The Art of the Classical Arpeggio

Posted by Larry Ferrara

If you’ve only ever played guitar with a pick, and then suddenly begin playing with your fingers, you will find yourself injecting a new variety of character and life into your music. Classical guitarists, who play exclusively with their fingers, are well aware of the sonic possibilities. Even if you’ve never considered playing classical guitar, studying the mechanics of these players will have a great impact on your playing. This lesson will focus on the process of learning and implementing the arpeggio—an important technique in any musician’s repertoire—through the eyes of a classical guitarist.

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Just as harpists sound each individual note on their instruments, arpeggios are played when notes of a given chord are performed one at a time instead of at the same moment. Guitarists can use a wide variety of techniques to play them, with or without a pick, but classical players perform arpeggios by plucking the strings one at a time with the picking-hand fingers.

To get started, sit in the proper classical position, propping your fret-side foot with a small footstool. Lightly rest your picking forearm (not your upper arm) on the midpoint of the guitar’s lower bout. Make sure your elbow is aligned with the shoulder, and that your hand falls just below the soundhole. To be sure your hand is relaxed, make a fist and then unclench it to a comfortable position. Arch your wrist slightly and curl your fingers into a half-circle shape, gently touching one another. (Avoid over arching, as this can aggravate the tendons and lead to painful problems down the road!) Now try plucking a string with your index finger. As it approaches the string, aim your attack so that you make contact with the part of your finger where the flesh and nail meet. Your index finger should approach at a slight angle, so that you pluck near the inside edge of the nail. The thumb, meanwhile, should be held straight at the knuckle, extending slightly beyond the index. As it approaches and strikes the string, move it straight down, toward the index.

Have a look at Example 1, a simple arpeggio that includes the proper fingering for classical guitar. Strike each string in the manner described previously, letting each finger follow through toward the heel of the right hand (being sure to sail over the next lower string entirely). As the next finger goes in for the attack, let the previous finger relax and return to its starting position above the string, ready for its next note.

Excerpted from AG 181 January 2008

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