This column is for pickstyle players hoping to improve their fingerstyle skills. It doesn’t matter whether you’re just starting out with fingerstyle, or simply want to hone your existing technique. There’s something here for every level.

Admittedly, these aren’t new ideas. I start with 200-year-old exercises from Italian classical guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani. But I offer suggestions for making these exercises more musically relevant and less … well, boring. We’ll also compare and contrast various picking-hand positions.

Opus 1
Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) was the most renowned guitarist of his time. His career commenced in his native Italy, but flourished in Vienna, then the epicenter of classical music innovation. (Giuliani, who also played cello, may have performed in the debut performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.) He wrote a great deal of light and unremarkable music. (Sorry, classical guitarists—we ain’t talking Mozart here.)

Giuliani’s most enduring creation is his Opus 1, better known as the 120 Right-Hand Studies. Each of the exercises employs the same two-measure C–G7 progression, performed with right-hand patterns of escalating complexity. No matter how polished your fingerpicking, you’ll encounter challenges here.

This will be a study guide to Opus 1. We’ll only look at the first three exercises. But if you find this approach useful, you can tackle the other 117 studies in similar ways.

You can find the entire set online. It usually appears in standard notation, but it’s also been converted to tab. You can find the original version here. Meanwhile, there’s a tab version at this site. The latter includes a MIDI playback mechanism, so you can hear each example. (It sounds fake in that special MIDI way, but at least you can verify the notes and rhythms.) If these links are dead when you read this, just search for “guiliani 120 right hand studies” or “tab guiliani 120 right hand studies.”

Hope You Like C and G7!
Ex. 1
shows the very first exercise in notation and tab. Like the other exercises in this lesson, it employs only the top five strings, and only the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the picking hand. (The 6th string and picking-hand ring finger appear in subsequent exercises.)

Click here for Ex. 1

While the picking-hand tasks get increasingly complex over the course of Opus 1, the fretting hand’s role doesn’t vary much. But if you’re taking the time to practice these, why not give both hands a workout? I suggest changing the fretting-hand chords every time you practice these. You’ll challenge both hands, and probably come up with cool musical ideas while doing so.

Check out Ex. 2, my alternate version of Ex. 1 using cooler chords.

Click here for Ex. 2

I perform all these examples twice through, but consider repeating them ten or 20 times. Try to play as legato (smoothly) as possible, with no audible gap between chord changes. Pay close attention to the relative volume of each string. The smaller picking fingers are weaker by nature, so you probably need to apply extra force until consistent volume becomes intuitive.

Picking Procedures
Before trying a few more examples, let’s discuss picking-hand technique. I despise guitar teachers and guitar books that claim you’ll never get anywhere unless you follow the instructor’s recommended techniques. By that reasoning, Django, Wes, and Jimi never should have become great players, since none employed conventional technique. So instead of endorsing a particular method, I’ll just share some options.

Photo 1 shows a typical classical guitar position. Viewed from above, the forearm, wrist, and hand are aligned in parallel. Thumb and fingers point in different directions, so you can see a little triangle of light between the thumb and index finger. It’s a logical and efficient technique.

Photo 2 shows a similar position, but with a bent wrist. This lets your picking-hand fingers remain a bit straighter, possibly striking the strings with greater force. It may pay to experiment with different wrist angles as you play. That way, you can alter the exact point at which your fingertip strikes the string. You might, for example, alternate between bright fingernail tones and warmer notes played with your finger pads.

The notion of resting a finger on the guitar body (Photo 3) would horrify most modern classical guitarists, but lutenists and early guitarists relied on the technique. (There’s a good chance Giuliani played this way.) The obvious advantages are stability and confidence. On the other hand, this can restrict the range and strength of your ring finger. Many bluegrass banjo players use this technique, but they tend not to pick with their ring fingers.