Picking Your Poison

The nicest part of writing this column is getting emails. I must be honest, when I started writing for Guitar Noise, I really didn’t expect to hear from people at all (even though Paul, our esteemed editor, told me that I’d probably need a separate address for my responses). But you do write, and those of you who have written know that I somehow manage to answer each inquiry. I may not always have an answer that you like, but I do answer.

A couple of the more recent letters touched on this week’s subject … picking (and finger picking). As you’re all painfully aware of by now, my first guitar was a twelve-string (Ibanez, if you have to know all the details). What you may or may not have picked up on while reading these columns (no pun intended), is that I play left-handed. Being left-handed, it seemed a fairly natural thing to do (and yes, it was a right-hand guitar that I had to restring).

ASIDE: It wasn’t until years later that I realized this might not have been a smart thing to do. Since my left hand is more “athletic,” for want of a better word (“coordinated” or “trainable” also jump to mind), than my right, it might have been to my advantage to have my left hand on the neck instead of simply strumming the strings. I have since learned that a number of guitarists, most notably Paul Simon and Mark Knopfler, are left-handed people who play right handed. But of course, if it were this simple then all right-handed people would be playing left-handed guitars.

Anyway, the main reason that I wanted to have a twelve-string guitar was so that I could have that wonderful deep and melodic tone when I picked the strings. And I did pick the strings myself. For whatever reason, I really didn’t take to a guitar pick right off. I even tried thumb and finger picks for a while (and boy, try fitting a right-handed thumb pick on your left thumb if you’re ever in the mood for a bit of discomfort…), but I would inevitably return to using my bare hand.

I didn’t have a clue as to how to go about finger picking but I came up with some ideas and, within a few months, something that could pass as a “style.” And, yes, you can be pretentious enough to call it a “style” when you’re seventeen and the biggest part of your “style” involves avidly ignoring the fact that God gave you more digits than just your thumb and index finger. Seriously. I developed into a good (notice I don’t say “great”) finger picker only using two fingers.

The really funny thing about this is that a few years ago I met up with someone I used to play with in college. In the course of catching up I mentioned that I’d been teaching myself classical guitar and that it was great because I had to use all my fingers for a change. He thought about this for a while and then said, “That may be all well and good, but I hope you don’t screw up what you’ve got. I always used to think that you were great with just the two.”

It’s an age-old argument. Use a pick or use your fingers? Two columns ago we discussed the importance of strumming; it’s only natural that we should tackle this topic as well. 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.

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. This week we’ll go over the basics of both methods, cover a “trick” or two and set up some guidelines to help you remember to work on your “other” hand.

Kick Starting Your Fingers

Like just about everything else concerning the guitar, there are at least eight million “methods” of finger picking. Which one is right for you? I haven’t the slightest idea, but I’m willing to bet it’s the eight million and first. Why is this? Well, think about any sport that you know something about. Say golf or baseball. Why does each player swing the club or bat in a different way? After all, if there were one correct way, wouldn’t everybody be doing it and therefore making the talent level pretty even? But people are different. What may work for one person could be disastrous for another. Even though there are fairly universal guidelines (keep your eye on the ball, maintain an even stance, balancing your weight between both legs, etc), the individual player has to refine those guidelines so that he or she is able to get his or her best possible performance.

It’s the same thing with the guitar. Some people have naturally longer hands, thinner fingers, quicker wrists, whatever. It occurs to me that a person’s “style” is simply the way a person is able to showcase what talents she or he may have while minimizing her or his shortcomings. And everybody has strong points as well as shortcomings, trust me.

Now, although I refuse to espouse the “Hodge” method of finger picking, I can give you some tips on getting started on developing your own. And guess what? Yes, it involves starting out simply and working your way to handling harder things through practice. Surprise!

To start finger picking, it’s best to simply choose a chord and work out a pattern. This is not as easy as it sounds (no pun intended). Why? Well, different chords use a different number of strings. On some chords you will strum all six strings, but on others only five or even four. So I suggest taking one chord of each. Let’s try G, C and D.

Three chords

Here’s a rule of thumb (okay, pun intended this time): I tend to use my thumb on the three lower (bass, if you prefer) strings (the 4th, 5th and 6th). I will then use my fingers in whatever manner feels most comfortable on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings. If you’re just trying this for the first time (and even if you’re not) I would highly recommend trying to do the following:

Finger placement

If it’s way too awkward or uncomfortable, just use your index finger in place of the ring and middle finger or a combination of the index and middle finger to replace the ring finger. The important thing is to try to get them all involved if possible. And believe me, it’s a lot easier to start out right than to try to rework your thinking at a later date.

I almost always start with either the lowest string (of the chord) or a “pluck,” which is using my thumb and another finger (again, for me, usually the index) at the same time. To get acclimated, try an incredibly easy pattern: play a G major chord, down with the thumb on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings and then up with the fingers on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

G pattern 1

If you’re not used to this, it is surprising how difficult it seems at first. Once you get the hang of it, though, it can become second nature. When you feel comfortable with this exercise, move on to alternating between your thumb and fingers:

G pattern 2

Remember to take it as slowly as you feel necessary. You will get faster almost automatically as you get a better feel for what you’re doing. Now let’s try the C chord. Here’s an alternating pattern you might try:

C pattern 1

You might now want to try alternating between the G and C chord. If you’re like me and would prefer to ease in with a bit easier chord change, then try the C major 7th which still gives you an open B string:

C pattern 2

There. That wasn’t so bad was it? When you’ve adjusted to alternating your fingers, it really is amazing how quickly you get used to it. It’s a simple step to add suspended chords or ninths or sixths in order to come up with interesting sounding patterns. Let’s use the D chord for this example (be sure to note that we’re striking the E and D string simultaneously to start and again for the third thumb stroke):

D chord pattern

One of the strange things about finger picking is that even though most people start out with the same basics, much as we just did, they tend to end up with very personal styles. Again, maybe this is just due to the way each person is able to use her or his hands, I don’t know. It’s just another one of those things that makes meeting and playing with other musicians so much fun.

“But, David, I play the electric guitar. I have to use a pick!”

Believe it or not, there are a number of guitarists who never use a pick, regardless of whether they play acoustic or electric. Lindsay Buckingham and the aforementioned Mr. Knopfler are probably in the “better known” section of this group. Here in Chicago, you have only to step into some of the old blues clubs to watch the past masters at work. And those of you who are into “tapping” will certainly admit to the advantages of having a free hand.

Picking Up Where We Left Off

If there really are eight million methods of finger picking then I don’t even want to guess how many “pick” picking styles there might be. But there are a few things that are important to go over … for the seasoned player as well as the neophyte.

Normally, I tend to hold a pick as I would a pencil. I’m not sure why, but this is the most comfortable feel for me. And comfort is key. As long as you’re able to get a clean hit off the strings without knocking the pick out of your hand and halfway across the room, fine. But try to have a relaxed grip on the pick. So many people hold their picks in a death-lock, I call almost hear the poor things screaming in agony.

And when I say “normally,” that’s what I mean. One of the great things about picks is that, like guitarists, they come in all sorts. Whenever I go to a music store, I try to buy another pick: a different brand, a different thickness, a different material, a different size. Sometimes I “˜m willing to settle for just a different color. This is an easy way to experiment with your sound that is just as easily overlooked. I lean towards medium gauge nylon picks myself, but if I know I want to do one of those Pete Townsend style string scrapes, then I’ll use the thickest plastic pick in my collection for that particular song. If a song has a lot of quick strumming, then I’m more than likely to use a slightly thinner nylon to get more of a bounce on my upstroke. I’ve been known to use dimes as picks for an edgy (no pun intended) (really) solo. They have a harsh sound that’s very distinct.

I should say that I know guitarists who are happy to use one type of pick and others who will use whatever happens to be lying around. And that’s perfectly fine. But, like finger picking, if there were only one “right” pick why would there be so many choices. They’re usually a quarter apiece. Have some fun.

Not only do I change picks according to the song or style I happen to be playing, I’ll occasionally change how I hold the pick in order to get a different sound. Tapping the strings, especially the higher frets on the 1st and 2nd strings with the edge of the pick (held perpendicular to the strings) yields a nice ghostly sound. On an acoustic guitar, it’s almost like one of those early 70’s ARP synthesizers. And on an electric you obviously will get a much wider range of sounds depending on the tones settings and whatever other effects you throw in for good measure.

And then there’s artificial harmonics. 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.

One last thing I’d like to touch on is your strumming hand. Many people play for years and never realize how many “effects” are at their disposal by simply using their strumming hand. If you rest your hand lightly against the strings (down by the bridge/saddle of your guitar) while you strum, you get a deep staccato sound which is particularly effective on the 4th, 5th and 6th strings. Play an A minor chord like this and your brain will automatically say “Neil Young.” If you use this dampening technique to pick individual notes you will have a pizzicato effect, much like violin strings when they are plucked instead of bowed.

I guess if there’s anything at all I want you to get out of this column it is the fact that it takes two hands to play the guitar and each hand is equally important. Take time to experiment what you can do with your strumming hand. You’ll surprise yourself with what you find. Make certain that your practices include exercises to keep both hands happy and alert.

As always, please feel free to write with any questions, comments, corrections and requests. Email me directly or drop a note in at the Guitar Forums. There is no end to the help available to guitarists these days and it’s up to you to take full advantage of it, starting right here at Guitar Noise.