Regarding the above recommendations not all are ‘full endorsements’. Each player and teacher has their own view on guitar technique and music-making, as do I. I am very grateful for their kind remarks. Thank you everyone!
Phillip Houghton 2015
Having grown up on lots of rock music, in the 1970s I came up with this little saying to help me simplify the ‘new world’ of classical music that I fell into:
Rhythm is king, Sound is queen and Music is their baby.
I have taught the classical guitar since 1977, teaching privately and in schools and conservatoriums, helping players to prepare for exams and recitals from the early grades up to PhD and professional level and also coaching ensemble and chamber groups (amateur and professional).
I currently live in Sydney where I teach privately, placing a lot of importance on the imagination and physical comfort of the player, the exploration of all styles of music (classical, world, folk, jazz, ancient), phrasing, interpretation and good articulation in rhythm, sound, dynamics, colour, voicing and line.
Beginners to advanced players are welcome to enquire about lessons. Please see the form at the end of this page.
I would now like to share some of the ideas that I teach regarding technique and music-making. Firstly, I am no clinician or qualified expert. I am a former player and concert performer with a passion for the guitar and music. The only reference book that I used for this ‘document’ was the Collins English Dictionary.
Early on in my career, I became disappointed with most tutorials and methods, finding them either too exclusively Spanish or guitaristic, too clinical and abstract, or incomplete regarding information. I also felt that they were missing a clear ‘earthy-poetry’.
Around 1970-80 I began forming my own ideas on technique, linking threads with other fields and physical disciplines, primarily to create a simple, more physical method to make playing easier and help players avoid pain or cure existing injury.
My ideas come from observing nature, animals, machines that mimic nature, great athletes, choreographers, dancers, musicians, art, poetry, sculpture, kinetics, engineering, architecture, etc, and from having discussions with musicians and students for over 40years about the guitar, other instruments, and making music.
I hope the following is an interesting read. I have never ‘published’ my ideas, in text, like this before. It has taken a journey to write it.
Some of the techniques I teach include:
- RH ‘coverage’ of strings that easily converts weight into ‘mass’ in the notes. Freestroke prime stroke, others (mid/bounce/rest, etc) flow from it. Nail shape is critical.
- the RH ‘gear-box of tone’, colours, too many to count.
- soft, agile, independent thumbs : the R can move backwards, the L can detach pressure/move freely, etc.
- LH fingering - pressure from gently tilted-forward rested torso.
- RH & LH finger-sequencing and reflex-exchange. Shoulder/arm reflexes.
- L shoulder and arm vertical/lateral movements. Easier pivots and barres (special pressure & movement exercises for both), etc.
- LH dynamics or finger-pressure (ppp to fff) via exercises like ‘thuds/buzzes/ taps/hops’, smother shifts and guide-finger exercises (that also flatten the string).
- ‘clean’ lifts/‘dead’(damp) lifts and rhythmic lifting (terms that I’ve used since 1980).
- very slow ‘body work’, slow positioning, pre-positioning, reverse-engineering, ‘body speeds’, muted-string practice, LH & RH ‘tap’ damps, portamento, tremolo-scaling, etc.
However my prime focus is on the basis of technique (mechanical skill) : how we are built and what forces we use, posture, breathing, balance, positioning and movement, reflexes, stamina, fluency and the prevention of injury. Injury can occur if we ’fight’ the guitar but we are really only fighting ourselves/our inbuilt nature. I have developed a process to help with this.
While the process I teach may be new to some players, my ideas on technique are nothing new. They derive from nature and are based on Biomechanics. Giovanni Borelli (1608-1679) is the ‘father’ of this science, which is the study of mechanical laws in the structure and movement of living things, animals and us. I see the body of every animal, us included, each with its own ‘technique’ or set of skills no matter its size or shape, as having its own poetry of movement:
“Observe nature and learn. Watch a bird as it lands on a slender branch. See how it gently adjusts its weight to the nature of its perch. This is how you should approach the guitar": Len Williams (John Williams’ father and teacher) advising a ‘gloriously unmusical’ student how to play, in London 1950s. This quote is from the book Strings Attached, the Life and Music of John Williams, pages 79 & 80, author William Starling, publisher The Robson Press. Copyright William Starling 2012. Used with kind permission.
I think Len Williams’ metaphor is evocative and instructive, worth a thousand books. We can all see the bird land on the branch, and while we may be told it is ‘gently adjusting its weight’ we might not know how to do that or be able to clearly ‘see’ how the bird does it. It’s so quick, light and fluent, a blur. I don’t think that the often-used word ‘relax’ is the whole story. I believe that what is at play is leverage : a common mechanical principle in nature.
Archimedes (c287-c212 BC) said of leverage “give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”. The Online Etymological Dictionary describes the action of a lever as “a lever amplifies input force to provide greater output force".
Leverage means ‘to gain a mechanical advantage by using a lever’: rigid rod, stick, beam, bones of animals in legs, arms, fingers, etc. The word ‘lever’ derives from the Latin ‘levis’ which means ‘light’ (weight). Levers shift and adjust weight lightly and easily.
A shovel is a lever, so is a writing pen, while a see-saw is a simple mechanical lever: a beam that pivots /operates on a fulcrum (stationary point, axle or object) to easily balance and move weight. As is a set of balance-scales. The bird moves like a ‘living balance-scale’ and so do we, continually adjusting our weight for balance and movement.
I first learnt about leverage as an athlete in the 1960s, training with Olympians and elite coaches. It was a core skill for natural technique to balance, relax and to adjust /direct weight smoothly. This develops good rhythm and fluidity throughout the body in its actions and the effective use of resistant-force for power.
In 1980 I began teaching leverage to my students, initially, on how to play from their feet, legs and hips up, not just ‘from the wrist’, with posture and positioning being critical. I also developed new exercises based on leverage, for all the body, believing that playing guitar is similar to playing non-contact sport (athletics, archery, table tennis, t’ai chi, etc) and more physical than we may think.
We are built to move. Leverage is a prime action: from forming posture and position, from big actions to small to the most delicate adjustment. I am not promoting leverage as a ‘new action’, merely suggesting that it is so deeply inbuilt we may not even notice it.
With Mr. Borelli in mind, the key lies in our frame, our skeleton, and how we work with it not against it. In mechanical terms, we are a system of sticks, ropes and pulleys (lever-bones, tendons and sockets/joints), with muscles and nerves to bring it to life. The animal we are knows what to do, we just need to listen when it speaks : if things hurt, something is wrong.
The trick is, how to put it to work on such an odd-shaped object (our perch) as the classical guitar? Just how to move naturally on it may be hidden from us : how to sit and move to it, embrace or ‘drape’ our weight on and around it (like cradling a baby) and play it efficiently without getting into a fight.
But our body is not the problem and neither is the shape of the guitar. Problems arise if we rush in trying to ‘conquer it’ too soon, rather than slowing down to explore and adapt our shapes and move and fit well with it.
In a nutshell, and with all the muscles soft, spongey and operating at a ‘low hum’ so as to gently ‘hold form’, this is the process I use to introduce leverage:
- the body - its structure and function, register ‘sense of line’ (levers, joints)
- posture and breathing (normal, always) - with a relaxed jaw and neck
- gravity and our weights and forces - gently feel them, register ‘gentle resistance’
- positioning and movement - gently adjust and explore actions (gentle resistance)
- balance - will feel smooth, like nothing, weightless, have fluidity
- freestroke only, first - is prime stroke, others flow from it: gently weighted, easy, initially soft: just ‘the pluck’ itself to find shape/action/reflex
- then speed and power - but without all the other things being lost
I could be describing how we learn to ride a bike. It’s physical, not abstract, and the process can happen quickly or take a bit of time. Everybody is different. I have found that this process helps players sensitise to their body, the idea being that nobody needs to get hurt playing music. In my view the footstool being ‘driven’ softly and well, best leverages our weight and movement on the guitar.
I believe that the benefits of using leverage are:
- enables our inbuilt structural-force to adjust our weight efficiently and dynamically to the resistant-shape of the guitar: is a much more powerful, soft and potent force than using sheer muscle-force alone. It requires little effort. The muscles, then, are just the ‘icing on the cake’: important, but not all the power nature has given us that we have at our disposal.
- generates resistant-force, like scissors do: 2 levers pivoting on/to a fulcrum to create strong force. For our body, the guitar is our fulcrum that we can pivot on/to and use its resistance. Just as the branch (perch) is for the bird.
- lowers muscle strain, so the muscles use the minimum force/energy necessary to gently ‘hold our form’. They are dynamic, as per need. But muscles tire quickly, not our bones. Too much static-contraction and ‘lock’ ruins ease, movement, fluency, reflexes, stamina, etc, and can lead to injury such as frozen shoulders.
- lowers tendon strain, like ropes pulled through pulleys (sockets/joints), too much force through too great an angle, repeatedly, and they can fatigue and suffer injury. Not good for the pulleys either. This need not happen.
Leverage helps diffuse stress or dilute ‘points of force’ away from hot-spots of high strain; like how a drop of ink spreads in water.
For example, common left wrist injury can be avoided by using the torso for LH fingering-pressure and leveraging the relaxed /heavy /gravity-friendly /non-contracted shoulder-blade, arm and elbow. By adjusting their position, subtly, they can create a straighter line /friendlier angle for the tendons to pass through the wrist with less friction. The arm and wrist operate like a spanner turning a nut: a lever that generates power with little effort.
- leverage, physically, enables relaxation, for us to flow and make good lines without ‘hard corners’ or hot-spots of strain. Good movement like this, often so subtle that others can’t see it (the bird) can help prevent injury. The body ‘wants’ to protect itself. By moving with its ‘song’ of inbuilt natural design and flexibility we can avoid applying a ‘false strength’ of too much muscular-force and developing problems.
- leverage allows for easier adaption, the more ‘relaxed system’ helps us to adjust and explore all the techniques and actions dynamically with lighter fluency, efficiency and freedom of movement: stiff fingers cannot tie shoelaces. NB, to those who use squeeze-balls to strengthen the “muscles in the fingers”: there are none. All they do is aggravate tendons.
We use leverage all the time to sit, walk, run, climb steps, garden write letters and type emails, lift heavy luggage more easily by using our legs (levers) to help with our back, etc. Ordinary everyday skills that are second nature.
Leverage may be a relatively new word in ‘guitar parlance’, but for me, it goes a long way in describing the action /mechanic behind a more natural technique: one that we can live with, play for hours with, easily repeat, not get hurt by, is not special or precious, make music with. That’s my definition of natural.
Guitar technique can have a lazy fluency to it, especially when going for brilliance of attack at high speed, smooth momentum and with appropriate power : graceful, like ‘the blur’ of the bird. It becomes second nature and players can focus on more important things like making music. To paraphrase the great Ravi Shankar (sitar), “technique is critical, but it should disappear, along with ego, become invisible and serve the music. Sound is God”.
Finally, regarding weight and balance: we are in fact about 74% water. That is a lot of weight. The great Bruce Lee, perhaps the greatest biomechanist /bodyologist of all time, said that he made “forms” (shape and movement, many based on animals and objects) by “being water; it fills all shapes”. Wonderful description: we just may be an ‘unbroken ocean’ after all?
And regarding balance, Lee also said he found balance “in the water”. Another beautiful description. Water is such a great leveller for balance. Bruce Lee dedicated his entire life to the study of animals and movement so as to better understand and use his own inbuilt nature. As guitarists, our activity is different from his, but we can all ‘take lesson’ from that and look deeper to gain a more heightened sense of the nature of things.
I have also helped lute, jazz, rock and metal players with technique and their injuries: all different techniques but all can look into leverage for beneficial results.
Once again, all players are welcome to enquire about lessons.
Lastly, if my ideas help just one player, I will be happy.