How to Smoothly Shift Guitar Positions

Guitar music isn’t so simple that you can play it all in one position, and life would be pretty static if you could. In real-world situations, you must often play an uninterrupted passage that takes you through different positions. To do so successfully, you need to learn how to smoothly shift positions with the aplomb of an old politician.

As you listen to complicated-sounding guitar music played by virtuoso guitarists, you may imagine their left hands leaping around the fretboard with abandon. But usually, if you watch those guitarists on stage or TV, you discover that their left hands hardly move at all. Those guitarists are playing in position. When they do need to shift positions they do it in a controlled way that uses the least amount of motions while keeping the music flowing.

Andrés Segovia, legend of the classical guitar, devised fingerings for all 12 major and minor scales. The follow figure shows how Segovia played the two-octave C-major scale. Notice that it differs from the "standard" two-octave scale in that it requires a position shift in the middle of the scale.

A two-octave C-major scale with a position shift.
A two-octave C-major scale with a position shift.

Play the first seven notes in second position and then shift up to fifth position by smoothly gliding your first finger up to the fifth fret (third string). As you play the scale downward, play the first eight notes in fifth position, and then shift to second position by smoothly gliding your third finger down to the fourth fret (third string). The important thing is that the position shift sound seamless.

Someone listening shouldn’t be able to tell that you shift positions. The trick is in the smooth gliding of the first (while ascending) or third (while descending) finger.

You must practice this smooth glide to make it sound uninterrupted and seamless. Isolate just the two notes involved (3rd string, fourth fret, and 3rd string, fifth fret) and play them over and over as shown in the scale until you can make them sound as if you’re making no position shift at all.

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