** As featured in issue 4 **
Hi, I'm Giorgio Serci. My aim in this fingerstyle acoustic guitar lesson series is to generate awareness and elucidate a few points about fingerstyle guitar playing and techniques for guitars who are new to the style.
First and foremost, posture! I can see you are stretching right now! While we all know how important it is to have a healthy posture, it is quite easy to overlook this important topic, which can have dramatic repercussions on our technical development and delivery. Playing guitar may not seem to be a strenuous activity, however it can be, as it involves a lot of micro movements, which can strain muscles and tendons. At any level, from beginner to advanced we should regularly assess our body alignment, making sure tension is not being accumulated in our shoulders, neck, wrist, hands etc, as this could cause repetitive strain injuries, like tendonitis for example, or it could simply inhibit our coordination skills, making our playing sound and feel stiff. Have you ever noticed how the most technically advanced guitarists seem to play the most challenging pyrotechnics in an effortless and relaxed manner?
We may then wonder: ‘Is there a perfect posture?’ Nothing is perfect (apart from David Gilmour’s solo on ‘Comfortably Numb’!) simply because sitting down in any position for a long period of time will inevitably strain one muscle or another.
There are different schools of thought on this subject. The classical posture is very good when sitting down and it is, for this reason, the most common amongst classical guitarists. Steel strung acoustic players tend to prefer resting their instrument at the top of their right thigh (some cross-legged), or to use a strap. I found myself using the latter strategy for the following two reasons:
Helps keeping the back straight.
There are fewer discrepancies between the standing-up and the sitting-down position.
Physiotherapists and chiropractors, recommend alternating postures, so that different muscles are equally involved, rather than over-stressing the same ones. However, this is not always practical and finding a comfortable posture and sticking to it has its merits.
The moral of the story is that looking at the leading finger pickers in various music styles, it seems that posture depends on personal, stylistic and aesthetic choices, so long as the back is straight, the neck pointing upwards and the shoulder down and slightly backwards we should be fine! It is also healthy to take regular breaks, gently stretching the muscles used, as well as exercising those underused.
Nails play also an important role in sound generation, contributing in getting a consistent tone quality and volume. Not every finger picker use nails, depending on style, level of ability and guitar type. When used, nails should be the right length and size. Length is subjective, however it is easier to get a good tone if these are not too long or too short. The optimum length can be gauged by placing our fingertip perpendicular to a string and making sure that both the nail and the flesh touch the string, without having to tilt the finger.
It is common for guitarist to mimic their favourite guitarists as to whether they should use nails, pick, thumb-pick etc, but it is definitely worth experimenting with various techniques, nails shapes and types (real, fake etc), as this will help develop a personal tone and touch.
The 10 exercises included in this lesson are designed to improve co-ordination skills between the picking-hand fingers, as well as consistency of tone and attack. Focusing on one hand at the time will enable us to refine our technique more effectively. We will be using open strings, in order not to strain the fretting hand. While executing these exercises, we should listen for consistency of tone, volume and attack. The ‘a’ finger is normally weaker than the ‘i’ and ‘m’ fingers, so we should practice, making sure each finger produces a matching sound.
We often hear: “It's not what we do, but how we do it!” So, how do we get a good and consistent tone? An extensively tested strategy consists of planting our fingers on the strings prior to plucking them.
Each finger should make contact with the chosen string, pressing toward the soundboard and then releasing from the string, preparing the finger for the next note to be played. Notice the difference in tonal colour depending on the amount of pressure, quantity of flesh and nail used and the quality of the release.
It is not uncommon for electric guitarist adventuring the world of acoustic and fingerstyle guitar to be a little impatient and want to play straight away, challenging fingerstyle passages with the same flair in which they can play an electric guitar. For best results, it is essential to spend as much time as needed working on the above mentioned issues. We all learn in different ways and at a different pace, but we can all benefit from focusing on one hand at the time and paying attention to detail. Furthermore, slow practice can prevent us from memorising mistakes and developing bad habits. To this end, we should remember to “never rush the brush!”
In conclusion, fingerstyle guitar is a fantastic technique, which enables guitarists to play polyphonically and polyrhythmically. To conquer this technique we should work on co-ordination skills, posture, nail maintenance, planting, consistency of tone and attack, with focus, patience and most importantly with slow practice.
Hopefully you will find this column useful and it will encourage you to venture into the world of fingerstyle guitar.
Till the next time, Good-bye!