Having been a classical guitarist and classical guitar maker for many years I would like to share some tips and insights that I have gained along the way. I hope you find them helpful.
Classical guitar technique is a lot like riding a bicycle. Once you have learned you won’t forget.
This will help you develop that technique with a routine of classical guitar exercises that works.
A while back I was visiting with a jazz sax player at a local music studio where I teach a childrens guitar program. He noticed that my guitar had a couple of holes cut into the sides.
“ What did you do to your guitar? “ he asked
I told him the holes were an experiment to see if it would improve the sound.
“ I know how you can make your guitar sound better,” he said with great certainty.
“ Oh yeah. How? “ I responded
“ Practice more” he said with a grin.
Amazing! And to a large extent true. But to learn how to play classical guitar well a comprehensive, consistent and balanced approach to developing guitar technique is necessary.
Classical guitar technique can be divided into a number of areas. Some of these technical areas overlap a bit while others are quite different. Practicing one area will not necessarily help another. For example practicing legatos (slurs) won’t do much to improve your arpeggios.
Most classical guitar music uses numerous technical skills within each piece. If you are great at one skill but poor at another the music will suffer. The audience doesn’t want to hear a classical guitar player stumble through the hard part. They want to hear beautiful music.
Here is a break down of classical guitar technique into the main areas to be practiced separately.
Linear – The fingers of the left hand are trained to relax into a linear position over a single string. This simple line is the basis of left hand technique. It establishes a home base from which the fingers can judge distances and relationships. Scales, especially chromatic scales, up and down the fretboard are good linear exercises.
Nonlinear – Here the fingers of the left hand are trained to develop the ability to judge nonlinear distances and relationships to each other and the strings. Chromatic octaves played in the first position are excellent for this. Each finger plays in the corresponding fret number i.e. 1st finger in first fret, 2nd finger in second fret etc.
Legatos – (slurs) Practice the down motion and the pull off motion separately because they are two different techniques. Then practice the down and off motion together.
Bars – Full bars and partial bars can easily be incorporated into other technique areas. For example, you can practice arpeggios for the right hand while playing bar chords with the left.
Stretches – The ability to separate the fingers of the left hand. You don’t have to have large hands to play classical guitar. You need to develop flexibility and independence to separate the fingers. Make up a set of simple stretching exercises. For example put the 2nd finger on the tenth fret of the 4th string and play the twelfth fret 4th string with the 3rd finger. Move down the neck repeating the process. 9 -11, 8 -10, 7-9 etc. Make up other stretches for all fingers and play them slowly. The benefit of a stretch comes from holding it but don’t strain your fingers.
Shifting – Position shifts with the left hand can be incorporated into other exercises. Scales and legatos utilizing position shifts are a good way to develop this technique.
Arpeggios – (including tremolo) for the right hand
Simultaneous notes – This classical guitar right hand technique is extremely important and it is usually one of the most neglected areas of classical guitar instruction. Classical guitar music is loaded with simultaneous notes using two, three and four fingers to pluck at the same time. A player needs to be able to bring any note out louder than the others. The inner voices are often lost if not played well. When four notes are plucked simultaneously they need to sound as four independent notes played at the same time.
Thumb – The right hand thumb can be incorporated into various exercises such as scales and arpeggios but it is also good to do some thumb exercises. One that I use is played, (without looking), free stroke on the following open stings:
1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 1-5, 1-6, 1-5, 1-4, 1-3, 1-2
then from the 6th string:
6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, 6-5
To play classical guitar well skills such as glissandos, harmonics, rasqueados, tambura, pizzicato, golpes and other effects are needed. These skills don’t form the foundation of classical guitar technique and don’t need to be practiced on a daily basis. Excellent development of these skills is important and can usually be achieved within the context of the pieces you work on under the guidance of a good classical guitar teacher.
I cannot stress enough the importance of studying with a qualified teacher. A beginner wanting to learn classical guitar needs the best classical guitar instruction available. Accomplished classical guitarists don’t need the best teachers. They already play well. It’s the beginning and intermediate players that have the most to gain from the guidance of good classical guitar instruction.
Now that the primary areas of classical guitar technique have been covered here’s a simple routine of classical guitar exercises designed to develop a balanced technique.
This practice routine will definitely help you become a better classical guitar player and it can be used in conjunction with any classic guitar lessons you might be taking.
Lets assume you’re fortunate enough to have an hour a day.
Some of the best classical guitar methods to use as a source for classical guitar exercises are:
“La Esquela Razonada de la Guitarra” vol. 2, 3, 4 by Emilio Pujol, published by Ricordi. This is a total classical guitar method modeled on the teachings of Francisco Tarrega.
“Kitharologus, The Path To Virtuosity” by Ricardo Iznaola and the classical guitar method books of Julio Sargreras, Vol. 1-6 are also good sources.
These books are available through Guitar Solo. Here is a link to the classical guitar method they offer.
There are other classical guitar methods which contain excellent exercises. Go through the material you have. Copy out exercises and categorize them in a notebook according to the classical guitar technique areas listed above. Continue to add classical guitar exercises to your collection and also make up your own exercises
Now here’s the easy part…
Practice every day. With the routine above you can have great classical guitar technique.
Go play your guitar!
I have a great electronic tuner. Ed, one of my classical guitar students, gave it to me as a gift because I was always grabbing his tuner at lessons and playing around with it. Thanks Ed.
Unfortunately for me the tuner isn’t idiot proof and you need to remember to turn it off. I find this difficult and therefore the battery is always dead. To make matters worse I never remember to get a new battery when I’m at the store. Fortunately I have another accurate way to tune my guitar and I haven’t forgotten it yet. Here it is.
Tune the 5th string A. I use an A=440 tuning fork. Play a harmonic by lightly touching the A string above the fifth fret and plucking the string by the bridge. Plucking nearer the bridge will give a clearer harmonic. Adjust the string to match the tuning fork.
All the other strings are now tuned to the 5th string. This is an excellent system because minor pitch errors are not compounded between strings.
E (6th string) — harmonic 7th fret 5th string = harmonic 5th fret 6th string
D (4th string) — harmonic 5th fret 5th string = harmonic 7th fret 4th string
G (3rd string) — play an A on 2nd fret 3rd string = harmonic 12th fret 5th string
B (2nd string) — play an E on 5th fret 2nd string = harmonic 7th fret 5th string
E (1st string) — play E first string open = harmonic 7th fret 5th string
Now that the guitar is in tune you can make minor adjustments by comparing unisons (same note different strings) and octaves between various strings.
If you want to learn how to play the classical guitar well, weekly classical guitar instruction under the guidance of a good instructor is the way to go. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player, good classical guitar teachers and daily practice are great assets. Quality classical guitar lessons will save you time and frustration. And it will keep you from acquiring bad playing habits that will eventually hold you back.
Advanced classical guitar players, including concert performers, can learn an incredible amount by studying with other musicians too. Accomplished musicians, other than guitarists, are a gold mine of musical knowledge and inspiration. Tap into it!
It’s all about the music. On classical guitar I’ve studied with pianists, composers, conductors, cellists, lutenists, opera singers, harpsichord players and others. In retrospect, when I look back over these experiences I realize how eye-opening and immensely rewarding they were. In fact these lessons were some of the best classical guitar instruction I’ve ever had!
In a moment I’ll give some suggestions to help you locate teachers for classical guitar lessons in your area… but first a short story.
In college I sang in a vocal jazz ensemble (not the good one). Bobby McFerrin, vocalist, educator, conductor, ten time Grammy winner and world class musician extraordinaire came and gave a workshop.
McFerrin told us that he regularly attends music workshops as a student and loves it. His enthusiasm for learning is inspiring. Just think. Bobby McFerrin, master musician and one of the worlds most innovative vocalists, still studies with and learns from others. A great example and lesson to us all.
Take a moment and read Bobby McFerrin’s bio (www.bobbymcferrin.com). Pretty impressive. Studying with others works.
I frequently get e-mails and calls from people who want to learn how to play classical guitar but they are having trouble finding classical guitar teachers in their area. If you are having this problem here are a few suggestions to help locate a teacher.
How far are you willing to travel for classical guitar lessons? Lets say forty minutes. Get a map and draw a circle around your home with a radius of a forty minute drive. Call every music store, university/college, community college, private music and arts schools, music booking agencies, etc. to see if they know of any classical guitar teachers. If they don’t know of any, get leads by asking if they could suggest someone who might know. Call other guitar teachers. They often know of someone who gives classical guitar lessons. Bulletin boards at music stores are also worth a look.
If you come up with a number of names, great! Call. Explain that you are interested in classical guitar instruction and ask the instructor to tell you about his/her method of teaching. Ask where they have studied classical guitar and get some student references, lesson price etc. There aren’t specific answers you should be looking for but you will be able to get a gut feel for how the instructor relates and if they seem knowledgeable.
If you like what you hear ask to take a trial guitar lesson (paid of course). Take trial lessons with a number of instructors and then choose who to study with.
The good news for advanced classical guitar players is that it is easy to find excellent musicians to take some lessons with. You probably already know some. Start with them or ask who they would suggest. Choir directors, civic orchestra directors, symphony players and university music depts are a good place to start. Ensemble directors and players know who the outstanding musicians are because they’ve played with them. Get some suggestions and give it a try.
Guitarists frequently ask me what is a safe humidity range for their guitar. For a short period of time, like about a day, the relative humidity of the air isn’t too critical but for longer periods it is.
Hopefully your guitar was built at about 50% relative humidity. When relative humidity is between 40% – 70% the guitar should be pretty comfortable. When the relative humidity is below 40%, moisture moves out of the guitar woods into the drier air. Over a period of time this can cause the guitar woods to crack and braces can also become loose.
As relative humidity increases, the guitar woods expand as they absorb moisture from the air. Excessive humidity 75% and above can cause serious warping over time. At 90%+ your guitar is in a high danger zone.
When I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the beautiful high desert of the South West U.S., I was over at a friend and fellow guitar builder’s house to play duets. We left our guitars in the living room and went into the kitchen for a break. It sounded like a firecracker went off! We ran into the living room. My friend’s guitar had fallen to the hardwood floor. He picked it up. Every back brace inside the guitar had exploded off the back. We had a great laugh. The guitar had been built in Baltimore, Maryland the summer before in his basement at about 90%+ relative humidity. Needless to say the guitar didn’t respond well when the relative humidity was around 30%.
When relative humidity drops below 40% you can use a guitar dampit or a room humidifier to increase the humidity level. When the RH goes above 75% use a dehumidifier to lower the humidity by removing moisture from the air. An air conditioner also removes water from the air. If you raise the room temperature the relative humidity will also drop. The amount of moisture air can hold is relative to the air temperature. Warmer air can hold more water than colder air. Hence the term relative humidity.
In winter months the cold air cannot hold as much moisture as it can in warmer weather. When this cold air enters your home and is heated to a comfortable room temperature the relative humidity of the air drops. A RH of 60% in cold air might be about 20% RH in the same air once it is warmed.
If you want to measure the relative humidity in the room where your guitar is kept you will need a hygrometer. I use a dial hygrometer mounted on the wall in my work shop so I can regulate the humidity as needed. Don’t mount a hygrometer above a heat vent or radiator.
Check the accessories page for the humidifiers that I offer.
If you are thinking about buying a classical electric guitar or installing a classical guitar pickup, this newsletter will help you out with some useful information.
Late one morning years ago I was sitting down to a snack when the phone rang. Suzanne answered it. It was our good friend Thom Larson.
“Suzanne, are you alright?” asked Thom
“Yes. Why are you asking?” Suzanne responded
“Is Tom there?” he inquired
“Tom is sitting here eating. Do you want to talk to him?”
“Thank God! I just heard he drowned.”
“ What! “ exclaimed Suzanne. “You heard Tom drowned?” My ears perked up.
“Yes. A little while ago I bumped into a friend and she asked me if I had heard that Tom Prisloe had drowned. She had just found out Tom drowned from someone else. I called to see if you were okay.”
Over the next few days we received more calls from friends having heard that I had died in a drowning accident. Rumors of ones own death are a bit disconcerting. But drowning? Here I was living in arid New Mexico. Why was there a rumor that I had drowned?
For a couple months acquaintances would bump into me around town and say they had heard I drowned. The rumor ran its course, died away, and life went on as usual.
About six months later a woman came up to me in the grocery store one day. I recognized her but didn’t know her by name.
“I think I accidentally started a rumor about you.” she said
“A rumor? What do you mean? what kind of rumor?” I questioned.
“That you drowned.” she stated
“Yeah! I heard a lot about that. What happened? How did that rumor get started?” I exclaimed
“Well, last year we hired you to play classical guitar for our International Day fund raising open house. When the committee met to plan this years events a number of members wanted to hire you to play guitar again but someone said you had been drowned out. I thought they meant you had drowned. It upset me. After leaving I told other friends you had drowned and I guess the rumor spread from there.”
I laughed. It was comical to see how the rumor got started.
But the fact is I had not amplified my guitar for the playing job, a good number of people attending the event could not hear the music well and I did not get hired to perform the next year.
So… If your playing guitar for the public you better be able to amplify when you need to.
A lot of players contact me with questions about pickups and electric classical guitars. For the sake of definition electric classical guitars are regular acoustic nylon string guitars with a pickup for amplification.
Do I need an acoustic electric nylon string guitar?
If you are a beginning guitar player don’t bother getting an acoustic electric. First learn how to play the guitar. You can install a pickup in the future if you need one. There is one exception however. A sizable percentage of males between the ages of ten to sixteen seem to be drawn to electric guitars like moths to a flame. For these hopelessly smitten individuals an electric classical guitar is a good choice.
Performing guitarists who need to be heard with other players or above background noise need to amplify. Gigging guitarists don’t always need to amplify but at times they will have to and a classical guitar with a pickup, microphone or both becomes a necessity.
Can I use an classical electric guitar for recording?
Yes, but it won’t give you the best possible sound. The most natural amplified or recorded sound you can get from a classical guitar is produced by placing a good quality microphone in front of your instrument. I especially like small diaphragm omni directional condenser microphones for capturing a natural classical guitar sound.
If you already have a classical guitar pickup installed you can record with microphones on one or two tracks and run the pickup directly to the mixer for another track. You can then experiment with the blend in the final mix. But don’t have a pickup installed because you want to record solo guitar. Use a decent microphone.
What classical guitar pickup do you recommend?
For classical guitars I prefer the under the saddle type of pickup. I use the L.R. Baggs Element for Nylon String Guitars. Manufacturers such as Shadow, b-band, Fishman, K+K, Highlander and others also make good products. I don’t pretend to be an expert as to which is the best. I just use what I like and don’t keep trying to find the next best thing.
The L.R. Baggs Element has a built in endpin jack preamp with pre-contoured EQ specifically for nylon string guitars. It also has a simple volume control wheel that fastens, with double stick tape, just inside the sound hole.
Under the saddle transducer pickups amplify the vibration of the strings and are less prone to feed back than microphones. If you are a performing guitarist this is a great feature. Less feedback and you can be heard!
Acoustic classical guitars are a bit different than acoustic steel strings when it comes to pickup systems. Some steel string guitarists get excellent results with an under the saddle pickup and an additional pickup inside the guitar usually mounted to the soundboard. The two pickups are then blended. I have tried various pickups inside classical guitars and the results were not very good. The single under the saddle pickup worked best in my experiments.
I don’t like internal, inside the guitar, microphones either. I tried using one for about a year. It didn’t sound that good and feedback was a problem. The sound inside the body of the guitar is not the same as the sound from in front of the instrument.
and here’s why.
Acoustic nylon string guitars are natural amplifiers. Your fingers pluck the strings. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred through the saddle and bridge to the soundboard of the guitar causing the soundboard to vibrate. The vibration of the soundboard activates the air inside of the guitar. The pressure of the activated air inside the guitar pushes against the soundboard. As the soundboard moves it pushes the air in front of it forming sound waves which radiate out into the room. The sound waves blend and the guitar sounds best a distance away from the instrument.
Recording engineers put the microphone in front of the guitar. Not inside it.
Will an under the saddle classical guitar pickup hurt the sound of my guitar?
I don’t think so. In some cases guitars actually seem to sound better after the pickup is installed. The materials the pickups are made with conduct sound vibration extremely well.
You can purchase a nylon string electric guitar with built in tone, volume, EQ and notch filter controls already installed by the manufacturer. Some of these set-ups are pretty good but you will be better off with a separate mixer. I don’t like holes cut into the sides of a guitar and a separate mixer of decent quality will be better than the typical onboard controls and offer more flexibility.
For classical guitar amplification a portable PA system works great, offers flexibility, and it will handle microphones and other instruments too. If you do get a PA system be sure that the mixer has one or two channels with phantom power so you can use condenser microphones. There are also a good number of amplifiers on the market designed for acoustic instrument amplification that work well and most have a microphone input also.
I use a Peavey Escort Portable Sound System, Studio Projects C4 microphones and the L.R.Baggs Element for Nylon String Guitars under the saddle transducer pickup. Most of the time I just use the microphone placed about 12” -18” in front of the upper bout of the guitar at about a 45 degree angle. This set-up gives an excellent natural guitar sound. When using a microphone is not an option I play through the LR Baggs pickup and it sounds very good.
To sum it up.
Don’t bother getting an electric classical guitar or installing a classical guitar pickup unless you need to be heard. If your audience is having trouble hearing you definitely use some amplification. A good condenser microphone placed in front of the guitar will give a better sound than a pickup. A simple under the saddle pickup is a great option if you don’t want to hassle with a microphone.
The bass strings on a classical guitar often go dead before the trebles. The strings are usually not worn out. The windings are dirty. Remove the bass strings only. Loosely coil them and place them in a large basin, bathroom sink or whatever. Submerge them in room temperature water. The water can be lukewarm but NEVER HOT. Hot water will cause nylon guitar strings to play out of tune.
Add about 1/4 cup of ammonia to the water and let the strings soak for about fifteen minutes. More time won’t hurt them. The ammonia and water mixture breaks down crud that has built up between the windings on the strings. Put a washcloth in the water and pull each string through it a couple of times. Rinse the strings under cold water. Pull them through a dry towel and put them back on your guitar.
The cleaned basses often sound better than they did when new. They don’t squeak as much and they don’t need to stretch out like new strings. The washed strings also work well for recording because they are somewhat smoother since they have been played in and they have a lively, clear sound.
The best strings in the world won’t make a poor classical guitar sound great but poor strings will ruin the sound of a great classical guitar.
You may or may not have a great guitar but you will certainly be better off with the best strings you can find for it. High quality classical guitar strings that feel right for you and also improve the sound of your nylon string guitars.
I will show you a way to find some of the best sounding strings for your guitar.
I am asked more questions about classical guitar strings than any other single topic dealing with classical guitars.
“What strings do you recommend?”
“What strings will sound the best on my guitar?”
“What strings do you use?”
“Should I use medium or high tension?”
The truth is I don’t know what classical guitar strings will sound better on your nylon string guitars. And I certainly don’t know what sets and brands will feel just right to you. The best classical guitar strings for you are the ones you like the best. Here’s a way to eliminate the guess work and get down to finding those strings.
Three things to consider when selecting strings are tension, string material and string quality.
1. Tension — Classic guitar strings are made in different tensions. They are: low tension also referred to as moderate or light, normal or medium tension, hard or high tension. There are some other tensions but we don’t need to be concerned with them now.
2. String material — Treble nylon guitar strings can be made with clear or rectified nylon. Clear nylon strings are extruded and then calibrated for accuracy. Rectified nylon strings are extruded and then ground to produce a string that will play in tune. They have a very fine roughness of texture. Treble strings are also made of carbon fiber and composite materials. Bass strings are primarily made of bronze wire or silver plated copper wire wound around a core of fine threads.
3. Quality of manufacturing — The strings must play in tune and be made from high quality materials that hold up well.
To find out what string tension works best for you buy a low, medium and high tension set of the same series and manufacturer. Lets use D’Addario as an example and choose the Pro Arte series J43, J45, and J46 sets. Use a peg-winder to change strings and try the three sets out over a few day period. Go back and forth between sets until you determine the tension you like.
Once you have selected the string tension you prefer try a few other brands in the same tension. I suggest, for the sake of comparison, you choose silver plated bass sets. Some classical guitar string manufacturers that offer excellent quality strings are Savarez, Hannabach, La Bella (the 2001 Professional series) and D’Addario.
If you have settled on the string tension that feels right for you and tried a number of brands you have probably found some classical guitar strings you are pleased with. Use the set you like the most as a comparison set. Keep the tension the same and…
f you want to explore further try some rectified nylon trebles like the J29, J30 and J31 sets by D’Addario to compare the feel of rectified nylon to clear nylon guitar strings. The J29 – J31’s are made with the old standard Dupont nylon and have a wonderful tone and feel. I like them very much even though they tend to be somewhat temperature sensitive. But beware, just because I like them doesn’t mean you will. Savarez also makes excellent rectified nylon trebles.
Try some carbon fiber trebles. Carbon trebles are slightly smaller in diameter than nylon guitar strings of the same length and tension. Carbon fiber tends to give a brighter edge to the sound which can be a plus or minus depending on the guitar. My number one choice for carbon fiber classical guitar strings are the Savarez Alliance trebles.
A word of caution. Carbon fiber treble strings are prone to slip at the tie block as can nylon. Before I put the treble strings on classical guitars I hold the string tip above a match flame. The melted string tip balls up and prevents the string from slipping at the tie block.
Try some bronze wound basses. From my experience they tend to go dead sooner than silver-plated strings but they work well for many players.
Speaking of string cost here are some links to string suppliers with good prices. I have no business affiliation with them.
JustStrings.com offers an extensive selection of musical instrument strings for just about every string instrument imaginable.
BigCityStrings.com focuses primarily on guitar strings and has a good selection of classical guitar strings at excellent prices.
I hope you have found this information helpful. Just the tip on how to reduce your string cost has saved me hundreds of dollars. Give it a try.
Twenty five years ago while living in Santa Fe, an elderly pianist shared this practice technique with me. She said that is was a method used by Mozart and had been passed on to her many years before.
Use this method to perfect problem areas in pieces you are working on.
First define the exact cause of the problem. This is something usually quite small. Now correct the small problem. For example it might be a better fingering etc.
If you cannot figure out what is causing the problem or you are unclear on how to correct it, then you need a good teacher. So find one….
After you have an absolutely clear idea of what the solution is, you are ready to use the following method.
Take ten match-sticks and place them on a table next to you. Mark the problem area in pencil. Set your metronome at a very slow speed so that you can get through the problem area slowly and perfectly. Start playing a few notes before the problem area and finish playing a few notes after it. It is important to play into, through, and out of the problem area correctly. When you have done this move one match over.
Now repeat the process again playing the section 100% correctly and move another match-stick over. Continue repeating the process. If you make a single mistake such as missing a note, getting a buzz, breaking the rhythm, using the wrong fingering, etc. push all the match-sticks back and start again at number one.
If you make a mistake on the tenth time you must start again at one. If you cheat you only hurt yourself.
The match-stick method of practice is very effective. When used correctly it does the following:
It is a great tool for focusing your mind. There is a clear and concise short term goal to concentrate on which is playing the problem area correctly. As you move match-sticks over you become more focused and concentrate because you don’t want to make a mistake and start over again.
The match-stick method practiced correctly yields consistency. You have taken a problem, corrected it and are now able to play it perfectly at least ten times in a row. That’s an accomplishment.
This method takes a problem and uses it to make you a better player.
So that’s it! A simple technique which will yield excellent results. Technique serves the music so as you use this method do it as musically as possible.