Intellectual vs. Actual Technique

Every guitarist likes to read about technique. We pour over one of the many guitar technique books, and imagine ourselves playing. We try out concepts with the guitar too.

But are we really doing anything different?

Maybe. Our intellectual technique can be different from our actual technique. The way you think you move can be different from the way you move in real life. I think many beginning players (including myself!) get really caught up in doing things right when they should really be just doing something.

Intellectual vs. Actual

For instance, I was having a conversation on twitter with Heike Matthiesen about rest vs. free stroke. Say said, “for me it is the same movement with a different ending – not my own idea: I learned it like that from Pepe Romero!”

That’s true. Most guitarists think of free and rest strokes that way. One movement (from the big knuckle) with different endings (involvement of the other knuckles). Rest and Free stroke can also be done with a similar (or the same) hand position. But that’s an intellectual construct — someone put a label on the rest and free strokes and described what happened naturally. To a beginner these two strokes will probably feel completely different! I learned about the similarity of the two strokes after I’d learned to do them.

Every try to tell a beginner how to play a free stroke by describing all the joint movements? It’s ridiculous, tedious and largely ineffective. Not only that, but it’s too much to think about for the average beginner. Those specific movements are an example of intellectual technique — a label put on an action. It’s much easier to say, “It’s just like closing your right hand into a fist.” All the right movements, none of the tedious explanation.

Both of the above are examples of intellectual technique vs actual. Much like music theory, which follows practice rather than defining it, intellectual technique should be a function of actual technique. That is, the way you describe and perceive yourself moving should follow an actual movement.

In short, were there a choice between practicing and reading a technique book. I’d invariable pick practicing. Not that reading technical books isn’t valuable, but there is much more to be learned by doing something.

Posted on in Classical Guitar Technique


  • Eduardo Martinez

    Hi Chris,

    Interesting subject. As a practicing guitarist & T’ai Chi teacher, I see the connection. It is difficult to explain in words how to move, while direct experience in movement is necessary. Practice, as you expose, creates two distinct “memories” that we need to master a movement: kinestetic (movement memory), & positional memory (where our bodies & parts are at any point in time relative to each other.) Practice is the only way to create these two memories, while words can help explain how to get started. Each complement each other.


    Eduardo Martinez

  • Aidy Eaton

    Every guitarist likes to read about technique. Broad generalisation.
    We try out concepts too…. vague. Needs clarification. What concepts? How try?
    just be doing something… vague. Sounds mindless.. which I know you don’t advocate.
    Intellectual technique v’s actual. False meaningless distinction/ construct. Someone made this label.
    Free/ rest stroke.. natural. for whom? I’ve seen children naturally flick the string outward with the nail forward.
    Agreed avoid tedious explanations but also vague generalisations. Is it like making little fists?
    how you describe…follow actual movement? What would be the point of describing faulty movement? Practise makes permanent.. not perfect. It there was a choice, I’d intelligently identify specific areas for improvement, read broadly, consult widely then apply what was relevant and appropriate to my specific needs.
    I read Anthony Glise’s Handbook. He mentioned open and closed hand schools. I knew about planting from Tennant’s P.Nylon but Glise elborated and took my thinking in directions I’d never naturally discover. I think your article is interesting.The real issue is one of metacognition and self-awareness/ regulation. rather than false distinctions between intellectual and actual technique. Therefore, encourage your readers to video a performance and review it intelligently.

  • Steve C

    I think this overintellectualising (is this a word?) is common in older beginner players like myself. We like to deconstruct everything down to so much detail that we tend to forget that playing guitar is really a physical thing that requires physical training. Sometimes I have to be careful that I don’t spend too much time/money on books etc explaining the finite detail of playing that could be better spent practicing actual music. Enjoying your blog Chris, good stuff!