Watching a great classical guitarist perform is a unique experience. Alone on the stage, pieces by J.S. Bach, Francisco Tárrega, and Heitor Villa-Lobos come to life, full of melody, counterpoint, and incredible virtuosity.
Though it’s true that great classical musicians devote their entire life to their craft to play this amazing music, the enjoyment gleaned from the intense learning process and the rewards of accomplishment are available to anyone up for the challenge.
Bear in mind, learning classical guitar is not easy. Even experienced strummers and pickers will have to put in some serious time in the woodshed, but don’t let challenging etudes and metronomes scare you off. By finding the right teacher and getting a solid start with your technique, learning classical guitar is a gratifying hobby, and before long, you’ll be hopelessly addicted to the beautiful sound of the instrument.
Whether you’re completely new to guitar, or have been strumming steel strings for years, Syracuse University’s classical guitar professor, Ken Meyer, has some invaluable advice for anyone interested in taking up classical guitar.
Don’t Go It Alone
While there are many great books and YouTube videos available, learning classical guitar is not something that can be done on your own. It’s absolutely essential to have an experienced teacher to guide you through the process.
“Look to a local college,” says Meyer. “The guitar instructor there will either have good grad students, or know people in town. It’s very easy to find a bad classical guitar teacher, so it’s important to find a guy who understands the instrument really well, and that you get along with. It’s a challenging thing and a difficult process, but if you have that mentor relationship, it can be fun.”
Having said that, here are some basic tips and techniques to think about and experiment with as you find a teacher.
“The main thing to think about is posture,” Meyer explains. Most people associate their hands and arms as the source of the physical actions associated with playing the guitar, but it actually goes much deeper than that. “It’s really from the trunk, or the lower back,” says Meyer. “Find a comfortable chair without arms, something you can sit up straight in, and just feel everything coming from your lower back. Totally put all of your weight over your hips.”
“With classical players, you will see their left leg elevated, or they’re going to have some sort of device that’s going to elevate the guitar so it looks like it’s held with a strap,” Meyer says. A low-slung ax may look cool for punk rock, but it doesn’t promote great technique. The elevated left leg offers stability and promotes the best playing position for classical guitar.
Meyer tells his students to draw a “Z”, (see above) starting from their eyes to the headstock, down the length of the strings to the right arm, which should be parallel to the floor, with the hand comfortably resting near the soundhole for optimum tone production. “It all promotes this center idea,” he explains. “If it’s done right, the guitar can be totally supported by the right arm, your legs, and your chest, leaving your left hand free to play.” Your left and right legs should extend out at about 12:00 and 2:30, respectively, with your feet grounded firmly beneath your knees.
Due to the contrapuntal nature of classical music, classical guitarists must develop independence in the fingers of the right hand. Sticking to tradition, the fingers are labeled by their abbreviations in Latin: “P” (thumb), “I” (index), “M” (middle) and “A” (ring). The pinky, labeled “C” or “Q”, is rarely used.
“The idea with playing in the right hand is that you swing from the large knuckle, almost like you’re making a fist” says Meyer. The tip joint should remain relaxed, and be allowed to bend with the pressure of the string, with your large knuckle directly over the string that you’re playing. Meyer suggests starting off with trimmed nails, and let them grow in as you practice and improve.
“Both hands are the same as far as wrist, motion, and muscles; just one is upside down,” says Meyer. “There’s a point that you should always try to hit, with the fingernail as close to the string as possible. The palm is parallel and close to the neck, which forces the fingers to move across the neck, rather than your wrist.” Last but not least, keep your thumb planted on the back of the neck, not reaching over the fretboard.