a guitarist's occasional blog
I'll keep this one short. I had a student who was having a little bit of trouble crossing strings with his pick. I think a lot of people get comfortable playing on one string and then have a clumsy time trying to get their pick over to play a note on a different string.
As a singer/songwriter, precision isn't always my top priority. At times, I'm guilty of using my guitar almost more like a drum (think like Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen) when I'm pounding out a song accompaniment. But over the past few years I have begun flatpicking more fiddle tunes, and I found my own picking skills lacking.
I created this short flatpicking guitar exercise for my student and for myself. The key is to go slowly and steadily, and to play without making any mistakes. Use a metronome. The goal is pick control and accuracy. Playing sloppily at a fast tempo is - quite frankly - a waste of time.
Practice this with downstrokes, upstrokes, and alternate (down/up) pick strokes. All three ways will benefit your technique. After you've got it at a decent tempo, go find some music to Led Zeppelin's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" to work on. This exercise will have served you well.
In the first guitar lesson I shared, we looked at how to begin creating fingerstyle patterns using an alternating bass played by the thumb. With this lesson we take it a bit further by adding a melody on top of the bass. If you are a singer, you might just sing the melody. But not everybody wants to sing.
If you download the free pdf "Aunt Rhody for Solo Fingerstyle Guitar" lesson, you'll find two pages of music. This arrangement is based on a short recording I included on my Dancing With No Shoes On children's music album.
The first eight bars spell the simple melody of Aunt Rhody. There are a number of ways to use your fingers to pick this, but don't pick with your thumb since it will eventually be needed to play the alternating bass. Even using just your index finger to pluck the strings should get the job done. A lot of the great blues players relied on only a thumb-plus-one-finger technique. Classical guitarists will often alternate between two or even three fingers to play a melody. Don't be afraid to experiment.
The next eight bars on the first page show you the alternating bass pattern. This is similiar to what we did in the first lesson. Practice playing these notes with just the thumb. Strive for a steady rhythm. Use a metronome, and don't get caught up in trying to play too fast. Speed comes with practice. Steady tempo is more important right now. Take it slow.
Finally, page two shows you how to put it together. Notice that your fingers will be plucking the melody notes at the same time your thumb is playing bass notes. Some people refer to this as pinching the strings because your thumb plucks downward while your finger strikes the string upward. Try not to have your fingers bump into each other. To see an example of how to do that, check out some videos of Chris Smither - one of my absolute favorite players - on YOUTUBE. Chris uses a thumbpick, and his hand is in a good position to keep his thumb out of the way of his fingers. I don't play with a thumbpick and manage to accomplish the same thing.
Whether you use a thumbpick or not is up to you. You'll probably get more volume at first with a thumbpick, but you'll also need to keep track of it. My preference is to keep things simple. I don't want to feel like I can't play if I can't find my thumpick. There are advantages and disadvantages to either choice. I've never seen a classical guitarist use one. Guitarist Mark Hanson has a nice article on the subject: Whether or Not to Use a Thumbpick.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this lesson helps you move forward on playing some fingerstyle guitar.
When I was a teenager, one of my favorite musicians was Dan Fogelberg. In particular, I admired his song "The Leader of the Band" with its gentle, rolling acoustic guitar accompaniment. As a beginning guitarist, I aspired to play like that. I didn't have the internet resources available today, and I eventually managed to teach myself a reasonable approximation of the tune that allowed me to sing the song around campfires and with friends.
Years later, I discover that there was a method to Fogelberg's accompaniment that has been embraced in folk and country music for generations. The basic component is a steady beat played by the thumb on the bass strings of the guitar. Guitarists refer to this as an alternating bass, and the resulting style is also sometimes (and somewhat inaccurately) referred to as Travis-picking after the legendary guitarist Merle Travis.
The lesson I use begins with a simple open C chord. (See the first line of the attached pdf lesson.) The student will hold the C chord and then practice plucking an alternating bass pattern on the A (5th) and D (4th) strings. Back and forth. We take it slow. Building muscle memory is the goal, and rushing the tempo is counterproductive. Using a metronome is a good idea! Notice that the thumb plucks the fifth string on beats one and three, and on beats two and four the thumb always plays the fourth string. The goal is that the thumb will begin doing this on autopilot.
Once the thumb is feeling solid, it's time to add fingers. Again, there is no hurry. I start by having the student add a plucked note on the and of the second beat. (See the second line of the attached pdf.) We use the index finger to pluck the third string here. It comes after the thumb plucks the D string on beat two. Often students will try to play an extra beat here, so it sometimes takes time to work on the difference between quarter notes and eighth notes. I often play the second line while they just play the first line so they can hear how the note fits in between the beats.
After the student is comfortable with that, we'll add the middle finger on the second string on the and of beat three. Once they've got that, we return to the index finger plucking the third string on the and of beat four.
The back page of the free pdf lesson works through the same process with an open G chord. The goal for the student should be to begin applying these patterns to all of the chords they know. Am chords are a good follow-up to the C because you pluck all the same strings, and Em works just like G.
I try to emphasize with my students that all four lines demonstrate patterns that are useful. Experienced players will mix and match while they are accompanying themselves. Once the student has these patterns on autopilot they can begin applying them to songs. That's when it gets fun!
A good example of this style of accompaniment is Lindsey Buckingham's accompaniment on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide". The alternating bass approach is also at the foundation of Mississippi John Hurt's playing, and his playing influenced much of the folk music guitarists have played over the past five decades.
Enjoy the music!
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo