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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. Enough said.

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.



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 melody.

Example 1




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