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The Two Ways to Play Guitar

 Guitar Lessons: The Two Ways to Play Guitar: Blues vs. Classical Guitar Technique

The Two Types of Guitar:

Did you know that there are two completely different types of guitar? And that each has its own corresponding technique? And that this has nothing to do with whether its acoustic or electric? And that it makes a VERY big difference which one you learn depending on the style of music and type of guitar you want to play?

Classical and Flamenco guitars are nylon string guitars. Electric guitars and folk style acoustics are steel string guitars.

Nylon String Guitars

Nylon string guitars have very wide necks and perfectly flat fretboards. As one would expect the strings are made of nylon, but the bass strings are usually wrapped with a fine metal wire. If any of the strings are not made out of metal, it is a nylon string guitar, as the bass strings are really nylon on the inside. The strings are spaced really wide because they are plucked with your right hand fingernails. You must have long nails on the index, middle, and ring fingers of your right hand.

String pressure of various types of guitar.

The tension exerted by the strings on the neck (and ultimately your left hand fingers) is comparatively small.

On a nylon string guitar, the strings CAN be safely manipulated with the finger muscles.

The Classical Guitar Technique is the correct technique for these instruments.

Steel String Guitars

All electric guitars are steel strings. If an acoustic guitar has a pickguard, its a steel string. Steel string guitars have much thinner necks and radiused (i.e. rounded) fretboards. The strings exert far greater tension (especially acoustics) on the neck, and ultimately your fingers. So much pressure that a steel rod must be placed in the neck to prevent it from excessively curving and ultimately probably snapping over time. Thus:

On a steel string guitar, the strings CANNOT be safely manipulated by your finger muscles!

Steel string guitars are designed so you can wrap your hand around them and use the larger muscle groups in your wrist to manipulate them.

The American/Blues Guitar Technique is the correct technique for these instruments.

The Two Primary Guitar Techniques:

Classical Guitar Technique:

This Classical Guitar Technique is the preferred method for playing nylon string acoustic guitars (i.e. the Spanish or classical guitar) which have wider, flatter necks and wider string spacing than a steel string electric or acoustic.

The thumb remains behind the neck with a consistent relationship to the second (middle) finger. It is the accepted technique for classical music.

  • I do not teach this technique.

If you want to learn classic guitar, or learn traditional Flamenco guitar (they are not the same exact thing) I am an inappropriate instructor for you. You need to find someone who specializes in classical or flamenco guitar. I suggest you read "Learning the Classic Guitar, Volume 1," by Aaron Schearer. It's the finest book ever written on the subject and makes up for all the horrid Graded Guitar Method Books Mel Bay Publications has ever put out (almost).

This technique came into vogue on electric during the '80's shred metal era, with debatable results. This technique is designed to be played sitting down with the guitar on the left leg, with a footstool. When standing up, you need to have the strap set very high (with the guitar almost at your neck). You should also use really light gauge strings and avoid computers like the plague (see below). If you can get on stage and pull off the guitar at your neck look, and manage to function in modern society sans-computer, more power to you.

Steel String Guitar Technique (American/Blues Technique):

The American/Blues Guitar Technique is the one used by all the blues masters and almost all the rock masters (Hendrix, Page, Gilmour, Beck, Clapton, SRV, etc.)

The thumb comes over the top of the neck, and leverages bends and vibrato which are powered by rotating the wrist.

It is ideal for steel string acoustics and electrics. This technique gives you the "natural feel" and "soulful" bends and vibrato. Standing, the guitar is properly slung near waist level.

I have modified this technique to bring it in line with the latest research in Repetitive Stress Injury and the demands of modern playing styles.

I have copyrighted it as The New American Guitar Method™. It allows you to play with even less effort (and at higher velocity) than the traditional blues technique.

The Real Problem With Both Guitar Techniques:

I can sum up the biggest problem with both modern guitar techniques in one word:


First, let me say this: The guitar is designed and crafted around the dimensions of the human hand It's tuning is irregular in order to better fit our hands' natural movements. For centuries guitarists have been able to get away with some pretty sloppy technique with little or no problems, and injuries were rare.

The keyboard, mouse, and other high tech ergonomic nightmares are the main culprits, but playing guitar incorrectly can be the straw that broke the camel's back.

But you can easily avoid injury!


And you'll obviously sound a lot better on guitar too. You need to find a teacher who understands technique, and teaches the one appropriate to your style of music and the type of guitar you play.

Classical guitar provides no technical foundation for playing steel string guitars, and the American Blues technique is just as useless for playing nylon string guitars.

Footnote: One Obvious Sign of an Unqualified Guitar Teacher

Even though he or she may be a stellar player.

They play thumb over the top, but tell you to play classical style. Because that's 'correct'.


This is actually frighteningly common.

Being an excellent player is a prerequisite for being an effective teacher, but it's only half the ballgame. They may be good, but if they don't know why they are good, they certainly can't explain it to you. And much of learning guitar is the subconscious emulation of the instructors playing. While there's definitely some potential for entertainment value in the "Kid, don't make the same mistakes that I did," approach to guitar lessons; there is little educational value.

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