Method: Learn the Right-Hand and Thumb Techniques for Napoléon Coste’s ‘Etude No. 23’


Etude No. 23, taken from Op. 38 by Napoléon Coste (1805–1883), is a right-hand study of epic  proportions. This lesson will explore its fine control, thumb dampening, and intervals.

Coste was ahead of his time and one of the few guitarists whose influence stretched from the Classical period into the Modern era. After arriving in Paris around 1830, at the apex of what’s sometimes called the Golden Age of Guitar, he became a student and friend to Fernando Sor and found himself a contemporary of other 19th century guitar masters, such as Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, and Dionisio Aguado, all pioneers of the guitar method.

Sadly, his arrival in Paris coincided with the beginning of the guitar’s decline, as it lost its popular position to the piano. As a result, and due to an injury in 1863, Coste also had a day job as a civil servant. Still, he continued to teach, compose, and publish guitar works. He also surpassed the guitar’s limitations, by favoring seven-string instruments (and harp guitars) with 24 frets, a setup that is increasingly becoming commonplace today.

Op. 38 is a challenging set of graduated studies, each focusing in on a specific skill. In this case, Etude No.23 spotlights right-hand control with thumb independence. The piece was made famous in the early 20th century through Miguel Llobet’s recording of it, which clocks in at 166–180 bpm (turntable speed dependent). Coste’s influence as a teacher is still felt today, through Segovia and his Twenty Sor Studies. It was Coste’s reprint, and fingerings, of Sor’s studies that Segovia utilized to prepare his.

napolean coste classical guitar method

The right hand in this piece is given a  thorough workout—it is 68 bars of unbroken 16th notes; although not really unusual, Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 does this as well. What is unusual is the continuous ostinato bass line, which is to be finely controlled—independently stroke and stop bass strings at will, while playing melody and accompaniment. This dampening is achieved through stopping the bass after a stroke or stopping the string with the side of the thumb, while stroking the next note. Both of these methods require some practice before becoming natural enough to execute alongside all those 16th notes.

The first bar of Micro Study 1 is a simple exercise, the main aim of which is to practice thumb control: stroke-damp-stroke. The piano up-pedal symbol, an asterisk, has been utilized to show the dampening. The goal is to damp consistently after every note, on the rest, and in time. Bar 2 defines a faster tempo and an alternative dampening idea, after the last eighth note; this time with the side of the thumb.

napolean coste classical guitar method micro study 1


Micro Study 2 uses the common open string sets from Etude No. 23 and has three aims. The first is to gain facility with the thumb dampening control while coordinating fingers. Once this is achieved, voice articulation is the next aim, so play all voices/fingers evenly—making sure that the finger that coincides with a bass note is not unconsciously exerting extra pressure and volume. Lastly, aim for fine control of each finger’s volume, so that the melody can be brought out, and accompaniment lowered, when performing. Remember: The dampening mechanism should be in time with the rests—don’t rush them.

napolean coste classical guitar method micro study 2

Etude No. 23 is in A major and appears to be one continuous movement of notes; however it can be partitioned into A B A, with a short coda (bar 58). Section A is marked by the opening melody, bar 3 onwards, while section B begins in the parallel A minor (bar 21). The melodic material is intervallic, the majority of which is 3rds and 6ths. The harmony, although understated, still has some lovely Romantic progressions, such as bars 43–44 where Coste utilizes E major to E diminished; and bars 46–48’s chromatic climbing 6ths back into the A section.

There are some vigorous shifts in Etude No. 23, and Micro Study 3 is intended to practice these. Utilizing 6ths, it addresses some of the shifts in the first section and proposes an alternative fingering, using stretches, to Coste’s.

napolean coste classical guitar method micro study 3

Micro Study 4 is broken into two sections, both aimed at informing and improving LH facility. The first part, Coste’s bar 8, introduces a modern fingering suggestion: the hinge barre, which can be employed in Etude No. 23, bars 25–26 for example. The second part, based on bar 36, is all about fingers 2, 3, and 4, and gaining facility moving around various anchor fingers that are required in the B section. As with all the micro studies, the bass line still needs to be controlled, so strip it out until the LH feels natural, then add in the bass notes, and lastly the RH dampening.

napolean coste classical guitar method micro study 4ab

Op. 38 has remained evergreen in the guitar’s pedagogic repertoire and has been revised and reprinted many times in the early 20th century by such luminaries as Saínz de la Maza and Luise Walker—both brought their knowledge and experience to bear on these challenging pieces. However, keep in mind that Coste also had Op. 38 printed twice during his lifetime, and made amendments between the first print in 1873 and the second in 1880. According to Simon Wynberg, the second print is to be taken as Coste’s accurate version as he revised and corrected Op. 38.

Although Coste is still generally perceived as very demanding for guitarists—and to a certain degree he is—his oeuvre is a treasure trove of fine concert pieces that are underperformed, compared to, say, his friend Sor. Etude No. 23, once learned and pored over, is actually fun to play, not least because it is a challenge. This etude’s renown was such that Barrios was inspired to rearrange it, making it (if possible) even more elaborate, with sextuplets in the melody; he also composed an easy second guitar part for his students. It’s likely he, too, was seduced by its relentless melody and ostinato bass line.

Click here to download a PDF of Rhayn’s complete arrangement of Etude No. 23.

Below is a version of the entire piece played by Finnish guitarist Vesa Teittinen. Do not be discouraged by the speed at which he plays it. It’s often played at a somewhat slower tempo (and it is worth noting that Miguel Llobet’s 1925 recording is actually much faster than this).