Learn this 16th-century French Christmas carol, in dropped D-plus-G tuning.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Unlock new sounds with dropped D-plus-G tuning.
• Learn about the tambura technique.
• Create rich and droning voicings for common chords.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Altered tunings provide an easy way to develop a new view of the fretboard. Probably the most common non-standard tuning is dropped-D, but by simply changing one more string, new musical doors will open. Dropped–D-plus–G tuning provides a rich harmonic palate for the lilting pulse and elegant melody in this arrangement of the 16th-century French carol, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.” This carol about preparations for the first Christmas reminds me of my grandmother singing this tune to herself during the holidays as she danced around the kitchen. This arrangement recalls the lightness of her spirit as she glided from task to task and brings out the happy excitement of the song.

To get this effect, practice crisp, full rolls of the chords with a metronome to establish rhythmic buoyancy that will carry the tune. Work on the clarity of your tone on the treble strings and your legato playing to bring the melody to life.

Begin by tuning the 6th string to D and the 5th string to G. This creates an open G chord on the lower five strings of the guitar. Overall, this will give your instrument a warm, rich sound—and it will allow you to use more open strings in the chord voicings.

The arrangement opens with a rhythmic drone in the bass. To play the first beat, sweep the bass strings quickly with your thumb. This will be particularly effective if you have a thumbnail. The next three beats are played with the tambura technique. As the first chord is ringing, strike the open bass strings close to the bridge with your right-hand thumb by holding your hand open and flicking your wrist.

In the body of the arrangement, each of the chords is meant to be rolled so the melody notes fall on the beat. Use your thumb to sweep the bass strings, and roll your index, middle, and ring fingers (i, m, and a for classical players) on the trebles. To fatten up the melody notes, tilt your forearm towards the body of the guitar to support your ring finger as you roll.

In general, the A section of the tune should have a stately, “on the beat” feel. The beginning of the B can move forward in the beginning of the first two phrases, and pull the tempo back with some rubato (relaxation of strict time) at the end of each. The third and fourth phrases of the B section begin with two quarter-note chords, each followed by an eighth rest. Be sure to “play” the rest by stopping the strings with your right hand!

Depending on which French translation you find, this little stop-time comes on the lyric, “Hark! Hark!” or “Hush! Hush!” (It was also the moment when my grandmother would rock into a pause in her little dance on the tips of her toes or gesture upwards with her hands.) “Playing” the rest will give your performance the same lilting effect, if you do it in time.

Repeat the arrangement as many times as you’d like, and then I’ve suggested repeats in the score and in the recording that create a “fade out” effect for the ending. Hang on to that last high note as long as you’d like. Finally, end as you began—with a tambura that slows as it fades out.

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Develop speed, sound, and nuance in your fingerstyle playing by exploring the “secrets” of classical guitar technique—beginning with a great right-hand setup.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn about the four elements of your right-hand technique.
• Understand how “tilt” creates a fatter tone.
• Add speed, sound, and nuance to your picking.

Too often, guitarists are so eager to get to the music that they gloss over the basics of technical form. Virtuosi in the classical style know that their level is dependent on their right-hand setup and pay vigilant attention to its components. A “classical” right-hand setup is dependent on four things: position, angle, height, and tilt.

“Position” refers to the way your arm rests on the body of the guitar and the way your hand approaches the strings. Classical guitarists who sit with the guitar on the left leg rest their right arms on the instrument just below the elbow at the base of the forearm. Guitarists who sit with the guitar on their right leg or stand rest their right arm on the body of the guitar at the elbow.

In both positions, the hand should “come over” the strings, meaning that the large knuckle of each finger should be over the string it is playing. You want your fingers to pluck the strings on a diagonal—not straight-on, which would be perpendicular (this produces a thin tone), and not parallel (which produces a muffled, muddy tone). Make sure to keep your thumb on the outside of the fingers.

“Angle” refers to the position of your wrist. Many fingerstyle and old-school classical players make the mistake of “crooking” their wrist—putting undue pressure on this joint and limiting technical power. Your right arm should be positioned with a “straight wrist,” meaning that you could draw a straight line from your elbow to your middle finger.

The “height” of your wrist gives your technique some leverage. Push your wrist out so that it is level with or just a bit higher than your big knuckle joint. Later, when you’re playing, this will allow you to pull your fingers into your hand from the big knuckle joint—as if you’re making a fist. When palm muting, you can deviate from this position, but return to it. Make the higher wrist your basic position and flatten only when you need to.

“Tilt” evens out the strength of your fingers and can fatten up your tone. Because the thumb side of the hand is heavier, your tendency will be to lean your hand and arm towards the thumb, but don’t. Lean slightly away from the thumb to support your weaker fingers—when they’re supported, they’ll reward you with a fat, round sound!

With these parameters in mind, take a look at Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 and then give it a try.

• Place your right arm on the body of the guitar and let your hand fall into the position of a loose fist, resting thumb (p) on the 4th string, index (i) on the 3rd, middle (m) on the 2nd, and ring (a) on the 1st.
• Go through your checklist: Are your fingers “over” the strings? Are they contacting the strings at a diagonal? Is your thumb to the side? What about your angle, height, and tilt?

Now, let’s practice. Classical guitarists will caution you not to rush at this point. Resist the urge to immediately try out all of your hardest licks. Instead try this:

1. Practice getting in and out of position. Do it hundreds of times until it becomes second nature.
2. When you feel confident, practice using your thumb and fingers separately. Leave your fingers on the treble strings for balance and play your thumb on the 4th string, allowing it to “follow through” as dead weight and rest on your index finger after playing the string.
3. Leave your thumb on the 4th string and play your fingers together. Let the primary motion come from your big knuckles and aim for the back of your palm. You’ll feel as though you’re playing “back” into your hand instead of “up,” and your hand will look like a loose fist after you follow through.

Remember: Patience and attention to form are the first secrets to building a great classical right-hand technique. Go through the steps every day and slowly work the concepts into your overall playing.

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