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I want to delve into this subject a bit this month because of some recent personal experiences that opened my ears (and eyes). Specifically, I’ve been reminded how dramatically the tonal landscape changes when you attack the strings with only bare flesh and nails. For starters, your sound is a bit darker when you strike the strings with flesh instead of plastic. And when fingers wander, they have a tendency to direct you to new discoveries.
If you try playing sans pick, you’ll soon find that your fingers become one with a guitar after only a few hours—they don’t require much time to acclimate to their new surroundings. What happens next is really cool. It’s as if you have to play without a pick to experience all the little things that make a huge imprint on your sounds and styles.
We can use Jeff Beck as a prime example of this concept. I believe Beck totally dropped his pick and started using a fingerstyle technique somewhere around ’83 or ’84. (You can do your own detective work by scoping out the many YouTube videos that feature Beck over the years.) This one shift in coaxing sounds from his strings put Beck miles ahead of the game, tonally and otherwise. Playing fingerstyle is most definitely a huge factor in the number of sounds he’s able to coax from his instrument.
If you watch and listen closely to Beck, you’ll notice how he can shift the timbre of each note or phrase. One key is to keep an eye on his pickup switch (again, there are plenty of examples to study on YouTube). Often, he’ll keep it stationary (perhaps on the neck pickup), yet a note will sound mellow one moment and cut sharply the next. He uses his fingertips as an equalizer by striking the string at different points to create a range of tones. Within a split second, he’ll move from decidedly gorgeous tones to sounds chockfull of attitude.
Of course, this also applies to acoustic guitar. Several years ago I had a houseguest, and it wasn’t long before he asked to play one of my guitars. I handed him my nice little Martin 000-16, but something went awry from the first chord he struck. Can you imagine an acoustic guitar naturally distorting due to someone playing it too hard? Yep, this happens all the time. When you touch an instrument the wrong way, be prepared to hear about it instantly.
In this case, the Martin began to choke and sound harsh and muffled as I listened from across the coffee table. I immediately grabbed it from my guest and played it for him the way I knew it liked to be touched. The sound went from a clattering noise to a glorious, full-spectrum tone. The difference was profound, to put it mildly.
What happened was that I’d simply applied the principle of least effort. Sometimes playing hard can sound downright awful. You must locate the kinetic sweet spot on a good instrument before it will reveal its full sonic potential. Part of the mystery and fun of playing a good instrument is finding the touch required to awaken its true voice. But there’s a catch: You have to find this sweet spot by yourself—which is not a bad thing. It’s merely part of the process of making music. Once you get the proper feeling in your picking hand, it will all kick in. Believe me, the rewards are massive.
Lately, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite players seem to like the direct approach of using bare fingers on thee strings. Daniel Lanois is another wonderful example of this—a great producer and greater musician, quite frankly. Lanois pulls out unique and exciting tones from his Les Paul and pedal steel. His new band, Black Dub, is truly amazing, so be sure to check them out.
One last thought: I’ve discovered that playing au natural actually improves the way I play when I use a pick—which is often. That was another aspect of the fingerstyle journey that took me by surprise. The moral of this story? Getting into the rawer down ’n’ dirty basics can yield some beyond-cool sounds. So dig in and find out for yourself.
Dean Farley is chief designer of Snake Oil Brand Strings, and his ideas have had a significant influence on contemporary string design. He is also known as a great source of guitar, amp, and gear lore. For more information, visit snakeoilstrings.com.