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Guitar Fingering Issues

Why do printed editions of sheet music contain fingerings?

Printed editions of music contain fingerings because the editor is trying to aid the person learning the music to play it well. Many of the players who will be learning the music will be less experienced players than the editor of the music so the editor will try and help them by providing good fingerings they may not have thought of on their own. In practice, the fingerings may either aide or hinder a guitarist in learning and playing the piece well depending on the editor's skill in providing quality fingerings.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of sheet music with fingerings?

The advantages of fingerings is that they give you a lot of suggestions as to how to finger the music in both hands. In some cases the editor may have thought up of a particularly ingenious but not very obvious fingering that will make the music much easier to play than the fingering you would have come up with on your own. The disadvantages are that when music contains fingerings, guitarist will often use them without thinking about their own fingerings and will often not question whether the fingerings given are the best possible fingerings for a particular passage. Additionally if one does change the fingerings given it can be a bit of a chore to cross out the old fingerings and write in your new ones.

How reliable are the fingerings in an edition of music?

There is a great variety in the quality of fingerings given in various editions of music dependent upon the particular editor's skill in fingering. Many editions contain poor fingerings because the editors themselves are not very gifted in fingering. Often the guitarists putting out printed editions of music are guitar scholars more than guitar performers and do not finger to the same degree of skill that a concert performer would. This is not to say you should ignore the fingerings in an edition, but you should also not accept them without considering their merit or whether there are better alternatives.

Are some fingerings good for one guitarist but not for another?

Yes, in addition to the distinction between good and poor fingerings, there are also fingerings that in themselves are good but which may not work for some guitarists because of differences in their hands (small hands or large hands, for example) or in how they want to interpret the music. The editor fingering the music will often finger it using those fingerings that work for him. If the editor has small or large hands his fingerings may work for those guitarists who have similarly sized hands to his own but not for those with hands of differing sizes. Alternatively a particular editor may have certain musical aspects that he favours and which will influence his fingerings. For example, one editor might favour a fingering that produces a smooth legato sound while another might place voice leading or tone colour as the prominent factor in the fingering. If your musical interpretation corresponds to that of the editor his fingering will be fine but if your interpretation differs you may have to change the fingerings accordingly.

Should I stick to the fingering given in the sheet music?

You should try every fingering written in the edition. You should also try every alternative you can think of. If the edition contains a fingering that seems difficult, try to think of the reasoning behind it and whether it makes sense before discarding it. However, don't be surprised if you can't find any good reason for a particular fingering, illogical and unmusical fingerings are unfortunately quite common in printed music. But at least give the written fingering the benefit of the doubt and try to understand why it was fingered like this. In many editions in addition to good fingerings you can find: a fingering that works for the author but not for you (difference in hands), a fingering based on a different musical or technical approach and often simply technically poor or unmusical fingerings. Depending on your playing level there may also be fingerings that are good but for which you do not have the technique to achieve currently. When I encounter this with a student I will often allow a student to use an inferior but easier fingering so that he can perform the piece within a reasonable amount of time. However, I will also give him some exercises so that in the future he will be able to play fingerings similar to the one that is currently too difficult for him.

How close should I follow the fingerings given to me by my teacher?

When your teacher gives you fingerings there is the advantage that unlike book fingerings, you are able to discuss with him the reasons for and advantages of a particular fingering. The disadvantage is that while a book editor can neither know nor care whether you use the fingerings from his edition, a teacher will certainly notice whether you use his fingerings or not. Like music editors, teachers have varying degrees of skill at fingering music and will also tend to finger in a manner that works best for their hands but which may not work for yours. While you should be studying with a teacher who is both a better player and better at fingering than you are, that does not mean they are infallible or that all of their fingerings will be superior. Some teachers expect you to imitate them without regard to what is good for your hands or your musical taste and often without subjecting their fingerings to critical analysis. While I think this is a poor approach to teaching, a teacher with this approach might be a good teacher in other aspects even if they are somewhat lacking in this area, ie. this on it own is not necessarily a reason to switch teachers. A preferable approach is that of a teacher who will give you good fingering suggestions but will only demand that you play a passage well whether you use his fingerings or not. For example, there might be a scale passage that you are not playing very legato and your teacher may suggest a different fingering that he thinks will allow you to play it more legato. However, you may still prefer your old fingering and think that with some more work you can get it to sound more legato. After a reasonable amount of time both the teacher and student need to evaluate honestly and objectively whether the passage is indeed now legato or whether it is still necessary to switch to the alternate fingering. And as much as some teachers are sometimes too convinced of their own fingerings, many students will stubbornly stick to an old fingering that isn't working because they are used to it and don't hear or realize its deficiencies. A new fingering is almost always more difficult than the old one at the beginning and it may take practice before it starts to sound better than the old one.

What about fingerings from the composer of the piece?

There are some compositions for which the composer also wrote in his fingerings. If the composer has given fingerings it is preferable if the editor does not add his own fingerings so the player can tell which fingerings come from the composer himself but this is often not the case. Many original editions of music are available online from various music libraries so sometime it is possible to check whether the fingerings are the original ones from the composer. Just like editors and teachers, some composers were better at fingering than others and in older music there are other issues such as guitar technique and the instrument itself have changed a lot over the centuries and some of the original fingerings may have made sense at the time but do not make sense when played on a modern instrument with modern technique. Nevertheless, many of the composers of the past were also excellent guitarists themselves and I often find their fingerings to be of high quality. In instances where I had a modern edition and doubted the editor's fingerings and was able to find an original edition fingered by the composer, the composer's fingerings were almost always superior to those of the modern editor. While I don't believe one has to slavishly follow the composer's fingerings, one should also be even more careful about changing a composer's fingerings than those of an editor or your teacher. The composer wrote the piece and thus had a deep understanding of how he wanted it to sound.

Fingering Tips:

Right Hand

- Play any notes that belong to the bass voice with the thumb. The thumb has a unique and heavier sound than the other fingers and this will help distinguish the bass voice from the other voices that the fingers will play. This is particularly important when the melody is in the bass but even when it is just a simple bass accompaniment we usually like to be able hear the voices distinctly in classical music. If an edition is scored correctly the bass voice should be distinguished from the other voices by being stemmed downwards. Nevertheless, one can find many examples of music where editors have even stemmed the bass voice correctly but yet finger the bass notes with the I-finger whenever the bass is played on the treble strings. If the I-finger is used on these notes you will end up with weaker notes in the bass line leading to unevenness in the bass melody. It is of course possible to use extra force on the I-stroke to counter this but it is almost always preferable to play it in a more musically natural way with the thumb.

- Do not be afraid to use repeated fingers and not use alternation when it is advantageous. As a teacher who is very interested in giving my students a high level of technical expertise, I place a large value on proper finger alternation. However, many editors finger pieces with excessive alternation. Slower melodic pieces may not require you to alternate. Using the same finger on a slow singing melody will give you a consistency of tone not possible when alternating fingers (though some melodies also sound nicer using alternate fingers). It can also be quite secure and sometimes easier using the same finger to play successive notes on the same string. Obviously at certain speeds the alternation principles must apply but like all fingering rules alternation should be used where desirable and needed as opposed to just being applied everywhere automatically.

- Avoid complicated, non-repetitive 3 finger patterns. I often see complicated 3 finger fingerings which are used because in a particular passage it is not possible to continue the two finger alternation pattern or alternation would create a problem such as a bad string crossing (for example, changing to a higher string with a finger pattern that reverses the natural order of the fingers such as m-i or a-m). There is nothing wrong with 3 finger patterns and in appropriate places they can be quite useful. They can also be complicated and insecure and it is frequently easier and more accurate to simply repeat a finger or do the bad string crossing. In general if a 3 finger fingering can be repeated several times in a row it will be fine to use it but if it results in a lot of random fingering patterns it may be worse than the problem it is solving. For example, I often see fingerings with I-M alternation using what I call random A-fingers. An editor will stick an A-finger in the middle of an I-M alternation pattern to avoid something like a bad string crossing. If just one A-finger is required and it solves a whole lot of fingering problems that would otherwise arise then it may be fine. If several A-fingers are required in random places then the breaking of the I-M alternation pattern and also the memorization required to make sure the A will play in the right place often will make the passage harder to play than it would be with the bad string crossing.

Left Hand

- Always try to find common fingers between chords, ie. if you can keep one finger on the same note this will help you immensely even if you have to change every other finger in the chord. A simple example of this is the change between a-minor and C-Major in which the 1st and 2nd fingers play the same notes in each chord. It may seem obvious in this example but it is surprising how often guitarists fail to use possible common fingerings to make chord changes much easier.

- Try to keep the same finger on the same string in position changes. This will make the change of position/chord much more secure.

- Try to maintain certain shapes in chord changes. For example if the 2nd finger is on the same fret as the 3rd finger but one string lower and this shape can be maintained in the next chord on different strings try to do this (E-A or em to am).

- A very important musical consideration is keeping a lyrical melody on one string or adjacent strings. Many editions will finger a melodic phrase over several strings to make position changes easier. While this may or may not be technically easier depending on the passage, it often makes the melodic tones break up. In other words, instead of a singing melody the tones sound like an arpeggio. While some consideration must be given to technical ease, string changes on important melodies should be kept to a minimum. Keeping a melody on one string or at most adjacent strings will increase the legato effect of the melody while jumping around between strings will make it sound less melodic.

Conclusion

Always consider the fingering given in an edition. Try to think of the reasoning behind this fingering. Even if you find it good try to see if you can find a better fingering. If you find it poor try to think of better alternatives. Question whether you are doing something wrong or whether there is a technical reason you can not perform this fingering satisfactorily. However, do not be afraid to question the logic, musical or technical merit behind the fingering as well and to come up with alternate solutions. Ensure that whenever there is a problematic passage, the fingering solution you choose is easier and sounds more musical than any alternative fingerings. Make sure that your solution to a fingering problem is not harder or worse sounding than the problem itself.