|Need to shake things up? Take some time to learn the three essential techniques that you need to have in your fingerstyle arsenal.
Once in a while someone will ask me, in total innocence, “What’s your favorite fingerpicking pattern?” I don’t handle this one with much grace, and I’m afraid to say that I usually raise one eyebrow and say something like, “Picking pattern?”
The truth is, I play whatever string needs to be played with whatever finger happens to be available, without limiting myself to any sort of “pattern.” Patterns are great when you’re learning – in fact, they’re essential – but once you get to a certain point in your progression as a musician, you either stick with the patterns you’ve learned or you break free and leap ahead.
At any given time, I serve as the bass player, the rhythm player, the lead player or the percussionist, and it’s often two or three of those things at once. Although I don’t stick to any organized patterns, there are some consistent techniques that I use to create a full and active sound. This month we’ll take a look at three of the most common, versatile patterns, but you ultimately have to sit down with your guitar and experiment.
Remember, you can know a million scales and every chord there is, but if your right hand is weak, you’re never going to develop as a player. I made this point to a friend of mine by sharing a guitar once. He was playing the left hand while I played the right. He said, “I’m playing the same chords I always play, but this guitar has never sounded like this. It’s all about the right hand, isn’t it?” Absolutely.
Before we get started, a brief note about fingernails: you gotta have them. Yes, it looks funny to have long, beautifully sculpted nails on the right hand and short-clipped nails on the left, but get over it and wear them proudly – it’s a badge of serious coolness. The different practices and theories about how to get the best nails are too numerous to explore here, but if there is interest in a future column covering nail care and feeding, post a comment and I’ll happily dig in.
This technique is indispensable and effectively has two parts. First, curve the right hand into a claw shape so your fingers line up with three strings – I tend to use D-G-B as my anchor and the high E string as an accent. This allows you to play those three strings all at once or “roll” them in rapid succession for more of an arpeggio effect. Much of the time I’ll play the D and the B strings, and then move up to the G and E strings as an accent, using the index and ring fingers together. The thumb remains completely independent during all of this; its primary job is to keep a bass groove going. If you’re used to anchoring your right hand with your pinkie on the bridge, this will be a struggle at first – you can’t anchor your hand with this technique.
The second part of this technique is where it gets really advanced and opens up a million possibilities. I literally stumbled onto this technique sitting on my mom and dad’s front steps one afternoon in the summer of 1986. With your hand in the claw shape, you can strike the strings like a hammer – if you’re familiar with “clawhammer” banjo playing, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You can pluck or strike with any finger, and since your thumb is completely independent (this is where it gets cool), you can keep a bass line going and use the top of the guitar like a drum, striking it with either the thumb or the heel of the hand. Once you loosen up and get past the initial mind melt, it all falls into place, and your playing will get far, far richer.
We’re playing this in standard tuning in the key of D. Play a Bm7 chord, but don’t barre it – just play it as a “grab” chord. With your index and ring fingers play the D and B strings, then the G and E strings while your thumb plays the root at the second fret of the fifth string. Then, without lifting a finger, play an Em7+9 by playing the root note on the open sixth string, and do the same alternating pattern with your index and ring fingers.
Here we combine the claw technique with the hammer. This is in a DADGAD tuning, in the key of D. It’s tricky, but once you get the hang of this you’ll be able to do anything. Start by getting your hand into the claw shape; with the heel of your hand, gently but firmly hit the top of the guitar just over the soundhole. Come down with your whole arm – gently, but use a little leverage – with the same sort of motion you’d use to dribble a basketball. It’s almost a little bounce. Do this on the 2 and 4 beats, then add in some strings – strike them like a little hammer with the back of your nails. Next, pluck on the “and” before the 2 and the 4; pluck the D string, then hammer the A string – think “and-2 (rest) and-4 (rest) and-2 (rest) and-4.” The “H” in the tab indicates the hammer motion.
The Windmill or Weed-Whacker
I use this technique pretty sparingly, but it remains one of those guitar-slinger essentials. It comes from flamenco playing and involves the use of all four fingers to strum back and forth very quickly. Start with the pinkie and flail downwards, following right along with the ring, middle and index fingers. Then, strum back up in the same order, like you’re opening and closing a fist. Do this over and over. Note that you’ll need to have some serious nails to do this properly.
You have to be especially mindful about time with this one. It’s way too easy to speed up, so when you’re learning this technique use a metronome to get the hang of how long it takes to go down and up. Think of it like doing “the wave” – practice one cycle per beat at first, then experiment and see how fluid you can get. I use this as an accent or to really kick in some serious drive.
This is an extremely important, and deceptively simple, technique. There’s only one rule here: keep your thumb moving on the bass string, no matter what. You’re going to be playing either “1-2-3-4” or “and-1, and-2, and-3, and-4” for a deeper Delta-style sound. The other fingers will play riffs, lead lines, rhythm or accents, but the thumb never stops. It may seem easy, but to do it right takes enormous concentration. You will find yourself switching between anchored and unanchored playing constantly, depending on where your fingers need to be.
I’m going to adapt a little phrase from Catfish Keith’s version of the old Jessie Mae Hemphill tune, “Eagle Bird” for this example (recorded on Twist It Babe
). Instead of the harmonics, just play it straight. Keep the thumb going through all the melodic changes and play it real slow. Use the “and- 1, and-2” on the bass when you can.
These are probably the three most essential techniques you can add to your right hand arsenal. Experiment. Get your hands dirty. Make an unholy racket. I like practicing in short bursts when I’m trying to learn something like this – 15 to 20 minutes at a time, two or three times a day. That way you don’t get too frustrated and you don’t end up practicing something wrong for hours at a time – you can stop and come back to it, and soon enough it’ll just be effortlessly there.