We often see in classical guitar methods and literature that we should practice both rest strokes and free strokes.
However, like many sweeping “should” statements, this can raise as many (or more) questions as it answers:
- How much practice of each? in what ratio?
- How best to practice each?
- When should we favor one over the other?
- Why do we need both?
- What movements make up each stroke?
- And on and on.
My recommendation: Wait on the rest strokes until you’ve mastered free strokes.
I’ll explain why below, but before jumping into the debate on rest strokes vs. free strokes, what exactly is the difference?
What are Rest Strokes and Free Strokes?
When you play a rest stroke (also called “apoyando”), your right hand finger plays one string, and comes immediately to rest on the next string. If you drag a finger from one string to the next, you’ll get the picture.
Free strokes (also known as “tirando”) only touch one string as it is played, and do not rest on the next string. The fingers follow through into the palm, or into the air, but not into the next string.
Differences in Hand Positions
Rest strokes and free strokes each attack the string from different angles. Therefore the position of the hand is different for the two.
If you have the optimal hand position for one stroke, the other is compromised. We cannot have the absolute optimal position for both simultaneously.
The Hot Topic
All (or close enough to all) professional classical guitarists use a combination of rest and free strokes.
But there is a lively argument in some circles on whether or not students should use rest strokes at all.
The Basic Arguments
Some of the most common arguments (and brief rebuttals) for rest strokes are as follows:
“Rest strokes have a specific sound quality. This is part of the tonal capabilities of the guitar. Therefore, to be a well-rounded player, one should use them.”
(Some skills are better left for more advanced levels, once a foundation has been established. Apprentice craftsmen do different work than do masters, because the apprentice will most benefit from ingraining the basics first, and special techniques later.)
“The pros all do it, so it must be the best way.”
(Should we also then follow the exact footsteps of pro skiers and mountaineers?)
“There is a long tradition of students using rest strokes. Teachers of old taught this way, therefore it must be best.”
(Just like blood-letting, leeches, and witch-dunking…..)
But indeed, there are many real benefits to rest strokes.
The Benefits of Rest Strokes
Rest strokes are generally loud and clear. We can get solid volume and clarity.
Many players can reach higher speeds playing scales using rest strokes than they can with (I&M) free strokes.
While mostly used in I&M alternation for scale and melodic passages, rest strokes can also be used to bring out a melody note within an arpeggio pattern. The rest stroke makes the melody note louder and of a different timbre (sound quality).
The Downside to Rest Strokes
Perhaps the biggest cost to using rest strokes is that they demand a different hand position than do arpeggios (fingerpicking patterns). Arpeggios make up 80%+ of all classical guitar music.
Rest strokes are most commonly used for scales and isolated melodic lines, so we must master both rest strokes AND free strokes to have the tools to play pieces of music.
When we incorporate them into arpeggio patterns in order to bring out a melody note, immense care must be taken to maintain the sound quality of the free stroke arpeggios. Unless we’ve consciously mastered this transition, there is little chance we’ll maintain the free stroke tone quality. So this is usually a tradeoff, though one that many players are willing in make. (More on this below in the “Assessing the Switching Costs” section).
The Benefits of Free Strokes
You can switch seamlessly between melodic passages and textural arpeggio patterns with no change in hand position, because the fundamental movements are the same.
This means that all your right-hand technique practice is serving the same ends, and you progress more quickly. Any and all work you do on scales or arpeggios is simultaneously strengthening the other.
You can also choose your hand and wrist positions to give the richest sound quality and least risk of injury. Because everything you play uses the same positioning and form, you can fine tune tone quality and avoid injury.
Lastly, without the crutch of a different stroke to bring out melodic lines within arpeggio patterns, we’re forced to develop balance and volume control.
Assessing the Switching Costs
To play using both rest and free strokes, we must switch hand positions.
At a slow tempo this is fine. But at faster tempos, it becomes more difficult to assume the ideal position and movement for each.
What generally happens is that we “split the difference”, compromising the benefits of both strokes. The tone and fluidity of our free strokes suffers, as does the tone and speed of the rest strokes.
There is a way around this, detailed below.
Why You Should Avoid Rest Strokes (for now)
From the standpoint of efficiency and effective practice, we should completely avoid rest strokes until our free stroke technique (arpeggio technique) has been fully and properly ingrained.
Because there is so much to keep track of playing any piece, our right hand technique needs to be largely unconscious and automatic. This means that if we are completely focused elsewhere, our right hand technique is just as good in every way as it would be with our full attention. Just as is our walking and talking.
Practicing rest strokes before free strokes are mastered weakens and undermines our practice and muscle-habit development, slowing our overall progress.
Until our right hand arpeggio (free stroke) technique is so ingrained and habitual, our energies are better spent training it.
Practicing any other stroke, such as rest stroke, will only serve to weaken and dilute the muscle-memory and habits we’re seeking to instill. It undermines our practice and slows down the foundational habit formation that will most benefit us.
You Can Live Without Rest Strokes
It bears repeating: You can live without rest strokes.
Free strokes give you everything you need to play virtually any piece you will ever want to play.
If we take the long view and want the best overall results and skills on guitar, it makes more sense to first master the technique (free strokes) that will make up the lion’s share of our playing.
We can always come back and learn a new technique, such as rest strokes, when we have a solid foundation to build upon.
Kids are a Different Story
All this said, many kids have a very hard time with free strokes. For very young students, rest strokes can allow for noticeable progress and motivation.
The danger lies a couple of years down the road. I’ve seen many players who played exclusively rest strokes as children have a difficult time switching to the mostly-free-stroke technique that more advanced music demands. The rest stroke hand positions become habit, and their arpeggios suffer (both in tone, and by excess muting of strings).
So start young children on rest strokes, but get them actively practicing free stroke arpeggio technique as soon as possible.
When and How to introduce Rest Strokes
Again, if you haven’t fully ingrained a free stroke arpeggio technique that you can be proud of, completely back-burner the rest strokes.
When you are fully confident in your arpeggio technique, and have flawless form when not thinking about it, you can consider introducing rest strokes.
Until you’ve ingrained a free stroke arpeggio technique that you’re proud of, completely back-burner the rest strokes.
To keep everything clean and optimal, it helps to have a general plan.
When we practice carelessly, we not only waste time, but also get inconsistent and unfavorable results.
For the quickest learning, and most effective practice, it pays to be intentional.
Keep them Separate
We can continue to practice our arpeggio technique, as well as free stroke scales, while also introducing rest strokes. The key is to keep the practices separate.
When we practice rest strokes, we can give rest stroke technique our full attention. We can focus exclusively on the quality of movements, and eliminate any other distractions (such as free strokes, rasgueados, or harmonics).
We can keep all other practice as free strokes only.
Choose specific Exercises or Music
We can practice rest strokes on specific exercises that we choose, and isolate the movements.
Just as we build complexity bit by bit with arpeggio technique, we can steadily increase the demands of free strokes.
- We can first practice rest strokes on open strings only, focusing exclusively on the right hand.
- We can then choose specific scales or exercises to play, with the focus on rest stroke technique.
- Then we can choose one piece of music that is to become our “rest stroke etude”. After we master that one, we can find another with slightly different challenges.
We practice the basic movements, switching strings, and transitioning back and forth between rest and free strokes.
Over time, we will have studied many circumstances of using rest strokes, and switching between rest and free strokes. Then we can begin incorporating the two strokes into anything we play (as the pros do).
Free stroke technique is essential to classical guitar, so master that first. Until you have completely mastered free stroke arpeggio technique, avoid using any rest strokes.
Rest strokes and free strokes use different hand positions and movements, and blending them too early in your progress can wreak havoc on your foundational muscle habits. Better to instill a solid free stroke technique, then introduce rest strokes later, when you can trust your free stroke technique.
If/when you want to learn rest strokes, do so intentionally and methodically, so you can spend the least time and gain the best form and functionality.