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Essential Elements of Guitar Pedagogy

by Andrew Marino
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 force.


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 position directly over the strings to be sounded. 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 two strings 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.


III.    Interpretation


We, the teachers, need to understand phrasing and impart that understanding onto our students. Phrasing is the expressive shaping of music using musical devices (rubato, dynamics, articulation, timbre, 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.


What indicates:


  • 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, 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.


IV.    Evaluating Method Books


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.


V.      Starting Beginning Students


Finally, here is an explanation of approaches for starting beginners of ALL ages (including technique, music, and study).


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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