An Interview with Andrew DuBrock

Andrew DuBrock may not be a name you immediately recognize but the chances are likely that if you’ve started learning guitar in the last five to ten years, you’ve probably run across him at one point or another. If you happen to own a copy of Hal Leonard’s Pocket Guitar Chord Dictionary, you’ll see Andrew’s name on the cover. Likewise if have a copy of Rock / Pop Guitar Songs for Dummies or Bon Jovi Guitar Signature Licks or Total Acoustic Guitar, Easy Fingerpicking Guitar or Travis Picking (the latter three of which you can read reviews right here at Guitar Noise). He has also been an editor and writer for both Acoustic Guitar Magazine and Play Guitar! Magazine.

It’s one of those funny twists of life that, for someone who started out as a classical pianist and who also played French horn in symphonies, Andrew is one of the leading lights when it comes to guitar tutorial books, particularly those concerning the art of fingerstyle guitar. We were lucky to get him to answer some questions about learning to play guitar for the readers of Guitar Noise:

GN: Many beginner guitarists tend to look at fingerpicking as a difficult and complex technique. Your methods, especially in your latest book, “Easy Fingerpicking Guitar” are designed to give players simple and attainable goals in fingerpicking, and each step nicely leads to the next. Have you always taught fingerstyle playing in this manner or is it a method you’ve developed over time?

Andrew: It can seem intimidating trying to get multiple fingers working independently of each other, but I think gradually working into it in a step-by-step manner helps give people attainable goals on the way, ultimately making the process less intimidating.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of teaching via books or magazines, and I’ve discovered that it’s imperative to break things down and explain the details so that students have fewer questions. It’s always great to have a teacher to bounce questions off of, but when you choose to learn from a book (by itself, without a teacher), you don’t have someone standing there ready to answer your questions, and I find that a methodical approach (with detailed descriptions) hopefully answers most questions before they arise.

GN: Some guitar players look at fingerpicking and flatpicking as mutually exclusive techniques. Do you feel this is true or do you feel that you can use a lot of the ideas in one style when playing the other?

Andrew: I think they’re both great techniques to learn, and I would encourage people to try playing with a pick as well as playing with their fingers. Not only will playing multiple ways increase your flexibility as a guitarist and musician, but””as you mentioned””each style can help you grow in the other style, as well. And, when you can play in more than one way, you’re able to play more things; some passages are more easily played with a pick, while others are more easily played with your fingers.

Plenty of pickers, like Doc Watson for instance, sound great in either context. Other players bring the techniques together into a hybrid picking style that uses the pick and fingers together. Often used by jazz guitarists, this hybrid picking uses a pick between the thumb and index finger, leaving your middle and ring fingers free to pluck the higher strings. It’s popular among jazz guitarists, but also in other realms. For instance, Celtic guitar wizard John Doyle is an excellent hybrid picker.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to you. I think people should play the way they want to play, whether that’s fingerpicking, flatpicking, hybrid picking, or several different ways.

GN: Can anyone become a fingerstyle guitarist? What advice can you give someone who’s just trying it out for the first time?

Andrew: Most definitely anybody can learn! It may seem intimidating to the first-time to watch each finger moving independently and imagine trying to do that yourself. But when you break down the moves, focus on the fingers individually and gradually put things together, it’s manageable. Even if you haven’t tried fingerpicking before, there are plenty of other activities that use your fingers independently””whether that’s working in the shop, crafting, or typing on your keyboard. So many people already have a head start that they may not realize.

When people are excited to learn something new, they often want to be able to do it now! But it’s important to approach fingerpicking with patience and take it as slowly as you need to””just like any type of playing. Don’t let yourself get frustrated if your fingers don’t pick it up immediately. With steady practice over time, they will. Make sure you’re comfortable with each exercise or example you’re learning before you move on, and make sure you can play it cleanly, too. This may mean that you have to slow the tempo down to a crawl at first, but that way your fingers really learn the motions before you speed it up. If you rush through things, you may “learn” bad habits or mistakes that can be harder to “unlearn” later on.

GN: What sort of habits are beginning fingerpickers bound to make? How do you coach and encourage them through their initial frustrations?

Andrew: One thing that can be difficult is using each finger to pluck the correct string. If you leave your hand hovering over the guitar it can often be hard to pluck the string you want! Using guides can often help here. One way is to plant your pinky on the fretboard just below the first string (the one closest to the floor). Then your other fingers will always be in the same place relative to the strings. Another way is to use the strings themselves as guides, letting any fingers that aren’t playing strings rest on the strings that they’re assigned to. This also helps you dampen unwanted string noise. Once folks are comfortable picking, they won’t always need as many guides, but they can still come in handy!

GN: There’s definitely a lot to keep in mind when taking up fingerpicking! Keeping that in mind, is it possible to try to cram too much into a single practice session?

Andrew: And it’s better to chip away at it by putting in fifteen minutes every day, than to practice two hours every once in a while. There’s only so much you can soak in during a practice session and short but focused practice always helps you assimilate things more quickly than unfocused and irregular marathon sessions. I talk about this a bit on my Homespun video (“The Guitarist’s Personal Practice Trainer”). It’s about developing consistent practice plans, but the main focus is on a series of exercises that will help guitarists increase their left-hand dexterity and flexibility. I play it with a pick, but the exercises can be done with fingers, as well.

GN: Some players worry that one of the biggest traps of fingerstyle is playing the same pattern throughout a song. How does one go about keeping a fingerpicking accompaniment more organic and less robotic?

Andrew: On the flipside, I think people often get carried away trying to throw in too many variations, and then the patterns distract your listener from the song! I think you really don’t have to vary things much to keep an accompaniment interesting; a little bit goes a long way. The key here is to get the minor variations under your fingers, then naturally let them come out when they feel right. This may sound esoteric, but a great way to start is by generally playing one pattern through a verse, then play something a little differently behind the chorus, shifting back to the verse pattern upon its return. Then, if it still sounds monotonous, throw in some minor variations in between the vocal phrases. For instance, you’re playing the same pattern throughout the verse, but after each vocal phrase ends, play a slightly busier pattern (or fill), and then pop back to the original pattern when the next vocal line enters. You want your guitar to support the vocal, not take away from it.

GN: How much time should one spend on the very basics of fingerpicking before attempting simple Travis picking patterns?

Andrew: I wouldn’t set a specific time limit, but I do think it’s good for players to have their thumb, index, and middle fingers be able to pick independently first””that they’re comfortable using these fingers in simple picking patterns. One big difference between simple picking patterns and Travis-type picking is that the thumb generally plays a stronger time-keeping role in Travis patterns””often playing twice as often as it does in simpler patterns. So it’s also a good idea to practice steady bass patterns that use your thumb on every beat playing on just one string. Then your thumb will be halfway there when you try Travis-type patterns, which also often use the thumb on every beat (the difference is that the thumb also alternates between strings).

GN: As you mention in your book, “Travis Picking,” most of the “Travis Picking” we’re familiar with these days is a fairly diluted version of the style Merle Travis actually played. If one wants to get more into that complex fingerstyle, can you recommend some guides or some songs / albums to listen to?

Andrew: It’s always great to go to the source, so anything by Merle Travis (like Strictly Guitar or The Merle Travis Guitar) or Chet Atkins (like Guitar Legend: the RCA Years) would be great to listen to. Plenty of modern day fingerpickers carry the tradition onward, like Tommy Emmanuel, Doyle Dykes, and Merle Travis’ son Thom Bresh.

GN:As a writer, not to mention as an editor for both Acoustic Guitar and Play Guitar! Magazines, you’re constantly looking at ways to bring fresh ideas to basic topics that all guitarists need to know in order to play well. How do you manage to do this? Do you still find yourself learning new ways to do things?

Andrew: Oh, yes, I’m definitely always learning new angles on how to teach (especially via writing). Managing the instructional departments for those magazines meant I was learning a lot about the guitar, as well. I’d assign articles to excellent teachers, and get to learn from them along with the readers. So, I’ve certainly borrowed (or stolen!) plenty of ideas from other players and teachers along the way.
I’m also amazed at how some professional guitarists don’t think they have anything to teach. I interviewed Lindsey Buckingham once, who’s a fabulous fingerpicker, and when he discovered it was an instructional article, he didn’t want to do it because he didn’t think he had anything to teach! Of course, he was wrong, and he played a ton of great examples.
I’ve also learned a ton from transcribing songs, and I highly recommend everyone give it a try. It can take a while to get used to listening to things so intently, but it’s very satisfying to be able to figure out how someone played something on your own. And it’s also a great way to develop your ear.