Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt
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CLASSICAL GUITAR SCALES

Douglas Niedt, guitarist

"Douglas who?"

Douglas Niedt is a successful concert and recording artist and highly respected master classical guitar teacher with 50 years of teaching experience. He is Associate Professor of Music (retired), at the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Fellow of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management—Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Doug studied with such diverse masters as Andrés Segovia, Pepe Romero, Christopher Parkening, Narciso Yepes, Oscar Ghiglia, and Jorge Morel. Therefore, Doug provides solutions for you from a variety of perspectives and schools of thought.

He gives accurate, reliable advice that has been tested in performance on the concert stage that will work for you at home.

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HOW TO PRACTICE SCALES ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR
A comprehensive course


By Douglas Niedt

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


Let's jump right in. Here are 19 ways (and reasons) to practice scales on the classical guitar:

  1. Keep your left-hand fingers close to the strings.
  2. Keep unused fingers pointing down down at the strings.
  3. Keep the fingers spread apart in a four-fret span.
  4. Place the fingers close to the frets.
  5. Lift fingers in the correct direction. Lift the fingers in the direction where they are needed next.
  6. Learn to execute inaudible shifts.
  7. Lift fingers from the back joints, not the tip or middle joints.
  8. Learn to place a finger on the very tip close to the fingernail or off the tip depending on the situation.
  9. Learn how to play past the 12th fret.
  10. Use correct left-hand thumb technique and positioning.
  11. Exert as little pressure as needed to play a given note.
  12. Learn to play loudly and softly and learn to control crescendos and decrescendos. Also work on tone color changes.
  13. Learn basic right-hand finger control and technique such as moving from the correct joints, making small finger movements, and maintaining strict finger alternation.
  14. Work on tone production and the correct use of the fingernails.
  15. Maintain consistency of tone and volume from finger to finger.
  16. Work on independence of movement of each finger from the other fingers.
  17. Work on vibrato technique.
  18. Learn to play legato (all the notes connected smoothly with no dead space between them).
  19. Learn to play something flawlessly.

Why Should We Practice Scales on the Classical Guitar?

The great Andrés Segovia gives us his cogent answer in the preface to his Diatonic Major and Minor Scales, published by Columbia Music Company (and believe it or not one of the best-selling guitar publications of all time):

"The student who wishes to acquire a firm technique on the guitar should not neglect the patient study of scales. If he practices them two hours a day he will correct faulty hand positions, gradually increase the strength of the fingers, and prepare the joints for later speed studies…In one hour of scales may be condensed many hours of arduous exercises which are frequently futile. The practice of scales enables one to solve a greater number of technical problems in a shorter time than the study of any other exercise."

These words are from the greatest guitarist of the last century and certainly one of its best technicians. Anyone with any doubts about Segovia's technical prowess in his younger days should listen to the CD Andrés Segovia, The EMI Recordings 1927-39 to hear one of the most impressive techniques of his time.

Jascha Heifetz, the great violinist, used to audition prospective students by listening to them play nothing but scales! Heifetz believed the scale is the most important phase of technique. "The foundation of everything is the scale." Granted, one could argue that scale technique is more important in the execution of violin music than guitar music, but I hope you get the point. If you need any more encouragement to practice scales, read the words of almost any great musician about the development of technique.

How one practices guitar scales depends on one's objectives. In this article, I am NOT talking about practicing classical guitar scales for improvisation or for learning the fingerboard or for theory-related objectives. I am talking about using guitar scales for developing or honing very basic technical skills. For those prone to hand problems, they are an ideal low-impact method to gently warm up the muscles, joints, and tendons to prevent injury.

For most students in the first few years of study, it is advisable to practice them very slowly with the objective of developing correct hand positions, finger movements, good tone quality, and particularly hand coordination. Hand coordination is an often neglected problem. A lack of coordination between the hands leads to very unmusical playing: choppiness, unwanted glissando, fingernail noises, and disjointed, uneven shifts.


Right-Hand Fingering for Classical Guitar Scales

I would advise practicing your scales as Segovia has indicated in his booklet of guiar scales. Use "im", "mi", "ma", "am", "ia", "ai", and perhaps "imam". Although Segovia only recommends using rest stroke, I strongly recommend also practicing with free stroke.

For extreme speed, practice classical guitar scales with "ami" rest stroke. See HOW TO PLAY SUPER FAST ami SCALES.

If you have trouble maintaining strict finger alternation, see How to Master String Crosses or String Crossings or String Changes on the Classical Guitar, Part 1


Left-Hand Fingering for Classical Guitar Scales

As far as left-hand fingering goes, the Segovia scale fingerings are fine although Abel Carlevaro has a different take on scale fingering. Segovia's fingerings of the three octave major scales tend to bunch up all the shifts together one after another:



Ex1, How To Practice Scales On The Classical Guitar, Fingering For The Segovia Scales


Carlevaro states that a shift is a "traumatic event" for the left-hand playing mechanism. He believed it best to spread out the shifts as evenly as possible throughout the major scale:



Ex2, How To Practice Scales On The Classical Guitar, Fingering For Carlevaro Scales


I think he has a point. If you try both fingerings for the three-octave G major scale, I think you will notice the greater ease of the Carlevaro fingering. However, it could be argued that the Segovia scale fingerings give you a better workout at mastering your shifting technique.

Practice a Variety of Rhythmic Patterns on Your Classical Guitar Scales

As far as rhythmic patterns go, playing equal note values straight up and down is the one most commonly practiced. However, many students automatically group scale notes into groups of two or four. Practicing in triplets breaks that up and has the effect of helping smooth out the scale:



Ex3, How To Practice Scales On The Classical Guitar, Scales In Triplets


The next pattern is good for the reflexes and for helping left hand-right hand coordination and to help in developing strict finger alternation:



Ex4, How To Practice Scales On The Classical Guitar, Scales in Eighth Note followed by Two Sixteenth Notes


If a student needs work in developing right-hand alternation speed, try playing four of each note:



Ex5, How To Practice Scales On The Classical Guitar, practicing four of each note


The main purpose of practicing these types of scales is to improve basic technique.


Here is a comprehensive video explaining how to practice scales on the classical guitar to improve your technique.

I demonstrate 19 problems and explain how to fix each one with scale practice.

The video runs 38 minutes, so you might want to watch it in small doses. Here is a list of the technical problems/solutions with the time code for each:

  1. Keep your left-hand fingers close to the strings 00:34
  2. Keep unused fingers pointing down down at the strings 02:35
  3. Keep fingers spread apart in a four-fret span 04:10
  4. Place the fingers close to the frets 05:33
  5. Lift fingers in the correct direction. Lift the fingers in the direction where they are needed next 07:05
  6. Learn to execute inaudible shifts 09:02
  7. Lift fingers from the back joints, not the tip or middle joints 11:20
  8. Learn to place a finger on the very tip close to the fingernail or off the tip depending on the situation 12:45
  9. Learn how to play past the 12th fret 15:03
  10. Use correct left-hand thumb technique and positioning 16:05
  11. Learn to exert as little pressure as needed to play a given note 18:07
  12. Learn to play loudly and softly and learn to control crescendos and decrescendos. Also work on tone color changes 19:22
  13. Learn basic right-hand finger control and technique such as moving from the correct joints, making small finger movements, and maintaining strict finger alternation 23:37
  14. Work on tone production and the correct use of the fingernails 27:17
  15. Maintain consistency of tone and volume from finger to finger 29:21
  16. Work on independence of movement of each finger from the other fingers 31:00
  17. Work on vibrato technique 33:28
  18. Learn to play legato (all the notes connected smoothly with no dead space between them) 34:57
  19. Learn to play something flawlessly 36:10


If you don't see a video, refresh your browser.

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


Other Techniques You Can Practice With Scales

Once you have established the left and right-hand scale fingerings clearly in your hands and mind, scales are excellent vehicles for practicing other techniques. Once the fingerings are on autopilot, you can also use scales to practice:

  1. Staccato
  2. Ritards and Accelerandos
  3. Crescendos and Decrescendos
  4. Terraced or Subito Dynamics—sudden changes of quiet and loud
  5. Changes of Tone Color—from normal (bottom of the sound hole) to the dark "sul tasto" (over the sound hole) to the bright ponticello (at the bridge)

The Quest for Perfection on a Guitar Scale

Skill #19 above is a somewhat intriguing and very important one. I don't think many of us realize how difficult it is to play something absolutely flawlessly. To me, the flawless execution of a scale means that there is not one buzz or click or extraneous noise from either hand, the tone and volume of every note is even, shifts are inaudible, all the notes are perfectly connected, and the rhythm absolutely even. That is REALLY HARD to do.

Just the quest for that perfection is an important facet of scale practice. If you begin your practice session by playing scales with the goal of perfection in the forefront of your mind, it sets the tone for your entire practice session.


How to Practice Your Classical Guitar Scales to Increase Your Scale Speed

To work solely on scale velocity (begin this only after mastering everything in the list above!) I recommend working on chromatic scales and especially scale passages from actual pieces. Passages from the first movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez are especially valuable.

Unlike a pianist, who can use virtually the same fingering for a scale in many different pieces, the guitarist, because of the nature of his instrument, must use different fingerings for a scale depending upon the context in which it occurs.

Therefore it makes more sense, and will save the player time in working on scale velocity, to work on scales with fingerings used in actual pieces rather than mastering one particular set of fingerings which cannot be used in the repertoire.

Be sure to also read:
HOW TO PLAY SUPER FAST ami SCALES
And:
HOW TO USE SPEED BURSTS TO LEARN A FAST SCALE



Do I Really Have To Practice Scales My Entire Life?

Opinions on whether one should devote a lot of time to scale practice in one's advanced stages of technical development are divided. Violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Joseph Szigeti felt that after one developed a sound technical foundation, the benefit to be derived from scale practice was limited. Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz, on the other hand, believed scales should be practiced constantly all through one's life. Heifetz once stated that a student should devote three-fourths of his practice time to scales. I suspect he was exaggerating to make his point. And again, that is violin playing.

I personally still practice scales ten to twenty minutes each day at slow to moderate speeds. I find a certain comfort in their practice; a feeling of security is generated, as well as a high sense of orderliness in technique. The mild warmup for the muscles, joints, and tendons is always a good thing. And again, I always emphasize flawless execution to set the bar at a high standard for the rest of my practice session.


But Not Everyone Practices Scales

Every artist has their personal practice routine and recommendations on how much time to spend on technical work. And I think we have to be very careful when we hear great technicians tell us they never practice scales or exercises of any sort. That may very well be true. But those particular people are wired that way—they are born with a neuromuscular system that performs with lightning speed and precision with very little training through formal technical exercises. They can just DO IT.

But for the rest of us, I believe there is no denying the importance and necessity of assiduous scale practice in the early through intermediate stages of our technical and artistic development.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why practice scales on the classical guitar?

Practicing scales helps develop correct hand positions and finger movements, good tone quality, inaudible shifting technique, correct left-hand thumb positioning, hand synchronization, and many other elements of basic technique.

How should I practice scales?

Practice with different right-hand finger patterns both rest and free stroke, at different tempos, and with different rhythmic patterns.

How do I learn to play fast scales?

Practice using speed bursts and try using ami rest stroke on the right hand.

DO YOU LIKE THIS TECHNIQUE TIP?

I have more game-changing tips in my Vault of Classical Guitar Technique Tips.
Subscribe, it's only $24/yr!
You receive full access to:

  1. 100+ technique tips in The Vault plus the Technique Tip of the Month
  2. Special arrangements of Christmas music
  3. Arrangement of the Beach Boys classic, God Only Knows
  4. Arrangement of the beautiful Celtic song, Skellig
  5. Comprehensive guide, How to Master the Classical Guitar Tremolo

All that for only $24. LEARN MORE
Everything on the website carries a no-risk, money-back guarantee.

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