** As featured in issue 55 **
Having shared the stage with rock music icons such as Slash and Ritchie Blackmore, Chris Buck is one of the most exciting young guitar players on the music scene today. With his band Buck & Evans' debut album set for release in 2018, Guitar Interactive Magazine is proud to welcome Chris' brand new column exploring the world of modern rock and blues guitar playing.
It always draws a smile to see the effect that playing without a plectrum can have on other guitarists; the combined confusion and amazement at something that is so incredibly simple. After all, you’re meant to play with a plectrum…right?
I can’t remember what initially made me start using my fingers, but recalling my younger self's proclivity for dropping plectrums, (only for them to disappear into that strange abyss inhabited by pen-lids, picks and pound coins!) it was most likely born out necessity. What I do recall is that after 6 or 7 years of playing pretty much exclusively with a plectrum, it initially felt rather alien. Clumsy and awkward. Hitting strings you didn’t want to; not knowing what to do with my plectrum; which finger to use. And what are you meant to do with your thumb?! After all, all the guitar players that I’d grown up admiring and attempting in some small way to emulate had all been prolific pick proponents; Slash, Stevie Ray, Clapton, Hendrix, Gary Moore…it’s only looking back through the eyes of a finger-and-thumb convert that you notice that most of, if not all of the above have moments where they demonstrate the dexterity to seamlessly alternate between the two.
Once I’d hurdled the initial awkwardness of using something other than a piece of plastic, it very quickly became a rewarding endeavour. Like most of my playing ‘style’, I settled on a rather unorthodox and 'un-taught' way to achieve the sound I was searching for; my thumb and middle finger, in place of the more traditional thumb and index finger. Despite this initially being an effort to overcome a self-inflicted obstacle (my index finger nail snaps like a wet Kit-Kat at the first sign of trouble, following an ill-advised period as a kid where I used it to strum along to my favourite bands; the fast-paced Offspring and Blink 182, just to give some context to the lunacy of the idea…), it provided me with the perfect place to ’store' my plectrum whilst not using it - the crook of my index finger, underneath the knuckle. This serendipitous discovery provided quick access to the pick when needed, while freeing up my thumb, middle and ring finger to act either independently or in a claw-like fashion for a more loose, percussive approach.
In retrospect, the tonal and dynamic capabilities are what surprised me most; as I talk about in the video, there’s a plethora of tonal varieties that suddenly become available, literally at the tip of your fingers. Your fingernail will give an immediacy and attack not dissimilar from that of a heavier plectrum, while the fleshy tip of your finger will allow a much softer, delicate touch, giving an almost vocal-like quality. Maybe I was slow to cotton on, but the combined simplicity and transformative nature of this discovery was mind-blowing and introduced me to a world of players that had realised their fingers’ potential long before myself; Jeff Beck, Lindsey Buckingham, John Mayer, John Martyn, Mark Knopfler and Derek Trucks to name but a few - all great exponents of this technique and all renowned for the inherent dynamics and expressiveness in their playing.
Whether it’s Lindsey's frenetic solo version of Big Love; Derek’s soaring solo on Midnight in Harlem from the Crossroads Festival or Knopfler’s transcendent first notes on Brothers in Arms, it’s the expression in those notes that hit us where it hurts or where we feel it most. Whether or not those solos would have sounded the same with a plectrum is irrelevant; at that moment in time, the subtle expression and dynamic range were the goal and the fingers tips were the conduit.
All that said, I’ll be the last guy to tell you that it’s fingers or nuthin’ - certain sounds are nigh-on impossible to achieve without a pick. How different would have Van Halen’s Panama sounded without a pick? Can you imagine the Bohemian Rhapsody solo without Brian’s trademark six-pence? No. But that’s precisely my point - neither is right and neither is wrong, but to be able to alternate between the two has become an invaluable asset and integral part of my sound. We spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds on amps and pedals that claim to maintain or even enhance our guitar's dynamic capabilities, often having overlooked the most obvious place to start - our first point of contact with our strings. And the best bit? It’s free...