The classic position

June 28th, 2019

Physiology is important when determining hand positions.

The last thing you want to do is force your hand into a contorted shape simply because you saw your favorite player holding his hand that way.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with different right hand positions but in the end, I always come back to the ‘classic position.’

What’s the classic position?

You can call it the John Williams or the Segovia position.

A slight digression.

It may be my Asian background, and the ‘it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice’ approach to life.

I’ve always believed that the best way to learn anything is to study from the doers, the people who actually do it, rather than those who only talk about it.

Imagine if you’re going to climb a difficult mountain. Would you hire a guide who’s never actually been up to the mountain top (but who can tell you in so many fancy words how to get there)?

Or would you hire someone who’s actually been up to that mountain top.

The classic position is one that’s optimized for the hand.

Its main feature is the slight leaning to the left with the thumb and index finger forming the famous ‘Segovia triangle’ with the string.

The famous ‘Segovia triangle’ from V Bobri’s book

There’s one main reason why this hand position is so efficient.

If you were to hold your right fist in a loose fist and bring it to your eyes, you’ll see that all the fingers are gently sloping to the left.

This has one crucial ramification.

It means that the most efficient and natural way to play is with the fingers positioned at an angle to the strings, which means that the fingers will be plucking with the left side of the fingernails.

And this is an essential part of the classic position.

You hold your hand so that the fingers are at an angle (from your vantage view) and the index finger and thumb forming a little triangle with the string.

There’s another reason why this is so efficient.

When you pluck the strings with the fingers at an angle, with the left side of the nail, you’re not attacking the string face on. (‘Attack’ here simply means pluck.)

Instead you’re delivering a glancing blow to the string. This minimizes resistance in the string and it’s amazing how effortless the stroke becomes when you don’t pluck the string face on.

But there’s an even greater benefit to the classic position.

When you lean the hand to the left, you’re creating space for the thumb to move naturally.

The thumb is always a problem especially if you were to hold the fingers vertically (to the strings). The classic position solves that problem. With the fingers leaning (or sloping) away, the thumb has room to move.

Interestingly enough, if you were to watch harpists, you will find that they also pluck with the corner of their fingertips.

if you’re having problems with speed, accuracy and security, you might want to re evaluate your right hand position.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve tried different positions and although I could play in all of them, I find the classic position is the best for speed and accuracy mainly because it’s based on our natural hand physiology.

In my last guitar camp, I showed students how to understand this position by holding the guitar upright and pretending it’s a harp and positioning the hand like a harpist on the strings. It seemed to work. Students were able to acclimate themselves quickly to the position.

The best way to understand the classic position is to watch the great John Williams.

Watch the extreme economy in his strokes, the relaxation in his hands, and the ease with which he plays.

No, you don’t want to force your hand to look like his, but it’s definitely useful to try to understand the basic principles underlying that incredible technique.

2 Responses to “The classic position”

  1. Jean Feys Says:

    Moreover, the classical position is also more consistent with the principle of looseness from your great book ” The art of virtuosity”.
    Indeed, in the modern, orthogonal right hand postion, the muscles in the forearm have 2 fonctions, to keep the wrist straight AND to activate the tendons which create finger movement. Thus, the classical position creates more muscle freedom.
    Is this correct analysis?
    And many thanks many for your posts, which are always fascinating.

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    I think you got it. I’ve found that the classic position is not for everyone–not everyone’s physiology is suited to it. However, when it’s natural to one’s physiology, trying to hold the hand any other way would create a lot of tension.

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