Monday 20 December 2010

Q&A: How do I get into fingerstyle?

Q:"I have been practising classical guitar for the last 3 years, so I know more or less what it is all about - and no, I don't want to sing - I want to play fingerstyle :) Are there any old books/methods that I should follow, or should I just download the arrangements and start working on them?"

A: There is no correct answer to that question, but I can tell you what _my_ approach would be for anyone wanting to get into fingerstyle.

Classical is a great place to start, it is fingerstyle after all. Be able to fluently play basic classical pieces - bass notes on beat with a melody. Classical will give you the left and right hand skills required for any future sort of guitar playing. Definitely get some lessons to start with so you can pick up good habits in the early days.

One of the songs I play "Here Comes the Sun" is an example of a "classical" styled piece. It was one of my really early crossover pieces from classical to the style I play now.

You can keep following the classical path forever, and it will continue to challenge and amaze you, but let's continue.

The next step I'd take is to try an alternating bass line piece. Anything by Chet Atkins, maybe have a crack at Freight Train, a well known alt bass starting point. Watch somebody play it on youtube first - the trick with alternating bass lines is generally every beat in a four beat bar the thumb plucks out a repeating bass line which, ahem, alternates :) Meantime the fingers are playing a melody. Alternating bass lines will help you develop good thumb skills, and a spatial awareness you might not get in "normal" classical playing. Being able to move from random string to random string with your right hand rather than following normal classical style patterns is another good skill. Alternating bass line is of course a pattern, but not one generally incorporated into classical.

Again, you can follow the alternating bass line style forever, many people do, but let's keep going.

Rhythm guitar is important. Knowing where all your chords are, in lots of different positions, and being able to jump to them without even thinking. Play chords along with songs on the radio - helps with another good skill of getting your ear tuned in to music. That is part of the whole "learn music theory" road which personally I haven't done enough of. I've developed a bunch of skills but I don't have the music theory to back me up. Learn about music, you will need it at some stage.

Some Flamenco style will help out with fingerstyle; let's call it optional, but I find Flamenco has an underlying influence on fingerstyle for me. Solo shredding could also be another helpful influence; not really my cup of tea, but we've all dabbled with it and it builds skills.  Jazz, blues - the list goes on.

The real secret comes from I believe what is loosely described as "thumb independence". What that means is it looks like your right hand thumb and fingers are doing stuff separately, that is, independently. It will really strain your brain trying to get your fingers to play that crazy mixed up varying "off beat" to your thumb. It happens somewhat in alternating bass line style; but there are usually easy beat "hooks" present in alt bass; something that helps keep your brain "on track". I've written about thumb independence a few times, for instance here. I give an example of two seemingly "simple" bars of music that will really show you what thumb independence means. I don't think it was until I mastered those two bars (which required at least some of the background skills I mentioned) before it really dawned on my just what thumb independence consists of. Try it, if you can!

So the final phase is to learn some thumb independence songs from tabs. By rote, painfully, note by note. Choose a favourite arrangement from youtube; Tommy Emmanuel, Michael Chapdelaine, Naudo, Kelly Valleau, Ulli Bogershausen or Igor Presnyakov all have some great arrangements sometimes with tabs available (do an internet search, or try here). Once you've mastered some tabs, next try to transcribe some songs by others (Naudo and Igor would be prime candidates). Transcribing is difficult but you will learn a lot about how to piece together a fingerstyle song.

Finally, begin arranging your own fingerstyle covers (or creating your own compositions). You will have a wealth of skills and experience to fall back on, the sky is the limit! I've written about arranging before here.

Good skill to you in your fingerstyle journey!

Monday 13 December 2010

What's happening December 2010

I'm thinking it might be time to scrap What's Happening. They end up being too long as I cover too many topics at once - what I need to do is post smaller entries and more often :)

So to wind up the theme, here's my attempted _brief_ last "What's Happening":

Left hand pinky is ever-so-slightly recovering. I do some stretches on it prior to playing...about a minute's worth, and it does help. But then, like I did a few days ago, kinda caught it one something in normal day to day life and stretched it out sideways and "undid" all the good work I had done. Hurts again now :( I think it is just going to be a long time in the recovery...really, I should stop playing the guitar for a few months, but that ain't going to happen :)

I've moved job/office and I'm now in what I'd consider "the heart" of Perth’s cafe/pub live music scene. I knocked up some "JAW - Solo Instrumental Acoustic Guitar" business cards, laminated and all, and did a walk around a few weeks back. Managed to hand out about 6 cards within a 200m radius. Did a follow up on two of them and there is definitely interest - and already quite a number of acoustic acts playing at some, with room for more - but nothing has come of yet. Might be a bit hectic this close to Christmas.

I walked past a guy busking in the street a few weeks back, noticed he was playing Ulli's "Mad World". Had to stop and have a chat. Chatted to him for about 10 mins; including how to get a gig around here. He reckoned he could make more money and prefers busking, but he said the key to getting a gig is to hound and hound and hound them until they give you a gig. Which was good advice - I'm onto it :) Kim Wainwright; I've emailed with him and he has an internet presence but no videos. Was good to see another fingerstyle player on the street - he plays in bands and all that usually guitary stuff, but really loves his fingerstyle covers. (I gave him $10 for taking up a chunk of his busking time :))

My latest arrangement "Take me back" by Noiseworks is finished, but following on from the left pinky issue I've discovered that some songs cause more pinky issues than others. That is one of them. "Something" is definitely another, in fact that's the culprit why I damaged my hand in the first place. So I avoid playing them at the moment, but it will be out soon enough.

In the meantime, I couldn't let Super Mario go. I re-arranged it based heavily on Thierry Gomez's version, with some of the "stylisedness" from Iggy Presnakov, and a different (but more accurate I believe) take on the melody by another guy who I should find out who it was so I can give him credit. Funny how when I get something stuck in my head I can't let it go. It's that persistence I think every fingerstyle player must have, of they would have given up long ago! It's a little tricky to play, but I'm getting there - here, have a quick recording full of mistakes and unintentional pauses, but enough for you to get the idea. Look for it on youtube in the next month or so :)


Friday 3 December 2010

Nylon vs Steel

Roman inspired me to write about Nylon stringed guitars versus Steel stringed guitars. I've played both, for long periods of time, so I reckon I'm entitled to a bit of an opinion :)

Nylon or steel is very polarising - pretty much most guitarists would play only nylon, or only steel, there aren't many who would play both, except maybe for a few very specific novelty reasons.

Rather than try to form this blog into a coherent narrative, I'm going to randomly bullet point up my learnings about nylon and steel in no particular order:

1. Generally, steel has a bright sound, nylon has a mellow if you like bright, you are probably going to play steel; mellow, nylon.

2. Nylon strings are an absolute pain to break in, they stretch over many days. Steel breaks in quick and easily. Never change nylon strings just before a gig.

3. Steel strings are under a lot more tension - you can't put steel strings on a nylon guitar (just in case anyone was thinking about it). This makes fretting "harder" than fretting on nylon. You'll develop serious calluses on your left hand fingertips playing steel, nylon will only develop minor calluses. (By the way, calluses are a good thing). If you are a newbie, steel will hurt your soft tender newbie fingertips to start with. If you are a hard core steel player nylon will feel like big floppy lackybands.

4. Nylon strings are fatter than steel strings. Makes them easier to fret particularly for newbies, again less pain. Generally nylon necks need to be wider than steel necks to account for the fatter strings.

5. Nylon necks are wider than steel necks because of the fat strings, but also because nylons tend to be used more for complex left hand work. There is more room to move around, more forgiving to error. You can play just as complex stuff on either, but they nylon is going to have that little bit more room and you won't need to be quite as precise as steel. If however you have a small hand, a full width (50-54mm) neck might represent a problem.

6. Nylon allows more expression, more emotion (stands back, ducks and covers). Look, it's true. You don't get the same level of dynamic and tone control out of steel with just your fingers. I'm not saying that steel is meant to be played flat out all the time, but it is easier to put more dynamics, note-for-note, in nylon playing than steel playing. The subtleness in tone and volume differentiation that you can apply in nylon is wider, and easier to control. This is high-end skill stuff; n00bs, intermediate and even advanced players are still concentrating on playing a piece correctly, applying dynamics is one of the last things a player really starts to focus on.

7. Steel bodies naturally have a bigger sound and wider frequency response than nylon. You'll never get that huge fat tonal response from strumming a chord on nylon than you will from a big dreadnought steel body. Steel is a natural choice for rhythm strumming.

8. Steel will rip your fingernails to shreds if you are a fingernail player. Fingernails are naturally at home on nylon, and bring even more dynamicism to your playing. As a fingerstyle player, your best bet on steel is to play without fingernails, and build up (and maintain) calluses on your fingertips for picking. Use a thumbpick. Or, Alaska piks are a great choice for steel and even nylon if you weren't blessed with strong fingernails.

9. Bends can be wider on steel than nylon. Due to the extra tension, you can bend beyond a tone even as you are getting closer to the open position. On a nylon, even at the 12th you'll battle to bend out to a tone, and even then you'll need to bend the strings more than halfway across the fretboard - meaning you won't be able to play the strings you are running across - generally, nylon isn't really made for bending.

10. "You are cooler playing steel." Ha, maybe. You can play nylon on your right leg, or standing up with a strap, but the best position is the classical left leg foot on stool to get the angles right. (I'm also "too cool" for that position, but I do know and accept that the classical position is easier and better).

11. Nylons are a good beginners guitar. You won't hurt your fingers as much, nylons are more forgiving than steel and you don't need to be quite as strong.

12. Intonation, and compensation, is crazy on nylon. Because the three monofilament strings have very different characteristics to wound multifilament strings the bridge/saddle/nut has a hard time balancing this out. It's hard to find a very well-intonated nylon string - well at least one that suits your playing style. Interesting trivia: the D string is under more tension than the G string. The monofilament strings are so fat and floppy that just pressing harder when fretting can change the pitch. Performing a chord requiring some deft stretchy left hand work will invariably cause you to slightly bend strings as you reach because they are floppy - the pitch perfect amongst us (certainly not me) will wince with pain.

13. Crossing between nylon and steel from time to time requires a mindset change in addition to the physical approach change. Nylon to steel will hurt your fingertips, you'll feel like you are pressing hard and plucking hard, and the tone will almost sound "harsh". Steel to nylon will feel like you are playing a flimsy child's guitar with elastic band strings and you'll have to play gently so you don't twang the thing. But if you can keep your mind open, and play each type in the manner it needs to be played, you'll get a lot of enjoyment from what each one provides.