Transitioning to Classical Guitar
by William Fitzhugh
I have been teaching guitar for far longer than most of my students have been alive, and as I’m sure will be no surprise, most of my students want to learn rock or country. For most students, teaching the chord shapes, reading, theory, etc. is satisfying and enough to keep them playing music. I have had several, though, who really want to expand their horizons, who develop an interest in what the guitar can do by itself. When this happens, I always introduce them to classical guitar – the instrument itself, and the music written for and played on it.
Like most guitarists, I started out figuring things out on my own (this was the pre-YouTube era) and being shown a few things by my friends. I was fortunate enough to attend Berklee College of Music for 3 years, and got a strong foundation in jazz and commercial playing there. After what I refer to as my 17 year summer vacation, I decided to pursue classical guitar and finished my masters degree in performance. When I started to learn classical guitar, however, all the books I got assumed that I had never picked up a guitar before in my life! “Here are the first three notes on the ‘E’ string…” Well, I already KNEW that! So I decided to write a book aimed at people who ALREADY play guitar, but want to learn classical too. I was fortunate again to have Hal Leonard publish my book (“Classical Guitar for the Steel String Guitarist”). Considering that the target audience for this idea does not read standard notation very well, it is written in both notes and TAB. Since most students in this situation already know how to play many chords, I have found that taking familiar chord progressions and introducing right hand patterns works best. Starting with simple block chords, I progress through thumb/fingers alternation, simple and complex arpeggio patterns and melody supported by chords – most of the basic techniques for classical guitar are covered.
Something else I stress is that they don’t need to play music that other (mainly dead) people wrote! When students have a pretty good understanding of chords and melody, they can take these techniques and develop their own arrangements of songs – Beatles songs, jazz standards, Christmas songs, country songs – whatever they want to play. But it is great to see the expression of accomplishment when a young student plays all the way through a “real” piece.
My book has studies focusing on each stage of right hand development, using the same left hand (chord) patterns, as well as 4 etudes by Giuliani, Carulli and Aguado etc. broken down into various right hand patterns, and by the end, they are playing them all the way through as originally written. It also has several original pieces that focus on each technique, and a few repertoire pieces.
I understand the look on many of my steel string students faces when they play a Hendrix or Clapton solo all the way through, but it just isn’t complete – the rest of the band isn’t there! One thing I stress to my students is that when you play solo classical guitar, YOU DON’T NEED A BAND! Parents really seem to appreciate this – it is easier to hear if their child is progressing by hearing them play complete pieces of music rather than strumming a rhythm guitar part to a song. Even simple arpeggio studies sound good! While I still have and use many electric and acoustic steel string guitars, playing classical has really helped my ability to teach and play in a wider market. I really recommend that every guitar teacher at some point make the suggestion to more advanced (or even beginning) students that they fully explore what one musician alone can do with a guitar!
About William Fitzhugh
A native of Massachusetts, William “Tiger” Fitzhugh attended Berklee College of Music for 3 years as a composition/arranging major, then took a 17 year summer vacation before finishing his education with a BS and MMu in Classical guitar performance from Austin Peay State University, studying with Dr. Stanley Yates. In between these colleges, he performed in nearly all states and nearly all genres, rock, jazz, gospel, country, mariachi, classical, Dixieland, and bluegrass. He performed on tour with Razzy Bailey and Alan Jackson, has played with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the Gypsy Hombres, recorded with Vassar Clements and children’s music artist Mary LaFleur, and performed at Opryland show park for 8 years. He currently performs with the Nashville Vintage Mandolin Quartet and several other groups, as well as solo performances. He has been teaching in area colleges since 1999, and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication “Classical Guitar for the Steel String Guitarist”.