Guitar Techniques FAQ

This page features answers to questions asked by practicing guitarists, including tips on strumming, palm muting, thumb position and more. Check out even more lessons on technique on our Featured Topics page.

  • Like just about anything, strumming (and coming up with strumming patterns) can be learned fairly easily. But, and again like just about anything, how good you get will depend on how much effort you put into it. Some people are naturally talented in this area while others will have to work at it.

    Surprisingly, the quickest way to learn how to strum doesn’t even involve touching your guitar. Really. Sit back and listen to some music. Any music will do, but if it just so happens to be a song you’re trying to learn, then more power to you. Now, listen. Hear the beat. Listen to the drums and the bass. Tap your feet with the rhythm. Take whichever hand you strum with, rest it on your thigh and tap out a pattern. Start simply … really simply if you have to. Even if it’s just tapping out every beat or every other beat. Once you have a pattern you like, repeat it until you are happy with your consistency. Are you able to keep up with the other instruments? Does your pattern copy theirs? If not (and it really doesn’t have to), does it add to the overall rhythm? Does it overwhelm the rhythm?

    Here’s a trade secret for strumming. Get a snare drum book. It will teach just about every possible 4/4 pattern there is. Just pick a bar chord and follow the pattern of note. Use a rake and muffle the strings for the rests. Try shifting to different chords during these patterns. Go through the whole book and that should cover just about every rhythm out there. Do each each exercise until you don’t think about it anymore. It should go from a mathematical counting pattern to a feel. Once you feel the rhythm, move on the next exercise.

    For a longer answer see the lesson Keeping Up With The Times.

  • As a rule, the more people you’ve got playing, the less space there is to play around with. And the more people you have playing the same instruments (guitars more than likely) the easier it is for things to get muddy really quickly. The ability to hear and come up with appropriate rhythm parts cannot be passed over lightly.

    And that’s just in playing for the fun of it. If your aspirations involve professional work, whether solo or with a band, then your ability to keep appropriate, interesting and varied rhythms are a must. I should point out here that it’s not only beginners who have trouble figuring out a good strumming pattern. But, bless their hearts, they are the only ones who seem to be willing to admit it.

    We can tackle this difficult problem from many different angles, but let’s go after the easy solution first. You not only have to be able to keep time, but you also have to appreciate why you keep time. Time is what ultimately holds a song together. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been out to see musicians or bands and have noticed that there seems to be a huge perception gap between a “great,” “good” or “okay” act. Sometimes the “good” and “okay” bands actually have better musical talent than the “great” bands but they just don’t come across all that well. More likely than not, it is simply a matter of the group being in sync with each other. Simple things like starting and ending at the same places or giving dynamic changes in tone, volume or rhythm together as a unit have a powerfully positive effect on the audience. The average listener probably won’t be able to tell you that the lead player muffed a note or that the rhythm guitarist played the wrong chord for a brief moment (unless it was really wrong and really loud). But he or she will be able to tell you if the drums, bass and guitar are all playing at different tempos.

    Regardless of your level of ability, you should own a metronome, which is a device that beats time at a pace of your choosing. Like everything else these days, there is no end to the various types you can get. I wouldn’t be surprised to find you could download one from the net. Let me offer one bit of advice, though. Use one that has an audible signal, a click, tick-tock or whatever. A simple flashing light really doesn’t cut it. Just like your eyes do not tell you how something tastes (although they may give you a good idea), they do not measure audible time. Your ears do.

    Coming up with strumming patterns is a “growing pain” that everyone (well, just about everyone) goes through. You can even go through “strummer’s block,” when simply for no reason at all, you just can’t seem to get the hang of a particular song. There are times when I cannot get anything to go right and it’s necessary to take a break and “reboot.” Rhythm is one of those things that some people seem to be born with, but it is also something that you can work on to improve your own abilities.

    Learn more about coming up with interesting rhythm patterns in the article Keeping up With the Times.

  • I really feel that because so much emphasis on teaching the guitar these days (and let’s be fair, those days too) is on the neck end of the instrument, that a lot of the subtleties of playing the guitar are lost. Both hands are equally important and if you truly want to be a good / better / best guitarist, then don’t ignore practicing and developing techniques for your strumming hand.

    It’s an age-old argument. Use a pick or use your fingers? And of course, I’m going to raise the bar and tell you that it’s important to be able to play both ways … with and without a pick.

    Like just about everything else concerning the guitar, there are at least eight million “methods” of finger picking. And there are at least as many ways to use a pick as there are ways to use your fingers. Using different picks allows you to achieve numerous different “effects” with your guitar. Also changing the way you hold or use the pick can have different effects too.

    The of using both fingers and picks can be found in the article Picking Your Poison. Also of incredible importance to your playing hand is a good strumming technique. A good starting lesson on that can be found in Keeping Up With the Times.

  • There seems to be a real conflict of opinion as to whether this thumb should be pressed against the back of the neck or hooked around it with the flat of the thumb on top of the neck. Most books say to press it against the neck, but some say that although this is the proper way many guitarists use the lazy way. Indeed, most rock guitarists have their thumbs hooked around on top of the neck with the span between the fingers gripping the back of it.

    Technically, I use both. Many people think that the thumb should be grabbing or pressing the guitar but the truth, for me anyway, is that the neck of the guitar rests against the thumb. This is a subtle difference but it is important. By not consciously gripping or pressing, my thumb pretty much follows along with the rest of my hand, almost always a mirror to the index finger on the fretboard. By not gripping or pressing, it is free to glide, not only up and down the neck, but also in its position on the back of the neck. This is essential to the way I play because I have small hands and on a thin neck like on most electric guitars, I will “barre” certain chords, say an F chord, by gripping the bass note with my thumb, like this:

    E – 1st fret (index)
    B – 1st fret (index)
    G – 2nd fret (middle)
    D – 3rd fret (pinky)
    A – 3rd fret (ring)
    E – 1st fret (thumb)

    When I play a D chord, I will more often than not grab the 2nd fret of the low E (the F#) with my thumb as well if I want to make a final ringing chord out of it.

    In both these cases I am using my thumb in a “rock” or hooking position in order to get notes that are otherwise awkward for me.

    But frankly, most guitarists grip with their thumbs because they have no choice in the matter, seeing that they often hold their guitars way to low on their body in order to get a good grip. It’s ironic because while it looks cool (I guess) it truly limits their ability to play. They are using the thumb to hang on to the guitar, not using it to play. Do you understand this difference?

    I think that it’s important to understand that your thumb should be more than a prop. It’s a player. It either grabs a note or makes it easier for the other fingers to reach theirs. If you worry about getting the notes first and let the thumb fall where it may, I think you’ll find that, eight times out of ten, it will end up in what you call the classical position. But there will be times when it will be in the rock position too. The thing is to not let the thumb dictate what the rest of the hand can do. And I also think that if you follow this “note first” philosophy, that the question of comfort won’t even enter into the picture. When you leave the thumb to last, it will automatically go for the most comfortable place.

  • In your column entitled Tricks of the Trade, guitar column #22, there is a section in the Knocking on Heaven’s Door fill sequence that I am not sure how to play. It is the third line from the bottom of the sequence (a “knock knock knocking on heaven’s door” bit) and there is a fill that consists of a run of five notes that are two strings apart. ie. The TAB is saying to play the D and the B strings, and not the G string. How would you suggest to do this? And if your suggestion is otherwise, can it be done with a plectrum?

    Concerning this particular riff on Knocking On Heaven’s Door, there are numerous ways of dealing with it. And no, you didn’t miss any earlier lesson on this! First off, I should say that I tend to finger pick a lot so when I wrote it out I hadn’t even thought about using a plectrum.

    But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. A lot of players use a technique known as “flat picking.” This involves holding the plectrum with only your thumb and index finger to play the lower notes while picking the upper notes with your middle and/or ring fingers (I often use both!).

    Another popular technique is “string muting.” Here you would finger the frets in such a manner that you can strum across them all but the middle one is muted. It gives of a slight “thunk” sound but this is usually drowned out by the other sounding strings. Jimi Hendrix was great at this. In this case, you could either mute the G string by lightly placing a finger on it directly or mute it by slightly angling the finger that is fretting the D string. These two methods do require some practice.

    Finally, just to make your day, you could also play this and simply let the G string ring free. Since the song is in G and the chords that would be formed by playing it this way are also compatible for the key, it will sound fine. The open G serves as a drone and the chords around it help create a good tension that will be resolved once you hit the G chord that starts the following measure. This is another technique that I employ a lot, especially with songs in G, C and their relative minors.

  • If you are speaking of natural harmonics, that is when your finger is directly above the fret desired and you are barely touching the string. Immediately after picking that string you come away from the string and it should ring quite a bit higher than normal. This works very well at the five, seven and twelfth fret. Although there are some very high notes at about 2.5 and 1.7.

    If you are talking about artificial harmonics. That is when you strike the string with the picking hand’s thumb as you cross the string when you pick. It is usually done in a downward motion. It will depend on where exactly you are picking above the pick-ups. So try many different areas.

  • If you grip the tip of your pick so that when you strike the string it catches your thumb, you will hear a harmonic generated over the initial note. This is a common technique for lead guitarists and while it sounds great on an electric guitar you can also do this on an acoustic. It simply takes a little more practice.

    You can also do it without a pick. When you strike the string with your finger or thumb, catch your nail on the string. This takes a little more practice, but like most things it’s amazing how easy it seems once you know how to do it.

    Amazingly, harmonics can also be used to tune your guitar. Find out how in the article tuning with harmonics.

  • Playing reggae on guitar, particularly if you’re not overly familiar with it, can seem very daunting. But like just about anything, the more you play around with it, the more it becomes second nature. I recommend starting out with a very basic beat to start out with. It doesn’t even have to be a reggae song, but it should be something you know well and that does not involve a lot of chord changes. The classic Stand By Me works well as do many simple songs.

    Two things to remember: be sparse and clean. Try starting out with this simple rhythm pattern:

    1 + 2 + 3 + 4
    up up up

    You’ll see that you only use upstrokes. Until you get very comfortable with reggae, I find that this technique helps to really concentrate on the rhythm – and it sounds very good, as well. Go lightly on the strings. If you’re using a Strat-style electric guitar, then I would also advise you to use one of the “out of phase” settings (second or fourth position on a five position switch). Keep it relatively clean – more high end than bottom and just a touch of reverb or chorus.

    A couple lessons on Guitar Noise that might help you further are Playing An Old Stand By and I Shot the Sheriff.

  • The best description of a ghost note, is a note that is felt but not heard. You will play the note softer, and without emphasis. The note is usually in-between 2 parentheses. In addition, notes in parentheses could mean optional notes. For instance, if a particular riff is repeated, but sometimes the guitar player throws in some additional notes, those additional notes may be in parentheses. Do keep in mind the use of parentheses for bent notes as well.

    The example below could mean either a ghost note or an optional note. There is no way of telling without a recording. And really in this context, do either and it will sound fine.

    Ghost note

    Another common answer to this question is that “ghost notes” are artificial harmonics. These are harmonics that are generated by picking a string with both your pick and your thumb. This causes the note and a harmonic (an octave above the note) to sound. It can be done on any guitar, electric or acoustic, although most people are familiar with this through the electric. Depending on your tone settings, amp and effects, it can be quite an intense, eerie sound.

    You can learn more about harmonics an other useful trick for your strumming hand in the article Picking Your Poison.

  • There are many causes to fret buzz, though the biggest cause is Action. Raising the action will lower fret buzz. Since fret buzz is just the strings hitting the frets, raising the action – distance between the fret board and the strings – the strings arc of motion won’t hit the strings. High action means harder playability, the string is harder to push down.

    A balance between good playability and no fret buzz can normally be found. It isn’t hard to adjust action, but in some cases it might be better to let a store do it for you. There are many books that cover complete setups for the guitar and are very accurate. Reading one of these and learning to adjust your guitar will help you save money in the end.

    The action is adjusted at the nut and the bridge, not the truss rod – if you’re not sure what this is, it isn’t entirely important. Electric guitars can be easily adjusted in terms of action, both raising and lowering it. However, raising action on acoustics can be a problem since you will need to replace the nut/saddle (the bridge part the strings pass through).

    Besides action, which is the main culprit and should be checked first, you can check out a list of causes. You might want to check with the forum to make sure the diagnosis is correct.

    Though it is highly related to the acoustic guitar, it still partially relates to the electric.

  • String muting is used in TAB like this:

    E--------
    B---3----
    G--------
    D---3----
    A--------
    E--------

    This type of tablature is played a la finger style – finger picking. The three bottom bass strings – E, A, and D – are plucked with the thumb, while the index plucks the G string, the middle finger plucks the B string, and the ring finger plucks the high E string.

    Classical finger style includes a different notation for the fingers, which is indicated below:

    • Pulgar, Stands for Thumb – P
    • Indice, Stands for Index – I
    • Medio, Stands for Middle – M
    • Anular, Stands for Ring – A

    In the above, you would follow the order. The 3rd fret on the D string would be played with the thumb; the D string is one of the three low strings. Then, you would pluck the B string with the middle finger, as all stated above in the first paragraph. If there were an X on the G string, that would signify that you would hit that string as well, with a pick even, but you would not be fretting anything, in fact, you would be muting it. This is string muting.

    To string mute you would simply rest a finger, even a part of another finger, onto the specific string notified. For example the tab…

    E--------
    B---3----
    G---X----
    D---3----
    A--------
    E--------

    Would mean that you would fret the appropriate strings, and for example, if you fretted the strings in the following fashion

    3rd fret on D string fretted by Middle finger

    3rd fret on B string fretted by Ring finger

    You could move your middle finger down to lightly make contact and touch the string, just enough to stop it from ringing out.

    Half the battle to playing technically is not playing anything else but what you want. When trying to stop extra noise on the strings above the pick, use the palm of your picking hand. When you want the strings to be quiet below the pick, use the fingers of the fretting hand that you are not using.

    You can learn more about using using one of these techniques in the article Palm Muting.

  • To what is comfortable with you. A general place to start is to have the strap set so that the back plate of the guitar is level your pelvis. You don’t want the guitar too low or too high. Too high and you’ll be tied up with tension trying to play appropriately, and if it’s too low you’ll have a hard time trying to fret and pluck.

  • Before we dive into the realm of developing speed, let’s dispel a few misconceptions about it. Firstly, speed in and of itself is irrelevant. However, speed used within the context of a good piece of music and with taste is a good thing. The second misconception of speed is covered in the article The Art of Practice. Most people believe that in order to play fast you must practice fast. While you will eventually need to practice fast in order to play fast you need to develop some basic techniques in order to get the tools in order to start working up to your goal. It’s these techniques that need to be developed SLOWLY.

    You need to be able to think while you play. Aaron Shearer, a famous classical guitar pedagogue was an advocate of “aim directed movement”, which is having a clear understanding of where the fingers need to go before you move them there. Aim directed movement can only be accomplished by slow practice.

    The key to fast scales? The key is not only to practice flexing the finger (what the finger actually does to pluck the string) but practice extending the finger as well. From the time we were born our hands have grabbed things, and we have held on to them tight, thus, developing the flexors. It is our lack of strength in the extensors that need the catching up. One of the best ways to develop this is to practice Rasgueados ( Raas-Gee-ah-doe).

    In his book Pumping Nylon Scott Tennant makes a good observation about speed. He notes that when we look at an entire work you notice that the fast parts only last for a measure or two. What answers can one draw from this observation? Some of the answers I have drawn are that while it is helpful to know your scales and play them quickly, it is not necessary to play them at break neck speed for lengthy periods of time. One of the things that can help us develop stamina to hold out during those passages is the daily practice of speed bursts.

    A speed burst is taking a small portion of a scale and playing it ascending then descending with the eighth note as the rhythmic value for each note. Without stopping play the same portion of the scale ascending and descending, this time using the sixteenth note as the rhythmic value for each note. These are very helpful in isolating certain trouble spots in a scale, such as shifts and string crossings.

    There are a lot of articles on Guitar Noise that will help you develop speed. Start by studying the articles Finger Placement and Finger Preparation, The Art of Practice, Scales Warp Factor 10, Speed Bursts and Rasgueados. All of these are aimed at the classical guitarist and focus on the required technique.

  • My advice to you is to do what I did and still do when I get a new guitar – first off, sit down by yourself in a room where you can plug your guitar in and walk a LONG ways off from your amp. Then sit down as far away as you can and experiment. And when I say “experiment” I mean to do so as a scientist would – TAKE NOTES!!! Start with one knob then work the others. Don’t forget to also get up and change the knobs around on your amp as well. It’s important to try out as many permutations as you can. This is going to take time and will undoubtedly be tedious, so perhaps you might also want to only try one set of settings at one sitting (sorry, I really should resist that sort of thing!).

    Once you have an idea of what you’re dealing with, then, some day when you’ve gotten to a gig and everything is set up and you’re just killing time, have someone play your guitar on stage and you go out and listen to it. Give your “stand-in” directions on what knobs to turn. Again, try to listen as much as you can.

    The sad thing is that once you get the whole band going, a lot of the little nuances will be lost in the overall mix. But if you have an idea of what the extremes and middles sound like, then you have a pretty good idea as to what is coming through to the audience.

  • If you have ever shaken hands with a classical guitarist or seen a close up picture of his/her right hand, you will have seen that they have long nails on just the right hand. The nail is 50% responsible for tone, volume, and aids in accuracy and speed.

    If you don’t have long nails better start growing them, or if your natural nails are brittle try using fake nails. The fake nails are a little weird looking but they get the job done. The nail does not have to be very long. When you hold your hand up in front of your face with the palm towards you the tip of the nail should just peek up over the fingertip. Nail shape is very important and there are a lot of different ideas as to what shape works best. I shape my nail to the contour of my finger tip, rounded . It is also important to invest in some 600 grit sandpaper in order to keep the nail nice and smooth and snag free.

    As the nail extends the finger it keeps you from having to reach for every string. This will make finger picking almost effortless after a while. You will get used to long nails. Remember, there is too long as well. Frederick Noad has written about correct finger nails in some of his books.

    For more on finger nails and classical guitar take a look at the article Finger Placement and Finger Preparation.

  • Many teachers start off their younger students with partial chords, using just the first three or four strings. For instance, you can play a G like this: xx0003 and a C like this: xxx010. Another thing that one can do is to use an open tuning (usually G or D). This is especially good if the child it adept at strumming. You can show where to barre the frets (or even use a slide) for your typical three chord song and the two of you can have a blast.

    This is an interesting and we have a more detailed answer at How do I teach guitar to children? plus the article How Young Is Too Young To Learn Guitar.

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