapped steel has grooves and when the finger drags on them it will make a sound that doesn’t belong in any piece I can think of. This kind of sound can be found pretty regularly in other guitar genres and it can really add to the music, giving it a gritty feel.
In general, I would say we should try to avoid it in classical guitar technique.
There are a few ways to combat the squeakage, but honestly, I think the best way is just to be aware of it and stop dragging the finger across the bass string. It isn’t rocket science really.
One way is to develop a habit of lifting vertically off the string before you shift, by doing this you should get hardly any sound at all. Another, is to turn your finger on an angle so it drags on the more fleshy part of the finger. The harder callous of the tip will make a louder sound whereas the fleshy pad will be softer.
Sometimes you need a note out of position, but it is just one or two frets out of position so you don’t necessarily need a shift to get there. In this case you can extend one of your fingers to reach the fret without shifting your position. This is called and extension.
A right hand finger (usually the thumb) that moves quickly across the strings. A strum can be upwards, or downwards. This is the one exception when it comes to directions, a downward strum it where you move your hand/digit towards the floor and an upward strum requires you to move towards your face (I was going to say towards the sky, but it seemed a bit dramatic).
13. Arpeggiate/Brocken Chord
To Arpeggiate a chord is different than an arpeggio. This is marked by a squiggly line next to a chord and signifies that instead of playing all of the notes together, or strumming very quickly so they seem together, you break the chord up into a quick succession of notes. This is why it can also be called a broken chord.
Preparation can happen in the left and right hand but it is a term most commonly associated with the right hand. Let’s say you just played a note with your right hand thumb and the next note you need is to be played by the m finger.
To give your hand balance and accuracy, you might want to place your m finger down before it is needed to play. It can be quite early, while you are playing the thumb perhaps, or it can be just a millisecond before the note is needed.
Whatever the timing, you are preparing the finger in readiness on the string before it is needed. This is called preparation and can be a very powerful technique when used effectively.
A nice example of preparation is when you arpeggiate a chord upwards. Lets say you play pima in this arpeggiation, you can put down all four digits of the right hand in readiness on their respective strings and release the fingers one at a time to arpeggiate the chord.
Congratulations! You have learned some of the most important (and common) terminology for studying classical guitar.
Don’t stop now…
All of these concepts are covered from the very beginning (and I mean absolute square one) in the CGC curriculum which is available when you become a member.
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