Guitar Technique Tip of the Month

Your Personal Guitar Lesson

Douglas Niedt



In Part 2 of How to Play Staccato I cover how to deal with string crossings (string changes). Maintaining clean, short staccato on passages with string crossings can be very tricky to do. I guide you through it step by step. I also cover the technique of executing staccato with the back of the right-hand thumb. More to come next month in Part 3 and the conclusion of this technique tip.

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HOW TO PLAY STACCATO, Part 2 of 3

By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.



Step #4: Dealing with String Crossings

When it comes to staccato, string crossings (changing from one string to another) are really bad news. A huge wrench gets thrown into the works. Whether using the thumb and/or fingers to damp, the difficulty of executing staccatos that are evenly short increases exponentially when string crossings occur.

Ascending Passages

This is apparent when attempting to play a simple two-octave “Segovia scale” staccato:



Segovia Scale


As soon as we come to the first string cross or string change going from the D on the 5th string to the E on the 4th string, we hit a snag:



Ascending scale problem


Executing staccato with just i and m at this string cross won’t work, especially at faster speeds. The first two notes on the 5th string, the C and D, are fine. But then the i finger is supposed to play the 4th string E. However, because we used the i finger to cut the 5th string short to make the D staccato, it is sitting on the 5th string, out of position to play the E on the 4th string. And, since we are alternating i and m, we don’t want to repeat m.

The solution is to use the right-hand thumb to execute staccato at ascending string crosses on the note right before the string cross:



Ascending scale solution


Use this rule for ascending passages

On a scale or single line passage like a melody, it doesn’t matter if you begin the passage with i or m or if you use ia, ai, ma, or am. On the ascending portion of a scale or single line passage, the rule is that the thumb executes the staccato on the note right before the string change. This allows you to maintain finger alternation and fluidity.



Complete ascending scale


Watch this video. You will more easily understand what I am describing:

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Be sure to watch the video on full screen. Click the symbol to the right of "HD" in the lower right-hand corner after the video begins playing. Hit escape "ESC" on your keyboard to return to normal viewing.

Descending Passages

Descending scales or single-line passages present similar problems at string crossings:



Descending scale problem


The solution is to use the a finger to execute the staccato on the note before the string change or crossing:



Descending scale solution


Use this rule for descending passages

On the descending portion of a scale or single line passage (like a melody) played with im or mi, the rule is that the a finger executes the staccato on the note right before the string change. This allows you to maintain finger alternation and fluidity with i and m:



Descending scale complete


Watch and I will show you how to do this:

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Let’s look at this passage from Leyenda (Asturias) by Issac Albéniz:



Leyenda


This passage doesn’t have to be played staccato. In fact the piano score does not indicate staccato. But I (and other guitarists) think playing it staccato or even pizzicato is a nice touch of contrast when played on the guitar.

The passage is easily executed with im staccato until the string change at the end of the third measure. The problem is how to play the 4th-string E staccato. The technique that will produce the best crisp or short staccato is highlighted in red. Pluck the E with i. Stop or cut the E with the a finger. Continue alternating fingers by playing the C with m. Cut the C with i to make the C staccato. However, in this passage, this method is tricky. The a finger must be perfectly in position to execute the staccato.

A much easier method is highlighted in blue. Pluck the E with i. Then, simply use the left-hand 3rd finger to quickly damp the E, making it staccato. The 3rd finger is already on its way to playing the C on the 5th string, so it is a very natural motion. It isn’t quite as crisp a staccato as the right-hand method, but is certainly easier.

Check it out.

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Be sure to watch the video on full screen. Click the symbol to the right of "HD" in the lower right-hand corner after the video begins playing. Hit escape "ESC" on your keyboard to return to normal viewing.

Real-Life Decision Making

The lesson to learn here is that although right-hand staccato is usually more crisp and clean than left-hand staccato, it can be difficult to execute in the heat of battle. Sometimes it is better to sacrifice a little of the crispness of the right-hand staccato and use left-hand staccato to ensure getting through the passage without crashing.

Another Technique: Using the Back of the Right-Hand Thumb to Execute Staccato

Here is an example of how to use the back of the right-hand thumb to execute staccato on passages with many string crossings. All the notes are plucked with the thumb:



Staccato with back of thumb


The hand is placed in a slightly different position from its norm. It leans back slightly and sinks down a little closer to the strings. Immediately after each note is plucked with the thumb, the back of the thumb damps the string producing a crisp staccato.

Watch me demonstrate how to do this:

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Be sure to watch the video on full screen. Click the symbol to the right of "HD" in the lower right-hand corner after the video begins playing. Hit escape "ESC" on your keyboard to return to normal viewing.

Just to illustrate the use of this technique, let’s look at a passage from In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg, played on the bass strings of the guitar with the thumb. Every note is to be played staccato:



Mountain King


If we play it in first position, several string changes or crosses arise which must be dealt with. On changes from a higher pitched string to lower pitched string, left-hand staccato is an easy solution. On changes from a lower-pitched string to a higher-pitched string, the back-of-the-thumb staccato technique works very well:



Mountain King with notations


Passages like this can seem very complicated. But once the mechanics are worked out, the execution feels very natural. Watch me demonstrate:

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The back-of-the-thumb staccato technique is useful in many passages. Let’s look at a passage from Fernando Sor’s Lesson 20 from his Twenty-Four Progressive Lessons, Opus 31 (Study No. 9 in Segovia’s Twenty Sor Studies):



Sor Study No. 9


The notes in red could be stopped simply by setting the thumb immediately back on the string just played. But, using the back of the thumb has the advantage of preparing the thumb to play the chord that follows.

Watch how it works:

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Be sure to watch the video on full screen. Click the symbol to the right of "HD" in the lower right-hand corner after the video begins playing. Hit escape "ESC" on your keyboard to return to normal viewing.

END OF PART 2.

More to come in How to Play Staccato, Part 3 (the conclusion). We will look at playing staccato and legato at the same time—staccato in the melody, legato in the bass and vice versa. We will examine the use of staccato in playing contrapuntal music. And finally, I will show you that staccato is useful not just in playing classical music but for playing popular arrangements too!


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The PDF Version

We have a PDF version of this article with the videos embedded in the document so you can save the entire article to your computer, videos included!

IMPORTANT:

The PDF of this article contains embedded videos. The videos will not play well unless you save the PDF to your computer first. After saving the file, open the file you just saved and the videos will play smoothly. This PDF is a large file (1.3 GB) so it may take a while to download.

Download How to Play Staccato Part 2 of 3.pdf

Note: You must have Adobe Reader 10 or later installed on your computer to play the videos contained in the PDFs. Download Adobe Reader here.