rhythm grooves

Another aspect of fingerstyle technique: fretting-finger independence.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Develop fretting-finger independence.
• Learn how to anchor one note while moving others around it.
• Polish your picking patterns.
• Explore oblique and contrary motion.

Welcome to the second lesson in our series on building fingerstyle technique. Last month, we explored exercises designed to strengthen the ring finger and include it in a variety of fingerpicking patterns [“Picking on the Ring Finger,”November 2011]. As promised, this month we’ll look at another aspect of fingerstyle technique—one that’s often overlooked when discussing fingerpicking—and that’s fretting-finger independence.

One benefit of fingerstyle technique is that it gives you the ability to simultaneously play multiple lines. This can be as simple as arpeggiating a chord while playing descending or ascending lines, or it can be as involved as juggling phrases that move in opposite directions. Whatever the situation, fingerpicking demands digital dexterity in both hands, and often it’s the fretting hand that actually has the toughest gig.

With that in mind, let’s look at ways to increase independence between the fretting hand fingers in the context of fingerpicking. We’ll dive right in with the Robert Johnson inspired blues turnaround shown in Fig. 1. In measure 1, use your 4th finger to hold the high D as you lower a major sixth chromatically on the 2nd and 4th strings. Your thumb (p), index (i), and middle (m) fingers pluck the 4th, 2nd, and 1st strings, respectively.

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Measure 2 offers the same musical motif, but this time you’re holding A on the 2nd string (use your 4th finger again) and the major sixth descends on strings 3 and 5. That last five-fret stretch (beat 4) can be a bear, so ease into it gently. If you have trouble making the final Dm-to-A move, practice it slowly by itself a few times, and then rewind and try measure 2 in its entirety.

Incidentally, this example illustrates a type of counterpoint called oblique motion, in which one or more lines move against a fixed note or interval. This “anchor-some-notes-while-moving-others” approach gets to the heart of fingerstyle guitar.

We encounter oblique motion again in Fig. 2, but this time, we’re arpeggiating a chord (Dm) above a descending bass line (D–C–B–Bb). There’s more to this slash-chord passage than meets the eye, as you have to shift your fingers around to hold the Dm chord while executing the bass line. Start with the fretting fingering as shown. Then as you sort out the subsequent moves, notice how the 4th finger is the only digit that doesn’t swap places with its mates sometime during this four measure passage. Pluck the bass line with your thumb and use your index finger on the 3rd string, your middle on the 2nd, and ring on the 1st.

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So far, we’ve parked the 4th fretting-hand finger and practiced moving the others around it. In Fig. 3, we flip the process and hold a sustaining bass note while playing a melodic phrase above it. Notice how the bass note changes every two measures, yet the melodic figure repeats. Use the same picking finger assignment as in the previous example.

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FYI: Slash Chords
Sheet music and songbooks often show chord symbols that contain a slash mark. These “slash chords” indicate specific voicings that are crucial to the song or piece, and they occur when a chord’s lowest note is not the root. The chord name is at the left of the slash mark. The second element—to the right of the slash—indicates the lowest tone in the voicing. For example, A/C# specifies an A triad with a C# in the bass. (To a bandmate, you’d say “A over C#.”) Slash chords typically occur when an arranger wants to flag a bass line that moves through a progression.

This passage sounds cool—once you decode all the subtle hammer-ons and pull-offs—but it’s a bear in terms of finger independence, so go slowly. When working out tricky independence exercises, it’s easy to overdo it and strain your finger muscles, and that’s not the goal. Regular, relaxed workouts are the key to better technique. By the way, this repeating passage sounds great through a flanger.

One of the most compelling sounds you can make on a guitar involves contrary motion, in which a melody and bass line move in opposite directions. Though it’s a creative challenge to compose music using contrary motion, it’s very easy to craft exercises to develop this technique. Here’s one: Simply select a scale and simultaneously ascend and descend through it. (This makes a great parlor trick, by the way, when you want to impress your guitar-playing buddies.)

Fig. 4 shows a humble G major scale that simultaneously moves in two directions. Using quarter-notes, the bottom line ascends starting on a low F# (the seventh degree of the G major scale), while the top 16th-note line descends starting on A (the second degree). Ultimately both lines converge on G—the root. Pretty cool, huh? Use your thumb to pluck the quarter-notes and your ring, middle, and index fingers to attack the 16ths.

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You can fret some of Fig. 4’s notes on different strings, so as an experiment, see if you can find an alternative way to play this example. Then for mega bonus points, select another scale and figure out how to ascend and descend through it using a similar picking-hand pattern.

Next month, we’ll continue expanding our fingerstyle chops by dipping into some basic bossa nova rhythms.

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This month we begin a series of lessons that focus on developing fingerstyle chops.

This month we begin a series of lessons that focus on developing fingerstyle chops. Whether you’re comping jazzy harmony, plucking snappy blues riffs, creating harp-like runs by alternating open strings and fretted notes, wailing on slide guitar, frailing modal licks over drone strings, thumping out Travis-style alternating bass, or adding sparkle to your chordal passages with artificial harmonics, having a strong fingerpicking technique opens the door to a world of sounds and textures you simply can’t get using only a flatpick.

In the fingerstyle world, variations in hand position and wrist angle abound, and in this series we’ll look at some of the essential techniques and discuss how they work and when they’re most appropriate. And everything we cover will apply to both acoustic and electric guitar, so you’ll get maximum mileage from your efforts. Ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work? Cool, let’s go!

Many fingerstyle guitarists have created powerful and enduring music using only their picking-hand thumb, index, and middle fingers. This is especially true of steel-string players: Traditional country and folk blues, old-school ragtime, and Travis-style thumbpicking are some examples of genres that rely on a three-finger technique. If you have any doubts as to just how far you can take this approach, just listen to a hot Scruggs-style banjo player, Dobro picker, or pedal-steel guitarist. Typically, they’ll all be using a three-digit attack.

However, classical and flamenco guitarists have always used a four-finger picking technique—thumb, index, middle, and ring—and this allows them to approach the guitar as a miniature orchestra. A four-finger attack is essential to nylon-string Brazilian guitar, as well. Laurindo Almeida, Oscar Castro-Neves, Baden Powell, and Charlie Byrd are among those who merged the supple rhythms and wistful harmonies of Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto with a rigorous classical technique. (For an in-depth look at classical right-hand technique, check out “Classical Nitro,” our interview with Matt Palmer in the October 2011 issue.)

But the four-finger technique has not been the exclusive property of nylon-string players. In an effort to make the steel-string electric sound more like a piano, such fingerstyle jazz-guitar wizards as George Van Eps, Jimmy Wyble, Ted Greene, Lenny Breau, Martin Taylor, and Tuck Andress have all embraced the four-digit approach. And let‘s not forget Chet Atkins: By adding the ring finger to Merle Travis’ steamroller technique, he created an entire genre of “thumbpick” guitar that’s equal parts country, pop, and jazz.

If you want to develop orchestral fingerstyle chops—which you can apply to rock, jazz, country, and blues—it’s essential to gain control of your picking-hand ring finger, the weakling of the bunch. So we’ll begin our odyssey by playing pattern-based arpeggios that include the ring finger and require it to perform alongside its stronger siblings. Fig. 1 shows a simple bluesy figure based on an E7 arpeggio. Don’t freak out over the waves of 16th-notes—just play this passage very slowly and it will sound great.

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You’ll notice p–i–m–a markings in the music. These are abbreviations used by classical guitarists to indicate pickinghand fingering. The letters come from the Spanish words for thumb (pulgar), index (indice), middle (medio), and ring (anular) fingers. When practicing the exercises in this lesson, it’s important to adhere to these notated fingerings.

For variety, develop your own drills using ascending p–i–m–a arpeggios. Keep the fretting-hand part simple and listen carefully to the volume of each note. Strive for an even, ringing sound with a uniform attack on each string.

The next step is to incorporate descending arpeggios into the mix, as in Fig. 2. We also break up the rhythm just a bit, add an alternating bass, and—this is an important move—introduce a squeeze between the thumb and ring finger, which happens on the downbeat of each measure. Again, watch the p–i–m–a markings and also check out the subtle B to D move on the 2nd string in measure 3 (Em7). After several passes through this phrase, craft a few variations of your own, using a similar descending and ascending picking pattern that incorporates a p–a squeeze and an alternating p bass.

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So far, our well-mannered examples have used rhythmic patterns that repeat in every measure. Sometimes fingerpicking is like that—a pattern cycles again and again. But fortunately, music isn’t always that tidy. When rhythms vary, you need to have enough control over your fingers that they’ll respond to your commands. Fig. 3 is designed to break up any predictable patterns, so your fingers can’t fall back on muscle memory to execute each measure. Such “freestyle” fingerpicking takes practice, but can yield big dividends in your music. As with the previous examples, once you’ve got the hang of this, develop similar exercises of your own.

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Now that all four fingers are warmed up, it’s time to tackle a basic tremolo exercise. In Fig. 4, the ring, middle, and index fingers play three notes against each quarter-note thumbstroke. Here we have a descending bass line against the rippling melody, but you can also flip this passage around and ascend on the bass. Try it.

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Next month, we’ll look at another aspect of fingerstyle technique—developing fretting-finger independence. See you then.

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Learning to name the notes on the fretboard is a big deal. The goal is to be able to press any string to any fret and immediately identify the resulting note.

We began tracking progressions on the Circle of Fourths and Fifths in our previous lesson [“Running in Circles,”September 2011]. If you missed that installment of Rhythm & Grooves—or simply want to brush up on the theory behind the cycle chart—take a moment to check it out online at premierguitar.com.

The cycle chart is an invaluable tool: As we saw last time around, it’s our secret weapon for mastering all 12 keys on the guitar. The simple diagram offers us a disciplined and thorough way to map essential progressions in keys we guitarists often avoid—Eb, Db, and Ab, for instance.

But the cycle chart has many other uses, and we’ll look at several of these right now. So you won’t have to move back and forth between this month’s and last month’s lesson, we’ve again included this handy diagram. (But in a new color, just for variety. It looks pretty in pink, doesn’t it?) Okay, let’s get busy.

Learning to name the notes on the fretboard is a big deal. The goal is to be able to press any string to any fret and immediately identify the resulting note. Quick: 5th string, 11th fret is what? Or 3rd string, 8th fret? Or 2nd string, 14th fret? If you can name these pitches, especially without a guitar in your hand, well done. If not, it’s a great skill to acquire because it allows you to communicate with musicians who play other instruments than guitar. A saxophonist won’t know what to make of “play the note on the 3rd string, 10th fret.” Yet “play F” gets the point across. To fluently speak this universal language, however, you need to know where every F is located ... along with each instance of the Western music system’s other 11 notes.

One excellent way to learn all the note names—even those lurking in little-used nooks and crannies of the fretboard—is to play two-octave patterns up and down the fretboard and on various string sets. Fig. 1 illustrates how to use the cycle chart to map out a series of two-octave patterns while moving in fifths around the wheel.

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We begin with C octaves, then take one step clockwise (CW) to G, then another CW step to D, to A, etc. Because the octave pairs alternately ascend and descend, we get a complete workout shifting back and forth across the strings, as well as up and down the fretboard. You’ll notice we’ve added a half-step approach into the last note of each two-octave figure. This chromatic approach tone gives us four beats in each figure and also provides an opportunity to identify yet another note as we play the “name the octaves” game.

For space considerations, Fig. 1 ends halfway around the wheel at F#, but if you’re up for the challenge, move CW completely around the wheel until you return to C. For variety, begin with a descending figure or try launching this exercise from a different note (F, for example) and then cycle CW around the wheel.

Want more variations? You can place the half-step approach tone before the middle octave note or even before the first one. Also, you can move your two-octave pattern counterclockwise (CCW) around the circle in fourths. Practicing different versions of this simple routine will pay huge dividends in terms of learning the notes on the fretboard.

Fig. 2 has us zigzagging CW between major triads (represented by the letters on the outside of the circle) and minor triads (shown inside the circle). In this triad-mapping exercise, we’re playing only eight chords, but if you continue around the wheel until you reach your starting point, you’ll hit 12 chords.

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By staying on one string set—as we’ve done here—you’re forced to move up and down the fretboard as you navigate the wheel. Great, that’s one type of workout. Another excellent option is to restrict yourself to a five-fret location and find the triads on a variety of string sets. Both approaches force you to think about triad inversions, and that’s the point.

Fig. 3 is all about stacking fifths to create quintal harmony—a cool, impressionistic sound. If you scrutinize the notation, you’ll see that each note is located one CW “click” from its predecessor. Play slowly and observe the let ring markings to create three-note quintal voicings: C–G–D, A–E–B, Gb–Db–Ab, and Eb–Bb–F. Once again, you can generate variations by simply starting on a note other than C.

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For a real brainteaser, try Fig. 4. Starting on Bb, we’re moving CCW in fourths, mixing arpeggios (composed of single notes spaced a fourth apart) with four-note quartal clusters and fourth intervals. Whether we’re plucking notes one at a time (as in the arpeggios and intervals) or in a cluster (the half-note voicings), every note is spaced one click away from its immediate neighbors. By the time you’ve reached the end of this exercise, you will have crawled CCW two-and-a-half times around the wheel.

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Compared to typical songs with their keys and diatonic chords, an exercise like this can sound alien. But it’s good to stretch your ears in the privacy of a practice session. (And if you like this edgy sound, be sure to check out these Rhythm & Grooves lessons on premierguitar.com: “Exploring Quartal Harmony,” April 2011; “Crazy Quartal Comping,” May 2011; and “Stealth Quartal Colors,” June 2011.)

If you put your mind to it, there are virtually endless ways to use the cycle chart as a practice tool. For instance, take any scale you know and play it CW or CCW around the wheel. As you work through each scale, name every note out loud. Another idea: Take your favorite blues licks and move them around the wheel. You’ll have to change octaves in the process, but exploring a familiar pattern in a new register is an excellent way to expand your improvisational bag of tricks.

The cycle chart is a demanding mistress—perfect for generating ideas that force you into unfamiliar areas of the fretboard. What are the odds you’d do this on your own? Have fun spinning the wheel!

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