Five Lessons Modern Guitarists Can Learn From 19th-Century Guitar Methods

This is a guest post by Daniel Nistico. Daniel is a passionate performer, teacher, and pedagogue who specializes in the performance practice of guitar music from the 18th and 19th centuries. His aim in teaching and research is to revitalize the concept of being a well-rounded musician. He emphasizes deeper interpretive understanding and tools for composing and improvising. Daniel has performed around the world, both as a soloist and in Duo Vela, with his wife and flute partner Marla Nistico. Daniel’s goal through performance is to spread greater awareness of the scope and expressive power of which the guitar is capable.

Many guitarists might be wondering if there’s any benefit to studying 19th-century guitar methods. Aren’t there plenty of modern method books?  Yes, there are great modern guitar methods, but none of them will take you into the mind of a 19th-century guitarist.

Studying 19th-century methods can dramatically deepen your understanding of the music of Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, and Carcassi, and make playing their music more fun!

Here are five lessons you can learn from 19th-century guitar methods:

 1. Play Like an Orchestra

Guitarists of the 19th century thought about guitar playing in an orchestral way. That is, they sought to imitate other instruments as vividly as possible.

One of the biggest tools for achieving this was by varying the tone color.

Keep in mind that color and dynamics were correlatedPratten goes into detail about this in her Guitar SchoolA diagram of the guitar’s plucking region shows five distinct places to pluck. Modern guitarists usually use three.

A musical excerpt shows five changes of color within six measures! Modern guitarists are often afraid of changing colors so frequently. We can learn that color changes bring the music to life, making even etudes and simple pieces more fun and engaging to play!

2. Know Thy Harmony

 The guitar method books of the 19th century are filled to the brim with exercises in harmony.

These include:
You would think that I’m describing a jazz guitar method, right? In classical guitar pedagogy today, the emphasis on harmony has dropped significantly since the 19th century. This should be remedied.

The knowledge of fretboard harmony gives you the ability to learn pieces faster and with deeper understanding. Guitarists of the 19th century were composers and improvisers, as well as performers. The many harmony exercises in 19th-century guitar methods were probably used as tools for composing and improvising – so start getting creative!

3. Ornamentation is King

The number of exercises for ornamentation found in these books is just astounding. I will show you the tip of the iceberg:

These ornaments were probably used frequently in performance, even if they weren’t indicated in the score. Exercises for ornaments were often given in the form of pieces as well. Pratten provides a lovely Mazurka for practicing the slide (or glissé).

4. Articulation is Queen

Although many scores and editions of 19th-century pieces don’t indicate much articulation, that doesn’t mean that the guitarists weren’t using articulation in their performances. Why would they go to the trouble of writing so many articulation exercises if they didn’t actually vary articulation in performance?

As you probably already know, articulation comes in two basic forms:

– Staccato: indicated as dots or sometimes dashes
– Legato: indicated by slur marks

Pelzer provides great variety of articulation applied to scales and exercises. Pelzer not only gives examples in either staccato or legato – they are combined in many different ways. The degree of staccato and legato can vary as well – it’s not always super short or super long –  there are many nuances in-between.

5. Love Thy Arpeggios

Arpeggios are found in great abundance in 19th-century method books.

What is the benefit of practicing them, besides simply improving your right-hand technique?

I think there are at least three valuable musical skills that you can develop through arpeggios:

1 – Arpeggio patterns were often applied to lengthy chord progressions.
The guitar music of the 19th century essentially consists of chord progressions with arpeggio patterns applied to them. So know thy harmony and love thy arpeggios!

2 – Arpeggio patterns could indicate tempo.
An example from Ferdinando Carulli’s Harmony Applied to the Guitar (1825) shows us that certain arpeggio patterns could indicate a tempo.

3 – Arpeggio patterns were used like ornaments to add interest and variety to passages within a piece of music.
Several 19th-century guitar pieces were published in multiple versions. One example is Sor’s popular Grand Solo, which was re-published by Aguado, who added many new ornaments and arpeggio patterns to the mix. Aguado’s arrangement makes a great case study for seeing how ornaments, articulations, and arpeggios were added to pieces of music.


Guitarists of the 19th century used many expressive techniques to add variety and interest to their music. So don’t just follow what’s on the score. Experiment and use the resources found in method books of the era.

Question: How can you apply these points to 19th-century pieces you’re playing? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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