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Sam Bell Acoustic 101: Part 1

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 66 **

I've made my living as an electric guitarist; however, there have been times that I have been hired to play acoustic. There's a lot to learn from playing acoustic guitar as an electric guitarist. Just because it has six strings and looks similar doesn't mean it's the same instrument! Over the next few lessons, I am going to be going through the basics of approaching acoustic guitar, these lessons can be translated directly to the electric guitar as well. The acoustic guitar is, of course, an acoustic Instrument; there are lots of subtle ways of playing the acoustic guitar that change the overall sound. Keeping these lessons in mind when playing electric can expand our tonal capabilities on our stringed instruments!

In this first part, I want to discuss pick-hand control. Like we've discovered on the electric guitar in this rhythm column, there's a lot we can do with our picking that can affect the tone, dynamic, texture and Rhythm of any given guitar part.

Pick Type:

First of all, the pick you use really affects how the acoustic guitar Sounds. For most Strumming and single-note playing, a thinner pick is often the go-to solution. With a thinner pick, the edge glides past the strings much more smoothly. The thinness of the pick will also bring out an upper mid-range to the attack of the string. Thicker picks give more of a rounded sound; however, they can get caught up a lot easier and can be scratchier sounding overall. With a thinner pick, tortex or nylon, there are many ways to manipulate where you strum and how you strum to get a broader range of sounds, as I'll explain in the following headings.


Often the argument against thinner picks is that it's not possible to get 'louder sounds. There's a little truth to this; however, it's all about the way in which you pick through the string. The pick tip being parallel with the string will produce a rounder, more 'flappy' sounding attack, the pick tip edged at a 45-degree angle with add more 'slice' to the sound (upper mid-range/treble) and also produce a quicker sounding attack. Using more pick tip and letting the pick hand' fall through' the strings will add more volume, resonance and size to the string. Using less pick tip and a lighter touch will make the note sound thinner and more delicate. All these are desirable. However, it's worth being aware of this, so you have more control over how the strumming/single note lines really sound! Brute force isn't always the best way to go when trying to attain 'louder' and simple changes to pick angle can make massive changes!


The final point I want to make, which may be pretty obvious, but combined with the above ideas, will garner even more varied and musical results. Where you pick on the string (combined with different pick dynamics) will make a HUGE change in the sound. If you want a hollower, thicker sound, picking above the fretboard helps. If you really want to let a part' jingle' picking towards the bridge will add more treble. Picking 12 frets above a fretted note will produce a very mellow round tone.


Applying these concepts to chord sequences or single-note lines you already know is the best way of 'learning' these techniques. Eventually, it will become second nature in your playing. It's also worth analysing other players and listening for these subtle things in their playing as well. This is a great way of getting these sounds and concepts into your musical 'muscle' memory.

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