As a teacher of classical guitar I have been fortunate to teach dozens of students one to one, hundreds of students in workshops and seminars and several thousand students online. Through this experience I observe repeating trends, and common mistakes made by classical guitar students. Here are the top five, along with some solutions.
#1 Not Alternating Fingers
This is a confusing topic for many. In short, we try to alternate our fingers in the right hand so as to facilitate speed, accuracy, and avoid building up tension.
Please know, however, that there are many instances where repeating a finger is completely fine. These instances would include:
- slow passages where the movements are slow enough that the hand can repeat a finger with accuracy and ease
- passages where you have specifically decided to repeat a finger for musical or technical reasons
- while using the thumb
- for special effects
Repeating fingers becomes a problem when you are unaware that you are doing it.
How can you know if you are repeating fingers? Easy, record your right hand (perhaps even in slow motion on an iPhone) while playing repertoire and take a close look at your alternation on the replays.
If you are new to this idea you can read more about string crossing and alternation here.
Establishing good alternation habits can take a while, especially if you have been playing with this mistake but unaware of it for some time. Repeated fingers usually happen when you have an “awkward” string crossing, for this reason I would first suggest practicing transitions on open strings with a focus on making yourself do those awkward crosses with consistent alternation.
A good place to start is by playing three notes per string then moving to the adjacent string using two alternating fingers. Three notes with two fingers means that you are forced to alternate the finger that does the string cross every time you change strings.
Following on from this you can practice scales. Scales add the extra challenge of different amounts of notes on each string. So, your string crossing will be a bit more random, keeping you on your toes.
Finally, take a small passage of your repertoire and take a deep dive into writing out the right hand fingering for that passage. This means putting a little “m” or “i” or “p” etc. over every single note so that you know exactly what right hand finger you are using. We often go to great extremes to notate the left hand fingering but neglect the right hand.
As it is hard to change your technique while playing old repertoire, I invite you to tackle a new piece, of easy difficulty so that you can focus on the issue, and learn it from the outset paying close attention to your right hand finger choreography.
Read more about String Crossing and Alternation
#2 Playing Position
I am really covering three aspects here:
- Right Hand Position
- Left Hand Position
- Sitting Position
These playing position are important to set up properly from the get go because they will impact everything you do. Also, there are as many permutations of these positions as there are guitarists! Here are the most common issues that I come across:
2.1 Right Hand Position – Collapsed Wrist
Sometimes because a player will default to rest stroke in their early guitar days, sometimes because they come from another genre of guitar playing, whatever the case, it seems that many classical guitarists have a wrist position that is too flat.
When your wrist is flat it changes the movement of the fingers, a movement that pulls the strings up and produces a “twangy” sound. This thinner sound is most pronounced on the first string because the fingers have to reach out for it.
By raising the wrist to about 3 or 4 finger widths from the soundboard, you bring your large knuckles up and over the point of contact with the string. This gives your fingers room to move for a full sounding free stroke. It also provides a better angle for your fingers to produce a full sound.
2.2 Left Hand Position – Violin Position (too far to the left)
This issue is particularly pronounced in classical guitarists who have previously played electric guitar but it seems to crop up a lot regardless of prior experience.
The left hand moves around in its position, and it is not static, however, in general we work with what is called the “horizontal presentation” others call it “square” to the fingerboard. Essentially your fingers are lined up in parallel to the fingerboard so that all fingers have easy access.
The reason that many electric guitarists might lean left (wrist towards the headstock) is because the fourth finger (pinky) in the left hand in not utilized all that much in beginner electric guitar.
In classical, however, the fourth finger plays an important role and all four fingers take on an equal load of notes as repertoire advances.
If your hand position is in the “violin position” and leaning too far left then in order to use your fourth finger you will have to stretch it out flat to reach a note. When you stretch out a finger like this, it has little strength and is slow to stretch and retract.
A quick way to understand what a “horizontal presentation” feels like is this:
Put down all four fingers in the fifth position, on the third string. That means 1st finger on the fifth fret, 2nd finger on the sixth and so on. Simply placing them all down at the same time will force your hand not to be too extreme because you need to get your fourth finger down.
Once they are down check that they are evenly balanced (fingers 2 and 3 should be perpendicular to the fingerboard, finger 1 should be pointing towards the headstock and finger 4 should be pointing towards the bridge.
Finally, curl your left hand fingers so that your hand is touching the side of the neck while still keeping your four finger tips down on the third string.
As a final note, I often recommend to beginners that they play their D and G (D on the third fret second string and G on the third fret first string) with their 4th finger when playing scales and simple melodies. This forces the hand into a better position and establishes good habits.
2.3. Sitting Position – Head Down and the the Left
The sitting position is not difficult to achieve, but it can be difficult to maintain.
We are so focused on our left hand in the early stages of development that we start to bring our head down and to the left. It is like there is a magnetic pull between our left hand and our forehead!
This position becomes very stressful on the neck and back over time and it is important to get out of this habit quickly if you recognize it in your playing.
You can use a mirror, a video camera, your iPhone, whatever you like, but find a way to check in on your posture while you are playing. I would say that a video camera would be the best bet for observing it initially because after a while you will forget it is on and revert to your hunchy habits. After that, a mirror will be a good way to keep yourself in check, as long as you remember to glance at it every now and then.
If you find that you are not able to check in, perhaps set your phone alarm to five minute intervals so that you can periodically check in and re-adjust your position.
Another activity, which sounds a little simple but can be a good reminder, is to sit on a chair without your guitar and find a comfortable position. From there have someone hand you your guitar (if possible) or carefully get it yourself and make the guitar fit you as opposed to the other way around. All too often we forget that the guitar should conform to our position, we don’t need to conform to the guitar.
#3 Repertoire that is Too Difficult
My students at Classical Guitar Corner Academy will be shaking their heads by now, as I have definitely said this before. I say it so much, though, because it is so important!
One of the real secrets to making progress as an adult guitar student is to learn how to enjoy the simple pieces. After all, classical guitar is about a nuanced sound world more so than blazing scales.
Time and time again I come across students who want to play pieces they heard in concert, or on a youtube video. It is great that you connected with the piece but here is what will happen if I were to encourage you to take on a concert level piece while you are still studying beginner and intermediate pieces:
- A quick shot of elation as a few notes come together and it starts sounding like the piece “this piece isn’t that hard after all!”, you say to yourself.
- A couple of tricky passages start to appear later in the piece, but that’s ok I’ll stick with the opening for a while longer.
- Oh, dear, this is much harder than I thought.
- At this point you can either (A) realize the mistake and move on (recommended) or (B) keep practicing the piece so that it will forever be mired with bad rhythms, wrong notes, and played with a whiff of stubborn frustration!
I have been in this very position, so I know how it feels. I will always be grateful for my teacher at age 20 (Raffaele Agostino) for forcing me off of the hard stuff and getting me back to making actual music with pieces I could handle.
Try an experiment. Take a piece of music that is so manageable for you that you could almost sight read it. Study it for a full week, maybe two, and you will start to discover a few things.
First of all (just as with the harder pieces) it probably isn’t as simple as you first thought. Secondly, with the extra brainpower freed up (because you are grappling with simply playing the notes) focus on what musical aspects you can bring to it. Articulations, dynamics, and phrasing not only bring musicality to a piece but they also make it more difficult! In the end, you might find yourself thoroughly enjoying a piece that you previously though beneath you.
In a broader approach, take a good look at your repertoire and do some goal setting. At any given point of time it can be nice to have a piece that is very manageable for you, a piece that is at your level and a piece that is a bit of a stretch. All three will pose different challenges and rewards. If you put some thought into choosing your repertoire you are already ahead of the game,
Finally, just be honest with yourself. We usually know when a piece is too difficult. So have a think and choose, because no one is going to make you. Do you want to have fun struggling up hill at your favorites or do you want to build up your skills over time until you can manage your goal repertoire with more ease?
#4 Playing not practicing
I too have been guilty of this one. I mean, the reason chose guitar is because we love it! So, it makes complete sense that we would often rather just play the instrument and enjoy the experience.
Every now and then, though, it is good to remind yourself that there is a big distinction between playing and practicing.
Playing is simply going through what you know and noodling around. It is an important part of what we do but it rarely advances our abilities.
Practice is work. It feels like work, and it can be tiring too. Practice has specific goals to achieve and a mindful approach to achieving them. Practice is structured and thoughtful, and also works on aspects that might not come easily to you as a musician.
I have provided you with several resources on practice here at Classical Guitar Corner, if you would like to read more on the topic.
The first 60 seconds of your session will likely determine whether you are going to practice or play. If you want to practice then set a time limit and some achievable goals for that practice session. You can simply jot them down on paper, or even mentally note what you are going to do with your time.
Without this kind of planning it is far too easy to wander, noodle, and play around without any purpose. This can leave you wondering what you actually did for the past 45 minutes.
In addition to the practice, I think it can be a good habit to allow yourself some playing time at the end of your practice. It is a nice reward to look forward to, and it provides the best of both worlds in one session!
#5 Finger placement and lifting
5.1.Too far back in the fret
Compared to the other topics this is a little less important, but just as prevalent!
It can take some time an perseverance to get a good finger stretch in your left hand. The first position, which funnily enough is where we all start playing, has the biggest stretches on the fingerboard. This means that our fingers will often fall in the middle of the frets rather than snug up against the fret wire.
With poor finger placement comes buzzing and unnecessary pressure used in the left hand.
There are two side to this. The first is that you might have just picked up a bad habit in which you have sloppy finger placement. To remedy this I would suggest using scale practice to focus on very precise placements. You can also make this your focus in other types of exercises too, like slurs, arpeggios, fixed fingers etc.
If you believe the issue is related to your left hand flexibility then I would recommend playing your exercises up in the 5th or 7th position which will allow for an easier left hand stretch. Still focus on the accuracy, and once you feel comfortable you can move everything down a fret to work on the stretch.
Over time you can get your hand working accurately in first position.
And to answer some of the people who think your hand is too small, no, it isn’t. I have come across many wonderful examples of men, women, and young children who have small hands and manage large stretches with aplomb. It has more to do with your flexibility and finger independence than the size of your hand.
Read more about Left Hand Accuracy on the Classical Guitar
5.2. Finger Lifting
One change to your technique that will have an immediate impact on your synchronization (and therefore your legato technique) is how you lift your left hand fingers.
Let’s take a simple scenario. You are going to play (on the first string) F# then G then F# again. In this example you would be using the second and third frets on the first string.
What I see many guitarists doing is playing the F# with their second finger, then lifting that finger up while they play the G on the third fret. This creates some unnecessary movement that actually makes your job a lot harder!
By simply keeping your finger down on that first note, you will:
- Make it a more concise movement to put down the next finger
- Have the finger ready for when the F#is played again after the G
Beginner guitarists don’t do this naturally because it requires a certain amount of independence and dexterity in the left hand fingers that can take some time to develop. Additionally, this may not always be appropriate if you are not returning to the same note as before or if you need to lift the finger for some reason.
Keeping the finger down provides stability, a smoother legato connection, and makes your overall hand movements more concise.