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Right Hand Fingerings for Guitar (Classical Guitar Fingering Rules)

When most people first start playing classical guitar, it rarely occurs to them to actually plan which right hand finger plays each individual note of piece.

In fact, this can seem like far too much information and a lot of unneccessary work.

In this article, you’ll discover:

  •  Why right hand fingerings matter
  •  Get the basic rules for the right hand fingering
  •  Find out how to troubleshoot musical passages and find the best fingering

Why Right Hand Guitar Fingerings Matter

Right hand fingerings matter for a couple of reasons. The primary reasons are perhaps the technical demands of playing the piece, and with issues of memorization.

Basic Classical Guitar Technique

If everything you play and ever plan to play is very, very slow, then right hand fingerings don’t really matter. You can paw away at the strings however you like and it won’t make much of a difference (beyond tone quality).

However, if you are like most players, and do aspire to make some decent music at some point (the sooner the better!), then right hand fingerings come to be extremely relevant.

Many classical guitar pieces, played up to tempo (at speed) are so complex, that there is only one combination and order with which the right hand can make it work.

Many pieces are so complex, there is only one way the right hand can make it work.

As you are first learning the piece, you will naturally be playing slowly, and your focus will be on the left hand (the “squeaky wheel” that demands your attention). You can easily ignore the right hand altogether.

But if you learn this way, you’ll quickly notice several “hard parts”. Often, the reason these parts are hard is because of inefficient right hand fingerings.  (Who’dve guessed?)  Fix the right hand fingering, and the tricky spots may just “magically” take care of themselves.

If you’re committed to playing guitar for a lifetime (however leisurely), forming the habit of being intentional with your right hand fingering will serve you well.

Memorizing Classical Guitar Music

Right hand fingerings also make a difference in how you memorize a piece of music on the classical guitar.

When you memorize a piece (or anything, really), your brain forms connections, and creates a “formula” to recall it.

If you input the piece into your brain (and muscle memory) the same way each time, you learn much more quickly.

Cutting the Swath

guitar memorized well

Consistency creates a well-defined path.

As an analogy, think of creating a trail through a grassy field. If you go a different path each time, you will eventually get something, but it will not likely be straight, and will take a long time.

music practice

Inconsistent repetitions create unreliable results.

However, if you choose a direct path, and repeatedly travel over that path only, you will quickly create a reliable trail. It will be obvious, and easy to stay on.

Learning a piece is the exact same. Do it the same way each time, and you’ll learn more quickly, memorize more effectively, and have much better chance of playing it correctly.

The Beginning Guitarists’ Fallacy

Many players, when still early in their musical journey, may fail to see the difference it makes.

It’s much more work, and it may not provide much noticeble improvement.

However, many of the mistakes made in the piece can be attributed to right hand fingerings even if the more obvious problem is in the left hand.

“I just forgot the notes, that’s all…” Quite likely, you were distracted by some odd finger combination or string change in the right hand, and that derailed your muscle-memory and cause you to steer off-course with your left.

While it does indeed take more mental effort to intentionally guide both hands, it’s well worth the trouble. (besides, if you weren’t a glutton for punishment, you wouldn’t be playing the classical guitar!)

Basic Right Hand Fingering Rules for Classical Guitarists

While the specific circumstances of any given piece of music may demand us to break these rules, they’re here as a guideline and an aspiration.

If you can instill the habit of being consistent with these, it gets much easier over time, and you’ll avoid many of the problems which may otherwise plague you.

Rule #1: Don’t Repeat Fingers

classical guitar fingerings

Alternate right hand fingers

The common rookie mistake. When you have a succession of notes, alternate the right hand fingers.

The form of your alternation could be the common I and M Alternation or could be a more exotic combination of fingers.

Don't repeat fingers

Don’t repeat fingers

Either way, it’s difficult to play beautifully while imitating a sewing machine, or a cat with tape on it’s foot.

Exceptions to the Rule

Of course, rules are meant to be broken. Like Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a master, so you can break them like an artist.”

You can repeat the same finger in some circumstances.

Plenty of Time

plenty of time for the next note

You can repeat fingers if you have plenty of time

Namely, if there is plenty of time between the notes. Make sure that there’s enough time when the piece is all the way up to speed.

This is why the fingering of some early-level music can be confusing. The fingerings may seem arbitrary and needlessly difficult, but they’re there to instill this habit.

In-line Chords

classical guitar chords

Do what you have to do.

If you have a string of notes, and a chord inserted with no rhythmic pause, you may be forced to repeat a finger. C’est la vie.

Lesser of Two Evils

You may encounter places where you would prefer to double a finger instead of some much more difficult fingering just ahead.

Life is full of compromises, and classical guitar music is no exception.

Life is full of compromises, and classical guitar music is no exception. If you are faced with tough choices, try your best to conform to the rules. If it just doesn’t work out cleanly, do what you have to do.

I’ve noticed that J.S.Bach seems to frequently disregard the best practices of fingering rules on the guitar and instead just writes whatever he feels like. (The nerve of some people!)

Rule #2: Logical String Crossings

guitar string crossing

Organized in the hand

When we hold the guitar our hand is at an angle to the strings. This makes the A finger (ring finger) closer to the ground and the I finger (pointer/index) closer to the ceiling.

Because of this, it’s simpler and more comfortable to play from one string to another maintaining this relationship.

For instance, it’s easier to play from the 3rd (G) string to the 2nd (B) string using first “I” on the 3rd and “M” on the second. The opposite creates the need to cross one over the other.

The more wacky string crossings we insert into a piece, the more likely we are to mess it up.

awkward guitar string crossing

Funky and awkward in the hand

The more wacky string crossings we insert into a piece, the more likely we are to mess it up. Keep your string-crossings organized, and you’ll have a much easier time getting the music up to tempo and sounding smooth.

(Christopher Davis also wrote a bit about this.)

The Exceptions

As above, sometimes the world is not presented to us wrapped up cleanly with a nice little ribbon and bow.

If there is no other way, we must go on anyway.

However, if you do have string-crossings that demand less-than-ideal fingerings, be sure to practice them slowly and get them as secure as you possibly can. Ignore them at your own demise!

Rule #3: Thumb Plays the Basslines

This is less of a fingering rule and more of a musical rule.  It helps you to properly interpret your music.

classical guitar thumb bassline

Thumb plays the bass lines

Generally, in classical guitar music, the bass line is notated with the note stems pointing down. When this is the case, play them with your thumb.

This doesn’t mean that every note with a stem pointing down is played with the thumb, but if there is an obvious bassline, use the thumb.

Why? This keeps the sound quality consistent throughout the bass. In addition, it usually also makes the music more organized in your hands.

Perhaps most importantly, when you notice the bassline and play it uniformly, you are more aware (hopefully!) of the different voices in the music. If you can separate the parts in your mind, you can work to play them at different volumes and with different phrasing.

This leads to a more “three-dimensional” sound, as if multiple people were playing together. This is one of the great musical opportunities that classical guitar offers. And it all starts with the thumb!

How to Troubleshoot Right Hand Fingerings in Classical Guitar Pieces

If you are playing a piece of music that doesn’t have any or all of the right hand fingerings notated, you may have to figure them out yourself.  (You can do it!)

When you encounter this challenge, try to start with the rules above. If you have these three rules in place, you’ll be set in most circumstances.

However, sometimes we come up against a tricky spot that doesn’t seem to offer a simple solution. This is when we have to roll up our sleeves and do some problem-solving!

Start with the Obvious

Assuming there is a spot that the rules above don’t seem to work for. First, find exactly where the “issue” is located. It will usually come down to just one or two notes (a few at most).

When you find the trouble-spot, look at it in isolation. It may have it’s own logic and could play by the rules above if played out of context.

If it does have an ideal fingering (most spots do), mark that fingering (or the fingering options that work, if more than one option) above it on the score in pencil.

Then work backward and see if that fingering would create any problems leading up to it. It may, so take note.

It then becomes a matter of choosing your poison. Find the path of least resistance, even though it may still have some trickiness.

You may have to break one or more of the rules above. If so, at least you know that you have weighed all the options and found the best and easiest one.

Don’t Be Ridiculous

We try to make everything work and come out as tidy as possible. We give each note and phrase our attention and consideration.

If some tricky fingering shows up, just accept that fact and practice it more than the rest.

These types of challenges are inevitable and make you a stronger and more versatile player.

That said, keep them to a minimum. Don’t make things harder than they have to be (I’m talking to you, Jack Marshall!). There is no reason to work hard instead of working smart. There’s enough work to do as there is.

In the same light, don’t stress yourself out about getting everything just perfect. Things get messy sometimes. Such is life. Again, do your very best and accept that in a year or two, you’ll be in a position to figure out tougher problems.

Recap: The Basic Classical Guitar Right Hand Fingering Rules

Here are the Cliff Notes:

  1. Don’t repeat fingers
  2. Organize your string crossings to fit in the hand
  3. Thumb plays the bassline (stems down)

Carry these like a banner into every battle and you’ll see your fair share of victory. Ignore them at your peril!

Over to You!

What do you think? Do you have other rules you like to live by? Share your deepest thoughts in the comments below!

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11 Responses to Right Hand Fingerings for Guitar (Classical Guitar Fingering Rules)

  1. Marcy Ushimaru April 15, 2017 at 8:22 am #

    Allen, I want to tell you, first of all, that I love, love, love your regular posts, and I’m always amazed at how regularly you come up with messages that are part practical teaching and part life lessons! Your recent piece about why you continue to pay for your tai chi lessons even though you might go for weeks without attending class really struck me, and it has helped me to be more consistent with my practice, but also not to beat up on myself when I don’t.

    I do have a question, though, and I’m a little sheepish about how elementary it is – what do the letters for the fingers mean? I think I get that “I” is Index and “M” is Middle, but what do “A” for the ring finger and “P” for the thumb mean?

    Marcy

    • Allen April 15, 2017 at 8:33 am #

      Thanks so much, Marcy!

      The right hand fingerings are from the Spanish:

      P = “pulgar”
      I = “indice”
      M = “medio”
      A = “anular”

      Great question!

      Thanks again,
      Allen

      • Marcy Ushimaru April 15, 2017 at 3:21 pm #

        Thanks, Allen!

        Marcy

  2. Eta-rho-iota-kappa March 17, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    String fingering rules:
    1.In general the thumb (p) will usually play strings 6,5, & 4 and the i,m, & a take 3,2, & 1; Pinky is rarely used in classical finger-style
    2.Avoid crossing fingers unnaturally if possible
    3.Its best not to repeat fingers; finger repeats usually happens if there is enough time between notes to reset
    4.Thumb typically takes the bass (stems down)
    5.Use ‘a’ finger at times to improve fingering
    6.During an alternating 8th note (or maybe even 16th note?) pattern between a bass and treble note pair you use the same two fingers to play the pair.
    Example – p & m as in solo guitar vol 1: ‘Arturias’
    7.3 chord arpeggios are usually played p,i,m
    8.4 chord arpeggios are usually played p,i,m,a
    9.Scale runs or faster melodies can be accomplished by the simple i,m alteration (there are other patterns which you may consider with more fingers such as p,a,m,i which may be faster for you in certain situations, but I believe you can still get very fast with just i,m alternation if practiced-maybe someone could second this or clarify this further?; this is my understanding I have as of yet…)
    10.Slow tempos are more forgiving than faster tempos when it comes to using certain right hand fingerings. Meaning you can get away with fingerings which would not necessarily be practical at faster tempos, but they may feel better at slower tempos.
    11.Sometimes a thumb can pick through all the notes if they are adjacent strings even when they are not all bass notes, it is almost like the concept of a sweep on the electric guitar. The thumb usually won’t pick past the G string; the index, middle, (and to a smaller extent the ring) can also do similar sweeps on to adjacent strings. These decisions usually happen by feel and are greatly impacted by tempo-if it is slow you are more likely to do this than if it is fast.
    Example -thumb picks notes on 6,5,4,3 & index picks on 2 and middle picks on 1; or index picks note on 3,4, and 5, and thumb picks 6

    12.Play through parts slowly first and right down the fingering that seems natural and to ‘flow’, then play up to tempo and see if it works, make adjustments to areas of interest, trouble, or difficulty by focusing on them as much as needed until you find the best (most smooth, efficient, and comfortable) fingering for you.

    Thanks for the post, very helpful for people.

    • Allen March 17, 2017 at 9:18 am #

      Nice synopsis!
      Thanks,
      Allen

  3. Aydin September 19, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

    Allen, there is one word to say about you YOU ARE JUST GREAT.
    Thank you sharing all your knowledge with us.

    • Allen September 20, 2015 at 7:25 am #

      Thanks Aydin! You’ve made my day!

  4. Judy September 19, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    Allen:

    Like this one, your posts often make me chuckle…and sometimes I wonder where you’re headed…but you always, always, wind up with a good, meaty message. Love ’em! Thanks.

    Judy

    • Allen September 19, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

      Thanks Judy!

  5. Allen September 19, 2015 at 7:36 am #

    Thanks Marcus!

  6. Marcus September 19, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    Thank you for posting this Allen, it is a great help.
    Have a wonderful day !

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