Five Fingers

By Colin Cooper

Strictly speaking, the thumb is not a finger. It is a digit, one of the five, but different in that it moves in an opposite direction to the four fingers, enabling the hand to perform acts that other animals cannot. For the purpose of this article, the phrase “five fingers” will be used, expressing as it does the whole handful: four fingers and a thumb. Here is Turibio Santos, talking to Andy Summers: “It was at a house in Paris. Segovia was playing to a small group, and Tomas Teran, his friend the pianist, brought Villa-Lobos to present to Segovia, and said, ‘Have you met Villa-Lobos, the composer from Brazil?’ Segovia replied, ‘Yes. Miguel Llobet showed me one valse that he did. He doesn’t understand the guitar very well because he asks you to make a very big stretch with the fingers of the left hand, and he asks you to put the small finger to make chords with five notes.’”

Villa-Lobos had taught himself to play the guitar as a child—secretly, because his mother, who thought him destined for greater things, had denied him access to the piano. It did not occur to him not to use the little finger of his right hand when he had to pluck five strings. It must have been a surprise to him when he discovered that virtually all the word’s classical guitarists used only four of their right hand’s five digits. Ricardo Iznaola has been interested in the possible use of the fifth finger for many years. Two pieces—“Two Circus Vignettes”— by him appear in Charles Postlewate’s Contemporary Anthology of Solo Guitar Music for Five Fingers of the Right Hand (Mel Bay); they are entirely original and conceived for five fingers. And In Appendix B of Iznaola’s book Kitharologus: The Path to Virtuosity, the author “provides some pointers for extending the technique presented in the book to the five finger approach.”

villa lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos

The idea of incorporating the fifth finger into guitar technique is not new. Dionisio Aguado is known to have advocated it, and is said to have written some studies for it. And Domingo Prat, who studied with Miguel Llobet and taught Maria Luisa Anido, wrote a technical booklet, which Iznaola studied in his youth and which incorporates the fifth finger in scales and arpeggios. Villa-Lobos is also known for having used the technique. Ricardo Iznaola told me that he finds the most creative use of the little finger in the arrangements of Kazuhito Yamashita (“that immense talent”), and other players use it from time to time in particular instances, such as artificial harmonics and rasgueados. Iznaola himself has used it sporadically for certain chordal textures, apart from the occasional rasgueado. He does not, however, consider himself to be a specialist, despite his contributions to Charles Postlewate’s Contemporary Anthology. He said: “When asked by Postlewate to write some pieces, I had as my main purpose to write music that would be almost impossible to play except than by the use of the five fingers. Of the two pieces I contributed, the first fully follows this premise: it is not possible without the little finger. The second may be played with four fingers, but it would be very awkward. However, I was stumped to finish the request [four pieces had been asked for] because there are very few textures on the guitar, in my experience, that could not be accomplished with four fingers. Of course, the obvious one is a five-finger tremolo, apart from five and six-voice chords.”

As to whether there is going to come a day when the fifth finger becomes an indispensable weapon in the guitarist’s arsenal, Ricardo certainly thinks that it “provides some alternatives that, with proper training, can open the door to the imagination of composers and players to find novel, artistically attractive textures and sonorities.” However, he argues, unless composers find a truly innovative and rich content that makes the use of the fifth finger indispensable, why bother? This surely makes sense. History shows that an instrumental technique is developed to meet the demands of the composer, not the reverse. You do not develop a technique and then look for someone to compose music for it. One thinks of Beethoven’s reply to a violinist who complained that his part in a late string quartet was unplayable on the violin: “What do I care for your damned fiddle?” Once violinists realized that the music was worth playing, they set about extending their techniques. I suspect that, notwithstanding the enthusiasm, dedication, and sheer hard work of pioneers like Charles Postlewate, it will not be until some really unmissable music appears that positively requires the fifth finger, that the guitar world will begin the serious work of regarding the smallest finger as a digit of equal importance. After all, keyboard players soon managed to use their thumbs when music of the caliber of J.S. Bach’s appeared on the scene.

Wolf Moser is another who became intrigued by the possibilities. He found it difficult to create true independence between the ring finger and the fifth finger (there are physiological reasons for this): “They just wouldn’t come apart. I had played all my life with my ring finger going the same way as the little finger.” Having decided that fifth finger technique was something worth learning, he devised exercises that included holding down the first three fingers on the table and then pulling down the little finger—though always mindful of the damage that Schumann did to his hands through applying exterior force instead of encouraging his fingers to develop independent strength.

“I think it’s actually a good thing to use the fifth finger,” Moser says. “Why shouldn’t we use this 20 per cent? Why only 80 per cent of the fingers? Once you get it going, it’s more agile than the ring finger.” It is only long use that gives the impression that the fourth (ring) finger is stronger than the fifth. A close look at any competent pianist will demonstrate how important this tiniest digit is to their techniques; string players, too, including harpists.

The leading pioneer of the fifth finger in contemporary guitar is Postlewate. His three-part, five-finger series, “Extending Right Hand Technique to Include the Little Finger” was published in Soundboard in its Spring, Summer, and Fall issues in 2002, with a follow-up interview in two issues later in 2003. Classical Guitar published them in the March, April, and May issues 2004.

I leave the summing up to Ricardo Iznaola: “Now we consider the four-finger approach necessary, but is it sufficient? Are we now at a similar moment in guitar technical development as at the end of the 18th century, when the p-i-m technique became enriched by increasingly frequent incursions of the pesky “a” finger, until it became part of the technical norm? One thing I would bet on: whatever is possible becomes a reality sooner or later”.

(This article was originally published in the May 2010 issue of Classical Guitar.)