To conclude our video series covering right-hand technique development in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude N°1, I’ll explore how to use the concept of bursts (another rhythmic manipulation) to develop speed and further strengthen right-hand rhythmic precision, right-hand preparation, control, and clarity.
Aside from the lush harmonies and hauntingly evocative melodies of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ music, the physicality of strumming or arpeggiating through all six strings, of sinking a fat thumb rest-stroke into a deep melody, of sliding all four left-hand fingers across the fretboard through diminished 7th chords produces a visceral joy unlike any other I experience when playing the guitar.
One great example of a passage providing this physical joy is the arpeggio section of Prelude Nº2. While there are a few tricks for making the left hand slide around with more facility, I’m going to focus on some possible right hand fingering solutions that have helped my students over the years.
There are three patterns to master with the first offering most possibilities. Try to work on all patterns carefully until they all feel fluid. The thumb should play through both the 6th and 5th strings. I prefer using a light rest stroke so that I land on string 4 and am ready to proceed from there.
ppimamip – This fingering seems to be the favorite for most of my students. Thumb gets overworked a bit and when it is next to other patterns the right hand has to shift its position across the strings increasing the margin for error.
pimaiiip or pimaiiii or ppimaaaa – These options work well but require careful practice to sound precise. I prefer the first for clarity and I cannot get the last to work for me but have seen other guitarists use it successfully.
pimamami – This fingering can work well as m is the longer finger and can reach out of a stable hand position for the first string.
pimapima – This one is pretty straight forward but requires a clear movement from the thumb to move through two strings as if it were one.
mipmipmi or aipaipai or amiamiam – The favorite is the first option. While the last option (no thumb) works well to keep the hand in place, I find that involving the thumb allows faster speeds. I prefer the second pattern.
Once you’ve determined which patterns feel right to your hand, work them up and then work on mastering them back to back with the other patterns.
Pattern 1 + 2
Pattern 1 + 3
Hope this helps!
I have to admit that I may be enjoying Fernando Sor’s etudes too much these days. Many of them conjure a nice summer walk in the countryside with the occasional mildly adventurous detour. A set of favorites that I’m editing will be published soon but I thought I’d post a lesson on one of them and how I have been using it to warm up and build technique. His etudes are ideal in many ways to integrate musicality into technique because listening to the subtleties and manipulations of Sor’s familiar but often charming harmonies is so pleasurable.
Once you master his etudes, there are many possibilities for expansion but I’m going to use Etude Op. 35, Nº9 to illustrate how I like to use it to develop right hand technique. Here is a read-through for those of you not familiar with it.
Try to build flexibility into your right hand by playing the etude as written with the following right hand patterns:
piai, pimi, piâi
Once these are reliably developed, you’re ready for some fun. Use the following pattern to help develop the weaker alternation with these patterns:
piaiaiai, piamamam, pimimimi
Or, another option could be to explore moving out of a right hand arpeggio position into a more right hand scalar position with:
piaiamim, piaiaimi, piaiamia, piaiamam
Or, if you are feeling musically creative, explore adding a note to complement the melody within the key:
Change it up a bit to get in your triplets:
Or, if you prefer:
pimamiamiami, piamipamiami, etc…
There are so many places to go with these little gems. Fun!
Download the edition of my score for free: Fernando Sor Etude Op. 35, Nº9
If Mauro Giuliani’s works are in your repertoire, or those of any classical period composer, you will know that interval runs of octaves, sixths, and thirds are used to great effect. Think the fourth variation of Giuliani’s Folias Variations (Op. 45) or the grand finale to his 1st Rossiniana (Op. 119)! Interval runs are everywhere in our repertoire and it’s worth studying them either through repertoire or through scale practice.
The two chromatic octave exercises below should get you started. They are useful for warming up, coordinating the hands, independence and opposing movement in the left hand fingers, and can even serve as a vehicle for right-hand development, too. Here are a few ways to focus on them:
- Start very slowly and pluck both notes with simultaneously. No rolling!
- Keep the wrist relatively still so that the fingers of the left hand are extending and contracting vertically (i.e. often moving in opposite directions from each other).
- Keep the left hand fingers soft and close to the fretboard.
Use right-hand fingerings: pi, pm, pa, pm pi, pi pm, pa pm, pm pa, pa pi, and pi pa.
Once this feels comfortable and in control, explore some variations like the one below.
Use right-hand fingerings: pi, pm, pa, pm pi, pipm, papm, pmpa, papi, and pipa.
Let me know if you find this helpful. Part 2 coming soon!
One of the easiest ways to improve right-hand arpeggio studies like Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Etude Nº1, Leo Brouwer’s Etude Nº6, or Francisco Tárrega’s Estudio Brillante, or the parts of pieces where arpeggios occur for an extended time is understanding when exactly the left-hand fingers must place or release to prepare for the next note or chord formation. Often, fingers are placed too early or too late, and both situations either overexert the fingers, the nerves, or worst of all, the musical intent. Arpeggios are, after all, broken chords. It is very rare that all fingers should place at once if they come in ‘broken’.
Sequential planting of the left-hand fingers is a skill that choreographs left hand movement to a deeper and more subtle level than simply grabbing at the next chord frantically at the start of a measure.
Here is a simple but effective exercise to help develop the principle of timely left-hand finger placement. The key is to time the placement of the new finger in relation to the meter and when it is due to enter and to avoid arbitrarily placing it at the beginning of the measure.
Go through each exercise a few times plucking every single note of the arpeggio. Once this feels comfortable and the timing is starting to feel synced with both hands, slur the entering note in time to develop a sense of pulse in the left hand, too.
There are infinite ways to expand this concept but one of my favorites is to move into cross-rhythms with accents. My idea of fun!
Explore your arpeggio pieces to see if you can apply this concept and let me know if it helps!
Want to feel more accurate when playing through your pieces? Want speedy scales? Want fluid arpeggios? Want to be a guitar superhero? Work on basic movements. Hard work on the very basic movements of technique allows an inner exploration of our limits and abilities while giving us a bit of a roadmap for quantifiable and steady improvement.
Below are some very basic right hand drills that find their way back into my warm-up and finger routines often. It’s not that I need to practice them much anymore but rather they allow me to continually refine the most important movements necessary for pleasurable music making. They also allow me to set both short and long term tempo and endurance goals.
Try going through each of these three drills with the suggested fingerings. If you are more of a beginner, spend time on the bold faced fingerings, if you are more advanced, go through all fingerings in search for what does not work well, then focus your energy there. Don’t neglect the basics, though!
Follow these guidelines:
- Use a metronome and start slowly (quarter = 50-60).
- Go through each drill at least 3 times (I do 5 if I have time) with each fingering. Increase tempo slightly for each one.
- Do not sacrifice clarity and movement efficiency.
- Focus on the quality of the movements and the sound.
Rest-stroke fingerings: im, mi, am, ma, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam
Free-stroke fingerings: im, mi, am, ma, pi, pm, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam, pa, pami, pmi
For patterns involving three fingers play three repeats to hit all permutations.
Play the following drills using free-stroke and by relegating each right hand finger group across the three strings (for example, with ima, place i on string 3, m on string 2, and a on string 1).
Play each of the seven movements for at least 4+ repetitions or set a timer for 30-45 seconds.
All free-stroke: ima, pim, pma, pia
Try dedicating 60 days in a row (or with as much consistency as possible) to these movements and you will see results. Also, if you want a simple goal. Try to get each movement up to quarter = 126 over the course of the 60 days. Or, shoot higher! Why not?
One of the practice techniques I write about in Mastering Tremolo is practicing your preferred four-note tremolo pattern (or a variety of them) with the following two cross-rhythmic manipulations as another great method for developing evenness because the finger performing the main beat is always rotating.
When practicing the following four exercises try the following practice approaches:
- Use the metronome and start very slowly. Set the metronome to one click per note but try to retain the feel of the overall beat as you play.
- When playing slowly focus on the quality of the space between the notes. Is it even or erratic? Are you consciously planting to prepare and thus silencing the note? If so, make sure that the plant is timed evenly for each space.
- Try spending an intense 2 minutes on one exercise and then deliberately resting your mind (take some deep breaths, look out a window for a change in scenery, stand up, etc…) for 30 seconds before moving on to the next exercise. Focus for 2 minutes, rest for 30 seconds. Move on in this fashion until you’ve completed all 4 exercises. Then push the metronome beat up a few clicks, and go for another set. Complete 3 more sets for a total of 4, each with a slightly higher click rate on the metronome.
I was working on Joao Pernambuco’s groovy Interrogando with an extremely young and bright student yesterday. Despite his ability to absorb new material at a pace that inspires me, he was having a difficult time making this little part sound fluid.
After a bit of analysis, we agreed that it was due to the lack of clarity in the right hand. So, instead of playing it over and over, which is often default behavior for most students confronting a tricky passage, we decided to break it down and come up with a list of steps to once and for all solve the problem. Here are the steps.
Step 1 – Write out strings.
Writing out the strings as numbers also helps see patterns if you process information better that way (i.e. 5232 5423 1232 ).
Step 2 – Choose the best right hand fingering options. See this post for more about choosing the best options: Conde Claros, Scales, and String-Crossing.
We came up with two solutions. The top one was chosen by the student because his technique was more suited to it. I preferred the second solution given to my preference for aipi instead of amim.
Step 3 – Analyze where the right hand position change happens (if at all).
Step 4 – Practice the last box from Step 3 using right hand alone with a focus on rhythm.
Step 5 – Bring left hand into the game for that box only (right hand now does it correctly and proficiently and left hand has to catch up is a much better option than both hands struggling and doing it somewhat incorrectly).
Step 6 – Check in with the right hand alone again.
Step 7 – Go back to Step 4 and Step 6 with the second to last box. Add to last box.
Step 8 – Go back to Step 4 and Step 6 with the first box. Add to both boxes.
Step 9 – Do a few minutes of focus, take a mental rest, and go back for several more sets (building mental muscle!).
Step 10 – Check tempo and set tempo goals.
Not only could the student whip through the passage after doing this, his skills at identifying any confusion improved. Lots of “Oh!” and “Now that feels easy!”.
Any guitar related New Year’s resolutions? If one of them was to improve your tremolo technique, then this post is for you.
As we all know, tremolo is tricky. As I mentioned a while ago in the Tremolo, Part 1 post, the elements in place necessary for tremolo to achieve musical expressivity, and come across as fluid and natural, are rhythm precision, consistent intensity from note to note, uniform tone, and speed. Here are several tried and true ways of working on tremolo that always make my fingers feel more confident with tremolo.
Training for Finger Return and Speed
We can work on speed indirectly by changing the right hand pattern. This demands the return of each finger to prepare for its next stroke. Choose a large section of a tremolo piece you are working on and play it with the following fingerings:
- To develop the return of i practice pimi and piai.
- To develop the return of m practice pmim and pmam.
- To develop the return of a practice pama and paia. I would argue that pama is the most beneficial as a usually has a developmental deficiency.
After a masterclass at Antonio Lauro Festival in Venezuela 20+ years ago, phenomenal guitarist David Russell was fielding questions about technique. I think someone asked him how he did tremolo if he broke a nail. With his usual enthusiastic demeanor, he sat down and demonstrated, “If I break a, I play tremolo like this [pimi]. If I break m, I play tremolo like this [piai]. And, if I break i, I’m screwed!”
Training for Improved Rhythm
Another technique to improve pulse, rhythmic consistency, and control from note to note is a bit more difficult to master but well worth exploring. Set your metronome to a slow tempo at first and then practice a section of a piece or the tremolo pattern (pami) on open strings by setting the click to coincide with a.
Then apply the same technique by setting the click to coincide with m.
And, finally, apply the same technique by setting the click to coincide with i.
Here is a masterclass where David Russell demonstrates the technique with his foot instead of the metronome (15:41), and, incidentally, talks about a whole variety of relevant guitar issues – practicing technique, memorizing effectively, etc… You’re in luck if you speak Spanish.
Training for Improved Finger Placement
And, once you’ve practiced the techniques above, try playing expanded bits repeatedly focusing on planting the finger next in line after playing what’s in the brackets.
Play what is in the brackets. Plant a. Rest. Repeat 3x or more.
Proceed to the next group.
Continue with emphasis on the next finger for planting.
Play what is in the brackets. Plant m. Rest. Repeat 3x or more.
Proceed to apply the same to i.
Hope this helps!
Thought I’d let you all know that I’ve published the first of a series of technique workouts for classical guitarists. This first book, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building, is all about developing a strong foundation with a focus on the most common movements necessary for technique development in both hands. It is suitable for all levels – beginners trying to develop their own routine or advanced players looking for a systematic way to approach technique development. I wish I had had this when I was a young guitarist! It is available on kindle for now with more options soon. Stay tuned for videos going through some of the movements, supplemental publications, and more advanced workouts!