Tony Cusack's Guitar Blog

Getting a grip on scales

There are so many scales it's hard to know which to focus on. Whatever your objectives are however there is a core set that you should aim to be familiar with. Which is, simply put, each of the 12 major, harmonic and melodic minor scales, making 36 in all (or 48 if you want to think of the descending form of the melodic minor as a discrete scale). Of course the fact that the guitar allows so many different fingerings for each scale might seem to raise a further complication. My advice is to not worry too much about the relative merits of this or that fingering. Stick to these basic parameters:

  • closed position 2 octave fingerings only (i.e. no open strings)
  • F through to Bb commencing on the 6th string playing across the neck and back.
  • B through to E commencing on the 5th. These require a position change to get through the 2nd octave but it really doesn't matter how you do that, just be consistent.
  • majors commence with 2nd finger, minors commence with first.

For each scale play through the 2 octaves a few times then apply each of the following four patterns to it, again through 2 octaves.

Image of patterns 1 and 2

Image of patterns 3 and 4

So that's 5 exercises for each scale: running the scale itself followed by the 4 patterns. Draw up a 36 x 5 matrix so you can keep track of where you get up to in each practice session. I'd also suggest that you work through the sharp keys first (C,G,D,A,E,B,F#) then return to C and work through the flat keys (C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb). Although F# and Gb are sonically the same it is worth your while to think through both keys.

You will very likely find that running the patterns, particularly where position changes are required, forces you to re-think whatever fingering you adopted to begin with. That's a good thing - find something that works for you and stick with it until you can get through the exercise fluently.

I've no doubt that some experienced and talented players reading this blog will want to raise qualifications to what I present here, particularly with respect to the bullet point items. Certainly there's a lot more that can be said - there are differences as between classical and jazz technique for example that I'm putting aside for another blog. My point here is to suggest some direction to those who are perhaps discouraged by the admitted complexity of the topic.

Make practice interesting

An anecdote that does the rounds in guitar circles ;-) is to the effect that John Williams, in response to a student complaint that practice is boring, said "Well make it interesting". That's sound advice to intermediate/advanced players but asks rather too much if you're relatively new to the game. Here are some of my suggestions how to take the drudgery out of practice.


It's a simple fact of life that repetition breeds boredom. But "getting good" on guitar demands repetition; so what to do about the dilemma? One tactic is to broaden your practice repetoire. By practice repetoire I mean all that you do on a day to day basis to develop technique and musicianship. It overlaps but is distinct from performance repetoire - the root, stem & leaves of the plant that has your performance pieces as its flowers, so to speak.

Having a broad practice repetoire means that within each area of study, pieces, right hand studies, scales and so on, you have a range of examples amongst which you can pick and choose from one day to the next.

Building up such a repetoire takes time of course, but does become easier the longer you stick at it. Try to memorise the better examples from your earlier easier material. With a range of material ready to hand you can move through the various phases of your practice session, effectively and enjoyably rather than under sufferance.

Lutenist with legs in stocks Hope and Patience Victorious

Scales and Arpeggios

Scales can easily become occasion for the sin of mindless repetition. Don't do it! Once you have learned/refreshed your knowledge of a scale fingering set some measurable goals for yourself. A technical syllabus such as provided by the music examination boards (Trinity College, AMEB etc) can be very useful here. Find the grade that is easy for you then adopt the next level as your objective. Do use a metronome for this type of practice, at least some of the time.

Rhythmic variation of scales is not only necessary for your musical development but also helps stave off needless repetition. The technical syllabae usually have some rhythmic variation from one scale to the next. But for general scale work you might like to use the set of rhythmic variations available from the Downloads section of this site.

From a technical point of view arpeggios are dealt with in two distinct ways on guitar: (i) as linear spellings of a given chord over one, two or occasionally three octaves and (ii) as studies/execises where a right hand fingering pattern is repeated over a chord progression.

The chord spelling style of arpeggio is a strictly technical exercise which for the purposes of your practice routine is best treated in the same way as your scales - played both tirando and apoyando, with rhythmic variations and tone colour variations.

The pattern style or arpeggio, invariably played tirando, occurs as purely technical exercises, as in the Giuliani right hand exercises, as studies such as Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1 and Brouwer Simple Study No. 6, and of course as passages in many beautiful guitar works.

Many accomplished players swear by the efficacy of the Giuliani studies but it is beyond most mere mortals, myself included, to apply oneself to them for any appreciable period. In my view it is more realistic to develop a small repetoire of studies - Aguado, Carcassi, Giuliani etc. These need not be difficult but should present a realistic range of right hand challenges.

Technical Exercises

Under this category I include the "finger gymnastic" type of exercise: slurs (a.k.a snaps & hammers), barre exercises, chromatic octaves, stretches and finger strengthening exercises.

These present as rather masochistic on first acquaintance but given consistent practice over time can become just another part of your normal practice routine. Care must be taken at all stages of development however - serious long term damage can occur if you push too hard in this area.

As a beginner you may think the problem is rather getting yourself to do such chores at all rather than overdoing things. To that end I recommend using a digital timer. It's probably worth the small expense to buy a dedicated device (e.g. kitchen timer) - you want something that is very quick and easy to set and re-set. Use the timer as a psychological ploy by setting it to a relatively short period - two or three minutes - and telling yourself you can suffer the pain for just that brief time. Do it, then reset for the next exercise and so on for four or five exercises. This practice will also keep your finger gymnastics within reasonable bounds from an avoidance of strain point of view.

New pieces

Motivation is not often a problem when it comes to tackling new pieces - we all like to move on to something new. Misplaced motivation however can lead to frustration and disappointment. And however much you may want to play a particular piece your motivation will be misplaced if the piece is technically too far from your grasp. Acceptance of this fact seems to be among the hardest of lessons an aspiring guitarist must learn, and it is in this area that the guidance of an experienced teacher makes a serious difference to your longer term achievement.

It's hard to generalise, but a couple of tactics I recommend are:

  • Rehearse rhythm separately - i.e. analyse the rhythm components of the piece and practice them away from the guitar by clapping, tapping, reciting time names etc.
  • Remove the fingering - (this advice is directed to non-beginners). The fingering in published editions is just one person's opinion of how it should be done, albeit they may be highly accomplished and respected. But they're not you, and they don't have your hands or your particular strengths and weaknesses. It's a worthwhile exercise to take a copy of a piece, remove all the fingering with correction fluid and re-finger it from scratch. While this can be done any time during your history with a piece, it makes more sense to do it before you have established muscle memories that may need to be unlearned.

On-line vs Face to Face Tuition

There's no doubt that the proliferation of online tutorials presents a challenge to the traditional music teaching business model. But the web is an even handed enabler, and it is by no means "all over" for face-to-face tuition.

While my own teaching focus is on classical guitar it's not musical taste alone that steers me in that direction (i.e. I will rock out at the drop of a plectrum :-). No, what makes me want to teach classical is my repeated experience that that's what works. If I may quote my own words:

Learning an instrument requires sustained focus over a period of years with incremental steps taken as the student becomes ready for them.

A proposition easily appreciated but difficult to realise in practice. The caveat "as the student becomes ready" highlights a key music teacher skill: to mediate repetoire and student. Of course a teacher must have repetoire knowledge, acquired through their own playing hours. But knowing when and how to introduce a student to a particular work requires a unique combination of practical and psychological insight which can only be acquired through experience. Experience in the form of teaching hours generally and, as regards the particular student, sufficient face-to-face time to develop insight into their taste and capability. For the teacher the cultivation of this mediative skill calls for a certain vocational dedication which itself draws on the psychological support of the student/teacher relationship.

These truths are well understood in the world of traditional music pedagogy, an environment in which the guitar has established its niche over the past 120 years or so. There exists in consequence a wealth of quality teaching and performance material that teachers can draw upon to take students through a graduated programme. This happy circumstance is much less the case with respect to contemporary popular music, and I would offer two main reasons for this relative deficiency: one being the simple fact that contemporary/pop music has not been around so long; and secondly (at risk of slight controversy) due to the characteristics of the genre itself.

It's beyond the scope of this article to adequately qualify these statements but I do offer the following observations.

Pop music rarely calls for a high level of instrumental skill but places much greater emphasis on (i) sonic textures achieved through sound processing hardware/software and (ii) the manifestation of pop culture itself in the ideas communicated through song lyrics, attitudes implied by the style of vocal delivery and so on through to the full catastrophe of fashion, visual media and celebrity.

Trying to teach music to someone whose conception of the art/craft derives largely from pop culture presents a small ethical dilemma for the teacher. One one hand it is well nigh impossible to give these students what they need, namely a graduated programme, if one is obliged to draw solely on late 20th/early 21st century rock/pop/jazz repetoire. On the other hand it is ridiculously easy to give them what they want. Usually the focus is on playing a facsimile of the recorded version of a particular song rather than mastering a style (bluegrass, jazz, metal etc) and for that purpose the instruction methods of the web (tab and video) are just the ticket.

I have a student Dion, now 13 years old, who has excelled at classical guitar after some two years studying with me. A few months ago I gave him a simple arrangement I'd made of the Titanic theme (Our Live Will Go On) - just by way of light relief from his classical examination programme. He came back a couple of weeks later playing a more advanced arrangement he'd learned from a tablature he'd found on the web. Not only is the arrangement in an open tuning (DADGAD), but it also calls for a capo shift in mid stride. (There are special capos to facilitate this bit of meta-technique, of which I confess to being entirely ignorant prior to Dion's seamless demonstration.) I'm quite chuffed with the development because it illustrates the cultivation of individual creativity that often remains merely aspirational and also because it demonstrates how differing agendas can be satisfied with a bit of flexibility on either side. We would never have found our way to that arrangement following the path we were on, largely dictated by the AMEB exam programme. But had Dion not developed his technique through the exam programme there's no way he would have been able to cope with the arrangement.

Finally: an issue for some whose first foray into guitar is via the contemporary music route is the tendency to repeat themselves, playing the same not so challenging bits of repetoire over and over again. If you don't push yourself to acquire some technique in your early enthusiasm then you probably never will. So it is not a bad idea to take some classical lessons to begin with, even if your longer term objective lies in other genres.

Musical Time Travel

The classical guitar repetoire reaches a long way back in time, with works by 15th century composers such as Francesco Da Milano (1497-1543) and Alonso Mudarra (c.1510-1580) holding a well established status. Those works were written for the lute or the vihuela, within the flourishing of purely instrumental music in the early Italian and Spanish renaissance.

Transcriptions of vocal works reach even further back however. I have recently enjoyed playing a guitar arrangement of Christ Est Erstanden which, as the title (Christ is Risen) suggests, is an Easter song. My arrangement is attributed to Hans Judenkunig (1445-1526) but the hymn can be traced back at least as far as 1100 and has enjoyed a distinguished career from the Renaissance through Johann Sebastian Bach , Franz Liszt , Carl Orff up to twelve-processing of Johann Nepomuk David (adapted from Wikipedia ). One cannot listen to such works without recognising that they come from quite another world aesthetically.

Personally I draw meaning from these links into the past. On a certain, perhaps academic level, one must acknowledge the worth of a culture which has not only created, but preserved such works through the turbulence of subsequent history. But as a player and composer I also like to imaginatively salute my temporally removed fellows: "Well done - music splendide indeed!"

Alonso Mudarra with lute
 Alonso Mudarra

11 String Alto Guitar

Classical guitarists exploring the lute repetoire may well reach the conclusion that those works will only ever sound their best when played on the lute itself. That's what happened to me, in any event! It is a dilemma because lute right hand technique uses the flesh of the fingertips while the guitar calls for some length of fingernail. 

In late 2012 I acquired a new 11 String Alto Guitar (a.k.a. Altgittaren) in an endeavour to get somewhat the better of the situation. As you may see from the image this instrument design is significantly different to the standard six string guitar, in having a dual length neck and fingerboard. The main fingerboard appears much the same as a standard guitar but is in fact shorter by about 10 cms and supports 7 strings, while the secondary neck extends well beyond normal and supports a further 4 bass strings.

 Front view of alto guitar

Various tunings are possible but the general intention of this design is to allow classical guitarists to  better realise(2) lute compositions, so the most common scheme for the altgittaren adopts that of an 11 course lute. The design was conceived by Swedes Georg Bolin and Per-Olof Johnson in the 1960s and exploited to superb effect by Göran Söllscher in a series of recordings of Bach and Weiss lute works.

In the context of the classical guitar's ongoing popularity it has become commercially viable to deliver high quality process-built instruments at a price within reach of mere mortals such as me. My instrument for example was manufactured by Italian firm Milagra, and retailed in Australia for around AUD $3,500. See Laudarra for further information and sales of these instruments.

I have to admit that I found it more difficult than I expected to adapt my playing technique to the different proportions of the altgittarren. Most of the disorientation has been in my right (plucking) hand owing to the fact that the first six strings, where 99% of the action occurs, are offset by a couple of centimetres, relative to standard. If you look closely at the graphic you'll see that the 6th string, which is dark coloured, intersects the soundhole at its centre rather than toward its upper edge. So the strings are not where they "should" to be as far as one's right hand & forearm are concerned.

I feel the same lateral disorientation, although to a lesser extent, in my left (fretting) hand. Longitudinally however my left hand feels liberated by the shorter, more lute like, scale length, with previously impossible stretches now within reach.

The sound of the primary notes, which is slightly tinkly, causes the open bass strings to sympathetically resonate and the resulting feedback loop sustains the note well beyond normal. The ongoing resonance of the basses also produces a drone effect, akin to but not so clearly audible as that of the sitar; rather more a sheen with a hint of echo/reverberation.

Overall the altegitarren is a very effective compromise for a guitarist with a particular interest in renaissance baroque repetoire but who does not want to go to the extent of playing the lute itself.

Triplet craziness

Our guitar ensemble became adventurous recently and began rehearsing a piece by Nikolai Koshkin entitled Changing of the Guard. (There are a couple of performances on YouTube if you care to search on those parameters.)

It's a very 20th century style of composition with lots of dissonance and out of kilter rhythms. (Or are they? It's a somewhat "Don't adjust your set" situation, anyway ...) The dirtiest part from a playing point of view is where he (Koshkin) sets up crotchet triplets over straight crotchets (which is tricky but not unusual) and then introduces straight quavers on top of that and again, a couple of bars on, puts quaver triplets on top of the lot. Bastard! The following pic shows an extract:

Image of several bars of Koshkin score

There was some consternation at rehearsal, and several theories of how best to count it became airborne, before variously going up the chimney, falling to the floor, flying out the window etc. Personally I was pretty intimidated and kept my head down. But with the help of Sibelius (wonderful music scoring program) I believe I've got it fugired - and I'm keen to share.

I've reduced it to a few bars of drums which you can play on the Scorch Demo page.

You do need the Sibelius Scorch plug-in however - if you can't see the score, get the Sibelius Scorch plug-in here.

The Kirribilli Four

I am one 4th of the Kirribilli Four guitar ensemble. The group takes its name from our rehearsal venue at Kirribilli on the leafy suburban side of Sydney Harbour.

Of a weekly evening in the season we gather at the Kirribilli Neighbourhood Centre to devour fish & chips (or other choice from the "many excellent take-aways in the area" - the mad Italians for example) before setting to the music of masters old and new.

Depending on mood and the programme for our next gig we choose one or several works from our repetoire to work up through the evening. There follows a couple of hours of the kind of thing portrayed so well in Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, albeit at a less distinguished level. Fortunately there have been no divorces yet.

To round the evening off we retire to the Village Ristorante to variously lament or applaud the demise of capitalism, western civilisation, education, good manners etc. Altogether an excellent cultural experience.

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Kirribilli Four performing at Hopetoun Village

Bob Harrison, Tony Cusack, Bernard Hickey, Ian Cox

We perform mainly at musical society concerts and charity events, five or six times a year. Always on the lookout for opportunities, so if you have a function that might suit please get in touch.


The following is a representative selection from the K4 repetoire.

Bohemian Rhapsody - the famous Queen/Freddie Mercury classic, arranged by Mark Houghton.

Joseph Hadyn - Concerto for Horn no. 2 in D, Ist movement Allegro Moderato. Warm and upbeat, a classic of classicism.

Modest Mussorgski - The Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition. Ingenious harmonic colour over a repetitive rhythm - a gothic masterpiece.

Isaac Albeniz - Tango. Come here for instantly recognisable melody, and everyone's idea of romantic.

A Smooth One - Tony's arrangement of the Benny Goodman tune. The original septet recording included jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.

Vincent Lindsey-Clark - Freewheeling. Contemporary English guitarist composer's tribute to the bicycle.

Inspiration - Richard Charlton's arrangement of the Gipsy Kings hit.

Some of the above can be viewed in performance in the Videos section of our Facebook site.

Sitting position - it's fundamental

Violin virtuoso David Oistrakh once said that his great tone came from his legs. What he was getting at was that the consistency and control manifest in his fingers had a very secure physical basis.

Classical guitarists, particularly beginners, may well observe the lesson.

The position adopted by classical players is intended to maximise the reach and dexterity of the fingers. If we put the scenario in mechanical terms the adage would be to put the fulcrum in the best position relative to the load.

Players coming from the steel string side of the fence often don't appreciate the greater strength and control required to play the nylon stringed instrument well. The main reason lies not so much with the design differences between the instruments, although there are issues there as well, as with the music. Multi-part writing is characteristic, almost defining, of the pieces of the classical solo repetoire. Much less is this the case with popular styles where a division of labour into lead and rhythm guitars is common.

The necessity to hold sustained notes in the bass while articulating at least a melodic line and commonly a counter melody as well is the primary source of difficulty for the classical guitarist.

Masters of the instrument can unfortunately be bad examples in this regard because of their apparent lack of effort and, at least when playing less difficult pieces, casualness wrt sitting position.

Once the attitude of the hands relative to the instrument is in the muscle memory so to speak, the experience player can subtly adjust to unorthodox positions without serious loss to sound production and technical execution.

But educating the hands to that extent requires working for a long time from a consistent and stable position.

Guitarist Ian Cox - sitting position

Oh, you mean that sort of acoustic

I like to imagine that stringed instruments began with some pre-historic archer idling time by thrumming on his bow.

Through their history such instruments have had metal or gut strings, and now metal and various synthetics.

The prevalence of the electric guitar in the second half of the 20th century has led to a curious linguistic anomaly in today's guitar world.

The term acoustic guitar is nowadays taken to refer to the electric guitar's immediate predecessor, being a form of guitar developed in the later 19th century USA. This guitar is strung with metal strings and sounded with a plectrum rather than plucked with the fingers.

Since the advent of the amplified version the term acoustic has been applied retrospectively to distinguish the earlier un-amplified instrument.

What we now call the classical guitar has not figured in this shift and strangely falls outside the term 'acoustic guitar' in vernacular usage, although it is indeed acoustic in the relevant sense.

Composed vs Improvised music

As a guitar teacher who often deals with newcomers to both the guitar and music generally I find it is commonly not appreciated the extent to which improvisation is an element of popular music styles.

That improvisation assumes you can already play the instrument is true as a matter of degree. At one end of the spectrum lives the singer/guitarist with a handful of chords and a bit of an ear while at the other sits the highly arranged jazz orchestra with solo spots for practitioners of those polychromatic arts.

Composed music is notated. The degree of players' reliance on a score during performance depends on many factors - opportunity/capacity/desire to memorise. Again there is a spectrum from reading at sight through to full memorisation.

The thing to appreciate is that pre-hearing is effective for both types.

In performance the player pre-hears each phrase in the instant prior to execution so that at that precise juncture the distinction between composed and improvised becomes redundant. The player draws on (i) the score (ii) memory alone or (iii) memory plus creative impulse to internally assemble and shape each phrase before moving on to the next.

It could be argued that "internally assemble" here simply means "compose" so that the distinction devolves to that between music that is notated or not rather than that between composed and improvised.

As a younger ardent jazzer person I used think that there is something inherently exciting about even the crudest impro and something equally dull about even the most expert classical performance. Judging from YouTube comments that point of view is alive and jibing but I can no longer subscribe having since experienced much more of the best and worst of both genres.

There's no doubt however that translation of graphical symbols, to the extent that it is part of a performance, is while necessary also something of an evil. It's a topic that continues to fascinate me and I'm firmly of the view that beginner students should be developed concurrently along both streams: that is to enjoy the immediacy of memory as well as the practicality of reading.


True generosity toward the future consists in giving everything to the present. ~Albert Camus, L'homme révolté

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