The Basics of Classical Guitar: Finger Picking
by Wolf Marshall
You don’t have to be Julian Bream, Andres
Segovia or Christopher Parkening to benefit from
a firm understanding of classical guitar technique.
For decades, numerous rock, pop, metal and country
players have assimilated and utilized the sounds
and approaches of the great masters of classical
music. Consider the immortal genre piece “Dee.” This
lovely acoustic solo composition by Randy Rhoads,
clearly inspired by classical guitar, provided
a soft and intimate respite from the heavy metal
bombardment of the Blizzard of Ozz—and revealed
a depth in his conception and training.
Steve Howe’s classical allusions in “Roundabout” and
his full exposition of classical technique in “Mood
for a Day” similarly demonstrated his absorption
of gut-string stylings in Yes’ prog rock
repertory. Then there’s the case of Yngwie
Malmsteen; who began his dazzling debut album with
a classical guitar prelude in “Black Star” which
borrowed from J.S. Bach and the Baroque traditions.
You could add jazz guitarists George Van Eps, Kenny
Burrell, Lenny Breau, Sid Jacobs and Lee Ritenour
to the list as well as cross-over pop players like
Mason Williams and the legendary studio giant Tommy
Tedesco. The roll call would be endless. Suffice
it to say that a working knowledge of classical
guitar technique will greatly boost your chops
and increase your resources as a complete musician.
You may have seen a distinguished gentleman with
a classical guitar tutoring on the TV channels
as you surfed your way from Elimidate to VH-1.
He has been a fixture on PBS and cable since the
seventies. His name is Frederick Noad and his method
books Solo Guitar Playing and Playing
the Guitar are deemed essentials in the study of classical
guitar. I once met Frederick Noad in a class at
L.A.C.C. (Los Angeles City College) and learned
much about his approach to teaching the subject
at hand. He, like many classical instructors, had
strong views on posture and the fine art of picking.
And that’s where we launch into the topic
de jour: Classical Guitar and finger picking technique.
Most classical players maintain an arched wrist
with the right hand (reverse this if you’re
a lefty) suspended above the strings. To paraphrase
the words of Mr. Noad: The wrist does not touch
the strings or the face of the instrument. The
weight of the right arm is taken on the upper bout
of the guitar and the hand should hang loosely
over the strings with the knuckles roughly along
the same line as the strings. You can accomplish
this posture naturally if you follow a basic tip
given to me by the great George Van Eps. Put your
right arm on the bout of the guitar and let your
hand make contact (on the fingertips with an arched
wrist) with the strings as it drops into position.
Keep the right hand relaxed but the wrist arched
enough to maintain a distance of about 3 inches.
Making contact: As a preliminary, the fingertips
can rest on individual strings to get the right
feel. Let your index fingertip, just beyond the
nail, touch the 3rd string. Then let your middle
finger and ring fingertips similarly rest on the
2nd and 1st strings. The thumb will rest on the
6th string initially. Looking down at the right
hand in this posture you should see a space between
the thumb and rest of the fingers which forms an “inverted
V” shape in appearance. This ensures the
thumb and fingers have independent movement and
will not run into each other when you begin playing
various picking patterns. After you make the adjustments
and get comfortable with this posture try moving
the thumb to the 5th and 4th strings while keeping
the others in place. Also try keeping the thumb
on the 6th string and moving the index, ring and
middle to the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings respectively.
These simple variations cover much of the basic
picking postures found in classical guitar.
Now let’s play some music. There are several
basic patterns which epitomize the types of fingerpicking
typically found in classical guitar. The first
is arpeggiation. This is closely related to the
posture described above. Here are a few refinements.
Place the fingers in advance of the chord or arpeggios
you are going to play. When picking individual
notes of an arpeggio think of resting the fingertips
on the strings and then taking them out one at
a time in a smooth continuous motion. A good demonstration
of our first posture and arpeggiation is found
in our first example.
1 is from an anonymous classical guitar standard
named “Romanza” (“Romance”).
Thought to be Spanish in origin, it is based almost
exclusively on arpeggiation; specifically a repetitive
fingerpicking pattern of steady arpeggiated eighth
notes in 3/4 meter. Note that the thumb sounds
the low E with the ring finger on the first beat
and the other notes in the measure are played singly.
The picking pattern in this phrase is confined
to a particular string group: the 6th, 3rd, 2nd
and 1st strings. The pattern is maintained as fixed
approach while the left hand plays changing notes
on the 1st string. These different notes involve
both step-wise and arpeggio melodic motion in E
minor. The 6th, 3rd and 2nd strings are played
as open strings in this phrase. The texture is
largely single notes which are allowed to ring,
forming sustained chords. Strive for a legato phrasing
on the fretted notes and hold each note for its
maximum duration and use lateral finger vibrato
on key notes to impart a singing quality to the