A Classical Guitar Primer

Since The Chaconne Project is being read by a mix of guitarists and non-guitarists, I’ve put together this little primer on some guitar basics of guitar notation and technique as a reference. I’ll link to this page as needed within individual posts to avoid getting bogged down in too many explanations. Everything below presumes a right-handed guitarist.


Music for the guitar is written on a single staff using a modified treble clef called an octave clef, indicating that pitches sound one octave lower than written:


Fingerboard diagrams aren’t generally used in standard guitar notation, but I’ll be using them from time to time to explain concepts. In these diagrams the fingerboard is positioned as it would be if you laid the guitar back on your lap: the left-hand end is the head of the guitar, the bottom horizontal line in the diagram is the lowest-pitched string of the guitar, and the vertical lines represent the frets. Roman numerals are used to indicate the fret numbers.


The strings are tuned as follows, and the circled numbers are used to indicate a specific string.


Sometimes one or more strings of the guitar might be tuned to a different pitch, and this is indicated at the beginning of the score by using the string number and the pitch. In the case of the Chaconne, the 6th string is tuned down a step, from E to D, and is indicated thus:


The two hands have different functions. The left hand is responsible for stopping the strings behind the frets to change the length—and thus the pitch—of the string. The right hand is responsible for plucking or strumming the strings to sound the pitches. The fingers of each hand are labeled:


These letters and numbers can be added to a score to provide the player with specific directions for which finger(s) to use to play a particular note.

Here’s a brief musical example from my edition of the Chaconne showing all of these elements in place:



Entire books have been written on the subject of classical guitar technique, so clearly I can only skim the surface of the basics here.

The fingers of the left hand, as noted above, are responsible for pressing down the strings against the frets to change the pitch on the string. Most of the time a single finger holds down a single string, but occasionally the first finger is laid across several strings to hold down multiple pitches at once: this is called a barre.

The fingers on the left hand have a second function, and that is to sound pitches that are not plucked by the right hand. These are called slurs and occur most often in pairs of notes. In an ascending slur, the lower pitch is plucked as usual by the right hand but the upper pitch is sounded by putting a left hand finger down with sufficient force to sound the higher pitch. In a descending slur the opposite happens: the higher pitch is plucked by the right hand, and the left hand finger pulls off the string in a sort of plucking motion to sound the lower pitch. Slurs are generally employed to achieve a smoother and more melodic feeling or to change the emphasis. In the music example above, a slur is indicated by a curved dotted line connecting two notes.

The right hand fingers (including the thumb, but not the pinkie) sound the strings by plucking them. Plucking is not really the right word as it implies a kind of snapping motion; in reality it’s more of a stroke across or even into the string. There are two types of strokes. In a free stroke, the tip of the finger moves across the string in a shallow arc, pulling up before it contacts the neighboring string. In a rest stroke, the fingertip makes a straighter movement through the string and coming to rest on the neighboring string. For most players the rest stroke create a stronger, louder, and fuller sound, but really good guitarists aspire to make the two strokes sound the same.

The position of the right hand relative to the bridge (where the strings are fastened to the top) and the sound hole also affects the sound. Close to the bridge the strings are very tight and it’s possible to get a very bright and nasal sound. The farther one moves away from the bridge towards (and even past) the sound hole the strings become more flexible and rounder, fuller sounds result.A wide variety of tone colors, volumes, and accents are possible depending on the type of stroke used, the angle of the finger, the use of nails, and so on.