Guitar Scales: The Right Hand

Scales are one of the most discussed topics of guitar technique. Many believe that scale practice is the key to virtuosity. No matter what you believe, practicing scales or scale technique can have a positive effect your playing. This week on The Classical Guitar Blog we explore scales and what they mean for the classical guitarist

Moving Through the String

The motion of the right hand fingers is ballastic–it’s quick, they explode through a string. A good way to think of it is that all the joints of a finger move in the same direction: towards the palm.

In his method Stanley Yates explains this very simply by telling students to practice away from the guitar and hold the hand in a loose fist. Let the fingers relax outwards then close them into the first quickly.1 Both Julian Byzantine and Scott Tennant have similar things to say about the movement of the right hand. Both add, however, the the large knuckles at the base of the fingers should remains generally over top of the finger tips.2,3

Just as important as the motion through the string is the return of the finger. We find elements of finger exchange here too. A slow tempos, the fingers can just be relaxed out to starting position. As quicker tempos, some use of the extensor muscles has to come into play. There’s always the speculation that flamenco players are so crazy fast because their extensors are better developed due to rasgueado.

Finger Alternation

In order to remain as relaxed as possible and go quicker, guitarists make use of finger alternation. In short, the right hand fingers walk.

Alternation is tricky business at fast speeds. It’s my belief that anyone can play quickly, but more advanced players can play quickly for longer periods of time while staying relaxed. To that end, Scott Tennant among others recommend speed bursts. “A speed burst is a string of slow notes interrupted by a short burst of fast notes.”4 This can be taken a step further and have a speed burst be a short string of quick notes, then stop and relax. Start with 2-3 notes per burst and build up. It should feel like one motion in which you feel only the first and last note–like two big beats: the first is the burst leading to the second beat which is the last note.

Tennant offers a few caveats about speed mentioning that a speed is a tool and a fast player is not neccessarily a good player. Most important, though, he tells us what few guitarist care to admit: we just don’t play a lot of fast scales. The repertoire is filled with short bursts of scales one or two measures long.5

String Crossing

In a previous post, I mentioned that one should avoid “bad” string crossings. String crossing is something that can trip up a scale really quickly. To that end, string crossing can be practiced independently. Practice quick burst of a few notes after which you immediately place the next finger to play on the next highest or lowest string. This can be extended further by doing a string crossing to a string two or three strings away (super hard!).

Both good and bad crossings should be practiced. Remember that the arm is going to carry the hand to a new strings. That is, just as in the left hand, a “position shift” requires moving the whole arm, wrist and hand as a unit rather than extending or collapsing. This allows you to keep a solid hand position 100% of the time.

Tennant also recommends breaking a scale down into it’s open strings, then practicing only the right hand by playing the open strings exactly as they would be played if the left hand were involved.6 This is especially useful because scales in pieces of music are rarely as neat and tidy as the Segovia Scales or other formula.

Stepping Oustide i m

Many guitarists get locked into strict im alternation. This is not always the best course of action. Anthony Glise recomments that, “students practice scales using the same right patterns found in arpeggio studies.”7 I’ve also mention in the right hand fingering guide linked above that using a can help prevent awkward string crossings. Other combinations that can make for easier scale work can include alternating between three fingers or making use of p.

When working out a passage, try to find the easiest way.

1 Stanley Yates Modern Classical Guitar Method, Grade 1. (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, inc.). p. 27.
2 Scott Tennant Pumping Nylon. (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing). p. 35-36.
3 Julian Byzantine. Guitar Technique Rationalized. (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, inc.). p. 19-21.
4 Tennant. p. 62.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 71.
7 Anthony Glise. Classical Guitar Pedagogy: A Handbook for Teachers. (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, inc.) p. 78.

Posted on in Classical Guitar Technique