Friday, October 20, 2006

playing in position pt. 0, reasons for

Taking a break from looking at natural harmonics, let’s take a detour into fingerboard positions.

Playing in position is one of those staples of orthodox guitar technique (and the technique of many other string instruments). We all kinda have some notion what it is, but why do it? Candidate answers might include: (a) It facilitates faster playing, (b) it’s a more efficient or comfortable playing technique, or (c) once you memorize the positions, playing becomes easier.
There’s enough high-velocity players with extremely, let’s say, idiosyncratic techniques to throw serious doubt on (a). Given that everyone’s bodies are different, and guitars vary in shape and size, I’m always slightly suspicious of any claims of universal efficiency or comfort implied by (b).
As far as (c) goes, from a pedagogy standpoint, it is a popular answer. There’s a large amount of guitar tutor books and manuals that carry fingerboard diagrams of scales and arpeggios to be committed to memory. I’m skeptical. How many people can really be troubled to memorize every permutation of scales and arpeggios in a given position? And this approach may be fine when you’re dealing with a small number of patters (say, eight or nine permutations each of one major and one minor mode), but does it scale up? How many players find this ‘memorize and execute’ method useful? (That’s not a rhetorical question: I'm genuinely interested.)
I’m going to propose a slightly different reason for playing in position. To play in position is to prevent the guitarist (and their fingerboard hand) from getting lost. Position playing is a way of getting bearings, a method for practicing fingerboard gestures, and a framework for linking together small and large gestures. (BTW, I’m not claiming any universal utility, and I hope I’m not making a totalizing statement, but this does work for me, and I hope it will helpful in when we return to the topic of harmonics.)

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