Say you’re a steel-string player wanting to begin a fruitful and enjoyable relationship with classical music, played on a nylon-string guitar, but you aren’t sure how to do so.
Let’s have a look at technique, repertoire, and mindfulness involved in playing classical guitar. Is it different than what non-classical cats already do? My own journey from Jimi Hendrix to J.S. Bach suggests yes, as it leads to thinking a bit more like an engineer/manager, even though the primary objective remains sharing one’s soul.
In this lesson—the first in a new series designed to initiate steel-string players into the classical world—you’ll focus on retraining how you think about the manifestation of music, when using your fingers on a guitar. You’ll learn to make simple changes that will profoundly affect your skill level and musicianship. Playing basic arpeggios is a great place to start your egress over to classical guitar. And, please keep in mind that all of the following will make you a better, more smooth-sounding steel-string player as well. What about the elements of posture, technique, and tone production? Let’s save them for later. Right now, you just need to get playing!
We’ll start with Ferdinando Carulli’s “Prelude 1,” from 24 Preludes, Opus 114. This was the first piece that my guitar professor, Bruce Holzman, assigned me when I was a freshman at Florida State University, in 1975. It is mind-blowing how much I learned from it then—and several times since. It’s simple enough for you to make some changes in your technique and thinking, yet musical enough to be beautiful when played well.
Here’s what you’ll learn from playing this prelude: 1) How to play in a way that some note or notes are always sustaining, even when the harmony changes (kind of like the sound that pianists get with that magical sustain pedal); 2) how to move and position the left- and right-hand fingers in a way that maximizes sustain, focus of harmony, and polyphony (more than one voice at a time), while minimizing both physical exertion and mental confusion and error; and 3) how to think about the music in a way that will maximize your understanding of the above, as well as leading to good memorizing protocols.
Let’s Play This!
To begin, don’t assemble any fingers until the moment that music calls for it. In other words, although you know that the whole first measure is a C chord and should be thinking C major, don’t just form a traditional open C chord at the start of the measure. Here are a couple of important rules that may seem counter to all guitar-think: 1) Never place a finger you don’t need and 2) Never place a needed finger before you need it. Always remember, it takes more energy to place two fingers than one. Don’t waste energy. This goes for both left and right hands.
Also keep in mind that all notes should always happen at the same time, with both hands. The only exceptions are slurred notes (hammer-ons and pull-offs) and sustaining ones (ringing from a previous attack), which we will deal with in a future lesson. Take a moment to let all that sink in before proceeding to the next step.
Break It Down, Measure by Measure
Now put the above new rules into practice. In the first measure, play the C at string 5, fret 3, with your third finger, at exactly the same time as you pluck that string with your picking-hand thumb. (No other fingers are doing anything yet.) Then, place your first finger on the C at string 2, fret 1, at the same time picking the string with your index finger. After that, pick the open E string with your right hand’s (or left hand’s, if you’re a southpaw) middle finger, and so forth. Be sure to leave your fretting fingers down until the harmony changes in the next measure.
The second measure contains a G7 chord with a D in the bass, formed with only one fretted note—the F on string 1. But as before, don’t fret that note until it comes time to pick it with your right hand’s middle finger. Continue in this in this fashion for the entire piece. Play it a bunch of times, until you really have this new, efficient technique down.
Take It Slowly
Here’s another huge, helpful rule—for any kind of music you’re working on, classical or otherwise: Never play faster than the tempo at which you can execute everything beautifully and without confusion or error.There is no hurry. Nobody will like to hear you make mistakes, nor will they care how long you had to practice below tempo, so that you could learn to execute everything precisely and confidently. Go practice now, and don’t look at the next part until you can play the whole prelude with this new technique. You are going to love the way you sound when you master this.
Really—don’t look at the rest of the music yet.
Hear the Voices
OK, now that you can play “Prelude 1” with your new techniques, let’s take it to the finish line. Be patient—this is challenging stuff, but well worth it. Now you’ll work on recognizing and manifesting the music’s inherent voices. Don’t panic. If I can do this, anyone can! Take a deep breath.
Since we guitarists can play more than one note at a time, composers write music for us that is polyphonic (more than one voice at a time). Although the prelude is just an arpeggio study, you must conceive of it as having several discrete voices, in order to understand the texture and get that smooth, legato sound that I promised you. Fortunately, each measure is the same in regard to this polyphony.
In bar 1, on beat 1, you can think of the first note (low C) as the bass voice; the second (middle C), the alto; and the third, the soprano (open E). On beat 2, the first note (open G) is the tenor, followed again by the alto (middle C) and soprano (open E).
In a nutshell, you want the note in each voice to sustain until it is replaced in the next measure by a new note. So, the first note, C—again, the bass—will not be lifted or dampened by the picking hand until the first D bass note at the start of measure 2. The second note of the first measure, C (alto), will not be lifted until the first alto note, the open B, in bar 2, and the third note of bar 1, the open E (soprano), will sustain until the soprano note F in measure 2, etc.
The only time you’ll break from this technique is when the fretting-hand finger needed for an upcoming voice’s note change is being used by a voice that hasn’t changed yet. You are forced to cut that sustaining voice short in order to play the voice that has to happen now. For example, the high F (soprano) in measure 2 would like to ring until it changes to G in measure 3, but the first finger—which is holding the F soprano from measure 2—is required to play the C alto (second note of measure 3) before the soprano changes on the third triplet note. This happens again at measures 4–5, 10–11, 12–13, and 14–15.
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Now play your prelude again, this time listening intently to the movement between those voices.
Michael Chapdelaine is the only guitarist to have ever won first prize in both prestigious classical (GFA International Concert Artist Competition) and fingerstyle (National Fingerstyle Championship) competitions. He was a professor of music at the University of New Mexico for 33 years and performs and teaches internationally.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.