Guitar Scales: The Left 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.

Finger Exchange

The most basic concept of scales is finger exchange. As one finger finishes playing another comes down while the first relaxes and prepares for the notes to come. Scott Tennant explains in Pumping Nylon the hand position and effective use of tension/relaxation is paramount to finger exchange. To that end, a solid hand position is the first step. Tennant recomments a position with the large knuckles parallel to the guitar neck and space between each finger. He suggests that the finger should remains about a half-inch away from the fretboard.1 Sometimes an angled position is neccessary (pinky side of the palm further away); the same rules for finger exchange, relaxation and distance from the fretboard apply.

After one finger is played, another comes down while the first comes off the string. It’s important to note that Tennant uses the word spring–the finger springs away from the fretboard. That word has the connotation that a finger must be forcefully removed from the string. This is not always case. All that’s required is to let the finger relax and it will carry away from the string naturally. At faster tempos, however, some work from the finger extensors may be required to empty a finger quick enough.

Both Pumping Nylon and Stanley Yates’ Classical Guitar Method recommend that students learn a good hand position by setting all four left hand fingers, 1 per fret on a single string. Apply pressure with all four fingers, then relax.2,3 Continue doing this pulsing motion until it feels more natural. You can press and release each finger invidually while keeping the other down or pulse each finger invidually while letting the others hover relaxed over the fretboard.

Shifting Along the Neck

Scales somtimes involve shifting along the neck–a change of position. Julian Byzantines points out that, “Except in certain situations, the arm should move as a unit with the hand while making movements along the fingerboard.”4 Another way to think of this is that arm doesn the moving while the hand goes along the ride–the hand keeps the same position.

A shift itself requires several things to happen. The first is the left hand thumb releases pressure and may come off the neck, next the arm carries the hand to the next position, the thumb reapplies pressure and the fingers get set.

Whenever possible, a position shift should be helped by guide fingers–fingers that stay on the same string and glide up along it (not pressing down). This helps ensure a more secure shift and makes things easier.

It’s important to note that it’s very easy to let the had collapse and extend instead of just moving it. In other words, letting the left hand fingers smash up together to create a more legato sound. At slower tempos, this may be okay, but in faster pieces it could create problems. Most shifting is better done by moving the hand itself rather than collapsing and expanding.

Shifting Across the Neck

Moving from one string to another in the same position can often be deceptively difficult. Again Julian Byzantine has some good advice: “moving accross the fingerboard will require some amendments to the positons of the forearm and thumb in order to facilitate access to the strings…”5

Set up a solid hand position and then put it on the neck. Now move up and down. Rather than letting the wrist collapse and arch, keep it straight and move the entire arm up and down. In other words: move the thumb up and down the back of the neck.

Moving accross the neck can also make use of slight rotation of the wrist to achieve smooth string crossings. Take an ascending chromatic scale using the fingers 1 2 3 4. As for plays, rotating the wrist slightly helps to move the first finger to the next string easily.6

Putting it All Together

Special attention can be paid to the left hand by doing simple exercises like one-position, short scales. The key is to really focus on finger exchange, relaxation and not letting the fingers fly away from the strings. Shifting along the neck is easily practiced by shifting along each string, it really only takes a few notes, like the finger combinations 1, 2 SHIFT 1. You can vary the length of the shift of work up to bigger shifts one fret at a time.

There’s also the matter of finger independence. Each left hand finger should be able to work relatively independent of the others. This is relative. The third and fourth fingers are often never completely independent. Favor the weaker fingers in coming up with your hand positions and shifting, and it should work out just fine!
1 Scott Tennant. Pumping Nylon. (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing) p. 11-12.
2 Ibid.
3 Stanley Yates. Modern Classical Guitar Method, grade 1. (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications). p. 11.
4 Julian Byzantine. Guitar Technique Rationalized. (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications). p. 29.
5 Ibid.
6 Most of these ideas are not mine alone–they come from guitar pedagogy class dicussions with Stanley Yates

Posted on in Classical Guitar Technique


  • Shane

    Great blog, being more of a lead guitarist, i still take the time out to practice a bit of classical guitar and love watching and listening to players perform this style.
    Would have to be one of the most technical styles of guitar playing around.
    Nice work 🙂