Electric guitarists have countless ways to manipulate the sound of their instrument. Start with the knobs and switches on the guitar itself. Add the amplifier, which will add another set of knobs and switches. That’s already a lot of variables, and then we get to processing and effects pedals. There are thousands of small companies out there trying to build a better fuzztone mousetrap, along with countless other ways to color or change the sound of the guitar. All of this is great fun, and great creative stimulation too.
Amplified acoustic guitars often have their own tonal shaping options: various types of EQ and even onboard effects processing. These can all be very useful when you know how to use them, but if you don’t they can do more harm than good to your sound.
The bottom line is, it’s important to know what the controls on your instrument do and how to use them. But you should also know how much you can affect the sound of the guitar just using your hands.
Tone production on an acoustic guitar is a dynamic system.
There are multiple variables that all come into play at once. Some are fixed when the instrument is made, like the choice of wood, scale length, and body style. Others can be changed but are fixed during a performance, like string gauge and composition. But there’s a long list of variables that can be manipulated in real time by the player. Looking at the right (picking) hand alone, we have:
– pick vs fingers
– thickness and shape of pick
– plucking vs striking the strings
– which finger plucks or strikes
– which part of the finger contacts the string
– intensity of attack
– angle of attack
– where the string is struck or plucked
Take your pick.
Start with the question of pick vs. fingers. I start most beginners out with a pick, because it’s the simplest option. The pick strikes the string at more or less the same point, so you’re aiming consistently for the same thing compared to the multiple options presented by the fingers. Since the pick comes to something of a point, it’s easier to produce a clean attack whether you’re plucking or strumming. But there are still plenty of variables.
Picks come in different thicknesses and shapes. I prefer the standard triangle/teardrop shape, holding the pick between my thumb and index finger. The point of the pick faces straight in towards the body of the guitar, and the pad of my thumb covers most of the wider surface of the pick. Essentially, the pick becomes an extension of the thumb. You can think of the movement to strike a single note as a slight dip of the thumb towards the floor. An upstroke is essentially the same motion in reverse. When we lead from the fingertips like this, the forearm rotates slightly in response. One great advantage to this approach is that the movement is essentially the same whether you’re striking a single note or strumming a chord. The point of the pick forms a small arc as it moves back and forth across one string, and a larger arc as we strum across multiple strings.
It’s all in the way you move.
Some players favor a side-to-side movement of the wrist, resting the forearm on the face of the guitar. You’ll see lots of good players that play this way. It’s helpful for precision because the fixed forearm stabilizes the hand, but it does make the muscles of the forearm work harder.
I prefer to let the forearm float most of the time and move from the fingertips when strumming. When you’re trying to generate a groove, the wider range of motion gives you many more tonal options and a wider dynamic range. The wrist approach is good for lead playing, or for bringing out individual notes within a chord. Experiment and see what works for you. Don’t think about the “right” or “wrong” way. When you pay attention to how the movement feels, you’ll be likely to settle into a natural approach.
You’ll also notice that the different approaches create different tones. Let’s return for a moment to the idea of the guitar as a dynamic system. Variations in intensity and angle of attack make the strings respond differently. Striking the strings in different places will also change the sound, because the ratio of applied force to string tension will change. If you’ve ever listened to a great player and wondered how they were able to produce such a wide range of tones out of an acoustic instrument, this is the secret. For more on this subject, check out my archive post from 2013.
Putting down the pick and using the bare fingers multiplies your tonal options exponentially! But because the mechanical variables multiply as well, this approach deserves a lot more attention and a post of its own. To be continued!