I remember once, when I was much younger, sitting in my music studio where I was giving a lesson to a beginning guitarist. There was a sound which we heard from an adjoining studio that we both concluded must have been someone using an electric drill. After listening for a minute or two, we realized that we were hearing a guitarist practicing his scales. That person has since become quite renowned in "guitar circles", but, not surprisingly to me, has never been recognized in the much wider realm of "classical musicians." Why? Because although he had learned to play scales faster and more evenly than I had ever heard anyone else play, he did so at the expense of making music. I will never understand how anyone can sit for hours listening to a mindless stream of notes. It's like listening to a computer recite Shakespeare. I can't listen to a minute of it before I find myself screaming in panic and running to a Segovia CD to clear my mind.
Back to reality
Ok, enough with the esoteric sojourns, let's talk about the how-to's of scales. As always, the fingers have to move properly in order to have the guitar respond to your ideas. There are three distinct physical motions that must be addressed in order to handle the general case of playing a scale. The simplest case is where all the notes of the scale are on one string and can all be reached without moving the left hand up or down the neck. Unfortunately, this is by far the least common case - however - it is a very important case to use when learning more subtle motions of the fingers which allow you to paint your music with more than a few basic colors. The second case is where your left hand fingers remain on one string but you must move the left arm during the scale so that you can reach all of the notes. Finally, the last case is where you must switch strings as you play the scale but you don't move the left arm up or down the neck of the guitar. We will approach each case separately so that all of the required motions can be understood before trying to combine the cases to face the most common situation where all three cases must be seamlessly interwoven.
Case 1 - one string, no left arm motion
- First the left hand...
In previous lessons, we've talked about minimizing extraneous motion. Let's go right to the guitar to demonstrate how this can be applied to a scale. Get into "playing position" and move your left hand up the neck of the guitar until the frets are close enough together so that each of the four fingers of your left hand are just above four sequential frets. The place on the neck will vary according to how big your hand happens to be. Segovia could have done this at the first fret - I'm not so lucky :-(
Lower all four fingers using just enough weight in your left arm to cause the string to make firm contact with the frets. Using rest strokes with the right hand which alternate between the i and m fingers, play the note slowly as you adjust the weight of your left hand until the string just begins to "buzz", and then add slightly more weight. Keep your right hand touch as even as possible and ONLY use the rest stroke. All four fingers of the left hand should be touching the same string, the note being sounded is the note defined by where your 4th finger is pressed.
We are now going to play permutations of the left hand fingers to get you used to moving all four fingers independently AND...to let you start to understand how you can create a much more connected sound between notes by preparing the next lower finger while a prior note is still being sounded by a higher numbered finger of the left hand.
To begin, let's play just two different notes and repeat those notes several times. First, lift all four fingers off of the neck. Next, play the note below the fourth finger, followed by the note below the first finger, then the fourth, then the first, then the fourth, etc.. The first time you do this exercise, lift each finger after you play each note and only touch the string with the left hand finger that is actually creating the tone. The second time you do the exercise, leave the first finger down the entire time - only lift the fourth finger up to play the first finger note, and lower the fourth finger to play the fourth finger note while you keep the first finger firmly planted on the string. Notice that when you lift each finger and then place the next finger there is a noticeable discontinuity in the sound. The string itself must move a longer distance vertically between each note if the first finger is not planted before the fourth finger is lowered. Repeat both exercises for every combination of two left hand fingers, first by lifting both fingers, then by keeping the lowest finger planted.
Continue this exercise until you can hear the difference in sound. Once you can hear the difference in sound, play with the sound. Intentionally lift both fingers to make the sound stop between notes and then carefully work to make the transition between notes as smooth as possible by preparing the lower finger. Practice this until it becomes easy to lift the finger or keep it down - continue practicing this until the motion becomes automatic in response to your intention to create the sound you want. Once you feel you understand this, try combinations of three and then four fingers, lowering ALL of the fingers which lie below the note being played to give you the smoothest transition between notes. Vary this technique by using only the very lowest finger to act as a pivot point for the benefit of all of the notes above that finger - that is actually the most common usage of this technique in "real life" playing. This technique will also be very important later on when we talk about slurs and ornaments such as trills, the rapid lifting and lowering of a finger to sound the string without even playing the note with the right hand. The important thing to know is that the technique is not limited to just ornaments and slurs. It is an integral part of playing "legato", or "connected" sound between notes of a scale.
- now the right hand...
This simple case of scales is also an excellent place to start to open up to the possibilities of color within the right hand. We did the previous exercises with a rest stroke because I didn't want to inject any variation of sound into the mix that may be caused by the right hand. That's why I stressed ONLY using the rest stoke. Now that you can hear how variation in left hand touch can alter the sound between each note, lets explore how variations in the right hand can alter the sound of each note you play.
Many people get totally hung up on shaping or sizing the fingernail of the right hand in order to control the sound produced on the guitar. While I don't want to understate the importance of having properly shaped fingernails, that is a means to an end, not the end itself. If your fingernail gets stuck on the string as it crosses the string then you probably need to change the shape of the edge. Don't expect the fingers to "feel" the same as they go over the string. Focus on the sound. The goal is to control the sound, however, you have to be aware of the possibilities of the sound before you can control it. Let's experiment with the sound.
Before you start exploring the sound you can get from your instrument you need to clear your mind of expectations. Don't try to control the sound yet - explore, understand, and then control. You may ask "what does this have to do with scales?" The answer is simple. Everything. The sound you create as you move through a scale is exactly what will drive your music forward. If it's flat and boring - guess what? - that's how an audience will perceive your playing. As your ability to understand the music grows, your ability to play fast and clear will also grow. If you focus on playing fast and clear then you might achieve those goals, if you focus on understanding and controlling the music than you will become a musician.
You will not use the left hand at all for this first step. We are going to explore the range of sounds you can get from your right hand without moving the right arm. Most guitarists change the color of the sound by gross movements of the right arm, bringing the right hand closer to or further from the sound hole. We are going to use the free stroke with alternating i and m fingers of the right hand. Then we are going to go through a range of movements of the right hand by only moving the hand at the wrist. Vary the angle of the fingernail across the string by turning the right wrist left or right. Vary the angle that the finger makes with the string by lifting or lowering the right forearm and adjusting the up and down angle at the wrist. Finally, vary the speed of the stroke from quick and short to long and slow. Initially these actions will be purely physical, but as you listen to the sound of each stroke try to correlate the various motions of the finger and wrist with variations in the sound. Work to accentuate a particular aspect of the sound - brittle, soft, smooth, quiet, loud, rich, thin - apply your own adjectives - these sounds must start to develop a character. You must begin to "own" the sounds and be able to find a desired sound at will.
The next step is to start playing the Case 1 scales again, but this time color the sound as you move from one note to the other. Be patient and listen V E R Y closely. Don't expect to control the sound in one sitting. Explore, understand, and then control the sound.
Case 2 - one string, left
arm moves up or down the neck
I hope at least a month has gone by before you started studying Case 2, if not, go back to Case 1 and practice some more. The motions and their correlation into controlled sound have got to be automatic before you try to tackle this next step. You have to be able to think of a sound and automatically do what's necessary to make it happen. A person can only focus on one new thing at a time, so please don't try to rush the process.
The most critical physical factor in this next step is timing. Remember when we talked about the moment of preparation between notes? That minute moment of silent preparation must be there. Surprisingly, it must also be there to make the sound appear connected. That fraction of a second of preparation fixes, or anchors the string so that the next note will resonate properly. Physically, you must time the move so that your fingers are prepared on the next note with exactly the same amount of time between notes as you allowed when you didn't move the left arm. Prepare the move mentally before you actually move your arm. The motion should be smooth and not jerky, it should be very deliberate and not sloppy. Place your finger onto the next note and don't slap it down. The guitar will sustain the music when the note is played properly.
We now have to define the word "properly." What is properly? It is defined as "the way you want it to be!" That is the essence of control and the reason we took so much time to learn to control the sound. Now that you know what to listen for you can use your ear to direct you when you change positions by moving the left hand up or down the neck. The sound should only change IF YOU WANT IT TO. A good way to verify your ability to move correctly between positions is to move only a couple of frets so that you can play the short scale first with no left arm motion, and then with a short move of the left arm. You should strive to make it sound the same - your ear can now be your guide. Gradually expand the length of the move until you can easily move up and down the neck of the guitar without diminishing the sound.
Case 3 - change strings, no left arm motion
- First the left hand...
When playing a scale requires you to change strings, the left hand must move across the strings by a motion of the left arm, keeping the angle of the hand constant with respect to the fingerboard. This motion was discussed in an earlier lesson.
The fingers of the left hand must prepare in the same way they prepared for the case of the single string - except that you can now also prepare ahead of time for ascending notes. Use the same type of exercise patterns you used earlier but continue each repetition of the pattern by moving from the lowest sting to the next higher string until you reach the highest string, and then move back down to the lower string again. Practice by not lifting any finger until you must do so in order to play the next note. This technique will be applied later on to control the duration of notes which must be held or released to support the harmony, but it is good for the purpose of this lesson to ignore any harmonic disonances that might be created by holding two notes together. You will find that you will be holding a note on one string while you are preparing to play a note on an adjacent string. This same technique will apply when going up or down in pitch. The pitches aren't that important yet, we are focusing on the sound of the notes in transition, so that is the most important consideration for this lesson. Repeat the same exercise you did at the beginning of this lesson where you first lifted all fingers between each note and then repeated the scale while keeping the fingers down where possible. You will hear the difference in sound caused by the action of the left hand finger, but it will most likely be occluded by the overwhelming difference in sound caused by the fact that each string has its own characteristic timbre. Try to mentally filter out those timber changes and listen to the differences caused by the left hand motion. We will discuss how to work with the natural timbre differences between strings in the next part of this lesson. Learn to control the sound as you did before.
- now the right hand...
The right hand must also move from the arm so that the angle of the hand at the wrist doesn't change unless you want it to. You will notice the right hand will require more thought, planning and control in order to move smoothly between strings. Be careful not to tighten up your shoulder as you move your right arm. The motion should come from the elbow.
As you practice to control the sound of each note you'll once again find that the variation in sound caused by changing strings will be much more obvious than the changes caused by the actions of the right hand. Don't worry about it. You will be able to hear the changes caused by the right hand by repeating the scales with different fixed right hand positions. Your earlier training from the single string case will be very important because you must trust your ear. You must experiment again to discover what sounds the guitar is capable of producing. It is impossible to change strings without also changing the timbre of the sound because each string has its own characteristic timbre. Learn to appreciate the different timbres of each string and to understand the different sounds you can get by altering your touch. Finally, practice until you are again in control of the sound.
General Case - string changes and left arm motion as needed
By now, you probably are realizing that this general case can be mastered by simply combining the things you learned in each previous case. What you probably don't yet realize is that one of the most beautiful and interesting aspects of the guitar is a result of conscious use of the variety of sound built into the instrument. When you practiced the previous sections you strove to control the sound by experimenting and then understanding the possible sounds. The final part of this lesson will discuss how to use the variety of sounds which exist in the instrument to help you color the sound so it brings out your own musical ideas.
Most notes on the guitar can be played in several different positions on the fingerboard. Did you ever wonder why the suggested fingerings on some Segovia publications seem a little more difficult than they need to be? Segovia understood how to use the guitar to produce exactly the sound he wanted. He would very often choose to remain on a single string even though it would be physically simpler to continue a scale on an adjacent string. He would also change strings even if the next note of the scale could be played without even moving his hand, but by changing the string he was forced to move far up the neck of the guitar. Segovia used the characteristics of the guitar itself to highlight his musical ideas. Learning the notes to a piece of music was only the first task involved in learning to play a piece of music. I heard a story about a friend of Segovia's who listened to the Maestro play a new piece of music he was working on. He asked Segovia if the piece was to be played at Segovia's next concert. Segovia laughed and said that it would be at least two years before he performed the piece in public. It's sort of like a diamond in the rough. It may be beautiful even in it's raw form, but it is dazzling after it is polished.
You now have the skills to play any scale in any position on the guitar. You also know what sounds are available, and how to get the sound you want when you want it. At this point you should begin to study some real pieces of music. It isn't too important what pieces you choose to play, only that you are moved by the piece. I personally hate practicing "standalone" scales! They are boring and I lose interest really quickly. I recommend that you find some interesting pieces of music that contain scales, and practice the scale passages using the principles you learned in this lesson. Try changing the fingerings so that you get exactly the sound you want. Be creative and have fun.
I had originally planned for the next
lesson to examine some more advanced techniques using simple pieces of music, but
there is still one more set of fundamental elements of music that we need to cover.
Lesson 9 will expand on this lesson. You will learn about the music alphabet we use,
how the notes in that alphabet map to several common scales used in our music, and
how to find any note on the guitar.
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