Saturday, March 05, 2005

Some Thoughts on Fingerstyle Guitar

I started playing clarinet in the fourth grade. My Mom played piano. So I was trained to be a very melodic based person. Most guitarist playing is chordal based unless the musicians are classically trained. I was never content with just strumming chords. And I never had the opportunity to study classical guitar. I was able to take courses on music theory and composition while I was in school. But I digress.

In band situations, from the 1920's to the present, the guitar was generally used to provide a sense of moving the rhythm to the proper key of a song. It was a traditional rhythm instrument along with the percussion section. However for me, playing the guitar is melodic based. Even when playing the guitar to accompany singing, I feel that the accompaniment needs to be melodic.

When I was playing and singing in Christian coffeehouses and churches, I met Mike Wilshire. Mike had been a player a well known local band before he became a Christian. He was an excellent fingerstyle player. He used his thumb and all of his fingers on his right hand to pick the strings. I emulated his style. Later on I learned that this was a version of Travis picking. In Travis picking (attributed to Merle Travis) the player picks alternate 1 and 5 notes on the bass strings with the thumb while picking either a melody or a repetitive pattern on the top four individual strings. In the style that I learned from Mike, I essentially do the same thing with my thumb and 1st finger. Playing a repetitive pattern was fine for vocal accompaniment, but I strived to learn to be more of a melodic player.

Many years later I was watching one of the few TV videos that were made of A Prairie Home Companion. Chet Atkins was featured on that show and played his rendition of the Don Maclean song "Vincent". I made up my mind that I would learn that song. I had made a video tape of that show and recorded the audio portion. It took a while to study Chet's fingering, but I determined that he was using an alternate tuning of G,D,G,D,B,E. I though this was ingenious. The top four strings were used in normal tuning and the bottom two lent the bass accompaniment. The only drawback was that you could only play in the key of G. My eleven-year-old daughter had signed up for Saturday art classes at a college in Dayton, Ohio. I took her there at 8:30 A.M. and the classes ended at 12:30 P.M.. So I had four hours and the drive was too long to go back home. So I brought my guitar and tape recorder and headed to the local park. I relearned the guitar. That's where I taught myself to play Vincent. From that tuning I was able to arrange a number of other songs.

Recently I've gone back to concentrate on traditional tuning and worked out some new versions of old songs. The one drawback to concentrating on fingerstyle (in Kentucky it's called thumb style) picking, is that it is now difficult for me to use a flat pick. I've solved that by using my first finger as a pick.

There are a lot of resources on the web to find out more information on thumb or fingerstyle guitar playing.

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