Cultivating Right Hand Technique – One Principle That Changes Everything

James Rippingale GuitaristI’ve been fascinated by the classical guitar, its technique, repertoire and players for most of my life, leading me to play and teach for a living and to study the greatest players on earth. As I have studied and played there are questions that have always intrigued me:

What is it that the world class players do that the rest of us don’t?

How do they think?

How do they practise?

What is their learning process?

What do they think, believe and do that puts them head and shoulders above the rest of the world and how can we do the same?

These questions have taken me on many adventures in search of answers and I have worked to refine the information down to some basic core principles. Principles that I share in my teaching practice and use to help my own playing.

As one studies the great masters of the guitar over time one starts to see patterns, the same guiding principles occurring again and again. I would like to suggest that if we apply the same principles we to will start to get similar results. If it works for them it will work for us. I am going to share one principle with you today and, although it is simple, I know that when applied it will greatly accelerate your progress and give you far greater technical control and certainty in performance.

Are you curious? Are you ready to revolutionise your own guitar playing? Here it is:

We must know exactly what the right hand is
doing at every point in a piece.

This one idea, if applied, will make a huge difference in your playing. Now you might think this is obvious but my experience is that 80% of players have absolutely no clue what their right hand is doing even in pieces they have played for years.

Here’s a true story to illustrate the point.

The Master and His Amigo – A Guitar Story

I recall sitting in on a masterclass where a talented young pupil had just flown through the third movement of Barrios’ The Cathedral.

Master Guitarist: “Great, Well done! Now please play me the right hand on its own”

Pupil: Huh? (A confused look passes over his face as he realises he has never done this before….)

The student tries to play the right hand on its own and realises that he has no idea how to do it. He is completely unaware of what his hand is doing!

The master explains that it is really important to know our right hand patterns. We tend to process the left hand in a very visual way, we see different positions on the neck, shapes and patterns etc. Around 60% of us are predominantly visual in the way we process information and therefore find it easy to learn the left hand patterns.

The right hand, however is harder to grasp, with more abstract combinations. It lacks clear visual shapes and it can seem harder to master. Sadly most players ignore it and just hope that it will serve them. The student had mastered the left hand but left the right hand movements to chance and instinct.

Master Guitarist: “How can you control something if you do not know what it is?”

The student, obviously rattled by the question started to argue back giving all sorts of excuses like “Oh I just go with the flow”, “I just use my instinct” etc etc.

The master guitarist looks him directly in the eye and said:

“Amigo, either you can do it this way or you can practise it 1000 times and then maybe eventually you might get it right”

What a valuable lesson for all of us!

Here is another way of understanding the importance of knowing exactly what the right hand is doing:

The General and His Troops

Imagine that you, the player, are a General overseeing a mission (the piece). Your fingers are your troops and you must give them very clear precise instructions if they are to carry out their duties successfully. Without clear instructions they will do their best but they will be falling over each other like a rabble, unsure who should be doing what.

It is so often like this for guitarists. Our fingers do their best but they fail due to the lack of clear instructions. This can cause great frustration for us! Thankfully by applying the above principle this problem is easy to solve.

Applying the Principle

Let’s apply this game changing principal with 7 simple steps. You will need to choose a small passage from one of your pieces and have a pencil to hand.

1) First work out an effective right hand fingering, take your time with this. The planning stages are so important and diligence in the early stages will pay dividends later on

2) Write it down! There is something magical about getting clear ideas onto the page. Remember the general and his troops. You must give your hands clear instructions

3) Practice this slowly with the right hand on it’s own, in small manageable chunks

4) Practise the pattern using the left hand to dampen the strings. This gives a percussive sound that helps us to develop really precise rhythmic control and accuracy

5) Join the Chunks Together

6)Visualise the patterns with and without the score away from the guitar

7) Test It! – Play the passage of music first with both hands and then just the right hand on its own. If it is not clear yet remember that the process of memorisation is a gradual one from short term memory to long term memory and we must make gradual steps and respect the process. Repeat the above steps until successful. Remember repetition is the mother of skill

Good luck and I hope that you enjoy applying this principal. I hope that you have found this article to be helpful and I know that you will find that applying this principle will greatly enhance your music and your enjoyment. I have seen it help many pupils over the years and although it may seem simple it can be revolutionary when applied consistently.

One of the great side benefits is that the left hand also seems to work more efficiently and to be more relaxed when you know what our right hand is doing. Please do write to me and let me know how you get on as feedback is always welcome. Good luck and happy playing! – James

James Rippingale is an international classical guitar recitalist and specialist classical guitar tutor at Wells Cathedral School. He enjoys a busy schedule performing, composing and teaching and is based in the beautiful town of Glastonbury in Somerset. For more details, sound samples and videos please visit