Rest Stroke and Free Stroke Revisited
Published: 1990 Author: Ricardo Iznaola
[The items in this list are linked not to new pages but to points further down the present page]
- Physiomechanical Overview
- Role of Upper Limb in Digital Action
- The Strokes and their Pimary Functions
THIS ARTICLE is, by necessity, an incomplete view of a specific area in right-hand technique, mainly digital behaviour, based on biomechanical principles derived from the premise of economy of means. (An exhaustive treatment of this and other aspects of guitar performance will be attempted in the author’s Summa Kitharologica: a treatise on the art of classical guitar playing, now in preparation.)
I. Physiomechanical Overview
The following discussion deals with the nature and role of the two types of right-hand strokes: the so-called rest and free strokes.
a. Muscular sense: active and passive resources
Implicit in all that follows is the conviction that the goal of good technical training is the achievement of prowess without injury, technical longevity without senility. Achieving these goals is possible only through an understanding of the physiological mechanism of the playing system and through the development of muscular sense.
The playing mechanism is a system of connected levers conditioned by the same physical requirements as any other ‘machine’ but made up of neuromuscular skeletal elements that respond to training and can only achieve maximum performance levels through training.
The key to proper training is the capability to feel and identify the myriad sensations produced by the activities of the playing mechanism, which are ‘read’ by the bio-feedback circuits of our sensory-motor system: the proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses. This, in simple terms, is what is understood as muscular sense.
In specific terms, muscular sense has to do with the sensations related to the exertion of effort; in particular:
- Differentiating effort from weight sensations
- Identifying source and amount of effort
- Identifying duration of effort
Since all movement requires energy for its realisation and the basis of all well-coordinated motion is maximum effectiveness with minimum waste of resources (energy), it is clear that only through muscular sense will we be able to control the expenditure of energy by allowing us to distinguish between muscular contraction and gravitational pull—or, more generally, active and passive resources. Active resources are associated with sensations of effort, tension, lift. Passive resources, with weight, release, falling. Good technique maximises the use of passive resources without loss of effectiveness.
The single most important cause of technical dysfunction is the maintenance, without release, of anti-gravitational effort in the playing mechanism. It is equivalent to breathing without exhaling. Less frequent, though not rare by any means and equally detrimental, is the lack of sufficient effort, which produces dead weight. Between the extremes of rigidity and collapse, the golden mean is poise, a concept first introduced into pedagogical literature by the British teacher, Tobias Matthay, in his writings on piano playing published at the beginning of the century. Poise identifies the attitude of alertness and readiness for action of a movable anatomical element that is free from sensations of weight or effort. In terms of joint mobility, it is equivalent to mid-range. It is an attitude, not a position. It is the physiological norm from which we depart, towards more active or passive attitudes, and to which we return in accordance with the requirements imposed by the music we are playing.
Developing a keenly refined muscular sense for poise is one of the key issues in technical training. Without it our control of active and passive resources will be impaired.
There are several anatomical parts of our body which are naturally poised: the head; the lower jaw. When we are awake, our head is kept vertical by the tonus of the neck muscles, which, unbeknown to us and without our feeling any effort whatsoever, overcome the pull of gravity. Likewise the muscles that keep our mouth closed. This is why, when we sleep and our musculature relaxes completely, our jaw falls open, our head falls to our chest. The fact that, under normal circumstances, we do not feel effort in those muscles of the neck and head is because the tension produced by their tonic contraction is totally functional; it is no more, nor less, than needed to overcome gravity. We do not feel effort. What we feel is that those elements float, as if weightless. This ‘floating’ sensation is characteristic of all properly poised elements and, more generally, of properly applied functional tension if certain conditions pertaining to the attitude of the joints articulating those elements are met.
c. Joint movement and alignment
Poise cannot exist if the joints of a particular anatomical element are hyperextended or hyperflexed. In either case the joints are outside their mid-range of movement, a circumstance that requires continued exertion of substantial muscular effort. Since mid-range is a precondition for correct joint alignment, this also suffers and the appearance of the limb will be excessively angular or straight. But these visual signs are meaningless, or even misleading, if the inner attitude of the limb and its accompanying sensations are disregarded. Poise, mid-range, alignment are the consequences of the perfect balance between passive and active resources. This balance has to be felt, rather than seen only. The visual appearance of alignment may be achieved in a limb that, nonetheless, is exerting excessive muscular effort. This will cause dysfunctional tension unless ‘resolved’ (released) through motion. That is why it is erroneous to speak of an ‘aligned position’ of the playing mechanism, instead of an attitude. The former implies fixity, permanence, rigidity; the latter, mobility, change, flexibility.
A great deal of damage has been caused by the traditional pedagogical insistence on position to describe and explain the limbs’ relationship with the body of the instrument, including the assumption that alignment, mid-range, even poise, are permanent conditions of the playing limb. Nothing farther from the truth: playing is, essentially, continuous motion and, therefore, continuous changes in limb attitude. The issue is whether the motion is well-coordinated or uncoordinated. And coordination results through the proper use of passive and active resources.
The norm for controlling these changes and knowing where to go and how to get there is the attitude of poise.
II. Role of Upper Limb in Digital Action
a. Arm Leverage
Gravity being an inescapable, perennial presence in our lives, it is to our advantage to recognise and utilise its pull when embarking in motor activity. In terms of technique this is what we have called passive resources. The contradictory approaches among players and teachers to right hand technique arise from a lack of awareness, across the board, about the importance of this factor.
A case in point is that of arm leverage. The connection between the demeanour of the limb on the instrument and finger activity, though recognised, is treated in casual and superficial ways, if at all, in traditional methodology.
Forearm leverage is defined by the point of contact chosen for support when placing it on the instrument. That point of contact is the fulcrum of a lever of which the upper arm, or the shoulder, acts as the force and the pull of gravity is the load or resistance.
The point of application upon which gravity exercises its pull (the centre of gravity) is located just below the elbow. If the fulcrum (point of contact with instrument) is located ahead of the centre of gravity, towards the wrist, the arm mechanism acts as a class II lever (wheelbarrow: load between fulcrum and force).
If left passively to respond to the pull of gravity, the arm will fall on the elbow side and the forearm and hand will fly away from the strings. To approach the strings with the fingers, the shoulder has to involve its muscles actively to lift the upper arm, an action that, through the fixed flexion of the elbow joint, approximates the forearm and, therefore, the hand to the strings. In summary, a short forearm leverage using a point of support mid-way between elbow and wrist uses active resources to approach strings, passive resources to get away from strings.
When, on the other hand, the fulcrum is close to the elbow joint, approximately coinciding with the centre of gravity, arm mechanism acts as a class III lever (drawbridge).The resistance is no longer placed at the elbow joint, whose centre of gravity is now neutralised, and the new load is the weight of the forearm and hand. If left to respond to the pull of gravity, forearm and hand will fall down towards strings. That is to say, the approach to the string is the result of passive resources, while getting away from strings will be the effect of active resources (essentially, the action of the forearm flexors located in the upper arm). A long forearm leverage using a point of support near the elbow joint acts in exactly opposite fashion to that of the short forearm approach.
b. Wrist Bend
After the forearm has been placed over the instrument, especially if long leverage is used, the wrist will passively respond to the pull of gravity by flexing. At the same time that hand will follow rotation of the forearm and pronate (fall towards the thumb side).
This attitude of a totally relaxed wrist and hand results in a collapsed position which is dysfunctional. Passive resources are not balanced by the appropriate exertion of muscular activity and, therefore, poise is not achieved. The latter occurs quite naturally, however, if finger attitude on string is changed from the almost sideways contact produced by the collapsed approach to one in which finger touches string slightly to the left of its central axis. This adaptation is sufficient to balance the pull of gravity on hand and wrist and to produce a poised attitude devoid of sensations of weight or effort. The wrist still flexes and the hand pronates, but both are well within the territory of the mid-range of movement. The attitude of the limb is organically aligned, and it is maintained passively by finger/string contact (planting: see below).
This attitude should not be confused with the forced bend of the wrist produced by muscular activity that extends the wrist and abducts (turns outwards) and supinates (rotates towards pinky-side) the hand. The finger contact with the strings is perpendicular or even falls on the right of centre with this approach. This attitude becomes dysfunctional because of the excessive static tension necessary to keep the extension–abduction of wrist and hand.
Also requiring excessive muscular work is the maintenance of a straight wrist (extension), which also involves a degree of anti-pronatory effort (supination) of the forearm. This attitude occurs frequently in the course of playing, in which case and providing it is utilised functionally, it does not produce problems. However, when it is understood as a fixed positional approach to right hand technique, it is the cause of a dysfunctional accumulation of static tension.
Two things should be remembered in considering the issue of organic, functional technique:
- the visual appearance of the limb is a useful tool in recognising dysfunctions, but only to the expert eye: for instance, the approaches described above in which the wrist is bent might look similar to the casual observer, when in fact they are, physiologically speaking, radically opposite procedures;
- the most important cause of technical problems in instrumental playing is the exertion of continued, unreleased effort in opposition to the gravitational pull.
c. Planting and Preparation
In terms of string contact, the organic consequence of an arm attitude achieved by passive means will be totally different when the arm leverage is of the drawbridge variety (class III lever) than when it is of the wheelbarrow variety (class II lever).
The first produces planting. In the latter, planting is not possible.
Please note that a distinction should be made between planting and preparation. While all planting is preparatory not all preparation (establishing finger/string contact previous to stroke) is planting. Planting, by definition, is achieved by passive resources. Preparation may be actively achieved. In other words, planting is passive preparation.
When the leverage of the arm on the instrument is a class II (wheelbarrow; short forearm) type, all preparation is active.
It would be a mistake to associate planting with total weight projection or ‘relaxation’ of the arm. Dead weight makes playing impossible. 
On the contrary, the sensations of good planting are close to those already described when discussing ‘poise’ and the bend of the wrist: ‘floating’, lightness produced by the perfect balance between passive and active means.
d. Rest stroke: planting, weight release · Free stroke: non-planting, weight lift
If planting is the natural, passive consequence of a long forearm approach, non-planting (i.e. separation from strings) necessitates active muscular involvement.
In essence, this describes the nature of rest and free stroke for a class III lever forearm: the rest stroke allows for the uninterrupted weight release, or planting, of the limb by keeping finger contact with strings after stroke.
The free stroke, in which finger contact with the strings ends with the stroke, requires muscular exertion in the upper arm to keep the weight of the forearm lifted.
For these reasons, the rest stroke could justifiably be called weight-released stroke and the free stroke, weight-lifted or weight-suspended stroke, if forearm leverage belongs to the drawbridge type.
If the leverage becomes a class II wheelbarrow type, the nature of the strokes changes radically: weight release now acts against the approach to the strings, producing a ‘hovering’ attitude of the forearm that favours the free stroke. In contrast, since planting or passive preparation is impossible with this attitude, the rest stroke becomes an effortful stroke through which the natural tendency of the arm to fall away from the strings, on the elbow, has to be actively opposed. The rest stroke becomes, then, an emphatic, accent producing stroke. Most didactic works in use nowadays adopt this description of the rest stroke, misleading as it is.
III. The Strokes and their Primary Functions
a. String positioning and its influence in use of strokes
Before discussing actual digital behaviour in the execution of rest and free strokes a brief explanation of the concept of right-hand string positioning is necessary.
String positioning identifies the situation of the right hand in relation to the six-string vertical span and is defined by the combination of two factors:
- Degree of finger flexion/extension
- Distance between string placement of thumb and its wrist joint, and between wrist and the other finger placements. As in the left hand, right-hand positionings can be normal, extended or contracted. As we shall see presently, string positioning and stroke type are intimately related 
The more flexed a finger is, the easier it is to use free stroke. The more it is extended, the easier the rest stroke becomes (note that this refers to normal extension and flexion, and not to hyperflexed or hyperextended states). This is so because the string offers less resistance to the diagonal attack of the extended finger, which may thus slide through to the adjacent string, than to the more perpendicular attack of the flexed finger, which hooks the string.
The attitude of the tip joint is fundamental in this context: if it is not allowed to extend, the finger will not be able to slide through in the rest stroke and the stroke will be emphatic because of the added effort needed to overcome the string’s resistance. In the free stroke, on the contrary, the flexion of the tip joint occurs naturally with the flexion of the other two joints, and makes possible the hook-like, diagonal approach of the finger to the string that culminates in the finger’s follow-through towards the palm of the hand. Were it to remain extended, it would make the attack perpendicular to the string,thus producing greatly increased opposition to the stroke and, hence, necessitating more effort to overcome it.
Though these approaches may be of importance in providing a variety of technical tools for aesthetic expression, they should not be taken as norms of reference when defining the organic nature of the right hand strokes, but as exceptional deviations from those norms.
It should be easy to understand how string positioning conditions the use of one or another type of stroke: as fingers extend from the position defined by the thumb, the rest stroke becomes more natural. As they curl closer to the thumb, they ‘prefer’ the free stroke.
b. Thumb strokes
The thumb behaves in accordance with the same principles described above, although its peculiar anatomical configuration makes it somewhat difficult to realise it.
The flexion of the thumb is the motion that brings it towards the fingers, in opposition to their flexion. It is the motion used to close the hand.
The extension separates the thumb from the other fingers, also in opposition to their extension. It is the motion used to open the hand.
As is the case with the fingers the thumb flexion favours the free stroke, the extension, the rest stroke.
c. Essential technical role of rest and free stroke
When defining the primary functions of the strokes, traditional methodology has overlooked some of the physiomechanical facts discussed here and, therefore, has tended to treat the strokes as purely musical means of dynamic and tone colour differentiation.
Although there is no denying the fact that there are musical characteristics unique to each type of stroke, the primary functions of the stroke types are technical. The choice of a particular type of stroke is, first and foremost, the natural consequence of the unavoidable relationship existing between forearm weight distribution, string positioning and finger flexion/extension. The rest stroke is the natural stroke for arm weight release and extended fingers and positions. The free stroke is the natural stroke for arm weight lift, flexed fingers and contracted positions. The musical personality of each type of stroke is to be taken into consideration only within the context of organic technique: the efficient use of resources.
But, in reality, there is no conflict of interest between technique and musicianship. The dilemma is an artificial one created by the fact that guitar didactics (despite formidable progress since Pujol) have ignored or forgotten the role of passive resources in good technique and, gradually, have come to accept, even recommend, once again the old right-hand approach of Aguado, Sor, and Giuliani—shorter forearm leverage, with a point of support midway into the forearm, which essentially favours weight-lift and free stroke. It also produces, as we have seen, more emphatic, muscularly hyperactive rest strokes.
This approach explains the musical understanding of this stroke type as an accent-producing heavy stroke and its virtual elimination, on stylistic grounds, from the catalogue of technical procedures acceptable in the interpretation of old music.
In fact, as has been shown, the rest stroke can be dynamically and colouristically as ethereal and translucent as any free stroke, when arm mechanics are well understood and functionally applied. And given the fact that finger flexion is the active and extension is the passive, the releasing movement, a physiological distinction that is of great importance in teaching finger stroke, the rest stroke produced by the long leverage of the forearm is a releaser of the tension accumulated by the use of free strokes.
None of this would really be important were it not for the sad fact of the substantial number of students and professional players suffering from injuries and dysfunctions of the playing mechanism.
In the vast majority of cases, this unnecessary drama is the product of inorganic technique caused by the improper use of passive and active resources. The fact that there are a number of first-rate artists using technical procedures which could be classified as inorganic, apparently without prejudice, just testifies to the fact that individual idiosyncrasies and talents, physical or otherwise, may give some the luxury of deviating from the natural norms to extremes that would prove fatal or irreparably damaging to others. This capability, in fact, is what we call ‘genius’.
But the purpose of professional pedagogy is the discovery of universally valid norms of reference that will guide the design of sound methodology. When these norms are substituted by idiosyncratic whim, no matter how successful in a particular case, we are at risk of ending on a path contra natura and achieving at best premature obsolescence, more frequently, pain and frustration.
In arts as well as in politics, but especially in teaching, there is no way of escaping the truth best expressed by the great Francis Bacon:
‘Nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.’
- It is important to note that organic, natural alignment is always slightly curvilinear.[back]
- This, incidentally, is the anatomo-physiological leverage of the arm, as well as most other articulations of the body. [back]
- This condition tends to occur, for instance, when the fulcrum of forearm leverage is placed beyond the elbow joint, in the upper arm. [back]
- The topic of right-hand string positioning is a fundamental one in the author’s approach to performance and pedagogy. Unfortunately, a fuller discussion falls outside the scope of this article. [back]
- Because of the flexion in the other two finger joints. [back]
- Otto Ortmann, The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1929). [back]
© 1990 by Ricardo Iznaola
I have been told there are two types of rest stroke. Non-collapsing, and collapsing at the first joint. Does this refer to the first joint from the finger tip? If so, is this 'bending outwards' of the joint a bad technique to adopt in the long run?
– Colin Bache, November 28, 2004
As usual in matters of technique, the goals (musical or technical) determine the approach, and the approach is defined by the physiological process required for its execution. In the case of the collapsed tip joint (by the way, this is also possible in free stroke), the so-called deep flexor of the finger, which articulates this joint, relaxes and only the superficial flexor (that flexes the middle joint) is active. In rest stroke, this is the natural way the finger behaves, but it may be purposefully opposed by physical effort. In the free stroke, on the contrary, the "normal" way is for both joints to flex, since the design of the tendonal attachments of these two flexor muscles makes them behave in tandem when the finger is flexed as in the free stroke. However, the tip joint may also be made to relax by exerting the finger on the string in such a way that pressure inward (towards the board) initiates the stroke motion.
The physiological mechanisms of one and the other type of stroke are too complex to describe here. Suffice it to say that the flexed tip joint makes the flexion motion of the finger begin at the middle joint, while in the extended tipjoint type, the big knuckle joint starts the movement by exerting pressure inward before the middle joint completes the stroke. Both are valid tools of the trade and should be mastered. What would be "wrong" about one or the other is using either in a blind and unthinking way because someone else told us that the alternative is wrong!
– Ricardo Iznaola, November 29, 2004
How much to explain to a student, and how many approaches to introduce, very much depends on the level of the student. In his article Rethinking Pedagogy, elsewhere on this site, Richard Provost makes a similar point: '[When teaching beginners,] it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach the most appropriate technique to the individual student, not to allow the student to decide. The teacher must present only the information needed by this student to establish his basic technical foundation. In addition, this information should be given strictly on a need-to-know basis.' As the bases of technique become established, an artistic performance starts to depend on the mastery of all kinds of strokes and attitudes in the fingers, hand and arm.
On this view, Professor Iznaola and I agree that it is best to teach a beginner to allow the tip joint to relax for rest stroke, and to flex for the free stroke. This difference allows one to minimise the difference in hand positions between the two kinds of stroke. However, I should mention that Richard Wright makes a persuasive case for allowing the tip joint to relax in free stroke, too, when teaching beginners (not at later stages) – especially children, who sometimes want to adopt a very tense right-hand position, and have a lot of difficulty in making the whole finger move in one direction (i.e. flexing the base joint of the finger) when playing free strokes.
At a more advanced stage of playing, the amount of flexibility in the tip joint is a wonderful variable to play with in all kinds of stroke.
– Jonathan Leathwood, November 29, 2004