Monday 25 January 2010

Right Hand...more than likely part 1...

One of my 3 readers, Rich, inspired me to write about the right hand.  It's a good call, because as far as the left hand goes, there isn't a lot of difference between a fingerpicker and a wailing one-note-at-a-time lead guitar shredder, but the difference between right hands is chalk compared with the proverbial cheese.  Each fingerpicker will have his own take on the right hand, I'll try to stay open minded, but I only have one opinion, my own ;)

First up, you need to have accuracy.  I was nearly going to say stability there, but accuracy doesn't have to come from stability everytime .  Somewhere in our brains there is a 3D spacial awareness of self, and we have to tap deeply into that for all forms of guitaring.  There are a couple of shortcuts - for example you can stare at your right hand.  You can put your pinky on the soundboard.  You can rest fingers on strings not in use.  You can just have your arm resting on the guitar.

Each of these things creates a relative hand-to-string position and your brain can calculate the offset of what it is requested to do next.  For example, consider a flat picker, he's just downstroked the G string, his next move is an upstroke is the B string. His brain controls the amount of movement, learned from experience, to perform the task. Do it enough and you'll never miss.  It's only a short move afterall!  It is possible to move to any string next - but the further away the more risk of an error.

If you are just fixing your relative position by your arm, you brian doesn't have a lot of reference feedback to go by - it's a long, error potential causing distance from where your arm rests on the guitar to where your hand is.  If your pinky is on the soundboard your reference is much shorter and there is less error.  For me I find resting pinky down as an anchor is awkward and detracts from playing, but that won't be the case for everyone.  Pinky anchor at your own leisure.

We all look at our right hand from time to time, the visual cue is valuable position feedback for the brain.  Playing staring at the right hand will also detract from playing, it's as if there is only a certain amount of CPU cycles available in your brain, and once you start using your eyes you have stolen a lot of CPU cycles that you could spend doing other more useful things, like looking and making contact with your audience ;)  But a quick glance at the right hand to fix a reference point, especially when you are about to launch into a flurry of activity, is beneficial.

Three treble strings - three fingers; a thumb to move around the three bass stings.  Sounds pretty sensible!  And if you are playing a Travis picking style song, well, the right hand is basically dead still, the correct finger at the correct time moves to pluck the correct string, the thumb, which is a bit more manouverable than the fingers, can fairly easily jump between one or two strings plucking.  If it is a repeating pattern, well that's even easier!

I'm not a big fan of Travis picking, it is a bit formuliac.  It has its place, but you wouldn't want to play every song Travis picking style.

Same can be said for classical.  Picking out a p-i-m-a-m-i (that's thumb-index-middle-annular(ring)-etc) is fairly standard fair for classical.  Nice, use it all the time.  Easy to play because your fingers are right there, relative positioning is almost a given.  Can get repetitive if used excessively.

Let's look at Naudo.  Throw the book out the window, he is playing every string with any finger and he's not just plucking, he's downstroke flicking, part strumming, holding his fingernail like a pick and lead-guiaring, he's slapping and whacking!

Well go and get your book back, a lot of this is based on the "normal" styles, but if comes down to accuracy, and how to get it.  And that is helped by minimising reference errors.

Stability to start with will minimise reference errors.  I use a classical style postion to get stability; that is, you have your wrist basically locked, your fingers pluck mostly from the second knuckle and your thumb is nearly stiff moving from the joint at your hand.  A wise fella once told me if you think you are playing from your fingers you are probably playing from your hand, if you are playing from your hand you are probably playing from your wrist, wrist-elbow, elbow-shoulder.  I'm still not quite sure what he meant, but I've taken away that if I essentially lock my hand and wrist in a fixed position then I'm probably playing from my fingers like I should be :)

My wrist is at quite a high angle, it doesn't need to be, I just find that is the most comfortable.  If it doesn't hurt and it makes it easy to play, go with it.

So with a good stable right hand position, relative positioning of your fingers is less prone to errors.  Playing top E and bottom E is always going to be easy, you have a wide margin for error, "start out wide and feel your way in". 

What I see Naudo doing is keeping movement to a minimum.  A heavy handed follow through on a single string leaves your fingers out there somewhere and can blow your reference to the next string, whereas a short effective stroke leaves you exactly where you know you are.

Classical players talk about rest stroke and free stroke.  Rest stroke means that as you play a string, your finger follows through and comes to rest on the string next to the original string.  This is of course a good method of keeping a reference, because rather than your hand floating you are physically touching a string, "reseting" in your brain the reference position (because you know which string you are resting on).  This is very similar to pinky anchor or resting your not-in-use fingers on known strings.

I've gone off rest stroke over the years, it is all free stroke for me these days.  I don't like the sound of rest stroke it is always heavily accentuated; I can get that if I need it from a hearty free stroke pluck.

But now let's throw in some flicking/strumming Naudo style in between songs - if that doesn't mess up your reference then a well grounded player you are ("Strumming" is moving more from the wrist or arm, "flicking" is just from the fingers, ie wrist more or less locked.) I've taught myself to flick chord pieces with all three fingers, kinda like a little chip or flick across the chord fragment I'm after.  At first I played them fairly wide, strum style with wrist movement, but it creates the risk of reference loss.  Most of the time after you have strummed a chord fragment the next note is a pluck in the melody, and by gee, you want to pluck the right note!

Looking at Naudo he adds flicks with only his second or third finger keeping his index finger ready at a target string, and the movement contains no wrist.  It is minimalist, and reduces the risk of a missed note pluck.  You extremely rarely see him miss a note; his stability and reference is rock solid so his accuracy is almost 100%.

The other trick he employs to further reduce risk is making sure the whole chord is formed.  If you miss a note and hit something out of chord someone is going to notice.  But if you miss a note, but the note you hit is in chord, it won't sound quite right but it won't sound wrong, if you know what I mean.

And there we come to probably the most critical point of all - what do you do when you make the mistake and pluck the wrong string?  The brain has to quickly re-reference and get back on track.  Hopefully the sound of the one wrong note is enough of a clue to the brain to say "I'm up a string too high" or "I'm down a string too low" and get your hand to take the corrective action. Alternatives include breaking out into a wide chord strum to fill your way through the bar and then pickup in the right place at the start of the next bar; or having a second attempt - many times in a melody if the note comes an off-beat late it could be construed as just adding a bit of lib.  Of course a second attempt means breaking out of the picking pattern you are in; is it possible?  I find these days the answer is a resounding yes; it is possible, just maybe, that I am heading toward true thumb independance...

Sorry my 3 readers, this has been a real brain dump, devoid of structure!  There is so much to say about the right hand that I'd need to spend the time just planning a table of contents of what I have to say about it.  But since this is a place of venting, ranting and rambling, that's all you are going to get for now :)  I'm sure one of my three readers, you know who you are, will pipe up and steer this in a particular direction.  This is a time that a forum would be useful!

For example, I didn't even mention fingernails...(but I have done in the past).  Oh to bring all these things together in a coherent manner! ;)


  1. Interesting Jaw, as it's never easy to analyse and understand right hand technique just by looking closely at the hand either in real life or from a video; sometimes the player may be doing the same as you do, but with a different amplitude of movement and it still looks different (movements of the hand are very personnal like let's say a handwriting), but most of the time you can't really see properly what's going on at all.
    I think when it comes to the right hand, things that work for one don't work for another one.

    I wanted to write about my right hand technique here, then I realized it would be very very long, so just to say things very simply, I think the main difference with you is that I let the wrist move freely in the air, this way I really strum ('flick' as you say) using the movement of the hand, a bit like you would do with a flat pick, but of course this movement stops when plucking either a bass or high note.
    The drawback of moving the hand to strum is precision(you may miss a bass string coming after a strum), but it really helps to keep a steady rhythm, the hand balancing like a clock (whereas if the hand stays still and it all comes from the fingers, it just doesn't flow for me).

  2. I've been strumming less and "flicking" more these days, to maintain a more stable position, for greater accuracy. Where strumming means a lot of wrist movement, and flicking means little wrist movement. You can get "enough of the strumming sound" without having to move your wrist a lot; but you kinda need to be plugged in to hear it. Obviously a big wide arm-strum gets the volume inflection you are looking for, there is only so much you can do with a little finger flick. But plugged in, it's all possible.

    Naudo has been the key to me seeing that, a very stable wrist position and minimalist movements. It's not how you or I would normally play unless we are playing a classical style fingerpicked piece, you are right the wrist tends to maintain a beat - but there is merit in what he does :)

  3. Naudo is the master! And you are a good disciple, Jaw.
    I meant that 'it doesn't flow' when I'm the one doing it (flicking rather than strumming, that is), not Naudo of course.

    Thanks for the clear explanation of what exactly flicking is as opposed to strumming, it confirms that what I do is really strumming (even though it is still fingerstyle). It's not for the volume, it really is for the comfort, imagine the 6 strings (right hand area) as a surface you can go ice skating on, well when I strum it slides easily, I can even play very soft if want to, low amplitude movements but still coming from the wrist. When I flick (when I do, not you Jaw, not Naudo!), there's more friction.
    But in fact it is really when I tried to record plugged in direct to PC, that I gave up the flicking entirely. It sounded like someone sniffing!

  4. I'll edit the blog entry, it was only in response to your comment I thought about what I meant by flicking coming from the fingers as opposed to strumming which is wrist even elbow based.

    The flick is more of a flamenco technique; not that I've done any extensive flamenco training, but I know enough to be slightly dangerous ;) My flick comes through plugged in slightly percussive adding a bit of complexity to the sound, but yeah sometimes percussive style strokes that start to come across as annoying.

    Yep, plenty to talk about with the right hand!

  5. I like the tone you get from rest stroke, it's loud and accented but it never has that scratchy metallic sound you sometimes get from plucking a "hearty" free stroke. I always play your here comes the sun these days with rest strokes on all the melody notes, unfortunately you can't play chords at the same time - and it is hard to keep your hand position.

  6. You got it right - it's harder to keep your hand position with rest strokes.  The direction I've headed with my style, for good or for bad, does not include rest strokes - but I do like the sound of rest strokes.  Maybe one day if I get back into classical guitar I will re-find rest strokes :)


    On Fri Feb 26 3:04 , '' sent:

  7. JAW......just now finding the blog and work you have contributed to the internet volume of music. Thanks for the honesty and sharing. I have enjoyed this string and will continue to follow. I have been playing fingerstyle for over 30 years. I am an old fart by all standards. Your perception of 3d positioning in your mind is right on. It just takes a lot of practice and the neural pathways will be built. I use the guitar and finger picking to help with my surgical skills and dexterity. Keep up the blog and thanks again.

  8. Hi Mitch, thanks for the comment! I can't help myself but blab on about stuff, I'm always glad when someone gets something useful out of it. I just read this post back and I'm a bit inspired to write about the right hand again. For me, as far as fingerstyle is concerned, it's far more about the right hand than the left. Right is the master, left is the slave.

    As for the brain, what a magnificent wonderous mysterious organ! And the ongoing findings in areas such as brain plasticity just fascinates me. The incredible subtleties of spacial awareness, especially on the very small scale such as right hand guitar fingerpicking, and how given enough feedback through repetition we can create the neural pathways required to execute these tricky maneuvers - amazing! A wonderous creation.

    You know, I really like the idea that fingerstyle guitar is responsible for keeping a steady and accurate hand for a surgeon...that really brings a smile to my face!

    Thanks for stopping by,