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.
I’ve just released the first edition of my new book! Over the next few weeks, I will post a few excerpts or ideas from the book for Six String Journal readers. If you can’t wait, order a copy (and leave a review!). : )
Mastering Diatonic Scale Forms represents a book I wish I had had 35 years ago. Here is the description of the book from the inside cover:
MASTERING DIATONIC SCALE FORMS
Scale mastery is absolutely essential for the ambitious and serious guitarist. Touted as the single most effective way to solve technical problems by the most distinguished pedagogues and professionals, developing a scale practice and understanding the most useful way to develop it will lead to breakthroughs and improvement in your technique. Mastering Diatonic Scale Forms is geared towards the advancing guitarist and offers a practical approach for understanding the various necessary scale forms and some insightful methods to supercharge the results of your study.
Here is a warm up sequence that I used to do every morning. It is useful for building right hand endurance, finger alternation, speed, pulse, rhythm, and legato. The idea behind it is simple. Set the metronome to a very slow beat, somewhere (50-70). Throughout the whole sequence, the beat remains constant but with very slight and precise increments we increase the number of notes between the beats.
I would go through all 13 steps (using free stroke) and then go through the whole thing two more times using different right hand fingerings am and ai. So, that’s 39 steps. I actually would go all the way up to fret 12 (3 cycles) and often would use a diminished 7th chord or some left hand variation to keep it interesting. Vary what you need. As you will notice, I’ve been more detailed in the first 3 steps and little by little have resorted to short hand as the basic sequence becomes evident.
Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.
Phew! Go back for more. You know it’s good for you.
So you’ve practiced the passages using the tried and true metronome crawl up to tempo, you’ve done your visualizing, you’ve done your right hand and left hand alone, and you’re searching for yet another way to work on a troublesome passage or to give yourself an iron-clad safety net? Search no further!
I’m going to use a passage from Isaac Albéniz’s Sevilla to illustrate a very effective way to break down a trouble spot. This method is particularly great for passages with rhythmically equal notes. In the following example, you have a continuous string of 16th notes.
STEP 1 – PAUSE, PREPARE, VISUALIZE, REPEAT
Provided you have arrived at your fingering of choice for both hands, practice the passage by playing the first group of 4 16ths, then pause AND prepare/plant the next right and left hand fingers on the upcoming note. Enjoy the notion that theoretically it will be impossible to miss this next note if both left and right hand fingers are prepared.
Play the same group of notes with the same pause and preparation. When your fingers feel confident (I aim for 3-5 well executed and focused repetitions), proceed to the next group of four notes. During the pause, visualize the group of notes you are about to perform before playing them.
Play the same group of notes with the same pause and preparation. When your fingers feel confident, proceed to the next group of four notes until you have gone through the entire passage.
STEP 2 – PAUSE, PREPARE, VISUALIZE
Now go through the passage in the same manner with the pause and preparation. Visualize the next group of 4 16th and play them. Pause, prepare, visualize though the passage. Move forward without repetitions.
STEP 3 – PLAY
Now play through the passage without pause to assess your work. It has to feel good. Now that you are pumped, the fun can begin.
REPEAT STEPS 1-3 DISPLACED BY ONE NOTE
This time notice we are working with a new group of sixteenths displaced by one note.
REPEAT STEPS 1-3 DISPLACED BY TWO NOTES
REPEAT STEPS 1-3 DISPLACED BY THREE NOTES…
Hope this helps. Challenge yourself with groupings of 6 or 8 16ths or if you really have a lot of time and the passage is particularly troublesome, groups of 3 or 5 16ths. If you listen with focus and observe the behavior of your fingers with curiosity you will improve!
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!
The ability to place the left hand in a position to give equal opportunity for each and every finger to fret precisely is essential for playing well. Pinching a fret precisely means pinching a fret while avoiding contact with any adjacent string/s.
There are many instances where the ringing of adjacent strings is necessary. Think of your Bach fugues!
So here are two exercises I like to show students who are struggling with placing left hand fingers precisely. Some things to keep in mind:
- Listen! Keep your ear on the open string to make sure it rings continuously while you play the chromatic notes around it.
- Play really slowly to insure absolute legato.
- Keep right hand fingerings simple. Try using p and i or m for the open string.
- Pay attention to your wrist placement. It should remain relatively flat. Do not push your wrist out in front of the guitar. To create a tunnel for the open string take the bend across the joints in the finger. Think of creating a semi-circle with the finger.
Hope this helps clean up those sloppy pinches! : )
My usual morning consists of a good warm-up (a combination of left hand movements and slurs, right hand alternation movements and arpeggios, and scales), before moving on to practicing spots in pieces, and finally playing through pieces and working on new pieces. However, there are periods of the year where I have more time to extend my technique practice and to learn new pieces. I’m approaching that period now (yeah!) so I’m experimenting with new finger gymnastics to address weaknesses in my technique and building a hearty list of new repertoire to absorb over the summer.
To this end, I was rummaging through my boxes and shelves of music and found a well-worn copy of Francisco Tárrega’s Complete Technical Studies. I pulled it out and went through it again for fun. If you’re looking to shake up your routine, I highly recommend some of his studies.
Below are two of Tárrega’s left-hand exercises that will surely make your left hand sweat. Tárrega notates using im alternation for the right hand but I prefer to simply assign i, m, and a, to strings 3, 2, and 1, and have p play all the bass strings to preserve my nails.
Try going from 1st position all the way to 9th and back. Also, try the same concept with other sets of left hand pairs: 14 and 23 or 13 and 24.
Hope that gets your left hand going!
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?
Though the following video is in Spanish, David Russell offers a bit of an intimate motivational talk after a festival in Ecuador.
What I love hearing from him and what I hope students take away from this is the key and central point of hard work. As David says, “There are no shortcuts.”
Other bits of wisdom from the talk:
“Demand the most from yourself without losing sight of why you started in the first place.”
“Like compound interest, the hard work you do now will pay you back many times over in the future.”
And, this is where dedicated hard work gets you: