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Essential Elements of Guitar Pedagogy

by Andrew Marino

As a teacher, I've had to work to identify the essential components of good technique and artistic expression that all students need in order to succeed. I also continuously work to find balanced means to teach these things in effective ways that students find musically, and personally, satisfying. Put simply, the three questions I will always ask myself are: "what am I teaching?," "why am I teaching it?," and "how can I teach this?"

Here are a few basics of guitar pedagogy I always have in mind:

I.        Right Hand


The first thing to understand is coordination. This is the skillful, accurate

movements necessary to execute a task which requires precise timing and



The wrist should be positioned according to the principle of muscular

alignment. The wrist should not deviate and should arch in order to

function in its midrange position and to correctly position the thumb.

Fingers are to be positioned according to the principles of muscular

alignment and midrange function of joints. Fingers should be positioned in

their midway positions and the wrist should tilt to “equalize” the lengths of

the fingers.


The movements of the right hand fingers for all strokes need to be

understood.  The thumb extends and flexes from the wrist joint, with only

slight movement from the tip joint. It moves to and from the string as

directly as possible, avoiding circular motions. The thumb follows through

toward i. For free stroke, the middle joints of the fingers are positioned

directly over the strings being played. The movement originates from the

knuckle joint, with slight middle joint movement. Tip joints are firm. The

follow through is directly into the hand. For rest stroke, the middle

joints of the fingers are positioned over strings which are approximately

the distance of one string lower than those that are to be sounded. The

movement originates from the knuckle joint, with no movement from the

middle or tip joints. The follow through is into the lower adjacent string.


Examples of Right Hand movement patterns:

  • p-i-p-m


Thumb follows through from wrist joint, while fingers follow though from

knuckle and middle joints. Thumb prepares on its string, then follows

through. While the thumb is flexing, i is prepared on its string. When i

flexes, p extends simultaneously. This process is repeated for placement

and follow through of m.


  • p-i-m-a


Thumb is prepared on its string, as p follows through the fingers are

extended and prepare. As i sounds its string and begins following through,

m moves sympathetically. As m moves, a moves sympathetically. Thumb is

prepared as a-m flex.


  • p-i-m-a-m-i


Same initial procedure as p-i-m-a, but as a flexes, i-m must extend and as

m follows through i flexes sympathetically. As i-m follow through, p

prepares on its string.


  • p-a-m-i (tremolo)


Thumb is prepared on its string. As p flexes, a prepares. As a flexes,

m flexes sympathetically, and i flexes sympathetically with m. As i follows

through, p prepares.


  • i-m-a


Prepare i on its string. Flex i, as i follows through m-a prepare. Flex m, a flexes sympathetically. As a flexes, i prepares.

II.      Left Hand


What is the single most important difference in the basis of function for the left hand as compared to the right hand? The left hand must endure sustained pressure, whereas, the right hand relaxes after each stroke.


Here are the ways the four principles of muscle function apply to the left hand:


The left hand wrist and fingers must be positioned according to the principle of muscular alignment in order to function efficiently. The fingers of the left hand work properly in their midrange positions. All joints must move in uniform directions, which means no collapsing of tip joints when applying pressure. Also, when the fingers depress the strings, they are not merely positioned, but are following through.


The two general aims of positioning for left hand are to minimize tension (increase sensitivity, avoid injury), and to position wrist and fingers according to the midrange and muscular alignment principles.


There are more specific aims of positioning for left hand though, such as the elbow hanging comfortably, taking care to apply minimum pressure needed, placing fingers just behind frets, and resting thumb on tip joint more than tip segment.


Here are six examples of left hand mobility:

  • Forearm rotation (changes angle of palm),

  • Elbow swing (can move in and out),

  • Flexion and extension of wrist,

  • Flexion and extension of fingers only,

  • Deviation of wrist,

  • Entire hand moves (fingers fixed) up and down.


There are other procedures of movement in left hand technique. Shifting is an important aspect of left hand technique. One must minimize tension when shifting by using momentum/inertia to initiate the shift, and to eliminate the need for tension to stop once the destination is reached. The practice sequence of play-release-target-shift-arrive-press-play is useful in addressing this. One must also avoid dragging the thumb while shifting. The thumb moves along with the entire hand. The “forgotten finger” can be an issue with left hand mobility. Movement of a finger initiated at the last possible moment usually increases tension and decreases accuracy.


The use of barres offers special consideration in left hand technique. Barres often require an amount of tension higher than what is normally experienced, students should not sustain barres for too long. Also, a barre is an opposed motion in the left hand, which contradicts the principle of uniform direction of joint movement.


When shifting laterally across the fretboard, or vertically across the strings, one must visualize a target and execute accurate movements. The use of Aim-Directed Movement (see before you play) is essential for proper left hand technique.


Now we reach the all-important left hand technique: Slurs. There are three different types of downward slurs. There is also the upward slur, but the focus will be on the downward slurs. The first type of downward slur is the rest slur, during which the slurring finger comes to rest on the next higher adjacent string. The next type is the most common, this is the brush slur. During this slur, the slurring finger gently brushes over the next higher adjacent string without coming to rest on it. The final type of downward slur is the free slur, during which the slurring finger comes out in order to completely avoid contact of any kind with adjacent strings.


I.    Phrasing


Teachers need to understand phrasing and impart that understanding onto our students. Phrasing, in general, is the expressive shaping of music using musical devices which include rubato, dynamics, articulation, timbre, and vibrato. While the others are fairly easily defined, rubato presents a special situation. Well, what is rubato? Rubato is the expressive slowing down or acceleration of a musical passage with regard to heightened activity or to cadence.


These five elements: dynamics, rubato, timbre, articulation, vibrato, are either fixed by the composer in the score or are open to interpretation. In general, composers will indicate dynamics and articulation, often they will put rudimentary rubato markings in. Timbre (tone color) and vibrato are open to interpretation, in many instances rubato is, as well.


Phrasing is also based on the amount of activity in the music. Active tones are those tones which seek to resolve. The “dominant stack” of tones is unstable and pitches contained within seek to be resolved. This stack consists of tones from which all unstable sonorities (dominant, augmented, diminished, etc.) are formed, it contains the scale degrees: b3, 5, 7, 2, 4, 6 and b6. Rest, or stable, tones in tonal music are those pitches to which unstable pitches resolve. Generally the tonic note is the most stable, the resolution to tonic is the ultimate goal of tonal music. Also included as stable tones are the major third above tonic, and often the fifth above tonic which, through modulation, becomes a point of rest.


II.    Indicators of Expressive Interpretation


  • Melodic activity – More unstable pitches, lack of resolution of those pitches. In general, melodic ascent indicates heightened activity.


  • Harmonic activity – Chords which increase tension and do not resolve; the avoidance of tonic. Modulation to secondary key areas. Increased harmonic rhythm, more frequent changes of harmonic area.


  • Rhythmic activity – Faster subdivisions, syncopations, more motion in individual voices.


Evaluating Method Books and Repertoire


We should keep an open mind about the materials we use to teach. Here are some basic criteria to be used for evaluating method books and for formulating an approach to teaching music with the guitar.


Any book used should be a method, not a dogmatic textbook. The material included should be carefully graded for most appropriate progress. Students of varying learning capacities should learn material appropriate for them, faster and slower students should not be subjected to the same course material, it will not allow either type of student to flourish. The music included should be didactic, yet interesting in order to pique the students' interest and to accomplish technical/musical goals. Most importantly, teachers need to be flexible with the chosen material, and should be careful not to select just one method. Our job is to find the best material available from multiple sources which will allow or students to grow as rapidly and in the most secure manner possible.


Starting Beginning Students


Finally, we need to acknowledge and understand that there are going to be a variety approaches for starting beginning students of different ages. Many factors must be considered when beginning students. Different age groups have different routines which affect practice and progress. All age groups should be introduced to age appropriate material. Children should be given pieces which allow for breaks, as the concentration level tends to be low. Technique should include simple exercises which can be easily remembered and reviewed during lessons. Practice should be limited to a few days per week for around 10-15 minutes, and parents should be involved in all aspects from the first day. Students who are junior high/high school/college aged can be given material that advances slightly more quickly, they should not be given the same material as children. This material should grab their interest and promote good practice habits. Select and arrange music that interests them, and perhaps introduce a piece from the classical repertoire. Technique can include more advanced exercises, scales and arpeggios. Since concentration levels increase with age, practice sessions should be daily, with increased durations over time as their hands develop. The material and practice routines for adults can be similar to the material for the previous age group, but teachers must consider the schedules of adults often includes full-time work and family.

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