Once you start forming these habits, you’ll find they transfer equally well to other kinds of lead lines. Try playing Ex. 5 with just your thumb and index finger, relying on pull-offs to fill in any gaps. Pentatonic or blues scale shapes make good material to practice with, so get inspired and experiment. The more you work with these approaches, the more natural they’ll feel. Before long, you’ll find yourself able to adapt similar approaches and patterns to virtually any musical context.
Expanding thumb and index patterns to include three fingers—thumb, index, and middle—opens up even more doors. Cascading open-string runs now become contenders, using the middle (or ring) finger for faster and cleaner runs (Ex. 6). Consider the skips between the strings and notice how the middle finger is introduced at the skip from the 4th up to the 2nd string, forming the new alternating pattern of thumb, middle, index. The physical distance between strings makes it natural to switch over to thumb followed by middle when you encounter skips of a string or more.
Laying Back and Going for Tone
Once you have solid techniques in place, the reality is you won’t always need them. Like the adage “learn all your scales so you can forget them,” once it becomes natural to play rhythm and lead lines sans pick, there will come a point where the decision becomes all about sound. I was fortunate to have grown up watching Vince Gill’s guitar technique develop up close, which was around the time he stopped using picks altogether for the bulk of his Strat playing. I quickly began to see that throwing down the pick is not only useful for fine-tuning your touch on the guitar, which in turn can improve picking skills, but it also influences your phrasing.
Ex. 7 is an example of a lyrical line that isn’t so fast you need an alternating flatpick to get the job done. The tone is in the hands, so take some time to listen to the sound of each finger. The thumb’s meatiness has a certain quality unto itself, as does the clarity of the index, and the underside of the middle and ring fingers. Use these to your advantage when going for tone.
Plucked with three fingers, fairly standard minor pentatonic shapes, such as the phrase that begins Ex. 8, take on new sonic life with obvious nods to Knopfler. Using the thumb, index, and middle to roll across the phrase is practical, since all three fingers are conveniently there to articulate each adjacent string, and adding some fret-hand muting in measure two adds a percussive element to the figure. As with the previous example, which finger you use and the point of contact you choose will greatly affect the sound. I find that using the meat of my middle finger yields a larger, throatier tone with an accentuated midrange that can really help sustaining notes ring out and sing.
Turning Up and Getting Back to Basics
Just because the pick is gone does not mean the volume needs to be lower or without the aggression and rudeness you’d find with an overdriven or fuzzed-out part with a pick. Actually, there may even be an increase in the upper partials and harmonics excited by the attack of fingertip on string which lends itself particularly well to both blues and rock styles. Many of the all-time great blues players were no strangers to using the tips of their fingers. Hubert Sumlin from Howlin’ Wolf’s band springs to mind, and Jeff Beck might as well be from another planet.
The same principles we’ve covered so far apply to playing fingerstyle with high gain. Ex. 9 features the thumb/index pattern once again, but this time we focus on the bass strings over a 12-bar blues progression with a “Peter Gunn” straight-eighths rock feel.
Continuing to make use of low-end power with a bit of fuzz, Ex. 10 transitions into a power-chord run in measure three, while mixing hammer-ons and pull-offs with right-hand articulation. Keep the bass ringing under the standard E pentatonic blues-rock licks on top.
Sometimes the meat of the thumb itself is enough. Although Wes Montgomery may be the most well-known player to have put his stamp on this technique, Albert King also springs to mind. Ex. 11 explores the sound of working with such a limited but effective approach. The technique’s inherent limitations also fit neatly with any admirable goal to play melodic, soulful lines, and arguably no one did better than Albert King in this regard. To experience the power of the thumb, listen to Live Wire/Blues Power and many of the other classic King records.