Technique, technique, technique

I’ve been on a technique kick lately.

A couple years ago I started learning drums. I got a cheap kit, some lessons… It turns out I love to play drums, and at a certain point I noticed that once you have the fundamentals down, the more you get into it the better you play. A positive-feedback loop sets off: you’re enjoying it—you get into the groove—your body locks into the rhythm—playing becomes more effortless and expressive—you start really sinking your teeth into it—your exuberance channels into your playing, into the snap of your wrist, the bounce of your foot on the kick-drum…

While I’d had similar experiences with the guitar, they were always tempered by missed pickstrokes, tense fingers, etc., so the positive-feedback loop was, if not broken, at least hampered. Rhythm, dynamics, and creativity soared, while accuracy suffered and dragged the rest down with it.

I started wondering if I could reach that level of enjoyment—of everything clicking—on the guitar. Maybe if I retooled my technique I could whittle away at the technical obstacles hampering my playing.

I’ve since come across a lot of good teaching material aimed at cultivating that kind of effortless proficiency, especially among classical guitarists. Pepe Romero summed it up nicely: “It’s very easy to play the guitar well. It’s very difficult to play the guitar poorly.

That’s why I’m on a technique kick lately.

Performance Notes: Touch/Halfpress/Pushdown

These finger-independence exercises are an extension of some exercises in Jamie Andreas’ excellent book, The principles of correct practice for guitar. I found Jamie’s book very helpful in my quest to retool my technique, so I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested.

The main goal of these exercises is to perform each movement, whether placing a fingertip, pressing the string, releasing a fingertip, etc., without affecting the other fingers or inducing unnecessary tension elsewhere in the hand. Initially they should be learned slowly, without adherence to any beat. Simply take the time to make each movement and watch/control how the rest of the hand reacts.

Start with an empty hand, fingers poised over the string. The sequence exercises involve placing one finger at a time, leaving it in place until all selected fingers are in place. Release the fingers in the reverse order, arriving again at an empty hand.

When performing a halfpress or pushdown sequence, only the initial finger presses the string towards the fingerboard; subsequent fingers just touch the string lightly. The initial finger may unintentionally press harder as subsequent ones come into play, so watch for that and control it. In any sequence, whether touch, halfpress, or pushdown, watch for string movement to detect unwanted or excess pressure.

I’ve generally been practicing these at the fifth position, starting on the low E string, and moving across all six strings before continuing to the next permutation.

There are too many permutations to try and fit everything into a single practice session without compromising the time and attention each requires, so be selective. After all these years of playing, I’m still learning how to organize an effective practice session, but I’d suggest picking a few permutations to work on and see how it goes. Don’t try and cover everything all the time. Let some fields lay fallow as you work the other areas, and lend some variety to your practice routines (there’s plenty to choose from). Keep track of what’s been covered, what needs more attention, and where you’re at generally. It seems sensible to start with touch exercises and progress to halfpresses and then pushdowns. Likewise, start with single-note exercises and progress through the sequences.

Pushdown: Four-Note Sequences

Press string to fingerboard and touch three other fingertips to string without affecting other fingers

example 4:3:2:1

empty p-4 p-4-3 p-4-3-2

p-4-3-2-1

p-4-3-2 p-4-3 p-4 empty

across strings : each permutation

(1:2:3:4, 1:2:4:3, 1:3:2:4, 1:3:4:2, 1:4:2:3, 1:4:3:2, 2:1:3:4, 2:1:4:3, 2:3:1:4, 2:3:4:1, 2:4:1:3, 2:4:3:1, 3:1:2:4, 3:1:4:2, 3:2:1:4, 3:2:4:1, 3:4:1:2, 3:4:2:1, 4:1:2:3, 4:1:3:2, 4:2:1:3, 4:2:3:1, 4:3:1:2, 4:3:2:1)

Halfpress: Four-Note Sequences

Press string halfway to fingerboard and touch three other fingertips to string without affecting other fingers

example 4:1:2:3

empty h-4 h-4-1 h-4-1-2

h-4-1-2-3

h-4-1-2 h-4-1 h-4 empty

across strings : each permutation

(1:2:3:4, 1:2:4:3, 1:3:2:4, 1:3:4:2, 1:4:2:3, 1:4:3:2, 2:1:3:4, 2:1:4:3, 2:3:1:4, 2:3:4:1, 2:4:1:3, 2:4:3:1, 3:1:2:4, 3:1:4:2, 3:2:1:4, 3:2:4:1, 3:4:1:2, 3:4:2:1, 4:1:2:3, 4:1:3:2, 4:2:1:3, 4:2:3:1, 4:3:1:2, 4:3:2:1)