Hello dear readers!
I thought over the next few weeks I’d take a look at some aspects of classical guitar technique development and today we start with a look at the left hand. I’ll caveat this post, as I generally do with all my others, in that this is a refelection of my own thoughts and experiences, what I have to say is not the be all and end all and may not work for everyone. I think it’s also important, at this stage, to recognise that technical development can be quite a personal thing – we’re all made slightly differently and we all have our own particular inherent strengths and weaknesses.
It’s also important to realise that technical development is a continually evolving thing – one is and should always striving to develop and improve technique. It’s just that as we progress the increments of change get smaller and smaller! Rest assured that I’m still very much exploring and developing my own technique folks!
Looking at the two hands separately
Whilst it’s correct to say that the right and left hand working effectively together is where classical guitar technique comes into its own with regard to production of sound in a musical fashion, it oftentimes helps to isolate or look at more closely, the technique of one hand over the other. Doing this allows us to hone in on a particular aspect of the technique with limited distraction from elsewhere. That’s not to say we don’t play with the right hand whilst looking at left hand perhaps, it just that our focus is shifted.
Doing this can also allow us to identify the source of a technical hurdle – sometimes what you thought was a right hand* issue can in fact be a left hand issue, and what you thought was a left hand issue could in fact be something to do with your right hand technique.
Left hand technical elements
There are a number of elements involved in left hand technique on the classical guitar:
- chords and chord changes
- barres and applying appropriate left hand pressure
- rapid left hand movement and changes
- legato playing
- fretboard geography
- development of the typically weaker fingers (i.e. 3rd and 4th fingers)
- finger strength and flexibility
- finger independence
This is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are probably others that you will come across, but these are some of the key ones.
There are a number of “watch its” that go along with each of these individual techniques, not to mention that it would make it an enormously loooong post to go through each and everyone of them for the various techniques (perhaps they are subjects for individual topics in themselves – watch this space…..)!
To get you started though in developing your left hand technique here are some pointers:
(1) Yes you do need to look at left hand technique. You can travel ahead and get on kind of reasonably well without delving into examining and improving your left hand technique, but if you’re wanting to progress beyond thwacking out a so-so rendition of your favourite tune the sooner you start looking at your left hand and the part it plays in how you’re playing and the music you’re making, the sooner your development will begin to skyrocket.
(2) All the above-mentioned techniques are important in a guitarist’s arsenal, but there are some which support the others. Technical development is something that should be built over time, and certain aspects you should consider as your foundation upon which to build everything else. In my opinion it’s key to work on finger independence, your finger strength and flexibility and particularly the development of the weaker fingers (3rd and 4th fingers). If you’re playing on a daily basis this will begin to inherently occur over time until over time you can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things with your left hand fingers without batting an eyelid.
Great exercises for this include:
- the humble, yet wonderful, diatonic and chromatic scales. Practice these daily and your fingers will grow in strength, and seemingly take on a memory of their own too
- scales in thirds, sixths and octaves
- opposing motion and finger independence exercises – there are some great ones (along with other left hand exercises) in Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon book.
Working on developing these, particularly in the early and intermediate stages of your development (heck, even at an advanced stage as I still touch on finger independence exercises from time to time) will help you develop other techniques, such as slurs (hammer ons or pull offs) in a much more efficient and effective way. Make sure you’re building (and continuing to check in and maintain) your strong foundations.
(3) Pick your known weaknesses and work on those. If you’re a gun at pull off slurs there’s not too much point in practicing them extensively. Yes, touch base with them form time to time, but you’ll develop ina quicker and much more rounded fashion if you look at working on those elements that actually do need work. Or if there’s something in a piece you’re working on and it’s a little shaky isolate that and work on it away from the piece.
(4) Don’t over do it! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a fantastic barre technique. Work on things in small bite-size chunks. 10 – 15 minutes per session is all I recommend working on something for, particularly initially. Make sure those are a focused 10-15 minutes and keep relaxed. Don’t stress if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you like. Keep chipping away, focusing on what you’re doing and analysing what needs to be done differently (if anything) and you’ll get there eventually. And ease into it in your practice session – don’t smash your hand at full speed straight off the bat. Allow your hands and fingers time to warm up into it.
* When I say right hand here I mean the plucking hand, and when I say left hand I mean the fretting hand. Swap around if you’re left handed.