I play a classical style guitar. A flamenco guitar is pretty much the same animal in shape and size.
These 10 things are what I personally avoid because they do not contribute anything of value to my playing. In fact some of these habits will inevitably retard your progress on this type of guitar so I always advise a beginner to stay away from these “mistakes.”
I need to say that I have no problem with steel acoustic or electric players who do these things. If the cap fits then wear it. I also need to acknowledge that some of my guitar influences like Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel do some of these things. That’s fine.
All I’m saying is that when you are learning to play finger style on a nylon string guitar, these things can be a definite liability and should be avoided at all costs. If you are coming to the classical style guitar from an acoustic or electric guitar background you will naturally try to play as you always have using some of these habits. You may be in for a shock. Let’s face it, mastering the Classical guitar and traditional flamenco is almost impossible if you try to apply unsuitable techniques to your playing. You notice I am tactfully trying to avoid using the word “wrong”. Not wrong, just unsuitable.
I’m glad we got that sorted.
Here we go.
1. Playing with a pick
I do not ever play with a piece of plastic between my thumb and index finger. Sure! When I bought my first steel country style guitar I did what everyone else did on steel strings. Play with a pick. I saw it in books. I saw it on TV. So I figured this is how to play the guitar because lots of people seem to be doing it. When I started playing Classical guitar, my fingers did everything I wanted without a pick. I was hooked.
The way I see it it’s just so much more work when playing arpeggios with a pick (for example) if all you got is one thing contacting the strings. Block chords are impossible with a pick. Try playing rasgueados with a pick.
To put things in perspective, I love listening to “some” electric players like Santana and Jimi Hendrix. Even nylon guitar pick players like Jesse Cook and Armik sound great, but for me the very thought of using a plectrum leaves me cold.
2. Planting the pinky on the guitar body
This is just a crutch, plain and simple. Yes! I know. I know. Experienced and famous (steel string) guitar players have been known to do this. But many others do not. So what’s the deal here. We all have five digits on the right hand. Right? Therefore is it not reasonable to assume that if some humans can play great music without planting the pinky that you can too. Of course you can. Is it necessary to plant just because your friend does it.
But my guitar hero [ENTER GUITAR HERO'S NAME HERE] does it and it looks so cool.
Again I ask, is it necessary to plant just because someone else does it. Of course not.
Then why do some people plant and others don’t? Beats me! Laziness perhaps. Insecurity? Habit. Perhaps all of the above. Maybe it’s the way they were taught by a friend or teacher who does this planting thing. OK. Reality check. If you can train yourself in the beginning to NOT do this you have so much more freedom with the right hand. Does that mean anything to you?
Oh, I hear you say, but if you don’t plant your pinky your hand wobbles about too much and you will miss notes. Oh dear! What does that tell you? Maybe, just maybe if you played a little closer to the strings you would not be so insecure about missing notes.
Do you want to be a copy cat amateur forever or do you want to take a few steps outside the box and develop some control in the playing hand.
Remember I am talking about the nylon string guitar. You are definitely and severely limiting yourself in what you will be capable of playing on nylon if you plant the pinky. If you plan on learning flamenco you will need that pinky to be free floating for rasgueados for a start. Try telling Paco de Lucia that he will play better if he plants his pinky. Really. Come on. That’s kid’s stuff. Definitely lose this habit if you want to be taken seriously.
3. Using a thumb pick
Chet Atkins does it on classical guitar then why not me? Good question. I suppose the simple answer is because that is the way he was taught. I dare not even suggest that using a thumb pick is right or wrong if that is the way you are taught, especially if you feel comfortable with one. Anyone who knows me well will know I don’t think in terms of definitive rights or wrongs. All I’m saying is that I personally find it clumsy and artificial. If a thumb pick can do it so can a well shaped thumbnail in conjunction with an effectively adjusted hand angle.
4. Bending the strings for effect
I suppose to be fair this is not so much something to avoid as something that is a little difficult to do with good effect on a nylon string guitar. There is no unnatural sustain to rely on and exploit as there is when using an electric guitar and amp. For this reason alone bending strings is pretty pointless on a nylon guitar. By the same token I would like to see someone play classical tremolo on an electric with a pick. Horses for courses.
5. Playing standing up
I’ve done it but I don’t do it well. That’s not to say it can’t be done if you practice it. It’s just not the most efficient way to play a nylon string guitar in my opinion. Sitting is the most accurate way to play a nylon string guitar. The Gipsy Kings play standing up don’t they? Well yes! And no. Playing Rumba rhythms standing up is not that hard. But I did notice when I saw them live that Tonino, the lead melody man played sitting down. No surprises there. If standing was a good thing to do why don’t any classical or flamenco virtuosos do it, even some of the time.
6. Relying on tabs to learn from sheet music.
Speaking as someone who was trained to read standard notation I am shamelessly biased. Put a page of sheet music in front of me with both standard notation and tabs and my eyes will be following the standard notation not the tab. “But standard notation is just confusing bunch of fly specks on the page and it’s so hard to get the hand of.” No it’s not. Have you tried to learn it? Like anything else you get better with practice. What if you found some sheet music you really wanted to learn and, shock – horror, it’s in standard notation only. No tabs. Oh my God. What ya gonna do?
When I write down music I always write in both standard notation and tabs, one line under the other. I don’t do this because I read tabs or even think tabs are important.
I do it because, I hate to say this, most of the people I come across in the Internet don’t know anything else and don’t seem interesting in learning anything else. That’s sad. But! But! “It’s just too hard.” No it’s not. It just takes a little time and effort. Like anything else you get better with practice. Is there an echo in here?
7. Playing without fingernails.
Once again I confess to being a little biased on this subject. I find it amazing how many people have left messages on my YouTube videos saying things like, “Can I play this without nails?” This sort of question always confuses the hell out of me. My initial response is “Have you tried?” Why ask me, just try it and find out for yourself. Or is it because these people want approval for doing something they see as unconventional or non standard or whatever.
The truth is you can play without nails if you want. Classical guitarists have been doing this for centuries. I personally don’t care what you do. Nails or no nails is fine by me. But how does it sound to the listener. That’s the question I would be asking. I have heard some fine classical guitar players play some great stuff without nails.
The only trouble is I can barely hear it. To my ears, playing without nails lacks dynamic range and certainly lacks volume. Try playing flamenco in a dance studio full of noisy dance students. Even one planted footstep on the floor boards will drown you out, let alone 15 or 20 dancers doing the same step all at once. Talk about a deafening echo. No way Jose. Nails AND and amplifier is the only way to fly in a dance studio.
Classical guitar music played without nails may sound OK to some at close range but I’m sorry to say it’s all a bit airy fairy to my ears. It’s like someone whispering as they speak. You feel like saying, “Speak up. I can’t hear a bloody thing.”
8. Playing scale runs with a single finger
I suppose I was like many beginners who are totally in awe of the speed that some guitarists play scales. As far as plectrum players go, I have to say I really admire Al Di Meola. It’s not all about speed with him of course because this man really knows his music, but he is so very accurate and clean. What about nylon string guitar? Classical guitar players can play some pretty mean scale runs when called upon to do so but good flamenco players will leave you breathless.
So how do they do it?
Using just the index finger???
Excuse me for using Internet shortcut speak. Are you kidding me? Most of these lightning fast nylon guitar runs are played by alternating just two fingers. Index and middle.If alternating is too big a word it just means that one finger follows the other in a continuous sequence like I M I M I M I M I M. It’s as simple as that.
Some flamenco players have also been known to use all three right hand fingers I M A, like this I M A M I M A etc. Serranito often played picado this way.
So what’s the deal with trying to play a run with just one finger? Come on.
Here’s your chance to get real. It doesn’t work. Plain and simple. So why waste your time trying to “perfect” a useless technique. It won’t get any better or look any less stupid no matter how much you practice it. It’s just dumb.
Once again the question that comes to mind is, “If this technique has any value why don’t the experts use it?”
I heard someone justify this single finger technique once by saying it made crossing strings easy. Right! What else? It won’t make your rums any faster or more accurate.
With a bit if careful practice crossing strings presents no problem whatsoever when alternating index and middle fingers. A good way to improve the alternation is to play practice scales using three fingers as mentioned above. Also try alternating with M and A fingers instead of I and M. I don’t know the physiological reason why practicing with M and A improves the I and M alternation but it does. At least I find that it does. Try it.
9. Extending the left hand thumb above the guitar neck
So many acoustic and electric players do this so it must be OK. Once again I can only put it down to the way you get taught. On a nylon string guitar this habit becomes problematic and severely limits your ability to stretch. If you stick out your thumb like your favorite Mississippi blues man and can still manage to play a mean Buleria, I would love to see that. If you can play “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” with your left thumb hanging loose in mid air you get my thumbs up that’s for sure. Maybe it’s just me. I’m only human and I could be missing something for all I know.
All I can tell you is that if I didn’t have my left thumb behind the neck at all times I couldn’t possibly play half the things I do.
I have tried playing with the thumb sticking up just to experience what this is all about, but it just feels so awkward and clumsy. Sorry. I just can’t do it. There is no control and I feel… Well… kinda stoopid.
I know some steel string acoustic people actually reach over the neck and finger notes on the E bass string. I have books that teach this as a valid technique for country style guitar. OK. Fine. More power to them I say. If you can do it and you get to play the music you want, that’s great. On a nylon string instrument this technique is hard to justify. Once again, I now it’s boring to be repeating myself but……. if this was a good thing to do why don’t classical or flamenco virtuosos do it, even some of the time.
10. Involuntary facial expressions or body movements
Have you seen the video of “Meeting of the Spirits” with Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia. I love it. Apart from the exceptional guitar playing I find it entertaining for another reason. John McLaughlin makes some pretty strange faces when he really concentrates. There is a spot in the video where Paco looks across to John with some amusement and you can almost hear him thinking “what the …”A
nother classic example of a player who seems to play with strange parts of the body is the classical guitarist Julian Bream. I love the way he throws himself around and makes faces as he plays.Part of this is sure to be conscious and controlled showmanship but at least some of it has got to be tension.
Tommy Emmanuel is another example of a controlled showman. He definitively knows he is pulling faces and thrusting his body around and seems to play on it to good effect.
The deliberate and controlled showmanship displayed by famous performers is something to be admired. But for a learning guitar player I don’t think there is any great benefit in emulating some of these extreme body movements.
If you get involuntary facial twitches while playing. Warning! If you find yourself involuntarily thrusting your torso back and forth or are feeling stiffness in extreme parts of your body while you play. Warning! Alarm bells should be going off. These things are definitely signs of tension.
If you feel fingers and hands going stiff as you play, that’s a dead giveaway. Most intelligent bipeds would simply stop, shake their hands and give it a rest for a few minutes before trying again. But facial twitches and tension in other parts of the body may be a little harder to detect.
Being aware of these tensions is the first step in controlling and eliminating them. You don’t need tension anywhere and it’s a good idea to become a little more body conscious while you play. Being aware of these tensions is the first step in controlling and eliminating them. There’s that echo again.
Just my 2 cent’s worth.