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Shifting - By Jamey Andreas.
There are five chapters in “The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar”, and each one begins with a statement that practicing guitarists would do well to keep in mind. One of them is “When you see the complexity of what you think is simple, you will see the simplicity of what you think is complex.”


The point of this statement is this: there are many things about playing the guitar that are taken for granted. They are ASSUMED to be “easy”, so they are never thought about, never investigated, never paid attention to. These movements are never studied as to what is REALLY going on in the body when they are done, and so, many of the implications of these movements are never appreciated, or even noticed. So, all kinds of bad things can be happening to you as a player, simply because you don’t know that the thing you are not paying attention to, is CAUSING these bad things.

One of the biggest candidates for this “lack of appreciation” is the physical act of shifting positions on the guitar. We all learn to shift up to the higher positions on the neck somewhere in our development. Maybe we learn it in a method book as part of learning to read music in the higher positions, or maybe we learn it as rock guitarists playing pentatonics around the neck. If we are lucky, somebody will mention the idea of guide fingers, so at least we’ll know enough to leave a finger on the string to guide us into the new position, but that is as far as any intelligent examination of the subject will go. And because of that, we will have a world of problems waiting for us in our playing years that lie ahead.


I once had someone come in for lessons who had spent many years making a very big mistake: he had been teaching himself classical guitar. It is always very painful to see someone in this condition. It is usually not a pretty sight. Unlike styles such as rock and blues, shifting in classical (as well as chord melody jazz) is more difficult, because often you are shifting into a chord, requiring precise coordination of many fingers, as opposed to shifting into one note, as you would do when playing a single note lead. I remember watching this guy play a piece that required a rather quick downward shift, from a high position to a lower position. I couldn’t tell if he was going to fall off the chair, or just have a heart attack! At the moment when he lunged for the new position, he stopped breathing and locked up every muscle in his body. Needless to say, when his fingers hit the new position (where they were supposed to form a chord) it was like watching a couple of guys fall out of a three story building: SPLAT!


Sorry for being so graphic, but I am trying to draw a contrast here with what we DO want as guitar players when it comes to shifting. We want to be like a CAT hitting the ground. We want to be like a ballerina or ice skater after leaping and spinning in the air. We want to land with GRACE,  with POISE, and above all, PREPARED! Prepared for what comes next.


It must be understood that the arm is quite a big piece of meat! It weighs a lot, and it takes a lot of force to set it in motion, and to stop it once it is in motion. It gathers quite a bit of momentum as it moves, especially if it moves fast. When we come to a stop in our new position, all of that force must be opposed by the muscles responsible for the OPPOSITE action on the bones that just moved, in other words, we must slam on the brakes. And all of this can take place like the CAT, or like the SPLAT!


The Who, What and Why of Shifting


All guitarists must deal with Shifting, unless you remain a “first position player”, which is fine, but you will never look really cool when you play! Playing up in the higher positions immediately makes you look like an advanced guitarist! Some guitarists, such as Rock players, will deal with shifting into higher positions right away, because the style demands it. Others, such as folk players, may stay in the first position a long time, or forever. You will absolutely have to deal with Shifting if you are going to do anything even remotely advanced in your playing. For myself, I have to admit I wanted to look cool as soon as possible, but I do wish I would have known a few things about the subject, so shifting would have come a lot easier, especially in fast playing. It’s hard to look cool when you’re sweating!


The Ups and Downs of Shifting


After appreciating the fact that a shift of position on the guitar is a “large” move, made with the whole limb, (as opposed to “small” moves of individual fingers), we need to notice and appreciate another basic fact of playing the guitar: a movement from the upper frets to the lower frets is MORE DIFFICULT than a move from the lower frets to the higher frets (in general, some circumstances could reverse this). This is because in a move from higher position to lower, the arm, with all its weight, is moving AWAY from the body. As all that weight moves away from the body, it needs to be supported skillfully, and most often, it is not. Most often what happens is that the opposite side of the body, usually the right side doing the sounding of notes with pick or fingers, will merely TENSE UP in a feeble attempt to deal with the stress of the outward moving arm. Of course, control of the pick or fingers is severely compromised after this happens.


That is why you will notice, if you pay attention, that very often mistakes will occur after a quick shift down the neck, from high to low positions.


How to Deal With Shifts


Here are a few things to do in order to improve your Shifting ability:


Ø       Practice all shifts EXTREMELY slowly a number of times during each practice session on the material containing the shifts. Focus on the large muscles of the upper arm, chest, shoulders AND upper back. This is where all the muscles are that are moving the bones we call our arms. For book users, that means using NO TEMPO PRACTICE and POSING.

Ø       As you move slowly, feel that arm weight going into and through the body, and then into the chair and floor. That is how the weight should be supported, instead of by hardening the muscles.


Ø       MAKE SURE you do not RAISE your shoulders at all during a shift.


Ø       Analyze your starting and ending positions. Find any common fingers you can leave on the string as guide fingers. If there are none, create an “artificial guide finger”, by placing an unused finger on an unused string before or during the shift, to act as a guide finger.


Ø       Before you make your move, visualize the new position, whether it is a chord or one note, AND begin to form it with your fingers AS SOON as you release the note or notes that make up your starting position. Have all fingers READY by the time you arrive at your new position. Very often, the problem with a shift is that the hand and fingers get to the new position, and THEN they start to scramble for their notes. They need to ALREADY be in position, close to the string and note they are to play, AND in their proper state of readiness for the notes they are to play.


Ø       WATCH the fingers as you practice the move slowly. Take a peek at your right hand from time to time also; make sure the pick or fingers are not floating away from the strings ( a sign of tension in the upper arm).


As usual, the more attention you give to this, and the deeper you understand and apply all the Principles of Correct Practice, the more progress you will make in this vital area of technique.

For more information on how to develop these insights,

Copyright 1999 by Jamey Andreas. All Rights Reserved.

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