Wednesday, June 17, 2009

fingering vs fretboard

As a teacher of this fantastic art, I often learn more from my students than from the books I've studied or the teachers I've had. Since the study of the guitar is directly influenced by our perceptions, I thought I would share this insight I recently had in a lesson.

As a boy, I never had problems memorizing or understanding what I was playing on the guitar. In fact, the first lesson I ever had was learning a I - IV - V blues progression and the chords and scales that went along with it. When I learned scales or songs at that time, "proper" fingering was never really thought about. I basically would see the notes or tablature, put my fingers where I was supposed to, and off I went. I memorized the shapes of the chords and the scales without really thinking much about how to finger them.

In a recent lesson, I noticed a student perform the correct left hand fingering - but on the wrong string. Most of the time I would have just politely pointed out the error and moved on, but something about this kind of mistake struck me as being deeper than a technical slip. As an experiment, I asked him to play me a scale he knew - which he did. I then asked him to play the same scale using only the index finger of the left hand. To my amazement, the student could not remember the scale - even though he had been playing it for years with the "proper" fingering.

It suddenly dawned on me - some people memorize fingering patterns, but not fretboard patterns. They know the fingering for the scale is 2-4-1-2-4-1-3-4 on the left hand, but they don't know the exact frets and strings the fingering belongs to. Or - they may know a chord's fingering, but because they don't know the fretboard shape of the chord well, they can't easily change to another fingering.

Knowing where you are placing your fingers is more important to memorize than fingering. Fingering is simply the way to get to the frets - the real target and the real knowledge is knowing the fret/string we are playing. Once we have that clear in our head, the fingering can be altered and refined while the proper target (the fret/string) is always in our sights.

Try this for an exercise -

1. Take a 3 octave scale you know well, and play the whole thing with one finger - can you do it? Now start the scale from the top note and go down with one finger. Now start the scale from the 7th note instead of the 1st. If any of this is difficult to do, you've probably memorized the fingering, but not the scale's fretboard pattern. If that is the case, play the scale as you normally would, but this time pay attention to the fretboard pattern of the scale - not your fingering. Really look and study the frets/strings you are playing. After a few repeats, try the exercise again. Also try starting at random spots in the scale. See if you can keep the scale's fretboard shape firmly in your mind regardless of the fingering you choose.

2. Take a simple piece that you have memorized - something very easy to play or can sight read well. Now, change the fingering randomly but don't change positions. If you played a chord with 1st and 2nd fingers, use 3rd and 4th instead. If you played a scale passage with 4-1-0 as the fingering, change it to 1-3-0. Don't make any of the fingering logical or smooth - that's not the point. The point is to be able to change fingerings randomly and still keep the fretboard shapes clearly in your mind.

I've always wondered why rock and jazz guitarists seem to learn classical guitar music easily and I think this is one of the reasons. Pick up any rock or jazz guitar method book and you'll see that fingering is rarely talked about, while fretboard diagrams, and scale/chord shapes are everywhere. From the beginning, these players start looking at the fretboard shapes - while in classical guitar, we tend to emphasise the fingering of the shapes. Fingering is extremely important, but without the proper target, we can only hope that the fingers will land correctly. Know clearly where you want to go and you'll find the way to get there.

6 comments:

Chris said...

I like the stuff you wrote Kevin. I envy my friends who are into Jazz - they have great reading and technical skill. Yet a lot of classical players seem to have adopted an attitude that Classical is "pure" and somehow intrinsically "top of the pile" in guitar technique. I don't think I made that sound right!

On a different note - 1.30am postings - I hope you are not a fellow insomniac...?

kevin r gallagher said...

Hi Chris, rarely do I have trouble sleeping, but for some reason last night I did have a bout of insomnia - went to bed around 3:30am. Luckily I don't have a 9-5 job!

Jack said...

Chris,

I caught this thread of your blog about an hour after you wrote it. I'm an autodidact and a very old one at that. I have been attempting to find my way with the classical guitar for about two years. One of the first things that I did as a beginning beginner was to simulate a fingerboard (just strings and frets) in Excel, about five to a page, and map out scales so that the patterns were obvious. I'm working my way through Segovia's scale collection by using the fingering crutch first, which leads to the pattern, and then to note/fretboard position association. I find that I'm getting better at it as I race towards senility.

I also found it easy to collect chord shapes on the web. I lift what I need for my collection from Jguitar.com, which is a great resource.

Please keep up what you are doing. You have a long reach.

Jack

teresa said...

Thanks Kevin,a valuable lesson for me.

Nicola said...

Very insightful, I'm also in between classical and (latin) jazz worlds. that's the biggest difference I can notice. With classical things it is much harder for me to "hear" the notes before I play them. Many times in difficult passages with counterpoint and changing lines, I find myself resorting to finger memory instead of my ear. this is a big flaw, but with lots of effort you can overcome anything!

rob w said...

Hi Kevin.

Very good post. I teach nearly 40 guitar students a week, mostly suzuki, some adults, some in between :)

I have a colleague who studied with Shearer in the 80s, so who is very versed in the 'mental' aspects of playing...and he has influenced my teaching greatly.

He has fused some suzuki methodolgy with the Sherarian method of fixed-do solfege of scales and pieces. Though this can be quite intense for a student, I think the point is clear: One must have an understanding of the notes of the fretboard in an absolute sense, not a relative sense (which is what a lot of fingering is); i.e. the major scale fingering of 2-4-1-2-4-1-3-4 is a relative system.

As you said, playing on the correct fret but the wrong string for example, is an indication of a lack of connection to the actual notes of the fretboard. I think the solution is not necessarily the rote memorization of notes on the fretboard, but of the ability to know what note you're on or reading at a given time in the context of a key or a motive or a passage.

How to do this and transmit to a student---well, this is not easy!

I think your exercises mentioned are defintely good for this.