Being able to listen to the sounds we make whilst playing the guitar is paramount - this is one of the most overlooked skills and one of the most difficult to develop, but essential to good playing.
“Good playing?" What’s that? In this case it is also recognising, locating and emphasising the melody in a piece of music. It’s a good idea to think of the guitar as a string trio fulfilling the roles of cello, viola and violin, with the violin playing the melody on top. If we don’t, it all becomes a bit muddy. Locating the bass is really straightforward, separating the melody from the harmony can be more of a challenge, but easily done when we are more familiar with the music. If we sing along too it really helps emphasise the melody line.
That’s the ideal, but physically and technically making the melody stand out is not easy. I created this simple exercise to focus the power of the RH fingers, four playing softly and one pulling harder - it’s great to encourage finger independence of the right hand - listening to the sounds our fingers produce is essential though, making sure the melody is coming through strongly.
This doesn’t take into account, though, the role of the rest stroke in giving more weight and body to a note and very useful it is when playing the melody… I’ll look at that in the next video.
Stretching LH fingers
Stretching along the frets is relatively straightforward. This exercise can be practised sticky to make it a little more demanding, but perhaps to start, just hover your fingers before they are played.
Very important though is to stop if your hand starts to hurt, hands are fragile and sensitive things and too much, too soon can cause damage. So, a little at a time is best, which goes for all practising, don’t overdo it. Segovia broke up his practice time and went for numerous walks throughout the day in-between sessions to give his hands a rest, sound practice. Warming up is also advisable, perhaps with something not too demanding on the fingers. A stretching exercise exists to reduce over-stressing the hand whilst playing a piece, it would be ironic if the exercise resulted in an injury hindering the ability to play comfortably.
Ultimately, we want our hand to move freely (without much effort) along the fingerboard without any pain, enabling us to focus on creating beautiful music.
Slurs: hammer-on and pull-off
I would definitely say that out of all techniques to exercise, slurs would be the one to repeat on a daily basis, not for its use as a technique, but as a muscle builder for the fingers, especially the fourth, the weakest finger.
Beyond that, it is a fantastic exercise to encourage the independence of the third from the second finger because these share a tendon (unlike the other fingers, which have one each).
It seems an uphill struggle: the 4th is weak and the 3rd is reluctant to move without the 2nd, but repeating an exercise such as this helps solve the problem.
To help even more, it is ideal to play the slurs sticky, just moving down one finger at a time form the adjacent string. This will also eliminate the tendency for the fourth finger to flick out when the third is hammered on.
It may sound flash when played at a great speed, but realistically, if the notes are to be played smoothly, the same volume and the same length, slow is the way to go.
There are a few technical issues that need to be adhered to and things to watch out for which are explained in the video.
Playing the guitar can be a tiring experience due to the excess pressure unnecessarily employed, this needn’t be the case. It is surprising how little pressure is need to fret a note clearly if it is fretted accurately.
I regularly hear from students that they were initially taught to position the LH fingertips in the middle of the frets - a huge amount of pressure is needed to fret here without any buzzes. Crazy. A simple experiment would be to position the fingertip right up to the fret wire, press, sound the note, then release the pressure as much as possible until a buzz appears, then increase the pressure a tiny amount; it really is surprising how much energy can be saved.
The initial stage of releasing the tension and stress usually employed is to do what is known as ‘sloppy practise’ - here the focus is to keep the LH (and therefore RH which echoes whatever the LH does tension wise) tension-free and fingertip position as accurate as possible by not pressing at all. It literally sounds horrendous, but that is irrelevant at this stage. Following much repetition slightly more pressure can be applied, but just a little at a time, over a long period of time.
The benefits of playing without any excess pressure has huge benefits to all our playing: a lack of tension results in more musical playing and much less fatigue.
My Torres and Double top guitars
I've been asked about my guitars.
The one used in my tutorials is a double-top, nomex, by Yulong Guo. Not your usual loud and no character; it's very sweet sounding, of course it is loud, but with a huge tonal palette. I had to change my angle of attack and touch at first, it's a beast that needed to be tamed. I normally just tell people it's a Chinese guitar and then they hear it and are blown away.
I was talking to Paul Fischer yesterday about the future of guitar design, he seemed to suggest that the future must be in guitars with great projection, but with character, I suppose that's why he created his taut system. I remember the first time I played one of his guitars, I was blown away (I now know it was his adapted lattice bracing system that was responsible). I thought I would never own one of his guitars, missed a few over the years (including one for £500 from 'Barry Mason's Spanish Guitar Centre'!!!) - but today, yes today, he offered me a Tiple he'd made years ago, Brazilian Rosewood back and sides for a price I couldn't refuse; sadly not a fully fledged, full sized, classical, but it has his signature sound, not sure what the bracing is, I'll check when I collect it, but it is loud and resonant with lots of personality.
The other guitar in the video is by Paul Fischer's apprentice (back in the day), Christopher Dean, who also lives just up the road. I'm pretty sure it's a Torres five brace top. Incredibly responsive. A beautiful instrument. Very sweet sounding, very subtle and, to be honest, gives the player nowhere to hide, it reflects what the player plays - so, great to keep a check on my technique and dynamics.
I'm very fortunate to own two beautiful classicals, both very different and ideal for contrasting repertoire.
The focus of this video is on smooth, legato playing, but first staccato playing needs to be addressed.
As with every instrument, the music must not suffer as a result of the technical limitations of the guitar. Smooth playing must be our aim, in fact, imitating the ability of the voice to soar seamlessly between notes must be our aim. I’m sure lots of guitarists want to emphasise the unique qualities of the guitar (the squeaks, the buzzes and in this case, the silences between notes when plucking), but overcoming the limitations should be a challenge and not result in a hindrance.
The video goes on to put the legato technique into context with the left hand and looks at synchronisation.
I have a gripe with the grade system, it gives a false sense that elementary equates to undemanding. Many experienced players are reluctant to play grade one, two and three pieces as they are too ‘simple’… well, playing the notes may be, but playing them musically with legato is a huge challenge. We can learn a lot by revisiting these pieces; Segovia didn’t only play advanced concert pieces – it’s about how you play them, not the simplicity of the piece. Actually, the simpler the piece, the harder it is in a way, as there is nowhere to hide.
Perfecting the legato of the right hand is essential and will transform playing even the most spartan pieces.
Our ‘go-to’ stroke for single lines is alternating the index with the middle, there are exceptions of course.
Alternating index and middle needs to be built up slowly, initially by planting (placing the finger on the string before it is sounded). Once this has been mastered, it should only be used for staccato playing as, of course, the notes are cut short resulting in silences between the notes, the opposite of smooth playing.
We need to practise the stroke so much that it is our automatic ‘natural’ stroke and so that we have to think about using anything else.
'Anything else' would be perhaps repeating the use of a finger, i.e. when a single note is repeated and exactly the same tone and weight is needed - a technique I use a lot, for Lobos’ 'Prelude Number 3' for example or 'Marcello's Adagio in Dm'.
Index and middle legato playing will discussed soon.