On the other hand…

It takes two hands to play the guitar. Last month I devoted two posts to fingerings for the left hand (The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 and Part 2). Surely the right hand is equally deserving of attention?

Well, yes and no.

To play almost any music the guitarist must decide on specific fingerings for the left hand—it’s too easy to get tangled up otherwise, and some combinations of notes can only be played with a specific combination of left hand fingers. The situation with the right hand is considerably more fluid. At a certain level of proficiency and experience, a sort of muscle intuition takes over. This intuition, combined with the natural architecture of the hand and some general principles, can see a guitarist safely through many pieces. For a lot of the music I play, I never consciously think about right hand fingerings, and yet I play those pieces very well.

But—and it’s an important but—reliance on intuition has significant drawbacks. The biggest of these is that under pressure or with nerves, any uncertainty in the right hand is magnified and can lead to a loss of control. This might not result in missed or incorrect notes, but it will make playing musically almost impossible.

There are also cases, including passages in the Chaconne, where the complexity of the music requires some planning for the right hand in order to play fluidly or to successfully bring out the proper voice in the texture.

So let’s begin with some general principles for the right hand, and in the next post I will look at a specific passage from the Chaconne that I’ve been working on.

To start with, it helps to understand that in the playing position naturally adopted by many classical guitarists (including me), the relationship between the right hand and the strings already suggests some fingering principles:

The angle of my right hand compared to the strings.
A side view of my hand showing the position of the fingertips above the strings.

This position, in which the line of the knuckles cuts diagonally across the line of the strings, naturally places the thumb (p) over the bass strings and the index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers over the treble strings. Moreover, the tip of each finger tends to fall over a different string: if i is over the 3rd string, then m is over the 2nd string and a is over the 1st string. [It’s worth noting that not every guitarist has this same angled hand position. Segovia, among many others, played primarily with his knuckles parallel to the strings.] One of the first things that a student of classical guitar learns is how to play a simple arpeggio in which the p plays one of the bass strings (6, 5, or 4) while i, m, and a play the treble strings.

A simple p-i-m-a arpeggio pattern.

This gives us a first general principle for right hand fingering: in multiple-voice textures like arpeggios or chords, the thumb plays the bass on the lower strings and the fingers play the upper strings.

A second thing to understand is that the act of stroking a string with any finger is a 3-step process: preparation (getting the finger in position to fire), stroke (moving the tip across the string) and recovery. Recovery and preparation are essentially the same movement, but it takes time.

This gives us a second general principle: in linear passages like scales and melodies, it is generally necessary to alternate fingers. There can be exceptions here, particularly at a slow tempo where the time between recovery and preparation is not an issue. In fact, sometimes repeating the same finger in these situations is preferable because it gives a nice uniformity of tone. But for rapid passagework alternation is essential. For many guitarists, the use of i and m is the go-to option for scales.

Finally, the natural hand position and the way it staggers the fingers over the strings suggests our third principle: when crossing strings, follow the shape of the hand. In other words, if one pitch is to be played on the 3rd string and the next pitch on the second string, i (or m) should play the 3rd string and (or a) should play the 2nd string. By the same token, if a passage skips a string altogether—for example, moving from the 3rd string to the 1st string—then the fingering should skip a finger.

In practice, of course, it can be difficult to reconcile these different principles. Here is a simple example: an ascending C major scale of two octaves. The left-hand fingering comes from the so-called “Segovia scales.”

Ascending C Major scale with fingerings.

 To begin with we apply the second principle and use a strict alternating i-m fingering for the right hand. However, if we do this we run afoul of our third principle. The blue noteheads show string crossings from a lower to a higher string; applying the third principle the right-hand fingering at these points should be i-m or m-a. With strict alternation it only works in two of the four crossings. What to do?

When I learned the Segovia scales I was encouraged by my teachers (and by Segovia’s explanatory notes) to play these scales with a variety of right-hand patterns: i-m, m-i, i-a, a-i, a-m-i, and i-m-a. All of these combinations work, and all can be played fluidly and rapidly with practice. So alternation takes priority over managing string-crossings.

In the next post I will look at some specific right-hand challenges in the Chaconne.

But I will leave you with a little non-Chaconne music. I’ve been trying to learn some small pieces along with the Chaconne to avoid burning out. A friend of mine played this piece by Per-Olov Kindgren, and I liked it enough to buy the music and learn it. In this case, I didn’t plan any right-hand fingerings and just used the sort of muscle intuition I described earlier. It’s a lovely litte piece and I hope you’ll enjoy this recording.

Per-Olov Kindgren: “If You Were Here” performed by Chris Freitag


4 thoughts on “On the other hand…

  1. Exquisite recording of “If You Were Here,” Chris! Delicate. Evocative. Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for adding the link to Peo Kindgren’s website.


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