In his day, the Italian guitarist Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) was considered by many to be the world’s greatest performer on the instrument. Giuliani was also a masterly composer; his concertos and sonatas remain cornerstones of the classical guitar literature, and his 120 Studies for Right Hand Development (originally published in 1812) has long been used by students and professionals alike.
While the 120 studies were written with the nylon-string classical guitarist in mind, working through the patterns can be of equal benefit to steel-string players of all persuasions, as you’ll see in this lesson. Each of the studies contains the same three-bar progression—C–G7–C—but a different picking-hand pattern, arranged in progressive levels of difficulty. By combining Giuliani’s patterns with other keys and chord progressions, and even some alternate tunings, you can work on exercises that will improve your picking hand facility and accuracy no matter what kind of string you’re playing.
Giuliani’s studies start with some rather simple patterns. Let’s examine a few of them using a I–V7 progression in the key of E major. An adaptation of Giuliani’s Study No. 1, Example 1 pits dyads (two-note groups) on the first and second strings against moving quarter notes on the bass strings. In this and all of the other exercises in this lesson, fret the notes of each chord shape for an entire measure while you pick the notes, letting everything ring together at whatever tempo you’d like. As indicated in the music, pick the lower notes downward with your thumb (p) and the higher notes upward with your middle finger (m) on the first string and index finger (i) on the second. You might also try picking the higher notes with your ring (a) and middle (m) fingers on the first and second strings, respectively. In all these examples, experiment with your picking-hand approach until you find a combination of flesh and nail that sounds good to you. Play the figure between the repeat signs until you can cleanly change between the E and B7 chords and accurately finger each three-note shape, then strum the last E chord with your thumb.
Based on Study No. 3, Example 2 features upward-moving arpeggios in eighth-note triplets on the E and B7 chords. Run through the example as shown, picking each triplet with your thumb, index, and middle fingers, but also try substituting your middle and ring fingers for those last two digits. This variation will improve your picking-hand technique and allow you to combine digits at will.
Example 3 is inspired by Study No. 11. Featuring downward-moving triplet-based arpeggios, it’s a little more difficult to play. Be sure to follow the fingering exactly as shown; each half bar should be picked p–m–i–a–m–i. Also in triplets, Example 4, which is similar to Study No. 20, brings in some three-note chords on the top three strings (picked with the index, middle, and ring fingers), while the thumb articulates bass notes on the bottom three strings. Note that while the thumb plays bass notes on all three counts of each triplet in measure 1, it lays out on the third count of each triplet in measure 2.
More Complex Harmonies and Patterns
The previous examples were based on the same basic progression used in the original Giuliani études: I–V7–I. But the études in no way preclude the use of more contemporary-sounding harmonies. Example 5 is built around a Cmaj7–Amaj7 progression, with a picking pattern inspired by Study No. 51. Pick the notes p–m–a, lowest to highest. You might also try substituting your index and middle fingers for your middle and ring, respectively.
Example 6 is inspired by Study No. 75 and based on a jazzy I–IV (A9–D13) progression. This is another one best played with the thumb on the bass notes and the middle and ring (or index and middle) fingers on the two-note chord stabs. As noted by the “swing” indication, be sure to swing the eighth notes—that is, play each pair of consecutive eighth notes so that the first is held longer than the second, at a ratio of about two to one.
An adaptation of Study No. 86, Example 7 features a pattern that alternates notes played by the thumb (strings five and four) with notes played by the fingers (ring, middle, and index fingers on strings one, two, and three, respectively). The chords, Badd4 and G6, are played against a pedal, the constant open low A, and make use of open strings and natural harmonics for a colorful texture. To play the harmonics on the G6/A chord, lightly barre your third finger directly above the 12th fret across strings 2, 3, and 4, letting all the notes ring together.
Alternate Tunings and Melodies
Although Giuliani’s studies were originally written for guitars in standard tuning, they lend themselves to alternate tunings as well. Example 8, a variation on Study No. 98, is in dropped-D tuning and includes double-picked notes as well as the use of the index and middle fingers on the lower strings. This can feel a little weird at first, so take things slowly and strive for a smooth, even sound. After your thumb plays the first 16th note of each beat, have your index finger in position and prepared to pick the note a second time, thereby avoiding a gap or “hiccup” in the sound.
Arranged in open-G tuning (D G D G B D) and with a bit more fretting-hand motion, Example 9 adds a melody to the basic pattern in Ex. 8. The melody notes are shown with upstems and are picked with the middle and ring fingers. The downstemmed accompaniment notes are played with the thumb and index fingers, creating a picking pattern similar to Giuliani’s Study No. 111.
Example 10 puts a melody in the bass, below some arpeggios that take advantage of the open strings of D A D G A D tuning, and uses a picking pattern inspired by Study No. 118. In the first measure, use the ring finger of your fretting hand to play the third-fret notes in the bass. In the second measure, your first three fretting-hand fingers will be busy with notes on the top three strings, so you’ll need to grab the fretted bass notes with your fourth finger.
Since we’re in DADGAD tuning, let’s stay there and use the tuning to play a longer étude. “On the Mauro” (Example 11) is a two-chord piece featuring several of the picking patterns covered in this lesson. Measures 1, 2, 7, and 8 are based on the triplet pattern of Ex. 4, while measures 3 and 4 are constructed with a melody similar to Ex. 9.
Measures 5 and 6 are built from the 16th-note arpeggios from Ex. 10 and incorporate a melody in the bass. And the last two measures bring the piece to a close with a double-picked phrase similar to Example 8. This étude works best at a slow tempo of around 60 bpm. It may be helpful to use a metronome, so that the transitions between the triplet- and 16th-based bars don’t throw you off.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.