As a student who was brought up on an ‘all the technique you need is in pieces’ pedagogical approach, it was only in my rebellious teenage years that I decided to actively seek out a technique book.
I flicked through multiple and settled eventually on a thick ring bound copy of Kitharologus by Ricard Iznaola. The busy cover read ‘THE PATH TO VIRTUOSITY, a technical workout manual for all guitarists’, it sounded promising.
After reading through the information at the beginning and examining the suggested ‘workout’ tables at the front of the edition I turned to the first exercise, a series of half notes on the 6 open strings of the guitar, I flicked a couple of pages further, all of these exercises looked like things I had learnt in my first year of playing guitar.
I turned through the pages closer to the end and everything still looked doable with my technique in its current state, I had been expecting parabolic arpeggios, messy passages covering the pages with so much technical rollercoaster they were almost black, I had been expecting Paganini-caprice-like impossibility. I didn’t understand how any of these playable exercises could be the ‘path to virtuosity’ unless they were the very first tentative steps on the path.
Almost ten years later during an intensive guitar course with Rene Izquierdo, where we spent most of the week playing seemingly basic exercises with so much intention that I spent most of the time frustrated and incredulous at my inability to connect my mind to my fingers to get the desired outcome, the penny finally dropped.
These exercises had not been made to be completed or finished, they had been made with the purpose of breaking down every movement on the guitar to its root so the player could observe each movement at its core and slowly, consciously improve each facet of their playing on the guitar.
A decade after my initial purchase of it, Kitharologus was retrieved from the bottom of the book pile, became my daily dedication and took me from being a player with a mostly functional but unreliable technique to a player with control, more ability to enjoy what I was doing, a more complete understanding of how to teach the guitar effectively and a wealth of competitive success.
Here’s the article I wish I had read when I first bought that book all those years ago!
Why practice technique?
Over the years ‘technique’ has become a concept all on its own, inspiring the mental image of a tense, sweaty, frustrated individual jabbing out machine-gun-speed scales against the insistent click of a slightly-too-speedy metronome.
The real definition of technique is simply ‘a way of carrying out a particular task’, the procedure by which something is done, the method of execution of a task.
Practising technique is at its root all about consciously programming the movement of the fingers, the wrists, the whole body in order to execute a passage or musical element in the most muscularly efficient and musically effective way. It serves to eliminate unnecessary, often subconscious movement by stripping away musical intention from passages and reducing the physicality of playing to its basic elements.
Technical work reveals a comprehensive understanding of the elemental movements that make up playing an instrument without the head-noise of musical interpretation.
It is therefore extremely important, not only as a valuable accompaniment to practice of pieces, but also as a way to improve technical capacity and physical condition for future potential musical challenges.
What is a technique book?
A technique book is essentially a collection of exercises written out that hit each of the technical elements needed to play guitar, including but not limited to: right hand and left hand orientation, right hand and left hand basic motions, synchronisation between the hands, tone production, left hand vertical and horizontal movement, right hand vertical movement, tremolo technique and speed reflex, finger independence, hammers, slurs, trills, etc.
Some books offer a comprehensive overview of technical elements (The aforementioned Kitharologus by Ricardo Iznaola, Scott Tenant’s Pumping Nylon, Julian Byzantine’s Technique Rationalized, Hubert Käppel’s, The Bible of Classical Guitar Technique), while others focus on a single technique (Boudonis’ Vertical Exercises, Carlevaro’s Right Hand Technique Method) or offer musical exercise material without instruction to be used however the player likes such as the Giuliani 120 Right Hand Exercises.
Why use a technique book?
In a world of difficult pieces that offer their own technical challenges, why should we be using a separate technique book to advance our playing skills?
- Technique books isolate each technique into a musically empty fragment, which means there is more focus available for observation and improvement of movement.
- They create a more complete technical base. Technique books offer a wealth of material so that practice of many elements is possible even if the pieces a player has seen do not include certain techniques.
- They provide a visual stimulus to accompany techniques, which helps develop quicker response when sight-reading.
- They offer variety in practice material which helps keep practice stimulating and fruitful.
- Improvement can be more easily put into measurable qualities, which helps track progress and keep practice feeling directional.
- The text around the exercises can offer interesting information about how to practice or achieve a certain technique that might not otherwise be flagged up by the player or even their mentor or teacher.
How to use a technique book
The first task upon acquiring and reading through a technique book is to decide what you would like to get out of it, try to avoid creating empty goals such as ‘I want to improve my technique’ or ‘I want to get better at guitar’ as, while these goals are commendable, they are not measurable. A measurable goal might look like ‘I want to be able to play faster’ or, ‘I want slurs to feel easier’.
If you don’t have a specific technique in mind, have a few sessions of reading through the technique book and work out some areas that feel like they could use improvement.
Write these down for later. Next, flick (or scroll) to the contents page and search for exercises marked with the technique you would like to improve.
It’s important to note that most exercises have multiple purposes and applications, so an exercise dedicated to left hand hammers might also require finger independence of the right hand, or synchronisation between the two hands.
Once you have found the technique you would like to improve, choose a few corresponding exercises to practice and read the accompanying text, which should give you an idea of what you are looking out for in this exercise.
Once you have mentally engaged with the exercise at hand, play the exercise through a few times to accustom yourself to the playing pattern of it (most technical exercises are pattern based).
When learning or improving on a technique, the last thing you want is to be so focused on reading the music that you never have the chance to observe the hands or to feel the sensation of an exercise.
It is always a good idea to memorise the exercise as quickly as possible so that your full focus and attention can be put into the motions of the hands.
Playing an exercise through 1000 times will surely do something, but improvement is not guaranteed by repetition.
In order to streamline your process and achieve your goals, it is paramount that you observe the technique as it functions at the very beginning and work out specific concrete goals.
To do this it can be useful to make a video recording from a few different angles of your hands in order to work out what exactly needs to be trained.
For example: In an exercise that serves to improve left hand hammers.
Once the exercise pattern has been fully committed to memory I play the exercise through at a moderate tempo recording from the top of the hand down to recreate the image I see when playing, I repeat this process recording from both sides of the hand, from below the hand and from in front of me. I then put away the guitar and watch each video, observing (slowed down if necessary) the motion of the fingers, the hand, the thumb on the back of the neck, the wrist and the arm. I observe my breath while I’m playing the exercise, the position of my shoulders and neck and I monitor for any visible tensions. I watch the motion of the fingers closely to observe whether they move fluidly from A-B (raised above the fretboard to finger on the string) or if there is any motion interference. I check if my knuckles stay supple and strong or if they collapse at any moment, I observe the distance at which each finger naturally begins the slur and monitor whether or not they over-move or if there are irregularities between the motion in each finger (normally I find at least a small difference in the motion of fingers 1 and 2, and fingers 3 and 4).
When I notice an abnormality I note it down, draw a diagram, or take a screenshot and annotate it. After collecting as many observations as I can, I get to work organising the origin of each abnormality, eg. “MCP knuckle of the 3rd finger collapses when I hammer on - due to lack of necessary curve in the finger, MCP knuckles slightly further from guitar neck?”.
Side note: In order to notate observations clearly and precisely I have had to organise a system of description for the hands other than just 1234 and PIMA.
Once each observation has been notated and a possible reason for each interference and an ideal alternative for each has been defined I organise them into element groups and set about programming the changes into my hands. This of course starts in the brain, concentrating on P I M A C 1 2 3 4 0 DIP (Distal Interphalangeal Joint) PIP (Proximal Interphalangeal Joint) MCP (Metacarpophalangeal Joint) producing the required effect with the most efficient and comfortable movement and then repeating the process until the new movement is programmed into the hands as a new ‘normal’. Once I feel that the movement has been considerably improved, I take stock by recording again from each angle and observe closely the motions of the hand. I ask myself what has changed, does the hand look efficient, what can still be optimised? Based on my findings I repeat the process once more.
Once an exercise has been practiced and new optimal movements have been programmed into the hands, there are ways of squeezing even more use out of the material itself.
Classic modifications of exercises used to test and train the hand further include either increasing the speed at which an exercise is performed (which, for consistent results and to avoid injury, should be done over an extended period of time incrementally), increasing the volume of an exercise (which requires more displacement of the hands, slightly larger movements, quicker and more efficient return-to-string time and creates greater string displacement - which requires slightly more precise and sometimes just slightly different finger-to-string placement) moving an exercise to a different string or position on the instrument (which acclimates the hand to performing an optimal movement with: varying string spacing or material feel - on the bass strings or the trebles, varying vertical positions for the fingers in relation to the hand, wrist and arm, varying distance between the string and the fretboard (action) and different levels of string flexibility).
Using these three methods, one exercise can serve to bring a player from their first simple hammer right up to their most difficult.
On the flip side, an exercise that presents a challenge that makes playing the exercise too difficult for the player to be fully in control can be modified in a number of ways to remove some of the difficulty, namely muting the strings while playing, or playing an exercise quieter so that string displacement is reduced.
Last thoughts and a suggestion
The world has changed a lot since my first venture into the world of technique, in fact to acquire my first copy of Kitharologus in 2009 I remember convincing my parents to let me travel to London and having to visit 5 different music shops before I found any that even stocked books for guitar.
Questions I had about the book (things I didn’t dare ask my teacher, this was my rebellious era remember.) had to be saved for Ricardo’s visits to London to give masterclasses which appeared, in my early teenage mind, to happen once in a blue moon and during which I could only steal a few of his minutes.
The internet has brought us closer together, books are easier to acquire, most guitarists are just an email away and the wealth of information on YouTube and platforms like tonebase make it easier than ever to find answers to questions, or information that piques interest in order to find questions to ask.
I hope this article helps you on your journey towards a more comfortable, effective playing technique and that the outlined methods help your progress feel more structured and satisfying.
Remember that people’s opinions about technique vary massively, but just because your hero, or your teacher doesn’t think it’s valuable doesn't mean that it won’t be useful for you.
And if you’re still searching for the point in practicing technique, like I did for so many years, ask yourself as many questions as you can, the trick isn’t in finding all of the answers immediately, but in looking for the questions that lead you closer to where you want to be.
If you want to learn more about classical guitar pedagogy, then click here to check out our free tonebase lesson with Adam Levin.
Did you learn something new?
Feel free to click this link to check out our in-depth courses on classical guitar, taught by artists including Grammy winning guitarists and professors from schools such as Juilliard, Eastman, and more.
On tonebase, you will find in-depth courses and workshops with some of the world’s top guitarists, covering a wide range of subjects such as repertoire-specific lessons, classical guitar technique, and more.