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A Complete Right-Hand Technique:
Jim's Thoughts and Experiences

 
To fingerstyle guitarists of all persuasions, but classical players in particular:
A revolution in right-hand guitar technique is underway, and you can either be left behind on the ash pile of the past or be at the forefront of this development and enhance your capability by at least 20%.

The movement of which I speak is the use of the right-hand little finger (c), the leading force of which is retired University of Texas professor Charles "Chuck" Postlewate, who has spent more than two decades developing c, a process that to date has resulted in a right-hand technique book, three collections of repertoire pieces, and a number of articles.

My own interest and involvement in using c dates back to 1981, when I first met Lenny Breau and came to ghost write his Guitar Player Magazine instructional columns, which ran from 1981 until his death in 1984. During our first official column development and information gathering session, Lenny demonstrated how he used the little finger for chords and a tremolo-like exercise he had devised. I immediately saw the value of using c, and began using it in my own playing, albeit initially only for five-note chords.

After learning that Chuck Postlewate used c, in 1984 I asked him to write an article for Guitar Player detailing its use in classical playing. Chuck credits our initial conversation as being instrumental in encouraging him to continue and expand his work regarding the right-hand little finger.

In 2005, Chuck asked me to contribute to Mel Bay's Contemporary Anthology Of Solo Guitar Music For Five Fingers for which he served as both editor and contributing composer. This collection, released in late 2009, features works by a number of well-known composers and is ground breaking in that it is the first anthology of music requiring a complete right-hand technique.

Since composing the six pieces I contributed to Contemporary Anthology, c has played an increased role in my own technique and compositions. In March of 2010, I conducted my first clinic on the use of c (at the South Bay Guitar Society's 6th Annual Guitar Festival), which focused on "Ferguson's Concentrated Right-Hand Workout" and "Chords And Arpeggios For Balance And Articulation," comprising a total of 18 powerful exercises designed to give players a firm foundation upon which to base further technical development as well as enable them to utilize c almost immediately.

Along with Chuck and other players who realize the power of the right-hand little finger, I believe its use to be the single most important technical development in recent classical guitar history, one that will in all likelihood permanently change how the instrument is played and taught.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why should I use c, when most music is written for four-finger technique?
Because you are distributing the workload, thereby increasing your efficiency. Using only four fingers is akin to fielding a basketball team with only four players. Take that short but strong and fast player off the bench and put him/her into the game! Once endowed with this awareness, you will begin to realize the absurdity of having c hang there unused, even when you witness the playing of an otherwise fine guitarist. Once you develop a modicum of facility with c, you will begin to see ways to use it. In addition, more and more music is being written for five-finger technique. Historically, it has been composers who have placed new demands on performers and thus raised the technical level of a given instrument.

The music of Villa-Lobos has many five-note chords. Did he play with five-finger technique?
Heitor Villa-Lobos used and composed for five fingers, which, in my opinion, makes him both a musical and technical visionary. If you already play pieces by Villa-Lobos, using five-finger technique will lead you to rethink how his music should be played, and also question the propriety of certain passages in existing recorded performances.

Doesn't c's shortness and weakness restrict its use?
For a partial answer, see the first reply. To see for yourself, curve your fingers in playing position and observe that c is equal or near-equal in length to the other fingers. If you use a straight-wrist position, as do most contemporary players, you will need to modify your hand position very little if at all to accommodate c. And c is not weak, but in fact one of the strongest fingers. To verify this, grip your left index finger with the fingers of your right hand, and squeeze as hard as practical while relaxing c. Now squeeze again, but include c. The difference is remarkable. Most important, c is one of the most independent fingers. One simple confirmation of this is to place your hand palm down on a flat surface, and raise each finger one at a time as high as possible.

Should I keep my c nail longer than normal?
In most cases, this is not necessary. When I was using c to play only chords, I kept the nail quite long, but have since shortened it in proportion to my other nails. An overly long nail will prevent you from allowing the nail/fingertip junction to seat properly against the string.

My little finger is a bit crooked. Is that a problem?
Having taught guitar for over three decades, I have observed that c is the most irregular of the five fingers. In many cases, the nail-proximate joint leans a bit toward the ring finger (a). This is not a problem and may even be an advantage, because it lessens the span between i and c.

Because of the distance between i and c, won't c be closer to the bridge and create a brighter sound in relation to the other fingers?
This can be overcome through both awareness and slight repositioning of the hand along the string length.

Can you summarize the advantages of using c?
The most important advantage is that it is much more independent than a, which makes it a superior choice in many situations--from arpeggios to right-hand harmonics. In addition to providing more fingering options, it also reduces the distance the right-hand is required to move across the strings. Moreover, it eliminates the need to arpeggiate five-note chords, excessive repetitions of the right-hand thumb, and fanciful fingerings that avoid its use (as in the 89th of Guiliani's 120 Right-Hand Studies and as is often recommended in treating the middle section of Villa-Lobos' Prelude No. 2).

Do you give lessons in its use?
Yes. It is a fundamental part of my teaching. See Lessons for more information.

Do you use fingerstyle technique on the CDs to your jazz instruction books?
It varies. I use a pick for some examples and fingers for others. I officially discarded the pick in about 1994, and have used it since only for demonstration purposes.

 


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