How To Get Really Good At Classical Guitar

English: Image based on this one, so I credite...
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So you want to be a classical guitar hero? Or at least play as half as good as one?


Simple. Get born with, like, really, really, stupidly good musical or guitar-playing genes, right?




OK then. Find a bottle, potentially with a genie in it. Rub said bottle and hope genie pops out. If genie does pop out request as one of your three wishes granted to be able to play classical guitar with the technique, proficiency and panache of your dreams?




Clone some brain cells from Julian Bream or Karin Schaupp and have them implanted into your own brain?




There’s a much easier solution. Easier, much more enjoyable, and one that will also exercise your patience muscle and appreciation for the journey – technical work!!


Your scales, arpeggios, exercises and studies are THE fundamental building block to excellent playing. They are not the be all and end all, and should always be studied, played and applied relevant to the repertoire you’re learning or playing at any given time.


And I should know.


I went for years, ages, aeons without really partaking in any technical studies, scales or exercises. I was motoring along, learning new repertoire pieces in quick succession, flying through graded material and more. My playing was going really well; really, really well. I managed to become a fairly reasonable player this way. And I thought I was a pretty good player too.


After a number of years, however, I began to hit a wall – and nothing that I was doing could help me break through. Doing the same things in the same way (without any really considered, methodical and applied development of my technique) was no longer taking me forwards. At this point I received instruction from a new teacher who opened up my eyes to the massive value and benefit of some good, solid, yet musical, technical study.


And, boy oh boy, did I have some work to do. Firstly, undoing some bad, old habits. Secondly, instilling new, good habits. Thirdly, getting my technical proficiency up to a level where I needed it to be – to the music I was hearing in my head that was just dying to bust loose, but couldn’t due to the relatively poor conduit it had.


So you can get so far without intentionally focussing on the technical aspects of playing – and yes, musicality is very, very important. In fact, technical work and musicality are in no way mutually exclusive – they are two sides of the same coin. They very much need to occur together in order for you to realise your full potential – musicality can be given its must full and generous expression being facilitated by a good, reliable technique.


Exercises that train specific aspects of playing or movements such as slurs, barres, rasgueado technique, tremolo, free stroke and rest stroke, playing in different positions on the fretboard, percussive techniques, or various combinations thereof can definitely be introduced through your repertoire pieces.


There comes a point though where the technique required to execute certain elements as well as you’d probably like needs a bit of looking at in isolation to really get to grip with it. And we’re all different in that, some are stronger in one technique than others, so I can’t really advise what it is that you should looking at here.


So you work on particular aspects in isolation – you study it from various angles with exercises and studies (they call them this for a reason…) and then apply it. You reveal the relevancy of the energy exerted, the movements carried out and effort you’ve just made, by applying it in a piece.


Then when you bring that reviewed and refreshed technique back to the piece you’re playing, chances are it will fit right in it, and make the piece easier to play and articulate and infinitely more musical.


How much of it should I do and when?


Well, the answer to that question really depends on what it is you’re trying to achieve at this particular point in your learning or playing. The short answer, however, is something (with whatever may be appropriate for you at the time) and often, or at least as often as you’re able to pick up your guitar – aiming for at least five days out of seven is probably a good target.


It’s like a daily walk, or physical exercise – as we do daily physical exercise to keep us fit and healthy (or we’re supposed to!), so we do the same with our guitar-based technical exercises. It’s the minimum we need for a fit, healthy and balanced approach to our playing lifestyle.


Whatever technical studies or exercises that you’re looking at, it should always be a means to an end however, for whatever you’re working on or working towards at a particular moment in time.


And if you’re not sure what technical exercises to start with, it really doesn’t hurt to go past a scale or three. One of my favourite quotes from Andres Segovia (which I’m sure I’ve quoted numerous times before on this blog) sums up the point of scales very nicely:


“The student who wishes to acquire a firm technique on the guitar should not neglect the patient study of scales…..he will correct faulty hand positions, gradually increase the strength of the fingers and prepare the joints for later speed studies. Thanks to the independence and elasticity which the fingers develop through the study of scales, the student will acquire a quality which is difficult to gain later: physical beauty of sound…”.







Technical work – a vital part of every guitarist’s recipe book

Whatever level you’re currently at with your guitar playing, whether you have a teacher or not, whether you’re a performer or not, whether you are a teacher yourself or not, one cannot overlook the fact that technical work, technical exercises and so on are an absolute must. It’s the foundation upon which you can build a magnificent edifice of guitar playing and take you forwards in pretty much any direction you care to take your playing.

Some may say, well it’s kind of boring though. In response to that I say this – well, you’re the one playing it; it’s up to you to make it interesting and musical!!

Just like the veggies on your dinner plate are a vitally nutritious part of a healthy diet, so are your scales and exercises a healthy and “nutritious” part of your playing and learning “diet”. The petulant child doesn’t want to eat their veggies – perhaps they’ve been presented in a very dull, uninspiring and limp kind of manner, perhaps said child has been over-indulged in the alternatives and now only wants to eat the meat or the ice cream following on from the mains. If you only eat meat or ice cream it’ll keep you going for a while, but you’ll perhaps not be the healthiest, you won’t be able to perform at your physical (and perhaps even mental) optimum, you may even find yourself getting….ahem….bunged up…

If you don’t work on your scales, your exercises and technical development you’ll get so far, but, just as if you don’t eat your veggies, you may in fact be stunting your development and you may well get bunged up too, in a manner of speaking! And there are no vitamin pills or shots to be taken to supplement your practice!! You gotta eat it up!

And so, instead of presenting yourself (or, teachers, presenting students) with limp, dull and uninspiring technical exercises that seem to be there just for the sake of being there, and a chore to eat down, you’ve got to flip that around!

How can you add some zest? How can you add spice? How can the pieces you’re currently playing or learning be complemented? What scales or exercises will really help you extract the greatest “flavour” and “taste” from those pieces? Your teacher should certainly be able to help, if they’re not doing so already. If they are – pay attention! Hah hah!  If not, I’m always happy to provide advice if you want to get in contact directly.

It’s difficult to provide specific advice through a simple, relatively small blog post, as you, dear readers, are many and varied with as many different needs. But, if your technical work has taken a back seat for a while, or has dropped off altogether, to get you back on track you can’t go past the good ol’ scales.

And these can be played in sooooo many ways – piano, forte, rising and falling dynamics, staccato, legato, etouffe, ponticello, tasto with all of the right handing fingering combinations at your disposal, apoyando, tirando, various rhythmic variations, pulses for building speed and accuracy and so on……all together in all sorts of combinations that I’m sure you’re imaginative enough to concoct. If you go through all the diatonic scales too it has the added benefit of assisting you to brush up on your key signatures, and knowledge of the circle of fifths – a double whammy! Now that’s what I call a supersize meal deal! Eat up!