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Technical Exercises for the Absolute Beginner

Technique gets a lot of talk in the classical guitar world. Beginners, especially self taught beginners, can often feel lost about the proper way to practice technique.

Technique is the way our fingers move when we play guitar. It’s not certain arpeggio exercises or scales; it’s not a specific routine. Technique is just the way our hands move, all the stuff we do with our hands (scales, arpeggios) are tools to be added to our technique tool box as we improve.

With that in mind, the real goal of technical practice is to establish good movement patterns. This is especially important for the beginner: bad habits persist for a long time.

The First Lesson: Right Hand

What I do with my students on the first lesson is take them through a series of exercises meant to work on good movement of the fingers with a free stroke. I owe a lot of what I do to my guitar pedagogy class.

  1. Set up a hand position (check out this video). Several cues are used, including looking for the x between the thumb and index finger. I usually have the student do this a few times with my help (I say some cues) and then a few times with out. If it’s a young student, I teach their parents the hand position as well.
  2. Fingers alone. After a good hand position is going, I have the student keep the thumb planted and play with i m a all together. The student should move their fingers all the way back into the hand, just like wrapping the fingers around an object. I encourage a quick movement with a big follow through.
  3. i, ma, m, a. After working with all the fingers we work with i alone. Same drill: quick motion, big follow through back into the hand. Then m a together. Then m and a separately. Whenever we use m or a the middle, ring and pinky finger all come along for the ride and go back into the hand together (this is why I work with m a together first, it encourages this kind of motion).
  4. The Thumb. The fingers stay planted, and we work the thumb on different strings. Again a big follow through is used. I encourage the student to “aim” for the side of the index finger near the tip.

These exercises become the students routine, to be done every practice session. These exercises don’t take long to perform, which is help for students with limited practice time. I’d rather have my students practicing music than exercises.

The First Lesson: Left Hand

Most of my beginning classical guitar students start with simple chords in the left hand. We work on strumming with the thumb to get a sense of rhythm and time down. We also talk about counting and the various note values.

In short, I don’t do a lot of stuff for the left hand right away. We talk about correct finger placement (generally: fingertips right behind the fret), and let it go at that. Later on, I incorporate more exercises for the left hand.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 September 24
    Karen permalink

    Thank you for the instructions on right hand technique! I’m one of those unfortunates who learned it wrong, and am now trying to retrain my right hand. I find your instructions to be very clear and easy to follow.

  2. 2009 September 27

    Thanks, that’s a great post and it’s something so crucial to get right from the start…

  3. 2009 September 28

    Hi, thanks for your instructions and for this site too. I find it very interesting. I’m one of those over 60 who has taken up guitar lately and I don’t have a teacher. I probably have a lot of bad habits 🙂 I have developed one good one though. I warm up improvising on the guitar… sort of a mix between scales and some melody fragments or whatever comes to mind, moving all over the soundboard as much as I can. I find this warm up more and more interesting because I play in a much more free way, expressionwise and technically too, than when I play from scores. Do you have a comment to that and do you have suggestions on have to improve the improvisations: how to build them up, make a structure, avoid repetition and boring parts and so on?

  4. 2009 September 28

    Any recommendations for hand relaxation? When playing mandolin and guitar my hands start out very tight. After I play for an hour or so they loosen up and feel fine.

    That’s fine for situations where I play for hours on end and my crowd shows up later rather than earlier, but now that I’m doing more 30- and 45- minute shows I need to be relaxed and limber when I hit the stage.

    Didn’t have this problem 20 years ago, but at age 45 I’m starting to worry about long term sustainability. I’m self-taught, so my technique is probably crap.

  5. 2009 September 28

    @Ole

    I would say you shouldn’t avoid repetition. That sort of thing gives coherence, just like in a composition. Take an idea you have and try to develop it. Do it on different strings, with different rhythms, anything you can think of. Improvising is just like a composition, so think of it that way: statement, departure, return.

    One that that really helped me with improvising was learning to play major scale forms in thirds, triads, and seventh chords. It helps break you out of that “go up the scale then back down” stepwise improvising.

    @Robert

    It sounds like you need to develop a warm up routine that you do each day. I find that my routine in the morning (more on that later) sets me up for the whole day, but you may have to find a way to do a warm up in 15 minutes or so before the concert.

    I think the exercises in this article are a good base. In fact, I do a variation on them every day at the start of my practice. That combined with arpeggio formulas and some short scale fragments sets me up for the rest of the practice day.

    If your problem is more psychological — ie. it takes you while to settle into a “performance state” where you feel loose and really on — you might look into The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. Chapter 17 deals with building a “trigger” to settle into a performance state.

  6. 2010 January 2

    Just discovered your blog. Very interesting material.

    Do you teach very young beginners? As a teacher I use my “New Dimensions in Classical Guitar for Children published by Mel Bay.
    Ae you familiar with it?

    I hope you’ll include more articles on teaching the young. After all these students will be the core audience for future classical guitar concerts.

    Thanks,

    Sonia Michelson

  7. 2012 September 2
    joseph permalink

    one feels motivated again with the expert advice in your notes! when bad habits creep in it must be checked. i appreciate all the advice. joe alexander

  8. 2013 January 27

    At 69 I am not very accomplished after playing off and on since I was 12. I find your site rather helpful. My barre is always tight because I cannot get all the strings down and use the other fingers. I am working on Bach Opus 3. It is driving me nuts because I can’t keep the barres flat. My index finger has an unususal curve to it that prevents getting clear tones. I have taped it with mild success but the tape comes of too soon so it is not a viable alternative. It is really frustrating and I have not discovered anything yet that will help to get this finger to lay flat and use the other fingers. Have you anythoughts?

  9. 2013 July 31
    Fernando Giraldo permalink

    I’m looking for a book oneasy classical exercises on guitar. It shows a brown guitar on the back cover. It’s called “Easy Classical Execises” for beginners. Do you think you have it?

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