The Total Classical Guitar Method (tm)
The guitar is a deceptively simple instrument. Andres Segovia, the great Spanish
classical guitarist, once described it as the easiest instrument in the world to play badly.
For many people, learning to play classical guitar is a frustrating and difficult
experience. Why is it that so many people never progress beyond those first simple
chords? After 30+ years of performing and teaching the guitar, I've concluded that too
often the building is built before the foundation is laid. The purpose of this Total
Classical Guitar Method is to offer an accurate, detailed, and complete course of study
that will lay the proper foundation for a lifelong study of this incredible instrument.
Although this method can be successfully learned without the assistance of a teacher, I
recommend strongly that you find a qualified teacher once you understand the basics of
the guitar. You would be appalled at how many self-proclaimed guitar teachers don't
have a clue about what it takes to really play the guitar. By the end of the first few
lessons in this method you'll be able to recognize when you've found a qualified
This method is called the Total Classical Guitar Method because it teaches each of the
fundamentals of playing the classical guitar sequentially, before allowing the student to
encounter the need to use any previously unlearned fundamental skill. Each new skill
builds only on previously learned skills. Because the foundation is built one step at a
time, the student is "totally" prepared for the next lesson before it is introduced.
I have designed this method to prevent bad habits from forming, therefore progress is
always forward. To some people this may be initially frustrating. Some people will
expect to be able to play the guitar after only a few lessons. I could teach you to strum a
few chords and pick a simple but intricate sounding "picking pattern" in a single lesson.
You'd come back and want to learn a few more chords and a few more picking patterns,
then a few more, and on and on, until one day you'd came back and tell me you wanted
to play music. At that point I'd have to undo everything you had already learned and
then, after ten times the effort you put into learning how to play badly, you would be
back at the starting point ready to begin again. What a waste of both of our time!
Chances are good that you would put the guitar away and never try playing it again.
Another big waste of talent and a loss of all the years of pleasure the guitar could have
brought you and others who could have enjoyed listening to you play. Please be patient.
You will learn a skill that will last a lifetime and it deserves a solid foundation.
The focus of this method will always be the art of making music. Although the details
are grounded in the physical interaction between you and your instrument, I will
continually stress the absolute necessity of mental focus on the music itself. Playing
classical guitar is not an athletic event. I've "been there and done that". Practicing
scales while watching Monday night football is not what this method is about. Fifteen
minutes a day of truly focused practice is infinitely better than two hours of mindless
finger exercises. If I can help you understand only one fact, that making music is the art
of communicating, my efforts in writing this method will have been generously rewarded.
Think of the times in your life when you have looked someone in the eye and focused
your whole being on that other person. Music has the power to hold entire groups of
listeners in that same intimate embrace. You can make that happen if you focus on
communication as your personal musical goal. I hope that this Classical Guitar method
will help you achieve that result in your own musical odyssey.
Book 1 -- Lesson 1 -- Basics
The goal of lesson 1 is to identify and explain general areas that need to be addressed
if you are to be successful at learning to play classical guitar. These areas include
mental attitude and physical control. The necessary mental attitude requires you to
open yourself to new ideas, let go of old habits, and free yourself to expand musically.
Proper physical control requires removing all tension from your body while playing,
learning to use only the motion of your body absolutely required to make music, and
making the instrument an extension of yourself.
Playing Classical Guitar is as much a mental effort as it is a physical effort, perhaps
even more so. Let's take a couple of steps to prepare our minds for this challenge.
Making room for new ideas
An old story relates an incident where a young man claiming to want to learn something
new about the art of Zen visited a famous Zen master. It was obvious to the master at
the outset that this young man had already thought he had reached an understanding
well beyond his years, but that he was coming to the master simply to be able to say to
others that he had indeed studied with the great teacher. The master invited the young
man to share a cup of tea with him and he proceeded to fill the young man's cup. When
the tea reached the top of the cup, the master continued to pour more tea from the pot.
After a short while, the tea began to run over the cup and onto the floor, and, finally, the
young man could not contain his anxiety and shouted "stop, the cup will hold no more."
"So it is with any idea," said the master, "you must first empty your cup before it can
again be filled."
This same concept is very true for the classical guitar. If you insist on holding on to your
old ideas about playing the guitar, save yourself some time and trouble and stop here.
You won't be able to learn classical guitar until you are willing to let go of what you think
you already know.
Forgetting old habits and pre-conceptions
The degree of success you will have in playing classical guitar is directly proportional to
your ability to do what is required, but ONLY what is required in order to accomplish
your musical goal. My experience has shown that the most difficult students of classical
guitar are those who have already reached a significant level of competence in some
other musical style on the guitar. I played the electric guitar for ten years before I started
studying classical guitar. I had developed such bad habits that it took two years just to
undo past mistakes. You will learn not only how to play properly, but you'll learn why this
way is the proper way. The fundamental approaches and methods in these lessons
have been proven by all of the most successful classical guitarists of our time. They
were taught to me by teachers from some of the world's most respected institutions,
including the Andres Segovia school of music in Spain, the University of Southern
California, the University of Texas in Austin, SMU in Dallas, and the University of North
Carolina. When you learn to play classical guitar using this method, you'll have the best
information available anywhere. What you do with that knowledge will then be up to you.
Opening the door to any possibilities
Classical music places a huge demand on a performer's ability to focus her mind on the
task at hand. Solo classical music challenges our ability to maintain conscious control
over several simultaneous musical events. You can get some sense of the magnitude of
the task by trying to simply listen and to understand two separate conversations at the
same time. The key word in the last sentence is "understand." Many people learn to
play very difficult pieces, but they accomplish that feat by simply learning to move their
fingers with great agility in complex patterns. These players are not great musicians.
They may be great guitar players but it's not the purpose of these lessons to just create
great players. Truly great musicians have developed the ability to view an entire piece
of music as a whole, yet be able to focus clearly on the details of each musical line as it
contributes to the overall musical idea.
One of the goals of this approach to studying classical guitar is to allow the student to
experience the full musical impact of each piece of music studied. As you progress from
simple to more complex music, you'll find that your understanding and appreciation of
classical music also progresses. Pieces suitable for classical guitar students at each
increasingly demanding level are chosen to expand their mental as well as their
physical capacity. You'll find that your musical and emotional pallettes are inextricably
linked. The goal of these lessons is always to teach you to make music, and that goal
can be achieved at any level of ability. Some people call this concept "musical
sincerity." If the mind's not there, the message will also be missing.
One of the most important abilities we need to master in order to play the classic guitar
is the ability to keep our entire bodies relaxed while playing. A student at a master class
at SMU in Dallas once asked the instructor "How do you know if you're relaxed
enough?" the instructor responded "If you fall off the chair you know you were too
relaxed". That got the appropriate chuckle from the audience, but the response was
dead on. Playing the classical guitar is not "hard." As a matter of fact, the easier YOU
MAKE IT, the quicker you will progress. It is all too often the case that most of the time
spent in beginning lessons is just having the student get rid of tension. Tension is the
enemy! Not only will it keep you from progressing, but its presence is brutal to any
audience. If you listen to a classical guitarist and you find yourself squirming in your
chair, you can bet you're feeling the tension he's creating. We'll talk later about how to
recognize tension and how to control it with relaxation - suffice to say that you'd be
really surprised at how this ugly demon finds it's way into our playing. Once you've
learned to identify tension, you will also be surprised at how easy it is to eliminate.
Minimum effort, minimum motion
We've all been raised in an era of electronic music where the electric guitar is king and
body contortions, twisted facial expressions, and all sorts of extraneous physical
motions are almost required if one is to be considered a great player. Forget it! Classical
guitar is a aural art form. There is no motion of any part of the body except those parts
which are directly involved in creating the music. There will be many references to this
important principal in future lessons, but, for the time being think about your own
personal experiences with this concept. The physical effort applied to anything should
always be consistant with the task at hand.
You are the extension of your instrument
What does it mean to "make the instrument an extension of your body?" The answer to
this question involves understanding 1) the motion of your body, 2) the response of your
instrument to that motion, and 3) the timing required to synchronize your motions and
the instrument's response. The required choreography of the fingers and hands rivals
the most intricate ballet production. These three elements will become an important part
of your "technique". Don't underestimate the importance of these concepts - they are
the essence of the physical requirements of playing classical guitar.
Review of Lesson 1
You should now understand the importance of mastering both the mental and physical
aspects of playing Classical guitar. These basic ideas will apply to every lesson that
follows and they will be expanded upon and brought up many times as you progress in
your efforts to learn to make music. Don't expect that you fully understand or appreciate
the importance of these concepts. They are ideas and revelations that take on more and
more meaning as your own personal experience grows on the instrument. Lesson 2
breaks from the theoretical to the practical and talks about the instrument and the other
items you will need before we actually get into playing. Good luck, I hope we can
continue to work together until you reach your musical goals!
Book 1 -- Lesson 2 -- Tools of the Trade
Classical Guitar Definition
Classical Guitar is a combination of three elements: the instrument, the music, and the
style of playing. Each element is described below.
The Classic Guitar is a hollow bodied wooden instrument with six strings; the higher
sounding 3 strings are nylon, the lower sounding strings have a nylon center with some
type of metal winding. Do not try to play Classical Guitar on a steel string guitar or on
any other type of guitar besides a true Classic Guitar. This is not just my opinion, it is
because the entire technique of playing Classical Guitar depends on using a Classic
Guitar. In the previous lesson I talked about the instrument being an extension of you
and how the coordination between your motions and the response of the instrument
were key factors in playing Classical Guitar. The wrong type of instrument will not
respond properly and this Total Classical Guitar Method will not work on anything but a
true Classic Guitar. Classic Guitars are available in 1/2, 3/4 and full size models.
Someone familiar with another type of guitar might find a Classic Guitar bulky or not as
sleek or easy to play. If you find that to be the case, please refer to the introduction of
these lessons and drop your pre-conceived ideas about Classical Guitar. I assure you
that once you learn to play Classical Guitar you will insist on having a Classic Guitar
whenever you play in that style. I'll point out some of the key features of the Classic
Guitar and how those features are important to Classical Guitar playing.
First of all, the neck of the Classic Guitar is wider than that of a steel string electric or
acoustic guitar so that the strings may be further separated on the instrument to allow
easier access to each string for "finger picking" as opposed to "strumming " or picking
with a "pick."
The Classic Guitar is constructed to allow the top of the instrument to vibrate but to
suppress vibration in the neck, back, or sides. This is similar to how an electric speaker
works, the center section moves to radiate the music, the casing must be rigid to
support smooth motion of the center. A solid body guitar does not resonate and will not
project any reasonable level of sound.
The type of string is critical to both the Classic Guitar itself, and to playing Classical
Guitar. Steel strings have a much higher tension than nylon strings when tuned to the
correct pitch. Properly made guitars of either type (steel string or nylon string) are
designed to resonate most effectively at the "operating tension" of the instrument. A
guitar designed for steel strings will not respond properly with nylon strings, and a guitar
designed for nylon strings will probably break in half if you try to string it to pitch with
steel strings. Playing Classical Guitar requires that you use a combination of contact
with your finger nails and with the fleshy part of your finger tips for picking. This requires
careful shaping and use of the finger nails of the picking hand; steel strings will rip off
your finger nails and make it impossible to control the sound.
The quality of the sound is also very dependent on the construction of the top of the
guitar. Famous Classic Guitar makers usually have carefully selected pieces of wood
which will eventually be made into the tops of Classic Guitars aging for years in their
workshops. Mass produced Classic Guitars often have plywood tops with a thin layer of
cedar or spruce wood laminated (glued on) to the plywood to give the appearance of a
quality top. Never accept a Classic Guitar with a laminated top, you will be very
disappointed with the sound.
Intonation and the ability of the instrument to be properly tuned and to stay in tune are
critical elements of a Classic Guitar. Fortunately, modern construction techniques have
eliminated those type of problems in all but the cheapest of instruments. The height of
the strings above the neck (Action) is also very important - the strings must not be too
high or too low. Once again, most guitars manufactured today are pre-setup at the
factory to have a usable Action and this is rarely a problem anymore. The one area
which remains a problem with the Classic Guitar today is in the strings themselves.
Nylon has a tendency to stretch unevenly along the length of the string. This uneven
stretching often causes the string to vibrate unevenly and to make the instrument
appear to have intonation problems. When I discuss tuning in the lesson 5 I will explain
how to check the strings to make sure they have not "gone bad."
Price is often a good metric for determining the quality of a Classic Guitar, however, be
warned that is not always the case. Unless you have a professional Classical Guitarist
available to help you select an instrument, it is wise to wait until you know how to select
an instrument before spending too much money. At the very least, you should get a
good quality beginner's Classic Guitar with carrying cases, a music stand, a
supplemental music book with some graded pieces, a foot stool, a tuning fork, a
metronome, and a tuning crank. You should also purchase a good quality nail care kit
which contains a coarse, medium, and fine emory board to be used to correctly shape
your fingernails. These items should be all you will need to progress to the intermediate
level, at which point you might want to consider purchasing a better quality instrument. If
you decide that you want a concert quality instrument, please send me email and I will
try to locate a reliable source for those type of Classic Guitars in your area.
Almost every type of music has been either transcribed or written for the Classical
Guitar. Classical music is difficult to define but quoting from one of the definitions in the
"Harvard Dictionary of Music": "...the word 'classic' denotes music of established value
and fame, as distinguished from ephemeral works that quickly disappear from the
programs..." I'm not even going to try to expand or comment on this definition; for our
purposes we will use "standard" Classical Guitar repertoire as the music we will study
together. You can apply the Classical Guitar style on a Classic Guitar to any music you
choose once you have developed your own ability to play the instrument.
The Style of Playing
The style of playing is much more objective than the definition of the music. My
definition of Classical Guitar style is: playing with simultaneous conscious and separate
control of each individual voice present in the music by using all four fingers of the
"fretting" hand and by using the thumb and the first three fingers of the "picking" hand.
Playing with a "pick" is not playing in the Classical Guitar style.
Other necessary equipment
Music stands come in many shapes and sizes. I recommend a foldable stand to begin
with so that it can be easily transported or stored.
I consider this a necessary piece of equipment because it is a totally objective constraint
which forces a player to understand the rhythm which the composer intended for a
piece of music. Some teachers feel that use of a metronome will create a "mechanical"
player. It's not a metronome that creates a mechanical player, it's mindless repetitive
practicing in a mechanical way that causes a person to learn to play like a machine.
You'll find a metronome to be a useful and welcome tool.
A tuning fork is necessary so that you can establish the correct reference pitch for
tuning the instrument. It is only used to tune one string, the other strings are always
tuned relative to that one string which was tuned to the tuning fork. The standard tuning
fork reference pitch for a guitar (and classical music in general) is "A-440." In the next
lesson we will talk about how to tune the guitar.
Footstool or Cradle
The Classic Guitar must be held in a very stable position while it is being
played(explained in the next lesson). A footstool or guitar cradle allows you to position
the guitar properly with respect to your body so that it will be easier to play and more
comfortable to hold. I do not recommend the use of a cradle because it attaches to the
instrument with rubber suction cups and it could damage the finish on some Classic
Guitar, however, some people find the cradle more comfortable for long periods of
playing. This is especially true if the player has a history of lower back pain. If the cradle
is more comfortable for you then you should use it, but be aware that the suction cups
can damage the finish of the guitar.
This item makes it easier to change your strings and you will appreciate its importance
once you change the strings on your guitar for the first time. Strings should be changed
at one to four month intervals, depending on how often you play and on the chemistry of
your own body. Strings go "dead" after a period of use or they develop cracks at the
point where the string makes contact with the frets. Body chemistry is important
because the oils from your skin cause the strings to lose their brilliance.
Full Length Mirror
It is often helpful to view yourself while playing so that you can see exactly how your
body is moving while you play. There are great players who move their bodies and
fidget so noticeably while performing, that it is sometimes almost impossible for an
audience to focus on listening to the music. In the case of one very famous (and here
un-named) guitarist, I could only listen to him if I kept my eyes closed during his
performance. Even if your extraneous motion is not that exaggerated, you might want to
watch your fingers to see that they are "behaving themselves" and not flying around the
air as you play.
The tape recorder has become my best friend when I practice. It never lies about my
playing and listens patiently no matter how long I demand its attention. Had I not
personally experienced the benefits of this tool I would never have acknowledged how
distorted my perception could have been of my own playing. Rhythmic changes and
expressive nuances that sounded so poetic while I heard myself playing them live, too
often devolved into acoustic nausea when I listened to the playback of the recording. I
highly recommend this tool and suggest that you use it faithfully, especially if you plan
on performing for an audience outside of your immediate loved ones.
This piece of equipment is convenient if you play frequently during the day and you
want the guitar accessable near your practice chair. It's also useful if you frequently
change music on your music stand and want to put the guitar down without having to
return the instrument to its case. The only drawback to using a guitar stand is that
Classic Guitars are affected by changes in temperature and humidity in the air. If you
keep the instrument in a room that is fairly stable with regard to temperature and
humidity, there should not be a problem. If there are frequent or rapid changes in
temperature or humidity, you should keep the instrument in a guitar case that shields it
from these rapid changes.
Book 1 -- Lesson 3-- You and your
This lesson describes exactly how you and your guitar work together to allow you to
make music. It covers the "what, how, and why" of the basic playing position and of the
use and movement of the two hands. Lesson 4 will talk about the care and shaping of
the fingernails and Lesson 5 will discuss the art of tuning the instrument so we can
actually begin playing.
The Basic Sitting Position
Before picking up the guitar, we need to discover how to relax in the proper sitting
position. To begin with, go into a quiet room and sit on a hard flat chair that is high
enough so that your legs will be bent at 90 degree angles at the knees with your feet flat
on the floor. Your legs should be kept at about the width of your shoulders. Your back
should be straight and your shoulders should be relaxed and level with each other. Your
arms should be resting comfortably at your sides. Close your eyes and breath deeply in
and out slowly two or three times. Concentrate on letting all the tension out of your body
and forgetting about all the activities of the day. This time is for you. Continue breathing
in and out slowly in this position until you can feel all the tension fade in your head,
neck, shoulders, arms, back, and legs. By beginning your practice sessions in this
manner you will learn to become immediately relaxed as soon as you assume this
position. That type of deep relaxation is absolutely necessary for performance and it's
best to begin now to learn how to reach that relaxed state quickly.
Holding the Classic Guitar
Many method books on Classical Guitar describe how to hold the instrument in almost
pedantic terms. "You must hold the instrument EXACTLY as shown or you will never
progress as a player." Fortunately, that is not true. When you have a few extra
moments, peruse your local music store and flip through as many books on Classical
Guitar as you can find. Pay attention to the pictures of famous players. You'll notice that
each player has a different playing position - a modification of the "nominal" position that
I will describe - which player has evolved in deference to his/her own body. Your body
will ultimately find its own best position; to force any other situation will most likely result
in discomfort while playing, or, even permanent damage to your tendons and ligaments.
I'll explain how to modify the nominal position and how to recognize when you're moving
toward your best playing position.
Ok, let's learn the basic playing position.
You should be in the basic relaxed position (see above). For simplicity, I'll assume
everyone in the world is right handed; if you're not, just flip to the other hand or leg and
you'll be fine. I'm going to describe how to hold the guitar in several steps. The first step
involves the position of your legs and the rotation of the instrument on your left leg. The
second step lifts your left leg by using a footstool, causing the top of the instrument to
move closer to your body and the height of the instrument to be more suitable to proper
motion of your arms. The final step is to correctly position the guitar so that it is
supported by your body at exactly four points: the upper left thigh, the inner right thigh,
the center of your chest, and the inner portion of your right arm. The left arm is not used
to support the instrument, the guitar is positioned to optimize the motion required by the
left arm while playing.
Pick up the instrument and place it on your left leg so that the bottom side of the guitar,
the indentation between the upper and lower bouts of the instrument, is resting flat on
your thigh, about midway between your knee and your hip. You'll notice that the bottom
of the guitar is also touching your right leg. You can adjust the angle in which the guitar
rests by executing two separate motions: 1) moving your right leg to the left or right
while keeping your right foot flat on the floor, changing only the angle your leg makes
with your hip joint, and 2) rotating the instrument on your left leg while still keeping it
resting flat on your thigh to raise or lower the neck of the guitar. Always keep the
instrument flat on your left thigh and touching your right inner thigh. As you move your
right leg to the right, you can raise the neck of the guitar - still making sure the guitar
keeps contact with your right inner thigh and stays flat on your left upper thigh. Do not
move your left leg! That leg should still be in the original relaxed position, left foot
pointing straight ahead, foot flat on the floor. You can find a good starting angle for the
guitar by adjusting the angle as described above until the center line of the instrument
(an imaginary line that bisects the guitar and extends from the head of the instrument to
the bottom of the instrument) is positioned at about the halfway point between the front
and back of your right thigh, touching your inner thigh. This will cause the neck of the
instrument to be at about the "10:00 O'clock" position (where the hour hand of a watch
would be at 10:00 O'clock.)
Adjust your footstool so that it is about 6 inches high and place it under your left foot.
Keep the bottom side of the guitar touching flat on the top of your left thigh. Do not let
the instrument rest only on an edge, it must remain flat on your left thigh. Lifting the left
leg will raise the guitar but it will also cause the angle of the top (face) of the instrument
to point slightly upward instead of straight ahead. You'll notice that as you lifted your left
leg, you had to move your right leg to the left in order to maintain the same contact with
your right inner thigh. That's fine - you're on the right track. That lifting motion, provided
that you have correctly kept the guitar resting flat on your left thigh, caused the back
edge of the upper side of the instrument to move closer to your chest. Adjust your
footstool to raise or lower your left leg so that the guitar moves toward, and gently
touches your chest. You should also lean forward SLIGHTLY toward the guitar. Do not
exaggerate the forward leaning motion, you don't want to lean over the guitar. Notice
that if you keep the angle of the neck the same as it was in Step 1., the center line of
the guitar is now touching your right inner thigh at a point almost at the top of the right
thigh, having moved upward from the point where it touched in Step 1. Once again, this
is good. The head of the guitar should now be approximately at eye level.
You are now supporting the instrument at three points: your two legs and your chest.
The final support point will be the inner surface of your right forearm. In order to
correctly position your right arm, first hold your right arm at about a 90 degree angle at
the elbow, with the palm of your hand facing your body. Your hand should be held so
that a flat object (a ruler) which is laid on the arm is touching at all points along your
upper forearm and your hand. To do this, your right wrist should not be bent. It should
also not be rotated left or right, there should be an imaginary straight line (I love
imaginary lines) extending from the large knuckle of your right index (pointer) finger
along the left inner edge of your right forearm. While maintaining this orientation of your
right arm and hand, rotate the entire right arm at the shoulder while NOT LIFITING THE
SHOULDER, until the inner portion of your right forearm contacts the outer edge of the
lower bout of the guitar. The contact point on your forearm should be about 1/3 of the
way between your elbow and your wrist, the contact point at the guitar should be almost
directly in line with the saddle (the place where the strings attach) of the guitar. A
natural downward and inward pressure by the right arm will hold the instrument firmly
against the other three contact points. Lower your right hand toward the strings and
suspend your relaxed right hand about an inch above the strings and close to the sound
hole of the guitar. You are now holding the guitar correctly in playing position.
Practice picking up the guitar and getting into playing position several times. It should
become a habit that feels natural and easy. Whenever you decide to practice the guitar,
start with the relaxation procedure, and then pick up and hold the guitar in the correct
playing position. Stay in that position without playing a note until you feel comfortable
and relaxed. Once again, you learn what you practice. If you allow tension to exist, you
will learn to play with tension and you will get very good at it over time. If you learn to
play relaxed, your music will expose that inner state to your audience and it will be
enjoyable to listen to you play.
Fundamentals of the Left hand
As usual, we'll begin to learn each new skill by isolating the activities associated with
that skill. Assume the basic sitting position without the guitar in your hand. Your left arm
and hand should be hanging at your side and totally relaxed. Lift your left forearm and
hand by bending the arm at the elbow while rotating your hand and forearm counter-
clockwise until you can look directly into the palm of your left hand, between your thumb
and the four fingers, and you can see the crease in the palm just opposite the large
knuckle of your left index finger. If your hand is correctly positioned, your four fingers
should be relaxed and curled in a slight arch, the outside edge of your thumb should
create a smooth arch from your wrist to the tip of the thumb. Your left hand is now in
proper left hand playing position. Practice the motion of bringing your hand from the
basic sitting position to left hand playing position several times, until you get the motion
to be smooth and natural.
Motion of the fingers of the left hand
With your hand in the correct left hand playing position, sequentially move each finger
by pivoting at the large knuckle. The motion is similar to that of a typewriter key as it is
depressed (for those of you who have ever even seen typewriters.) Each finger should
be able to move independently. You should not "stop" the other fingers from moving as
you move any one finger, you should simply only move the finger you choose to move.
Admittedly, this may take some practice. Be content with a small movement at first. The
idea is to gain control over your own finger muscles.
Most people are used to moving all of their fingers at once so fine motor control of each
finger muscle has never been developed. You will have to be very patient in order to
learn this skill. Some people get upset about their inability to control each finger
independently and end up losing the necessary state of relaxation required for playing.
Don't let that happen. You will be able to learn to move your fingers properly - it just
takes time, practice, and patience. Don't practice incorrectly! This isn't something you
can force. Remember, if you practice wrong you will learn very well how to play wrong.
This skill is essential to good playing so please don't gloss over this section. When I had
to "relearn" to play for the third time, I spent an entire week just sitting in this position
moving my fingers. Quite humiliating for someone who believed himself to be an
"advanced" player. Classical Guitar music very often has several voices sounding
simultaneously. Each voice must be controlled separately and consciously. Controlled,
independent motion of each finger must be achieved if you are going to play classical
music on the guitar.
Let's try it with the guitar.
Assume the proper playing position with the guitar in your lap, supported at the four
support points. Now execute the motion from the previous paragraph but this time
continue as the neck of the guitar slides between your four fingers and your thumb.
Your left hand index finger should be lying perpendicular to the strings somewhere
between the 5th and 9th frets, ideally over the 7th fret. As described in the previous
section which described the right hand, your left hand should be held so that a flat
object (a ruler) which is laid on the top side of the forearm is touching at all points along
your upper forearm and your hand. Your wrist should once again not be bent.
By rotating the entire left arm at the shoulder, you should be able to slide your hand up
and down the neck of the guitar, still keeping the index finger perpendicular to the
strings while lightly touching all six strings. Your thumb should not squeeze the neck, it
should follow the motion of the hand and remain just barely touching the center of the
back of the neck.
Positioning your left fingers over the neck
Move your four fingers so that all the finger tips are in line as if the tips were resting on a
flat surface. Position the fingertips over each string by raising or lowering your entire left
arm FROM THE ELBOW. Do not raise the left shoulder, that should stay relaxed and
level with the other shoulder. This motion from the elbow of the left arm is the basic
motion that moves your fingers from string to string. Obviously, you will eventually want
to play different strings with different fingers, however, whenever possible, the motion to
bring a finger to a string should be made with the entire left arm from the elbow.
Left hand summary
We have covered the proper positioning of the left hand on the neck of the guitar and
the three motions required of the left hand and arm: 1) pivoting the fingers at the large
knuckle to raise and lower the fingers, 2) sliding the left hand up and down the neck of
the guitar using a rotation at the shoulder, and 3) positioning the left hand fingers over
the desired string by moving the left arm at the elbow. We're now ready to discuss the
Fundamentals of the Right hand
The motions involved with correct right hand technique are fairly complex. The right
hand controls the creation of the sound that is produced as you play the guitar. Although
the left hand touch can greatly affect the sound, we'll save that discussion for later. In
this section I'll describe each of the various motions required by the Right hand and
Left-to-Right motion of the Right hand
Just as you used a left arm rotation at the shoulder to move the left hand up and down
the neck of the guitar, you must use that same motion with the right arm to position your
hand over the section of the strings required to get the sound you desire. I won't get into
the actual creation of the sound at this point, that must be reserved for a later lesson,
however, be aware that the point on the string which you touch in order to produce a
sound has profound effects on the quality of the sound produced. Quality is not meant
here as a measure of "goodness" or "badness", the quality I am referring to is the sound
quality - the "timbre", or "tone color" of the sound. Tone color is what allows you to
differentiate a flute from a french horn or violin, even when all of the instruments are
playing exactly the same pitch.
In order to move your right hand along the strings, it is necessary the you slide your
forearm across the upper edge of the lower bout of the guitar. If you are not wearing a
long-sleaved shirt, you may want to place some type of soft cloth between your arm and
the guitar. Many classical guitarists use an ordinary sock that has been cut off at the
heal - not the most elegant solution, but it works! Be careful that you don't lift or drop the
right shoulder, as that could introduce unwanted tension into your playing. The motion is
a simple rotation of the right shoulder, sliding the forearm along the guitar, and causing
the entire hand to move along the strings either toward the nut (left) or the saddle
Top-to-bottom motion of the Right hand
Once again, as in the left hand motion, the right hand should be positioned over each of
the six strings by pivoting the right arm from the elbow. The basic starting position to
play on any single string is reached by using the arm motion from the elbow to place the
thumb and four fingers of the right hand directly over the desired string. Playing single
note scales which span several strings will require you to position your hand over each
succeeding string by using the arm motion from the elbow. It is not correct to "reach" for
the next string by extending or flexing the fingers. There will be many times when you
will need to play two or more notes simultaneously, requiring you to extend or flex the
fingers of your right hand to a position that is different than the basic starting position.
The key consideration is that you would first move the arm from the elbow to
accomplish the "gross" motion, then use the motion of the fingers as required to reach
the correct strings.
Motion of the fingers (i,m,a) of the Right hand
The Classical Guitar is played with the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand.
The fourth finger should always be made to follow the motion of the third finger. Each of
the fingers are identified in Classical Guitar literature by the following letter
"p" = Thumb or Pulgar
"i" = Index or Indice
"m" = Middle or medio
"a" = Ring or anular.
There are three joints on each finger. The motion of each finger is limited to either a
flexation or extension at any of those three joints. When your hand is in a relaxed
position, each of the joints are at a point about midway between the limits of their
possible extension and flexation. The joint at the tip of the finger should be kept firm, but
not tense. It can move slightly during a stroke because of the pressure against the
finger from the string, but we will not try to control this joint at this stage of playing the
guitar. The middle joint is the main source of finger motion. Preparation for a stroke
requires that you extend the finger at the middle joint, while keeping the large joint at
about the middle point of the limits of its range of motion. As your finger tip touches the
string, the motion of the finger continues from the middle joint until it is near its limit of
flexation. At that point the motion continues with a follow though of the stroke by flexing
the finger at the large, or third knuckle. The range of movement that occurs during
playing will become smaller as your technique improves, but the fundamental motion of
the fingers will not change. We will talk later about the mechanics of an actual stroke
and refer back to this description of finger motion at that time.
Practice the motion of each finger without the guitar in your hands, and watch carefully
so that you are sure to practice the correct movements. Remember, if you practice
Motion of the thumb (p) of the Right hand
There is some disagreement in guitar pedagogy about exactly how the thumb should
move. Some very competent players insist that the motion should be a circular motion,
others disagree vehemently and say that the motion should be identical to that of the
other fingers. Most teachers agree that the main motion should be from the joint where
the thumb attaches to the wrist. My own personal approach is a hybrid motion which
sometimes contains a slight rotation, but mostly moves in a fairly straight line. The
decision you make will depend on your own body and on how you can best make the
sound you want from your thumb. We'll cover this more in depth when you try to use the
thumb to play music.
At this point you should be comfortable sitting with the guitar in playing position and you
should be able to move both hands to any playing position on the instrument. You
should also be able to properly move all four playing fingers of the right hand from the
correct finger joint. Congratulations! I hope it was easier to do than it was to explain in
In the next lesson we'll discuss how the finger nails of the right hand play an important
role in shaping the sound you will get from the instrument. I'll explain how to shape and
use the finger nails of the Right hand so that you can get any sound which your
instrument is capable of producing.
Book 1 -- Lesson 4--Preparing to play
The finger nails of the right hand play an important role in shaping the sound you will get
from the instrument. I'll explain how to shape and use the finger nails of the Right hand
so that you can get any sound which your instrument is capable of producing.
Before starting this lesson, make sure you have a good fingernail clipper and a set of
sand paper or emery boards with a least 3 different grit surfaces. The finest grit should
actually feel smooth to your touch. The middle grit should have enough roughness so
that if you file your fingernail it should produce a fine white powder but should not
remove too much of the nail. The heaviest grit should be coarse enough to file the nail
so that it can be shortened and shaped. Notice that I didn't specify any absolute grades.
That will depend on the hardness of your nails. A grit that will easily cut through soft
nails may not be nearly coarse enough for thicker, harder nails. The next section in this
lesson will get into a little more detail.
Care and Shaping of the Finger Nails
You can always tell that a person is either a classical guitarist, or, has a bad fingernail
biting habit on just one hand with a meticulous fetish for beautifully shaped nails on the
other. I actually got my first job in Engineering when I was asked by the Engineering
Manager who interviewed me to let him see my hands. When he noticed that my right
hand fingernails were perfectly manicured and my left hand nails were very closely
trimmed, he smiled, spent 45 minutes of the next hour discussing classical guitar and,
hired me for the programming position.
Your fingernails play a very important role in producing a good sound on the instrument.
It's pretty easy to care for the nails on your left hand - you simply trim them as close as
possible with a nail clipper without drawing blood. The right hand requires a lot more
attention. There are three attributes of the right hand fingernails that need attention:
length, shape, and edge. Your ideal fingernail shape and length can only be achieved
after much experimentation. The edge required for a good sound is more absolutely
determinable - it must be smooth.
Shaping your fingernails
When your nails are ready to use for playing, the entire edge of the finger nail should be
smoothly rounded with no breaks or rough spots. If you look closely at the edge of your
fingernail with your fingers pointing straight into your eyes, they should be as smooth as
the edge of a fine crystal wine glass. If you slide the edge of the fingernail of your right
thumb over the edge of each of the other three playing fingers of the right hand, you
should not be able to detect any roughness or breaks in the surface. An edge like that is
absolutely necessary so that no extraneous noise is created by your fingernails as they
slide over the strings while you're playing.
To create the required edge, you first shape and adjust the length of the fingernail by
using the coarsest grit emery board. I have seen great Classical Guitarists with
fingernails that look like claws and others who have no fingernails whatsoever. My own
experience has resulted in me having a fingernail length which causes the edge of the
nail to extend about 1/8 inch above the tip of each finger when viewed from the palm of
the hand with my fingers pointing straight up and held at about eye level. That length
should be a good starting length for you but it is likely that you will decide to adjust it as
you learn how the length of the fingernail affects the sound you want to produce.
The edge of the nail should follow the shape of your finger tip and there should be no
discontinuity at either side of the fingernail. In other words, the curve of the fingernail
should extend smoothly to the point where your fingernail touches the cuticle. Once the
nail is coarsely shaped you remove any jagged edges or cracks by using the middle grit.
This step also gives the nail it's final shape. Once you are satisfied with the shape and
length, you polish the edge with the finest grit emery board.
Concert Classical Guitarists usually carry a fine emery paper with them when they
perform so that they can smooth out any rough spots on their fingernails which might be
caused by contact with the three metal wound strings of the guitar during a
performance. You might at first think this fastidious attention to the fingernails is a little
strange, but you will quickly learn to feel and hear the difference it makes when you
Book 1 -- Lesson 5--Tuning the Guitar
In this lesson I'll explain how to tune the guitar. I will discuss three methods, the first
being the common method taught in most beginning method books, the second method
is more accurate but involves a little more understanding of the instrument, the third
method is a variation of the second method which uses harmonics instead of normal
pitches. Harmonics are easier to hear because they are "purer" tones, however, they
require a little more skill to produce on the guitar. Read the supplement to this lesson:
The Acoustics of Music for a complete explanation.
Each of the strings of the guitar are tuned to a particular pitch or frequency of sound.
Disregarding constants such as the string diameter, temperature of the instrument, etc.,
the pitch of each string depends on the tension on the string which is created between
the two points on the instrument which support the vibration, and the length of the
vibrating portion of the string. The tuning keys control the tension on the string - by
tightening the tension on the string, the pitch increases to create a "higher" sounding
note - by loosening the tension, the pitch decreases to create a "lower" sounding note.
The length of the string is adjusted by using the fingers of the left hand to press a string
down until it makes firm contact with a fret.
Regardless of which method you use to tune the instrument, it is important that you
understand the meaning of "beats". I'm not talking about the type of beat played by a
percussion instrument, I'm referring to the phenomenon that occurs when two notes that
are only slightly different from one another are played together. The actual physics of
the phenomenon are very complex but recognizing the auditory effect is critical in order
to know when two notes are in or out of tune. A "beat" is a distinct fluctuation in volume
which has a "wobbling" sound. If two identical notes are played together it is difficult to
tell that there is not just one note being played. If the pitch of one of the notes is very
slightly raised or lowered, a "beat" begins to appear. The larger the discrepancy
between the two notes, the faster the "beat." Conversely, as an out of tune note is
brought closer to the reference pitch, the "beat" slows and finally disappears. The notes
are then "in tune." We will tune each string on the guitar by first lowering the string
relative to a reference pitch until a beat occurs and then raising the pitch of the string
being tuned until the beat slows and finally stops.
The Notes of the Open Guitar Strings
The strings of the guitar are numbered 1 thru 6, where string 1 is the thinnest string and
string 6 is the thickest. In standard tuning (all that you will need to know about until you
get fairly advanced on the guitar) each string is tuned to a specific pitch. The following
list identifies each string and its correct pitch relative to a piano.
String Number Pitch and String Name Location on the Piano
1 High "E" 1st "E" above middle "C"
2 "B" 1st "B" below middle "C"
3 "G" 1st "G" below middle "C"
4 "D" 1st "D" below middle "C"
5 "A" 2nd "A" below middle "C"
6 Low "E" 2nd "E" below middle "C"
Making a sound on the Guitar
Before you can begin to tune the instrument, you must create the proper sound on each
string of the guitar. To begin with, assume the "playing position" with the guitar in your
hands. Your nails should be properly shaped and you should already know how to
correctly move the fingers of both hands. You will not be using the left hand yet so keep
it relaxed and don't let your fingers touch the strings. If you want to, you can hold the
guitar lightly with your left hand just below where the neck of the instrument meets the
body of the instrument. Your right hand should be held above the strings close to the
sound hole, with your fingers about a quarter to an eighth of an inch above the strings.
We will use the "i" finger to make a sound (I'll just call the fingers by their letter names).
Begin the stroke by causing the i finger to extend toward the string by straightening the
finger while keeping the right hand motionless. This first motion is fairly subtle and
should not be exaggerated to where the finger is totally straight or stiff. Most of the
motion for this extension occurs in the middle joint of the finger.
Lower i to the string so that the string is nestled between the underside of the fingernail
and the fleshy part of the tip of the i finger. This position is called the "preparatory
position." Despite what some people may tell you, this part of the stroke will always
exist, regardless of how well you learn to play or how fast you play. The only difference
will be the amount of time you spend in the preparatory position. To do otherwise invites
chaos and will result in limited or no control over the sound produced by each stroke.
The Free Stroke
The free stroke is the most commonly used stroke when playing the guitar. It allows you
to easily vary the intensity and timbre of the sound and it allows you to play several
notes at the same time without having to significantly alter the right hand position. The
free stroke is produced by moving the i finger from the preparatory position through an
arc produced by flexing the middle joint of the finger. Your finger nail should slide
smoothly over the string producing a clear tone as the string is allowed to resonate.
Continue with the free stroke by flexing the large knuckle of the i finger until the finger
almost touches the palm of your hand. This follow-through will vary in distance
depending on the tempo of the music and the volume you want to get from the stroke.
The Rest Stroke
The rest stroke is used when you want to emphasize or put more weight into the sound.
Some players use the rest stroke extensively in scale passages, especially when played
in the high registers of the instrument. A rest stroke varies from a free stroke in that the
initial movement begins with the large knuckle of the finger and the final position is
where the soft tip of the finger rests lightly on the next string. In order to prepare for a
rest stroke, it is usually necessary to lower the right hand closer to the strings and to
extend the fingers a little more than that which is required with a free stroke.
You should practice both of these strokes many times with the i, m, and a fingers, until it
feels natural and relaxed. Don't attempt to alternate the fingers yet, that will come
shortly - after the guitar is in tune.
Starting to Tune
To properly tune the guitar, begin with a reference pitch that is a universally agreed
upon note. In our music culture, that note is called "A 440." Your tuning fork should
produce this tone when struck lightly against a hard surface. Be careful - NOT ALL
TUNING FORKS ARE A440! Make sure your tuning fork is the correct pitch before
continuing. The tone "A 440" is the pitch that is sounded when the high "E" string is
played while depressing the 5th fret...or...when you play the harmonic on the fifth fret of
the "A" string by touching the string lightly with a finger of your left hand while
performing a normal rest or free stroke (do not push the string down with the finger, just
touch it lightly). This harmonic is the reference pitch I use when I tune my guitar to a
tuning fork. Raise or lower the tension on the "A" string by turning the tuning key while
you play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the "A" string while listening at the same time to
the reference pitch of the tuning fork. When you begin to notice a "beat", experiment
with the effect by causing the "beat" to speed up or slow down as you adjust the tuning.
Once you are confident that you are hearing the "beat", adjust the tuning until the "beat"
disappears. You have tuned the "A" string and are ready to continue with the other 5
THE GUITAR IS TUNED ONE OCTAVE LOWER THAN THE PIANO FOR THE
SAME PITCH NOTATED IN A MUSICAL SCORE.
THE "A" ABOVE MIDDLE "C" ON THE PIANO HAS A FREQUENCY OF 440 CYCLES
PER SECOND. THAT NOTE IS NOTATED BY THE SECOND SPACE FROM THE
BOTTOM OF THE STANDARD G, OR "TREBLE" CLEF. THAT SAME NOTATION IN
GUITAR MUSIC PRODUCES A PITCH OF "A 220", A NOTE EXACTLY ONE OCTIVE
LOWER IN PITCH THAN THE PIANO. THE "A" STRING OF THE GUITAR IS
ACTUALLY TUNED TO 110 CYCLES PER SECOND, TWO OCTAVES LOWER THAN
"A 440". THE VALUE OF TUNING THE REFERENCE STRING TO THE HARMONIC
AT THE 5TH FRET OF THE "A" STRING IS THAT THE ACTUAL PITCH IS THE
EXACT "A 440" OF YOUR TUNING FORK.
Each of the following methods of tuning assume you have already tuned the "A" string.
DO NOT RE-TUNE THE "A" STRING! It is your reference pitch and if it is adjusted you
will have to re-tune all of the other notes as well.
Method 1 - Sequential Tuning of Adjacent Strings.
This first method of tuning is simple and easy to learn, however, it is not the best way to
tune the instrument. Each time you progress from one string to the next any slight error
in tuning is propagated to the next string. By the time you get to the high "E" string you
may not even be close to correctly in tune. Once you get to the point where you are
playing chords on the guitar this method of tuning will prove inadequate but it is fine for
very early beginners on the guitar.
• Press the low "E" or 6th string at the fifth fret. Play the "E" string and the open "A"
string and adjust the "E" string until there are no beats between the two notes.
• Press the "A" or 5th string at the fifth fret. Play the open "D" or 4th string and the
"A" string while adjusting the "D" string until there are no beats between the two
• Press the "D" or 4th string at the fifth fret. Play the open "G" or 3rd string and the
"D" string while adjusting the "G" string until there are no beats between the two
• Press the "G" or 3rd string at the fourth fret. Play the open "B" or 2nd string and
the "G" string while adjusting the "B" string until there are no beats between the
• Press the "B" or 2nd string at the fifth fret. Play the open "E" or 1st string and the
"B" string while adjusting the "E" string until there are no beats between the two
Method 2 - Tuning Relative to One Fixed Pitch
This method of tuning is more accurate than the previous method because it avoids
cumulative errors by always tuning each sting to a single reference string. It does
require that you learn how to play a harmonic on the "A" string at the 7th fret (you may
have already played your first harmonic on the 5th fret of the "A" string to tune the "A"
string to the tuning fork). The actual note that will sound when you play the "A" string
while touching the string lightly above the 7th fret will be an "E." This "E" harmonic
which is played on the "A" string at the 7th fret will be your reference pitch. All other
strings will be tuned to this note by finding "E" notes on each other string (yes, there
actually are "E's" on every string), and by comparing each "E" with the "E" harmonic on
the 7th fret of the "A" string. The only problem with this method of tuning is that it is
sometimes difficult to get each "E" to resonate well enough to be able to use it to tune
the instrument. This is especially problematic with inexpensive instruments which may
not resonate evenly on all notes.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the low
"E" or 6th string while pressing the string against the 12th fret. Adjust the "E"
string until there are no beats between the two notes.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the "D"
or 4th string while pressing the string against the 2nd fret. Adjust the "D" string
until there are no beats between the two notes.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the "G"
or 3rd string while pressing the string against the 9th fret. Adjust the "G" string
until there are no beats between the two notes.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the "B"
or 2nd string while pressing the string against the 5th fret. Adjust the "B" string
until there are no beats between the two notes.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the open
high "E" or 1st string. Adjust the "E" string until there are no beats between the
Method 3 - Harmonic Tuning Relative to One Fixed Pitch
This final method is the best method for tuning the guitar. It is very similar to Method 2
but uses harmonics on all strings except the 2nd instead of using normal notes. The
advantage of using harmonics is that they have fewer overtones to confuse the ear so it
is easier to hear the beats when two strings are not correctly tuned. This method
requires the use of "artificial harmonics." They are a little tricky to produce, but are worth
the effort to learn.
Playing Artificial Harmonics
If you have read the supplement to this lesson: The Acoustics of Music, you will have
seen how strings vibrate at many frequencies or pitches at the same time. If you excite
the string (pluck it, strike it, move it, etc.) directly above a point on the string where a
"node" exists for some harmonic frequency, you will be able to clearly hear the pitch of
the harmonic, rather than the fundamental frequency of the string. If you press a string
against any fret on the neck of the guitar, you effectively shorten the string length. A
complete harmonic series will then be accessible relative to the new string length, rather
than to the original string length. This opens up some very interesting possibilities, not
only for tuning, but for making music on the instrument - more on that later...
In order to produce the harmonic, you must strike the string and touch it lightly at the
same time with the fingers of the right hand. This leaves the left hand free to press
down at any desired fret. To practice this, choose a string...say, the "D" string. Fully
extend the index finger of the right hand (like you're pointing at something) with your
other 3 fingers rolled into your palm. Align your right thumb so that it is parallel to the
index finger. You should be able to look directly at your right hand and see the top of the
thumbnail and the outside edge of the index finger. Lower this entire assembly down to
the "D" string. Touch the "D" string lightly at the 12th fret with the soft tip of the index
finger, while striking the same string with a lateral movement of the thumb. As soon as
the thumb stroke is complete, move the index finger away from the string so that the
note will continue to sound. You should hear a bell-like tone, a harmonic, that is actually
the octave of the open "D" string. Try the same thing on each of the other strings until
you get a feel for how to sound each harmonic. This same technique can be used to get
harmonics from each string at the 5th and 7th frets. If you experiment, you will discover
that there are other harmonics just waiting to be heard, some of them at points on the
string that don't even correspond to fret positions. Anyway, we diverge...
Now try pressing the "D" string at the 2nd fret while producing an artificial harmonic by
touching and playing the string at the 14th fret. That note happens to be an "E", exactly
the note you will need to continue this lesson on tuning. You can continue
experimenting with this technique by pressing any note on any string and counting 5, 7,
or 12 frets up from that note to pluck the artificial harmonic. Once again, there will be
other harmonics at many other points on the strings, enjoy!
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the
harmonic at the 12th fret of the low "E" or 6th string. Adjust the "E" string until
there are no beats between the two notes.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the "E"
artificial harmonic on the 14th fret of the "D" or 4th string while pressing the string
against the 2nd fret. Adjust the "D" string until there are no beats between the
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the "G"
or 3rd string while pressing the string against the 9th fret. Adjust the "G" string
until there are no beats between the two notes. You will adjust this string later to
an "A" harmonic, but let it go for now.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the "B"
or 2nd string while pressing the string against the 5th fret. Adjust the "B" string
until there are no beats between the two notes. This is the only string where
harmonics aren't used in tuning.
• Play the "E" harmonic on the 7th fret of the "A" string and let it ring. Play the
harmonic at the 12th fret of the open high "E" or 1st string. Adjust the "E" string
until there are no beats between the two notes.
• Recheck the "G" string by playing the harmonic at the 12th fret of the "A" string
while pressing the 2nd fret of the "G" string and playing the artificial harmonic at
the 14th fret. Adjust the "G" string until there are no beats between the two notes.
Checking the strings
The final step in tuning the guitar is to check that the strings have not "gone bad". A bad
string will be in tune on some points on the neck but way out of tune at other points due
to uneven stretching of the string when it is tuned up to pitch. The quickest way to check
a string is to play a harmonic at the 12th fret and than compare the pitch to the pitch you
get when you actually press the string down on the 12th fret. This should be done for all
6 strings. Because the 12th fret is the half-way point of the string length, the harmonic
and the natural tone should be identical. In practice, it is not uncommon that the two
pitches will differ slightly so I usually continue to use a string that has only a slight error
at the 12th fret. If you get too picky about the correctness of the pitch you might go
through many strings before you finally find one that is perfect. Another consideration
before you replace strings on the instrument is your own level of playing. If you are a
beginner and play mostly on the 1st five frets of the guitar you probably won't be
affected too badly by a bad string. On the other hand, if you use the entire neck of the
instrument in your playing you will most likely find a bad string to be unacceptable.
Almost all vibrating objects produce harmonics above the fundamental frequency. As a
matter of fact the ONLY thing that differentiates the timbre of one instrument from
another is the relative mix of harmonic frequencies present in the tone. This is a very
important fact with implications that are especially important to the guitar and we will
explore this in later lessons.
This concludes the lesson on tuning the guitar. You learned quite a few other things as
well, but I believe they were necessary in order to truly understand not only how, buy
why. I guess it's on to lesson 6!
Book 1 -- Lesson 6-- The Elements of Music
The Four Basic Elements of Music ---
In this lesson I'll explain the four basic elements of music: Pitch, Rhythm, Dynamics,
and Timbre. In later lessons I'll explain and demonstrate how these basic elements
interact to allow infinite possibilities to exist for musical expression. Music always
contains its four basic elements, and it's important to be conscious of, and to control all
four elements of music AT ALL TIMES during your playing. Music notation has evolved
over the years to include a very rich repertoire of symbols. These various symbols allow
a composer to indicate many aspects - BUT NOT ALL - of each element of music. As I
introduce each basic element, I will discuss its more common notational elements. This
lesson should NOT to be interpreted as an attempt to be a complete dictionary of
musical notation. My principal source of information on this subject on other all material
presented in these lessons is the "Harvard Dictionary of Music" Second Edition, by Willi
Apel, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
This lesson will not deal with more advanced aspects of music, such as scales, which
are pre-defined ordered groups of pitches which are played sequentially; chords, which
are two or more notes played simultaneously; tonality and harmony, which uses the
natural psychological tensions and resolutions created by various pitches to drive the
music in the direction intended by the composer, or voices, which are independent
melody lines within a piece of music that require a separate focus on each of the four
basic elements. Those topics will wait until later lessons, after you have a working
knowledge of the basic four musical elements.
Lesson 5 discussed pitch and its physical basis in the frequency of vibration of some
material object. This lesson will introduce the elements of notating pitch in printed
music. These elements include: the staff; the clefs, including the subscript; Key
Signature; the "note", including sharp, flat, and natural signs (accidentals); the
Glissando and Portamento; and Harmonics.
The music we will be discussing is composed of pitches which are discrete in nature.
This is in contrast to music such as that which is composed for a synthesizer which can
produce arbitrary pitches which may have no relationship to our 12 tone even-tempered
A notation of pitch has been developed which uses a set of parallel horizontal lines and
spaces on which "notes" are drawn to represent distinct pitches. A grouping of five lines
with the four spaces between each line is referred to as a "staff". From any starting
pitch, notes increase by one letter name for each progressively higher space or line on
the staff, and decrease by one letter name for each progressively lower line or space.
"Ledger lines" are small line segments which are used to place notes above or below a
staff to indicate pitches higher or lower than can be represented on the staff itself.
The clef is a symbol that is placed at the left edge of each staff which defines a
reference pitch from which all other notes on that staff are computed. There are three
types of clefs, the G-clef, the F-clef, and C-clef. Most modern publications use only the
G-clef and the F-clef with the older C-clef being replaced by the use of a G-clef with an
"subscript 8" to indicate that pitches on the staff are to be played an octave lower than
those with the usual G-clef.
The G-clef resembles a large number eight with each circle in the 8 shaped as a
vertically oriented oval, the bottom oval being about 3 or 4 times larger than the upper
oval. The lower oval is drawn as an open loop where the loop encircles the second line
from the bottom of the staff. That line is defined as g' ("g-one-line" is the first g above
middle-c on the piano). The G-clef is the clef which is used in Classical Guitar music.
Because the actual pitch of the guitar is an octave lower than that which is indicated by
the standard G-clef, the correct method for notating Classical Guitar music is to place a
small numeral 8 below the G-clef symbol. That small 8 tells the reader that the actual
pitches which follow are to sound an octave lower than indicated. Unfortunately, it is
very uncommon to see the 8 subscript in Classical Guitar music; the reader is expected
to know that the pitches are an octave lower than written.
I HAD a wonderful guitar that had developed a small crack in the back of the instrument.
Since the repair of that part of the guitar is pretty straightforward, I chose to bring the
instrument to a violin repair person because there were no guitar repair shops in my
town. When I came to pick up the instrument, there was a huge crack in the top of the
guitar. I was told that the instrument had "just cracked as I tried to tune it"... It was about
a year later when it dawned on me that the violin repair person probably didn't know that
the guitar should sound an octave lower than its music would indicate....Ouch! As I said,
I HAD a wonderful guitar...
The F-clef, often called the "Bass clef", resembles a backward C with a full colon close
to the outside right edge of the symbol. The full colon of the F-clef straddles the second
line from the top of the staff and defines the placement of the pitch f (f below middle c
on the piano).
The C-clef resembles the numeral 3 with a heavy vertical line drawn close to the left
edge and is used to define the pitch c' (c-one-line, or middle c on the piano). This clef
can be placed in either of two positions on the staff. The C-clef is placed on the staff so
that the intersection of the top and bottom curves in the symbol (essentially the "center"
of the 3) touches either the middle line of the staff (alto or viola clef), or the second line
from the top of the staff (tenor clef). Historically, this clef was used as a "moveable clef"
to reduce the need for "ledger lines", but modern publishers are tending to avoid its use
altogether and to opt instead to use the aforementioned subscript 8.
A key signature is a method whereby all of the pitches within a line of music can be
assigned a set of "sharps" or "flats" in order to reduce the number of individual sharp or
flat symbols that would otherwise be required. Later lessons will deal with scales and
the theory behind the creation of key signatures, but suffice to say here that the key
signature has a big effect on the pitch of notes placed on the staff. Classical music is
notated with the key signature placed at the start of each staff for every line of music.
A "note" is the smallest unit of music that can be represented in our system of notation.
In modern music notation, a note is drawn on a staff as a circular mark with a diameter
that is approximately equal to the distance between the lines of the staff. Notes that are
drawn on a line are centered on the line, notes drawn in spaces almost touch the lines
above and below the note. The position of any note drawn on a staff determines its
"lettered tone", ranging from A to G.
Sharps, Flats, and Naturals -> the "Accidentals"
Pitches which exist between any of the lettered tones are notated by the use of symbols
called "sharps(#)", "flats(b)" - similar to a lower case b, or "naturals". These symbols can
occur, at the start of each line of music to define a key signature, at any point in the
music where a change in key signature is to occur, or just before any note in the music
to indicate that its pitch is to be altered. The sharps, flats and naturals are referred to
collectively as "accidentals".
Natural signs are similar to sharp signs with the upper right and lower left line segments
removed and the two horizontal lines terminating exactly at the vertical lines they touch.
Glissando and Portamento
The Harvard Music Dictionary defines Glissando as "the execution of rapid scales by a
sliding movement". This is sometimes confused with the term Portamento which is
where the pitch is raised or lowered from one note to another with a continuous
movement. It is not possible to execute a Portamento on a Classical Guitar because the
pitch will always change in discreet increments when the fingers cross a fret as they
slide from one note to another. The Glissando on the guitar is a chromatic scale - each
succeeding tone of the scale exactly one half step from the last preceding tone - from
the starting pitch to the ending pitch. It is notated by connecting the note or notes which
are to be slid by a straight line, usually with the abbreviation "gliss." written above the
The last element of pitch notation that I will discuss is the use of the harmonic pitch
indicator. The sad truth is that there is no true standard for notating guitar harmonics in
printed music. One common aspect of almost all harmonic notation is to draw a hollow
note in a diamond shape instead of in the shape of a circle. Confusion arises because
sometimes the composer indicates the actual pitch, sometimes indicates just the
position of the fingers above the fret and string where the harmonic is to be created, and
sometimes notates the pitch on the staff one octave below the desired pitch with the
standard diamond harmonic shape. The guitar can produce natural and artificial
harmonics (see lesson 5), and that also adds to the notational confusion. There are too
many common variations in the notation of harmonics, but music from a reputable
publisher - usually - explains how to interpret the notation of harmonics in a preface to
the music in that publication. If that is not the case you should either listen to a
recording of the piece, or, just use your best guess based on how it sounds to you.
Rhythm can be defined as the quality of music which determines its motion through
time. In this lesson I will introduce the most common notational elements used in printed
music to express rhythm. These include: the Beat; Measures; Time Signature; the
"Rest"; Tempo Markings; Stems, Flags, Dots, and Ties; Legato(slur), Portato, and
Stuccato; and Fermata.
The beat of the music is the primary recurring pulse which moves the music forward. In
popular music, the beat is usually very obvious. It's the feeling that makes you want to
"tap your foot". Classical music does not usually exaggerate the beat to that extent. As
a matter of fact, it is very often the case that classical composers deliberately write
music to de-emphasize the primary beat in order to create rhythmic "flows" which can
extend through many measures. It is important in your playing to always be aware of
"where the beat is" so that you can work within, but not necessarily on, the beat in order
to give life to the music.
The basic rhythmic "container" used in musical notation is the "Measure". A measure of
music is defined as the musical notation contained within a vertical line which extends
from the upper line of the staff to the lower line of the staff and the next vertical line
encountered on the staff. Accidentals which occur within a measure (not key signatures)
apply only to the note where the accidental appears and to subsequent identical notes
within that same measure. If the composer wants the same accidental in the next
measure it must be notated again. A measure MUST contain the exact number of beats
of music as defined in the current time signature.
The justification for the use of measures is that most music has regular, recurring
accents. In measures with four beats, the main accent is usually on the first beat of the
measure and there is a weaker accent on the third beat. In measures with three beats,
the first beat is strong and the third beat also contains a weaker accent. Be aware that
not all music written uses measures, however, most of the music you will probably see
as a classical guitarist (except for some very modern pieces) will use measures in the
notation. They are an invaluable aid to sight reading, a skill too few guitarists ever
A time signature is comprised of two numbers written on the staff immediately following
the key signature of the first line of the music and at any point in the music where the
composer wants to change the time signature. The form of the signature is an upper
number and a lower number, similar to a mathematical fraction. The lower number
indicates the base unit of measurement, i.e. the unit of measure used for each beat, and
the upper number indicates how many of the base units, or beats, should appear in
each measure. For example, a time signature of 3/4 means that the base unit is the 4th
note (the "quarter note"), and that there are three of those base units contained in each
measure. In an manner exactly analogous to fractions, the number of base units can be
any combination of fractional sub-divisions or multiples of the base unit that sum
EXACTLY to (in this case) three beats where each beat is a quarter note. A measure of
3/4 can contain six 8th notes (sums to 3/4), one half note and one quarter note (sums to
3/4), or any of an infinite combination of notes and note duration's as long as the sum is
The most common time signature used in our music is 4/4. It is so common that it has
earned the moniker "common time". Common time is notated by either 4/4 or by a large
C. You might also see a large C with a short vertical line "cutting it in half". That symbol
is a shortcut for 2/2 - two beats per measure with each beat equal to a half note - and is
commonly called "cut time".
The figure above shows the notational symbols for "rests". A rest is a period of time
within the music where a "voice" is silenced. It can be argued that the rest should be
considered as a pitch - the "no pitch" - which must be "played" just like any other pitch.
Regardless of how it is viewed, rests are an important part of any piece of music. Some
types of music require a very strict adherence to the rests within the music in order to
realize the total musical effect of the piece. This is especially true in music from the
"classical" period (about 1770 to 1830. Rests can be loosely interpreted in other music,
especially more romantic or music with its roots in "folk" culture.
It is important to carefully consider how to play any rests within the music you are
studying. Some players never "stop" notes after they are played, they simply allow the
note to fade away or it just stops when the player moves his fingers to go to another
note. While that technique of playing results in a more full sound on the guitar, it can
often result in harmonies that take away from the direction which the music should be
Tempo markings give the player an indication of the tempo or speed at which to play
each beat. Most printed music uses words or phrases to indicate the tempo. From
slowest to fastest, the following tempo markings are commonly used but are by no
means the only possible markings: Largo, Larghetto, Adagio, Andante, Moderato,
Allegro, Presto, and Prestissimo. They represent absolute speeds ranging from about
40 beats per minute to about 200 beats per minute. Modern music is often marked with
symbolic declarations where a basic unit (half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc.) is
explicitly set equal to some number of beats per minute. Some composers have begun
using tempo markings which state the composers desire for the time duration of the
entire piece. It's then up to the player to figure out haw fast to play the piece so that it
ends at the right time.
Other tempo markings are used to specify the composer's desire for the player to slow
down or speed up at certain points in the music. The term "ritardando", or "rit" or "ritard",
means to gradually slow the tempo, a "Ritenuto" indicates an immediate slow down is
required. An "Accelerando", or "Accel", means to speed up the music. The most abused
and misunderstood marking is the "Rubato". It is most commonly used to indicate to the
player that rhythmic freedom should be taken by slowing or speeding the tempo slightly,
being careful that the first note played at the conclusion of the rubato occurs at exactly
the same time it would have occurred had no rubato been played. That result rarely
occurs in actual performance so a rubato effectively results in the player ignoring the
beat and just being expressive at that point in the music.
Heads, Stems, Flags, Dots, and Ties
One of the principal aspects of rhythm is the expression of the duration of each note. All
notes are written with a "head" - the circular part of the note to which a "stem" can be
attached. If a stem is attached to the note head, it may have one or more "flags".
Finally, the head-stem-flag group may have one or two "dots" following the symbol.
When the head of the note is drawn as an open circle with no stem, it is a "whole note".
If the circle has a stem attached, the note becomes a "half-note. If the circle is filled in, it
becomes a "quarter-note". Add one flag and you've got an "eighth-note", add two flags -
a "sixteenth-note", three flags for a "32nd-note", etc. for a practical limit of 5 flags. You
cannot have a filled in head with no stem or an open circle head with a flag. Those
limitations make it easier to quickly understand the duration of the note when the music
Dots can be appended to any type of note or rest, each dot adds one half the duration
of the value to the immediate left of the dot. For example, if you have a whole note
(open circle) and you "dot" it, you have a note with the duration of a whole-note plus a
half-note. If you "dot" it again (double dot), you add another half of the half-note. In
terms of quarter notes, that would be 4 (the whole note) plus 2 (the first dot) plus 1 (the
second dot) = 7 quarter notes. Dats a lot a dots, but you can be comforted in knowing
that you will rarely see any more than one dot used on any one note in most musical
A tie is a short arched line that connects two adjacent notes of the same pitch. It
functions to extend the duration of the first note by the value of the note to which it is
tied. Ties are often used to extend a note past a single measure.
Legato (slur), Leggiero, Staccato, and Portato
Another important aspect of rhythm is the question of what happens between each note.
The "legato" is notated by an arching curve which starts above the first note of the
passage to which the legato is to be applied, and extends to the last note of the legato.
It is used to indicate that each note should be played as "connected" to the previous
note as possible. Do not confuse the legato with the "tie". The legato connects notes of
differing pitches, the tie connects notes of the same pitch.
The leggiero is written with a short horizontal line above the note and indicates that
there should be a clear separation between the sound of the each succeeding note.
The staccato is notated by placing a small dot directly above each note to which the
effect is to be used. To play a note "stuccato", you must stop the tone quickly after
sounding it. The note can be stopped by slightly lifting the finger of the left hand, by
placing a finger of the right hand on the string to dampen the sound, or by any other
method that you can devise that is convenient to the musical passage being played. Be
careful to make sure that the note is actually sounded - it is easy to make the duration
so short that it sounds more like a tambora than a stuccato.
The portato is played by sounding the note for about half of the note's duration; the
other half of the duration is to be treated as a rest. A portato is notated by placing a slur
above the desired notes which themselves are written with "staccato" markings.
A fermata is indicated by a symbol which consists of a small dot with an arch over the
dot. It means that you should stop the rhythmic flow and suspend the music for the
period of time that you, as a performer, should decide upon. The duration of the fermata
will depend on the musical context to which it is applied.
Musical Dynamics are defined here to be the intensity or volume of the sound and the
changes in that intensity through time. The word "dynamic" implies motion or change. In
the context of music, Dynamics are both static and dynamic in that a constant volume at
a certain intensity, such as "Forte (from the Italian word meaning strong) would have the
static dynamic marking "f". The use of dynamics in music is very subjective and
depends very much on the instrument and the context of the music. A dynamic marking
of "f" in Lute music can not be realized with the same level of intensity as the same
marking on music for a baritone saxophone. We will cover the symbols for piano (p),
forte (f), mezzo (m), cresendo, decresendo, and Sforzando.
p, f, and m
There are only two dynamic markings in common use: piano (p) and forte (f). These
marks are often doubled (pp, ff) or tripled (ppp, fff) to indicate degrees of piano or forte;
more "p's" mean make the music quieter, more "f's" mean make it louder. As in the
rhythmic indicators, words such as pianissimo (pp) and fortissimo (ff) are also
commonly used. The modifier Mezzo (m), meaning "half" is also often applied to
dynamic markings. For example, mp, meaning mezzo piano, could also be written as
pp. Obviously, there is a lot of subjectivity with this type of notation. I have never seen
absolute markings such as "90db", which would be equivalent to the absolute rhythmic
markings of "d=60", but, who knows. With modern electronic music that might become
common practice. I think you can rest fairly confidently that it won't happen in classical
cresendo and decresendo
The cresendo and decresendo are common markings which indicate increasing or
decreasing volume respectively. A cresendo marking is drawn as two lines of equal
length which intersect at their origin on the left end of the symbol, and open gradually as
the symbol extends to the right. The symbol is drawn with its origin at the starting point
of the cresendo and it extends to the where the composer wants the effect to stop. A
decresendo has its open end on the left and converges as the symbol extends to the
right. There is frequently a dynamic letter symbol at the start and end of a cresendo
marking (i.e. ppp>fff) If the cresendo or decresendo must last for too long a time for it to
be practically drawn, the words cresendo or decresendo are written in the musical score
with a single line drawn which extends beneath the musical passage to which the effect
is to be played.
Another common dynamic marking is the Sforzando (sf or sfz). It is drawn above the
notes where it is to be applied and it indicates that a sudden strong accent is required at
Dynamics on the classic guitar
It is not that difficult to create very effective dynamics on the classic guitar, however,
many professional classical guitarists under-utilize the potential of that technique. If you
play each note so that it rings clearly on the instrument, even a triple piano can be
heard at quite a distance from the source. The biggest threat to effective dynamics on
the guitar is tension in the hands. Tension tends to mute the sound and prevent the
guitar from amplifying each note so that is projects to the audience. You can practice
dynamics by just playing a single note. Some guitarists claim they can actually cause
the sound of the note to increase in volume AFTER it is played! That seems illogical at
first until you consider that other strings and the top of the instrument can begin to
resonant along with the note you first sound. It may be possible, but I haven't yet
reached the point where I have can personally verify that effect.
Technically, Timbre is a quality of sound that is caused by the harmonic content of that
sound. This is more fully explained in the supplement to Lesson 5: The Acoustics of
Music. Timbre is used on the Classic Guitar to add "color" to the music. I will often use
the word color instead of Timbre because music is painted with the harmonic palette of
Timbre in much the same way an artist uses color to give life to his paintings.
Notation of Timbre
There are only a few notational elements that hve been used traditionally to denote
timbre in printed guitar music. Modern guitar music has expanded the notation to
indicate how to make sounds that can be produced with a guitar but are not part of the
traditional technique of the instrument. I won't attempt to address these modern
notational elements because they are not standardized and won't generally be used by
players just beginning their study of the instrument.
The meaning of Pizzicato on the guitar is slightly different than how it is interpreted on
other stringed instruments. Pizzicato as applied to the violin and other orchestral string
instruments that use a bow just means to pluck the strings as one would pluck a guitar
or a harp. Since the strings of a guitar are normally plucked, the technique as applied to
a guitar is achieved by damping the string with the fleshy part of the right hand as the
strings are plucked by the thumb or fingers. Various effects can be achieved by varying
the amount of pressure used when damping the string.
If the head of a note is written in the shape of an X instead of the usual shape, the note
should be fingered with the left hand as per the location of the note on the staff, but
played by striking the string with the outside edge of the right thumb as you would strike
a drum or "Tambora". The pitch of the note can be heard, but, because it is not possible
to drum on only one string without also striking adjacent strings, the effect is difficult to
The next lesson will talk about how to control the timbre of the sound on the guitar, and
how to apply it to your playing.
Book 1 -- Lesson 7-- Timbre - the Color of
As I stated in Lesson 6: Timbre is the quality of sound that is caused by the harmonic
content of that sound (see supplement to Lesson 5: The Acoustics of Music ). Lesson 6
also briefly touched on the various notational elements used to indicate color changes in
This lesson will explain how to evoke different colors from the classic guitar and will try
to give you an introduction to the more esoteric, but much more important concept of
how color can be used to give life to your playing.
The harmonic content of each sound you produce IS the timbre of that sound. It
depends on several things. First of all, the string has to vibrate. This in turn causes the
guitar to vibrate. When you set a string into motion, you directly determine the mix of
harmonic components in each vibration by where and how you touch the string. Once
the string is in motion, you again affect how that motion is allowed to continue or
"sustain" and to propagate into the guitar so that it can be projected to your audience.
Let's look at each component separately:
Where you touch the string
If you've done any experimenting on the guitar, you have probably already noticed that
if you strike the string close to the bridge of the guitar it has a more metallic, or "thin"
sound. As you move your hand further from the bridge, the sound gets progressively
smoother or "thicker". This motion of the right hand is the most coarse aspect of control
of timbre. It's like an artist using only base colors in his paintings, never mixing a palette
that contains colors which are not adjacent to each other. Unfortunately, that technique
is often the only technique many classical guitarists ever develop. Problems with using
only this method are that it severely limits the range of colors you can produce, and,