Rest Stroke vs Free Stroke

Playing the guitar with the right hand involves two types of strokes: the free stroke and the rest stroke. In free stroke the finger plays the string and then flies free. In rest stroke the finger plays a string and lands on the string behind it coming to rest on that string. The strokes are produced in the same way, the only difference is the location of the hand (more on this later).

Flesh-Nail Contact

In both a finger comes in contact with the string on the finger tip with a combination of the flesh of the finger and the side of the fingernail. This “flesh-nail contact” (see drawing) has several advantages. By touching the string first with flesh one will avoid the clicking sound that is ordinarily produced when a fingernail comes in contact with a moving string. By touching the string with part of the nail, one is in the best position for playing quickly. If a player comes in contact with the string further back on the finger, there is a much greater distance to travel and this takes more time. Even if you have short finger nails this point of contact can still be used, and will train you for when you are ready to start growing your fingernails. In fact it is not recommended that you grow you finger nails until this feel developed.

Flesh Nail Contact

View of flesh-nail contact

Role of Finger Joints

Now that you have come in contact with the string it’s time to get it moving. As you look at your finger notice that it has three main joints. The large knuckle joint, a middle joint, and a little joint (the one that is hard to move by itself closest to the fingernail) Each has a role. The knuckle is the joint that creates the stroke (for both free and rest stroke). This has several advantages. It is more independent than the other joints because it is controlled by muscles further up the arm than the inner joints. By playing with the knuckle joint we will direct the finger in towards the hand thus producing better tone. Never move your finger up away from the strings, with the exception of rasgeados. Always produce a stroke by moving the finger inwards, as if you were grabbing a baseball bat.  The role of the middle joint is largely to maintain the curvature of the finger, though in the free stroke it can play a secondary role in moving the finger inward. The little joint has a very different function. Its role is to act like a shock absorber, it maintains the curvature of the finger but not rigidly so. Think of the shock absorber on a car. Too rigid and you feel every bump. Likewise with the guitar, if your little joint is too rigid you will produce a harsh tone.

Rest Stroke

Rest Stoke

Play Relax

The key to a correct stroke (rest or free) is to play and relax. A great musician was once asked how he played so fast when it looked like he was hardly using any effort. “It’s easy,” he replied ,” I just rest between the notes.” On the guitar we do the same. After the finger comes into correct contact with the string, the large joint moves it inward toward the hand. After the note sounds the finger can relax. If the hand is positioned correctly the relaxed finger should be in position to play the next note, usually 1-2 cm in front of the string it just played. Let gravity and relaxation return the finger to the correct position. Do not exert effort in moving a finger back into place after a stroke or it will tire, and the added tension will hurt your tone. 


Free Stroke

Free Stroke

Playing Styles

The fingers play in two different ways: alternating and block/arpeggio-style. For music that is primarily melodic (lead part) the fingers normally alternate. Two fingers, usually I & M (index and middle), will trade off.  This makes the fingers look like a little walking man. They can play on any string required. So if the melody goes really low, then the I & M fingers will go down on the bass strings. The key is that they alternate. The one exception is when you are changing strings from high to low using the rest stroke. This technique referred to as dropping the I finger can help speed up melody passages. It works as follows: A player plays a note on the first string using the I finger. His finger comes to rest on the second string. The next note he needs to play also happens to be on the second string. At this point why alternate since his finger is already in position and ready to play? So he plays the string with the I finger thus being as efficient as possible.

The other manner of playing the strings is the block/arpeggio style. What happens in arpeggio style playing is that a finger is assigned to a string and whenever you need to play that string you use that finger. For instance “i” plays all material on the third string, m plays all material on second string, and a for the first string. (The thumb usually jumps around and plays anything on the fourth, fifth, and sixth string) When music changes strings with every note then arpeggio style playing is used. Or when music requires playing two or three notes at a time arpeggio style is used.

Differences between the strokes

Now as to the difference between rest and free stroke really there is very little. The only difference in how one executes a rest and free stroke should be the positioning of the hands. The large knuckle joint serves as a guide for positioning the hand. For free stroke the knuckle should be directly above the string being played. For example if the I finger is playing the second string then the knuckle should be directly above the second string. Because of this positioning the I finger will naturally miss the third string without any change in the curve of the finger .Do not move the middle joint so that you miss the string, instead position the hand as stated so that the finger misses the next string. It will miss the next string by a very small amount, .5 to 1cm. 

For rest stroke the positioning is different. The knuckle should be two to three strings behind the sting being played. For example if the I finger plays the first string than the I knuckle should be above the third or fourth string.  The finger will naturally fall into the next string without any assistance from the middle or little joint. Keep in mind that all these “rules” are really guidelines. The position of the knuckle is a good guideline, but due to the individuality of each person’s hands there is always some fine tuning to be done. The over riding principle is that the curve of fingers stays same, move from knuckle joint, and move the finger in towards the palm of the hand and not up and away. 

The Thumb’s Role

The thumb’s role, when not playing, is to stabilize the right hand. There are numerous approaches to thumb placement, some advocate complete stability while others have the thumb follow the fingers. A hybrid approach is also possible. In the hybrid approach the thumb is placed on the sixth string with one exception. When playing on the 5th or 6th string the thumb can be moved to the guitar top. Here it acts as a “seventh” string. When playing with the rest stroke on the 6th string the fingers even come to rest on the thumb, much as they would if there were an additional string.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Keep in mind that the principles outlined here take a lifetime to master. Frequent review of these materials is important. If you are having trouble mastering these skills, concentrate on one concept at a time. If you need to  work on alternating, finger direction, note reading, and rhythm all at the same time you are better off isolating each element. That is why this method has separate sections for technique, reading, and rhythm. Review, review, review. Don’t be afraid to become a beginner again. Go back to the basics time after time and you will get it.

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