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As a beginning cellist, it struck me that non-fretted instruments seem to have a much greater focus on shifting mechanics than fretted. With fretted instruments, it seems to my novice eye that shifting may not even be discussed much until the person becomes advanced, if then. One is simply expected to move their hand from point A to point B and there's not much discussion of the technique to doing so.

On a non-fretted instrument however, we place a lot of emphasis on the technique of the shift. We prepare for a shift, we cast (or throw) a shift, we take great pains to ensure that our fingers always remain in contact with the string and that they're just barely touching. Etc, etc.

Is my perception incorrect? Does a beginning guitar or electric bass instructor spend a great deal of time working with their student on shifts? If not, any opinions on why it appears easier on fretted instruments?

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4 Answers 4

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There are two reasons why we need to be so careful about shifting technique: the first applies to all fretless instruments, the second is quite specific to cello or at least to strings.

First. This is quite obvious: after shifting, we need not just be somewhere in range of the correct frets, but exactly at the right position. There is no way to find this position just by eye (which is quite sufficient at the guitar) without ruining the first notes in the new position with ugly trial-and-error pitch corrections. Instead, we need to "burn" the paths needed to go into our brain cells, and that's only possible by having a very well-defined technique so that the shifts are actually reproducable.
This aspect is most important on higher-register instruments. But even on fretless electric bass, it's quite necessary to be capable of doing the shifts "by heart", though you have position marks or even fret-lines.

Second. Shifts are a very important tool in particular on the cello. Not only do we simply need to change positions unusually often (due to the long scale combined with the fifths-tuning, and the large used tonal range), they also provide a very expressive effect. That is when we don't simply stop one motif that was played in, say, the first position, pause, shift to fourth pos., and start another motif there, but play a continuous melody line through multiple positions, especially if it's legato. This seems, if you think about it, a physically impossible task: you need to be at one position, play a note that's sustained until the next note starts. But this note is in another position, for which to go to you have had zero time!
To still be able to play legato over shifts, these need to be an integral part of the melody rather than a seperate process. A badly played shift will sound horrible in this context, but one with well-developed technique can not only fit subtly into any melody but does, when varied accordingly to retain a just-right amount of tonal imperfectness, also provide an essential contribution to what makes the cello such an incredibly expressive instrument.

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On a fretted instrument shifting is much easier for a beginner as they don't need to be that accurate- as long as they are close behind the fret the note will be in tune.

Also, on a guitar you wouldn't want your fingers touching the string (except behind the fret) unless you were damping the note.

Having said that, a more experienced player will spend lots of time practicing moves and shifts as it does make a difference to tone and clarity, it's just not a core focus in the same way.

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I would even say that the lack of emphasis on such shifting, and the find-as-you go attitude probably contributes a large part to that thing we call style. –  horatio Sep 8 '11 at 14:05

Another factor is that the guitar is tuned in fourths, while the cello is tuned in fifths, and the guitar has six strings, while the cello has four. Shifts are a bit difference because of the different distances that need to be covered to go horizontally across the strings to reach different intervals. The other factor is that on the guitar (depending on the design) the neck joins the body at the 12th, 14th, 16th position, or even higher with some electric guitars. So guitarists are not concerned with playing in left-hand "thumb position" because they can keep their thumb around the back of the neck for higher notes. The cello fingerboard is suspended high above the top of the body, at a sharp angle, whereas on the guitar, the upper range of the fingerboard is in solid contact with the top of the body and very close to it, with almost zero angle. Because of the design of acoustic and classical guitars, guitarists rarely ever play the highest notes on the fingerboard because they are inconvenient to reach with conventional technique.

In short, the differences are because the two instruments are tuned differently, strung differently, and designed and built differently.

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Extending on leftaroundabout's second point, the more prepared you are to make a shift the better shift you will make and thus you will more often avoid the pitfalls mentioned. Being prepared mentally for the shift (through practice, knowledge of the piece you're playing, etc) allows you to set your hand and arm up to actually perform the shift. While maintaining everything about the motif you're currently playing you must:

  • Know the target position on the neck of the instrument
  • Know the hand position you need to achieve from the shift
  • Put your hand and fingers in a position that will bridge your current position to that of the target position
  • Prepare your arm to get your hand up or down the neck

Details of the mechanics that support that process vary between instruments but general mechanics apply to both instruments (and strings in general) and are vital to successful shift:

  • Correct finger position
  • Proper angle(s) of your arm
  • The way you are holding your instrument
  • Balance

In addition to physical body mechanics you also need to consider proper maintenance of your instrument, especially in terms of action height. That is, the height of your strings above the fingerboard / fretboard. The higher the strings the harder it is to press down and make a solid tone, and thus the harder it is to make a successful shift. Body tension in the instrument will greatly affect action height. Many guitars have a tension rod in the neck that will help you to (carefully!) adjust the instrument's body tension. Bridge height is something you can adjust on a cello. Proper humidity control will help maintain a more consistent body tension.

Being off in any of the above lessens your chance for achieving the perfect shift.

Fretless instruments are certainly a bit more forgiving than others in terms of intonation. Given the lesser expense and greater popularity of guitars I think someone is much more likely to pick up a guitar on their own than they are a cello or other classical stringed instrument. As such they will not be as likely to enlist a teacher until they are more advanced, and unfortunately more founded in improper technique. A quality string teacher will teach shift mechanics from the beginning, regardless of the instrument in question. It may be disguised as one of the items in my second bullet list, but all of them together contribute to proper shift technique.

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