Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt

Its notation, execution, and the challenges of historical interpretation

Douglas Niedt, guitarist

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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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Its notation, execution, and the challenges of historical interpretation

By Douglas Niedt

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


The first thing you need to know when deciding how to play any ornament in pre-20th-century music is that there was no "common practice." The notation and execution of ornaments varied from country to country and composer to composer.

Written instructions from long ago or ornament tables (even by J.S. Bach) cannot overcome the general shortcomings of musical notation. Rigid rules, no matter where they come from, go against the very nature of ornaments—they were often improvised and, therefore, are too free to be tamed into regularity or taught by the book.

Descriptions of ornaments are only rough outlines, and many are contradictory. It's a jungle and very frustrating to try to figure out. There is simply no definitive solution to any ornament in a given situation. Therefore, be skeptical of everything I write from here on!

If you want a short answer to how to play an ornament, I say, "Do whatever you want. Do what makes the music sound best, and do what sounds best to you. In the end, that's what counts."

The Acciaccatura

The acciaccatura (pronounced ah-chah-kah-TOO-rah) is an ornament frequently found in classical guitar music. Composers notate it as a small grace note with a slash or oblique line across the flag and note stem. It is placed before the principal note and is usually connected to the principal note with a slur. The appoggiatura (pronounced ah-poh-zhee-ah-TOO-rah) looks very similar but does not have a slash or oblique line across the flag and note stem of the grace note. Example #1:

Difference in notation of appoggiatura and the acciaccatura

Muddying the waters a bit, the acciaccatura with the slash is sometimes called a short appoggiatura.

Acciaccatura comes from the Italian word acciaccare, which means to crush. Some musicians even call it a crush note. In theory, the note is timeless and "crushed" quickly into the principal note. Unlike the appoggiatura, the acciaccatura places the musical emphasis on the principal note, not the acciaccatura grace note. The acciaccatura is subservient in emphasis and importance to the principal note.

The acciaccatura grace note usually approaches the principal note from a half or whole step above or below the principal note. But in later music, it can be a leap to the principal note. Slurs usually connect the acciaccatura grace note to the principal note but not always. Example #2:

Acciaccatura grace note one-half to whole-step from principal note


Composers notate the acciaccatura as a small grace note with a slash through the note stem, flag, or beam. The composer may notate the acciaccatura grace note as a shorter note than the principal note or the same value as the principal note. In either case, the grace note is very quick. Example #3:

Notation of the acciaccatura

In the music of J. S. Bach, what we call an acciaccatura today, Bach termed a short appoggiatura. As with today's acciaccatura, Bach's short appoggiatura (not his regular appoggiatura) was played quickly on or before the beat.

There is a problem with the execution of acciaccaturas by guitarists

Because the acciaccatura is so quick, guitarists usually play the acciaccatura using a slur (hammer-on or pull-off) for speed and clarity. However, the acciaccatura is supposed to be subservient in emphasis and volume to the principal note. Unfortunately, the plucked first note of a guitar slur will always be louder and the tone more substantial than the second note (the hammer-on or pull-off). Therefore, in some situations, the player may want to pluck both notes to correctly emphasize the principal note rather than the grace note or to produce a more aggressive, powerful sound. However, plucking both notes can sound a little sluggish or heavy, lacking the speed and lightness of a slur. On the guitar, we can play the acciaccatura as a cross-string ornament to achieve the speed of a slur but still emphasize the principal note. Example #4.

Guitarists can play the acciaccatura with a slur or cross-string ornament

Do you play the acciaccatura on the beat or before the beat?

Although it is theoretically timeless, the acciaccatura must take a fragment of time from somewhere. Depending on the passage, style of music, period of music, country, and composer, it can take its time from the principal note or the preceding note. In other words, we can play the acciaccatura ON the beat or BEFORE the beat.

Here is how to play the acciaccatura ON the beat with slurs (which is usually how guitarists play it). Example #5.

Guitarists can play the acciaccatura on the beat with slurs

And this is how guitarists can play the acciaccatura ON the beat with a cross-string fingering. Example #6:

Guitarists can play the acciaccatura on the beat with a cross-string fingering

The next example shows how to play the acciaccatura BEFORE the beat with slurs. Example #7:

Guitarists can play the acciaccatura before the beat with slurs

And finally, this is how guitarists can play the acciaccatura BEFORE the beat with a cross-string fingering. Example #8:

Guitarists can play the acciaccatura before the beat with cross-string fingerings

Yet another style of execution used primarily by pianists, organists and jazz pianists is to play the principal note simultaneously with the grace note, immediately releasing the grace note so the principal note sustains alone. Example #9:

The crush style of executing an acciaccatura

The next example, “Spanish Dance No. 5" by Enrique Granados (transcribed for guitar by Miguel Llobet), shows how to play the acciaccaturas in the first measure before the beat, after the beat, and as literal crush notes. Example #10.

Execution of acciaccaturas in Spanish Dance No. 5 Enrique Granados

Guitar-Specific Cases of Before-the-Beat Acciaccaturas

A frequently used style of execution of the acciaccatura by guitarists is to play the lowest bass note of a five-note chord before the beat as an acciaccatura and then play the rest of the chord on the beat. In this example, from his "Mazurka-Chôro" from Suite populaire brésilienne measures 16-17, Villa-Lobos writes a five-note chord on beat #1 of measure 17. Rather than playing the five notes simultaneously using "pima" and the little finger of the right hand, he writes the bass note as an acciaccatura. Then, the guitarist can use the right-hand thumb to pluck the acciaccatura ahead of the beat in the previous measure 16 and play the rest of the chord on beat #1 of measure 17. Example #11:

Guitarists playing five-note chords with bass note as acciaccatura

Guitarists also frequently use the before-the-beat style of execution of acciaccaturas for double thumb strokes. In measures 127-130 of Villa-Lobos’ “Prelude No. 1,” we can play the acciaccaturas with the principal notes that follow as double thumb strokes, playing each acciaccatura grace note BEFORE the beat in the previous measure. Example #12:

Guitarists use acciaccatura to execute double thumb strokes

Double and Triple Appoggiaturas or Acciaccaturas

Finally, you may run across double or triple acciaccaturas. Composers notate them as small grace notes preceding the principal note. They have no slash through their flags and note stems. Some writers call them double short appoggiaturas, but they act and sound like acciaccaturas. Like the single acciaccatura, the emphasis should be on the principal note.

Guitarists usually play the first grace note of the double acciaccatura on the beat simultaneously with any notes below the principal note. Then, they play the second or third grace notes using hammer-ons or pull-offs. Unfortunately, this method of execution emphasizes the first grace note. For that reason, unlike guitarists, pianists tend to play the grace notes ahead of the beat, emphasizing the principal note by placing it on the beat. Therefore, in some situations, especially when playing music written for other instruments, guitarists might consider using the piano-style execution of double and triple acciaccaturas.

This next example is from Miguel Llobet’s guitar transcription of Enrique Granados’ “Spanish Dance No. 5.” It shows the original notation of the double acciaccatura in measure 18, how guitarists usually play the first note of the double acciaccatura ON the beat of measure 18 simultaneously with the bass note, and how pianists usually play the double acciaccatura BEFORE the beat in the previous measure. With the pianistic style of execution, the principal note falls on the first beat of measure 18, receiving its due emphasis and duration. Example #13:

Difference between how guitarists and pianists play double acciaccaturas

Further Reading

If you want to explore any of these topics in-depth (630 pages), I highly recommend one of my favorite books, Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music With Special Emphasis on J.S. Bach by Frederick Neumann.

Cross-String Ornaments

Acciccaturas (and many other ornaments) may be executed with slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) or as cross-string ornaments. For detailed information on cross-string ornaments, see the following:
Cross-String Ornaments Part 1
Cross-String Ornaments Part 2
Cross-String Ornaments Part 3