The Three Fundamental Features Used on the Guitar
My name is Manuel Diewald and I am a Sydney-based guitar teacher in West Pennant Hills with a B.Mus. (Hons) (First) in Music Pedagogy from The University of New South Wales (UNSW).
Throughout my 17 years of learning guitar, I have been taught many valuable skills, lessons, and approaches to music, though one realisation, in particular, stands out and that is the three fundamental features that are included in playing the guitar. These three include scales, slurs, and stretches. To add as a disclaimer, I am not saying that learning the guitar only includes these three, what I am saying is that when it comes to playing the guitar, we find these three main features to take up the majority of what we do when learning/performing a piece or song.
Scales are used everywhere in music in all shapes and forms. They can be used traditionally in the sense that we play in chronological order of the notes or we play scales where the notes are jumbled around the create interesting melodic and rhythmic patterns. By practicing scales regularly, we are preparing ourselves physically and mentally for a large portion of what we are playing within our pieces.
Using scales are great for warm-ups though playing them the same way each time is limiting the amount of preparation we are giving ourselves. It is good to practice scales descending rather than ascending all the time, playing different patterns, starting with a different finger and using different fingers (m and a instead of i and m), incorporating dynamics by starting off piano and playing a crescendo to forte and vice versa with a decrescendo. All these approaches to scales will help prepare ourselves for pieces we are either currently learning or for pieces in the future. Have a look at the examples below for ways to incorporate scales into your practice.
Example A (Scale Dynamics)
Example B (Scale with different R-H fingering using m and a)
Example C (Scale variation using a different pattern)
Slurs, also known as a hammer-on and pull-off, are commonly found in music and are used to add musical expression. Slurs are intended to be played legato, which means smooth in Italian, creating a flowing melody or expressiveness to a section of a piece. There are many exercises that can be practiced to help achieve this and just like scales, you can practice these slurs by using sections from a piece you are learning. When playing a slur, you want to make sure that there is an evenness in the volume and tone from both notes. There are of course musical exceptions where this may not be the intended idea though I would suggest practicing for evenness in the beginning and then altering your volume and tone if need be for a specific scenario.
When playing a pull-off, you want to feel a crisp snap as your LH finger pulls downwards towards the ground. A common mistake is to lift the finger off as we would if we were playing a scale. Make sure that the finger snaps off the string downwards as your finger is replicating the intended result the RH makes when plucking the string. For example, the plucked note should be as loud and of equal tone as the slurred note. Below in examples, D, E, and F are some slur exercises that can be used to practice with. Practice hammer-on and pull-off slurs separately before attempting to practice example F. In all examples, leave your first finger on your LH down for the whole exercise.
Example D (Hammer-on Slurs)
Example E (Pull-off Slurs)
Example F (Hammer-on-on and Pull-off Slurs)
Stretches are an essential part of our playing as there are many scenarios where our LH fingers are in a position that is stretching our fingers apart. This is also relative to your experience as a player and how often you encounter stretches. For a beginner, it will feel like a stretch when holding notes that are 3 frets apart. For example, fret 1 to 3. For a more experienced player, the feeling of a stretch may only occur across 5 frets or more. For example, playing from fret 1 to 5 or 1 to 6, etc. Having mentioned all that, we don't typically stay in stretches for too long. Through my experience, we are only in stretches for a short amount of time though there are exceptions as there are some pieces where we do stay in a stretch for longer times though in general, we are out of them pretty quickly. So why is it important to practice stretches?
It is good to practice these so we can extend the number of frets we can stretch to more easily. Another reason would be that stretches are hard to land our fingers accurately on the intended strings, frets, and contact point of our LH fingers i.e. the tips of our fingers (Unless playing a barre).
There are great stretching exercises that can be used as a warm-up, or if you have stretches in your pieces, you can use those as stretching warm-ups which will be efficiently practicing a difficult section of that piece in your warm-up. I must note at this point that when practicing stretches, never continue to practice when you start to feel any pain. Stop immediately, shake your hand, and give it a stretch. in the examples G and H below, you can find some stretching exercises.
Example G (Stretch each finger to the next frets as much as you can)
Example H (Excerpt from Scott Tennant's Pumping Nylon. Spider Exercise)
This blog was a little longer than usual though I wanted to cover enough that it all made sense. Hopefully, it was helpful, and that you can incorporate these 3 essential features of guitar playing.