David Russell’s nail shape.

Finding the right nail shape to express yourself on the guitar is an elusive science. To make the puzzle more complicated are the facts that nails are organic, are continuously growing, and are affected by variables like weather and diet. Because everyone attacks the strings with variable angles and tensions in the fingertips and because we all have an ideal sound we are after one shape may not be as effective as another. Some guitarists have a “sound” with little sonic variance while some use color and gradations of timbre to interpret their music. So, whether you are a beginner starting to experiment or an advanced player looking to expand your knowledge, the following videos are the best I’ve found so far to see exactly what the pros do and how they approach nail shape.

In french with subtitles, Six String Journal favorite Thomas Viloteau shows an ingenious method for adapting the shape of the nail to your stroke.

Here is a screen shot from a video of Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén checking his nails before his recording of the Bach lute works.

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 4.45.14 PM
Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén checking nails before recording.

Last but not least, Cuban virtuoso Marco Tamayo details the steps he uses to shape his nails.

Years ago, when Marco was visiting he drew this diagram out when I asked about nails.

Marco Nail Shape
Marco Tamayo’s nail shaping diagram.

Go shape then pluck!

“Il re della chitarra” – L’Stampa

“The king of guitar.” – L’Stampa

If there ever was an argument for practicing rest stroke scales, I think Marco Tamayo would settle it. Though the video below is casually shot by a student asking about fingering solutions to Joaquín Rodrigo’s Aranjuez and Joaquín Turina’s Soleares, there is gold in it. Just observing the complete ease and extreme mastery of Marco’s approach reveals how much care and thought has gone into every single action.

Here is another valuable video where Marco gives us details on nail shaping and filing. Again, probably one of a handful of videos that are worth watching on the subject.

Check out his newly published Principles of Guitar Performance. Or, if you are looking for a start into building a technical routine check out the Technical Workout Workbooks on Six String Journal’s publications page!


Expanding Fernando Sor’s Etudes

images-1.jpgI 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.

First Step

Try to build flexibility into your right hand by playing the etude as written with the following right hand patterns:

piai, pimi, piâi

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 1.jpg

Variation 1

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

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 2.jpg

Variation 3

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

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 3.jpg

Variation 4

Or, if you are feeling musically creative, explore adding a note to complement the melody within the key:

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 4.jpg

Variation 5

Change it up a bit to get in your triplets:

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 6.jpg

Or, if you prefer:

pimamiamiami, piamipamiami, etc…

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 5.jpg

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

Intervals, Part 1 – Chromatic Octaves

If Mauro Giuliani’s works are in your repertoire, or those of 340px-Mauro_Giulianiany 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:

  1. Start very slowly and pluck both notes with simultaneously. No rolling!
  2. 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).
  3. Keep the left hand fingers soft and close to the fretboard.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpapm pipi pm, pa pm, pm papa piand pi pa.

Chromatic Octave.jpg

Once this feels comfortable and in control, explore some variations like the one below.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpa, pm pipipm, papm, pmpa, papi, and pipa.

Chromatic Octave 2.jpg

Let me know if you find this helpful. Part 2 coming soon!


Want Speedy Scales?

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:

  1. Use a metronome and start slowly (quarter = 50-60).
  2. Go through each drill at least 3 times (I do 5 if I have time) with each fingering. Increase tempo slightly for each one.
  3. Do not sacrifice clarity and movement efficiency.
  4. Focus on the quality of the movements and the sound.


Rest-stroke fingerings: immi, amma, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam

Free-stroke fingerings: immi, ammapipm, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam, pa, pami, pmi

For patterns involving three fingers play three repeats to hit all permutations.

Exercise 1

Technique Cheat Sheet 1.jpg

Exercise 2

Technique Cheat Sheet 2.jpg


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

Exercise 3

Technique Cheat Sheet 3.jpg

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?

David Russell Technique Talk

David Russell is a guitar hero for many reasons but one of them is for his ability to make everything he plays look effortless. Here is another masterclass snippet where he provides insightful guidance on the importance of a proper warm-up routine. He makes the analogy to sports, where warming up the muscles for practice helps to refine the motion and muscles necessary to perform efficiently. If muscles are not warmed up, larger muscles take over causing imbalance and tension.

Even if you do not speak Spanish, you can follow David’s crystal clear and carefully conceived approach to warming up. Nevertheless, I’ll summarize a few key points:

  1. Start with very simple movements in the left hand like ascending slurs with all the pairs of fingers (12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14).
  2. Move on to the right hand and work on perfecting a single finger free-stroke with each finger (i, m, a, p)
  3. Go back to the left hand and work on descending slurs (21, 32, 43, 31, 42, 41).
  4. Back to the right hand to work on alternation between pairs of fingers (im, mi, ma, am, etc.). During this time, focus on the effort and resistance it takes each finger to pull through the string. Adjust nails as necessary to create equal resistance. Otherwise, there is imbalance and this will compromise your fluidity. Also, moving from i to m may be easier than moving from m to i. Your job is to make both directions feel as equal as possible.
  5. Move on to imimim, ama, mam, etc., then incorporate slight accents imi, imiama, ama, etc…
  6. Back to the left hand to try compound movements (121, 212, 232, 323, 343, 434, etc…)
  7. Back to right hand to work on imim, mimi, amam, mama, etc… then try doing these movements cross-string.
  8. Then bring the warm-up to a close by spending 10+ minutes coordinating both hands with scale fragments: im with 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14, mi with 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14, etc…

If you’d like a bit more detail and a program that follows this approach please check out my recent publication, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar.

Pavel Steidl

We are in an era where from the comfort of your own living room you can watch hours and hours of the greatest guitarists on the planet conduct masterclasses. When I was in music school, masterclasses were always a treat because not only would you receive guidance about your repertoire, you could watch others receive guidance and insight on pieces you may have played or were perhaps on your bucket list of pieces.

If you have not heard Czech guitar virtuoso Pavel Steidl perform, you should. He embodies the pieces he is playing in a supernatural way and it is always clear from the first note of the concert that his music comes from a deep place. And, if you have not seen him teach a masterclass, you should. His ideas are wonderful and ear opening. Here is one where he talks about feeling intervals, displays some finger bending exercises, and even shows how he shapes his nails. True gold for those seeking inspiration and guidance.

Off to practice!

Cross-Rhythms and Tremolo

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Exercise 1

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 2.jpg

Exercise 2

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 3.jpg

Exercise 3

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 1.jpg

Exercise 4

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 4.jpg



Recuerdos de la Alhambra Study Score

Sometimes, one of the daunting things for many young guitarists working on Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra is that it is perceived as long because of the sheer amount of ink and pages it takes to notate that many 32nd notes. The phrases are split over too many lines and the page turns don’t make it a friendly score. I’m not saying the piece is easy but it helps to see the piece as a whole before working on it -a bit like seeing the plans of a new house before building it. Below is a downloadable free pdf of a study score that I made a while ago to help students see the big picture.

Recuerdos Study Score

For more on tremolo, check out my recent book Mastering Tremolo. There are tons of tips for improving your tremolo.

Also, if you feel like anything you’ve done has helped improve your tremolo, feel free to share it in the comments for other readers.

A Way of Thinking of Tremolo

…or should I say, a way of thinking about tremolo? (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Another point Pepe Romero makes in his masterclass is to think of the tremolo pattern originating from a instead of p. This, he explains, is because the first note of the melody coincides with a.

Pepe Tremolo amip 1.jpg

…from my new book, Mastering Tremolo.