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The undeniable advantage of the fingerstyle technique is the direct contact between fingers and strings, which allows you to get much more timbre, emotions and nuance into your playing. | Photo: Patti Black (Unsplash)
The undeniable advantage of the fingerstyle technique is the direct contact between fingers and strings, which allows you to get much more timbre, emotions and nuance into your playing. | Photo: Patti Black (Unsplash)
Dr.Hyenik -

(Un)usual Guitar Techniques #3: Fingers and Picks

The way we make the guitar strings sound is crucial to the timbre and overall expression of the playing. Therefore in today's part of our series on guitar techniques, we look at the possibilities that fingerstyle has to offer, how it can be advantageous over the standard pick technique and at different variations of combining the two, something called "hybrid picking". And you might even learn a little magic.

For many of us, fingerpicking and picking is associated with playing slow pieces on the Spanish guitar around a campfire in summer. Some may have also taken classical guitar lessons (I stopped after three months). But when we take an electric guitar in hand, we usually automatically reach for a pick, as well. Today, let's put a stop to that commonplace habit for a moment...

The pick... or the fingers?

The history of picks goes back as far as the history of stringed instruments – people have always been looking for alternative ways to sound the strings. Then, in the late 19th century, picks began to be made from the shells of sea turtles, as tortoiseshell proved best for the purpose. Incidentally, this is why many picks still have the typical mottled semi-transparent finish even today. Fortunately, this "material", or turtle hunting, has been banned since the 1970s and guitarists have switched to picks made of cellulose and various types of plastic.

While in some genres the pick has become virtually indispensable equipment for guitarists, the development of finger technique in styles such as flamenco and country has continued in parallel. Then it was only a matter of time before some rock and blues guitarists were inspired to put down the pick for solo playing. Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Robbie Krieger and Derek Trucks are among the best-known ones.

Hybrid-powered

Between playing with a pick and fingerstyle, there is still a fairly wide range of combinations of both, together referred to as "hybrid picking". The first thing that pops out of YouTube or Google when you type in this term is probably the picking method, where you play the bass strings with a pick and strum the top three strings with your fingers. This technique is definitely useful to master... First of all, it makes the bass much more audible than classical picking. It also allows you to play bass lines during chord transitions and, more importantly, to go straight from picking to rhythm playing smoothly. But the truth is that it takes a bit of practice, the little finger is a bit clumsy and with more complex flat-picking you're usually happy to get rid of the pick anyway.

However, since we are mainly interested in solo techniques, you might wonder if it is possible to combine flat-picking and finger-playing during a solo. Here I'll let you in on another little secret... It can be done, and it's another impressive way to bring new elements into your solos and expand your expressive possibilities. But first, you need to solve a tricky problem – where to put the pick!? You can find quite a lot of options and tips on the internet, from the fancy "throw it into the audience" through "stick it between your teeth" or "insert it into the gap between the guitar and the pickguard" to various ways of hiding the pick between the fingers of your right hand at a moment's notice and pulling it out again at the right moment, without disturbing the flow of your playing.

My teacher Tomáš Valášek once taught me to move the pick slightly towards you with the index finger, so that you could strum the string with your thumb. The index finger holds the pick on the thumb and the other three fingers can be used to play. The movement is identical to playing with the pick, but you strike the string from above only with your thumb, while the middle finger takes care of the strumming from below. And the pick is always at hand. You can easily insert sharp, slap-like notes in the middle of a solo, or, on the contrary, soft, muted picked passages. The following video shows other frequently used ways to make the pick disappear in the middle of a solo. Which one you choose is up to you. The important thing is that holding the pick does not put any tension in your hand, yet you are sure that the pick will not fall out during the playing.

Close touch

When the struggle with the pick becomes too frustrating, put it away completely and play for a while as you are used to, but without it... In fact, if you haven't tried playing solo with your fingers, I can definitely recommend it. If you're interested in expression and tone colour, you'll be surprised how much difference it makes. The undeniable advantage of the fingerstyle technique is the direct contact between fingers and strings, which allows you to get much more colour, emotions and nuance into your playing. The fingertips are extremely sensitive, and suddenly you can feel that the guitar is coming alive under your hands and responding to the slightest touch. You also have a lot more control over what you hear and how it sounds.

The pick allows you to strike more precisely, and you'll probably do better with fast runs or sharp riffs. But once you want to get what many musicians call "feelin'" into your playing, that is, some kind of special magic, emotion, mood, expression... then playing with your fingers will help a lot. An electric guitar has thinner strings than an acoustic, which we're more used to playing with our fingers. So you can play in a completely subtle way without having to give up energy, punch or a sharp sound. The following recording is a beautiful example of the combination of soft and sharp tones.

For me, the impetus for rediscovering fingerstyle playing was an attempt to record a cover of Jeff Beck's iconic Cos We've Ended As Lovers. It may be a very different moment for you, even if it means the pick falls out of your hand in the middle of a solo. In any case, don't panic at that moment and try to experience the feeling of the music flowing from your head directly, uninterrupted, through your fingers and into the guitar strings.

Tagy un(usual) guitar techniques pick fingers pickless

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Dr.Hyenik Orfanik
A multi-guitarist on an experimental journey towards unconventional sound and style contexts using all kinds of instruments, techniques and obscure tools. . . . According to Whiplash magazine, he is also a musical pervert, a mysterious intellectual with the visage of an overgr…
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