Improve your tone with these fretting-hand, flatpicking, and fingerstyle tips and techniques.
BY SCOTT NYGAARD and SEAN McGOWAN | FROM THE DECEMBER 2009 ISSUE OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR
How do you get good tone? It’s a question that seems almost impossible to answer, especially since there are numerous varieties of acoustic guitar tone that qualify as “good.” However, the answer (or answers) are pretty simple: clean up your technique, play efficiently, reduce muscle tension, and, most importantly, listen to yourself, all the time, with an aural magnifying glass. In this article, we’ll provide you with some ideas for improving specific aspects of your right- and left-hand technique, whether you play fingerstyle or with a flatpick, as well as some practice tools. But before we get down to the nitty-gritty of actual fingers on strings, let’s think about a few overarching approaches that will help you along the path to great guitar tone.
1. Observe Yourself
Find a good way to observe and analyze your own playing. That sounds straightforward, but most people don’t really watch what their fingers are doing. Sure, you may look at your fingers on the fretboard to make sure they’re going to the right notes, but are you watching how your fingers move from fret to fret? How they inadvertently fly up off the frets between notes instead of moving smoothly from note to note? Do you know the angle at which your pick strikes the strings? The only way you’ll know this is by watching yourself.
2. Record Your Practice and Gigs
Audio and video recording is obviously a great tool for self-observation. Try to get in the habit of recording yourself at gigs, informal jams, and practice sessions. When you listen back, you can focus on your sound when you’re not worried about playing the guitar in the moment, and you can even take notes about specific things you’d like to change and improve.
3. Listen Beyond the Surface Notes
In the same way that you may be looking at your fingers but not really “seeing” what they’re doing, you may be listening to yourself enough to know if your fingers are playing the right notes without hearing what else they’re doing. Are you making other sounds while you’re hitting the notes you want to hit? Or nailing a tricky pull-off but accidentally plucking an open (possibly dissonant) string next to it at the same time? You need to get used to listening past the foreground notes you’re playing to the background sounds emanating from your guitar.
4. Visualize Your Ideal Tone
“Visualizing” your tone—trying to hear your ideal tone in your imagination—can be a powerful tool in shaping your tone in your “mind’s ear.” One way to start is to identify players whose sound you love and would like to emulate. Maybe the sound is a combination of a few of your favorite players, without the aspects you don’t really care for. This is a great exercise and can be challenging at first, but if you develop a clear idea of your perfect sound in your head, you can start to emulate that on your guitar. And if you mentally identify that sound when you make it yourself, you’ll end up there more often.
5. Practice Consistency of Tone
Here’s an exercise: play the same note, chord, or melody line over and over, striving for the same exact tone each time. Imagine you are an actor playing a part with a particular accent and you need to do take after take with the same vocal and tonal inflections. Experiment with a melody or solo line until you really like its sound. Once you have found that tone, practice repeatedly and try to achieve an identical sound each time. You will be building aural and muscle memory, which will serve you the next time you’re onstage or in the studio.
6. Release Tension
Playing your guitar without excessive tension is paramount to achieving good tone and avoiding a repetitive strain injury. The best playing technique looks and sounds intense, yet is tension free. It’s important to find the balance in your hands between “normal” engagement of your hand muscles and excessive tension that could result in injury. If your hands are unusually sore or fatigued after playing, you’re probably holding too much tension in your hands. Shaking out and stretching your hand and fingers before and after playing will help rid your hand of excessive tension or muscle cramping. If there’s tension in your arms, shoulders, or neck, stretch before you play and consciously try to relax while playing. And don’t forget to breathe!
While most people tend to focus on the picking hand when thinking about tone, the fretting hand has a tremendous effect on your sound. Here are some tips to help get your hand into position to create the best sound possible, regardless of whether you’re playing fingerstyle or with a pick.
7. Relax, Don’t Squeeze Too Hard
Notice how your fretting hand feels after playing, particularly rhythm and barre chords. If your hands hurt or feel cramped, you’re probably squeezing too hard. This can also affect your intonation and cause you to play out of tune. Imagine holding something soft and fragile like an egg and apply that feeling to the neck.
8. Arch Your Fingers
Guitarists who started out playing “cowboy chords” sometimes address the strings as if they’re pointing at the frets, with the first two joints of the fingers on a line. But to allow each string to ring clearly while holding down multiple strings, you need to arch your fingers (see photo below). Good hand posture equals good tone.
Imagine holding an orange in the palm of your hand. Now bring your fingers together as if you’re squeezing the orange. See how your fingers are naturally curved and the knuckle joints flex inward? This is how you want your hand to look on the guitar neck (with the exception of full and partial barres where your first joint will be collapsed). To see if you’re curving your fingers properly, hold any chord and slowly pluck the strings from low to high. Make sure all the notes ring out clearly and that your fingers aren’t damping any notes on adjacent strings.
9. Play on Your Fingertips
Good tone comes from playing on your fingertips and not the pads or sides of your fingers (with the exception of barre chords and partial-barre techniques). This should happen naturally if you keep your fingers arched.
10. Place Your Fingers Directly Behind the Fret
Your fingers should land right behind each fret, close to them though not so close that they’re on top of the fret, but on the wood of the fretboard (see photo below). If they’re too far back from the fret you’ll have to use more pressure than necessary to stop the string cleanly. You shouldn’t push the string down toward the fretboard so far that it goes out of tune.
11. Keep Your Fingernails Trimmed
It’s important to keep your fretting-hand fingernails trimmed short to allow your fingers to arch properly and stay on the tips. Long nails can create buzzes and will compromise your hand posture. Keep nail cutters in your gig bag—an uneven or excessively long nail can ruin your gig.
12. Practice Long Tones
Horn and string players and vocalists spend hours working on “long tones,” playing one note over and over to see how long they can sustain it with a steady, even tone and volume. While acoustic guitarists can’t sustain notes as long, this simple exercise (Example 1) is very helpful in improving tone. Pay attention to how a note begins (the attack) and how it ends (the decay). This allows you to focus exclusively on your tone quality and the clarity of each note. Picture each note “blooming” and try to hold it as long as you can, striving for clear and solid tone.
13. Let Melody Notes on Adjacent Strings Ring
Chords aren’t the only things that benefit from arched fingers. Arching your fingers helps you sustain notes when fretting single-note melodies, too. Play Example 2 slowly and make sure that each fretted note sustains into the following open-string note and vice versa. You’ll only be able to do this if your fingers are arched properly.
14. Control the End of the Note
It’s important to think about when a note ends as well as when it begins. Play Examples 3a and 3b and concentrate on stopping the note—by releasing the pressure on the string but not lifting your finger off the string—to give the rests their full value.
15. Keep Your Hand “In Position”
When moving up and down the fretboard, keep your hand in one position at a time, moving quickly to the position you need and remaining there until it’s time to move to the next one. Avoid meandering from one position to the next or stretching your fingers out of your nice “holding the orange” posture (unless you’re playing a chord that requires a stretch of more than four frets).
16. Control “Flyaway” Fingers
Your fingers should move from one chord or note to the next in a smooth, efficient manner. Some guitarists’ fingers, however, tend to fly up into the air for a second before finding their way to their next destination. To combat this, play Example 4 and hold the fingers that aren’t being used in the air, just above the frets, until it’s time for them to play a note. Think of your fingers as little pistons that descend to the string when they’re needed.
The following tips will help your fingerstyle playing regardless of whether or not you use fingernails. Think of your fingers as “tone controls” on the strings!
17. Practice Large, Powerful Arcs with a Free Stroke
One way to improve your tone significantly is to assess the size of your stroke and practice larger and more powerful arcs with your fingers (typically your index and middle fingers: i and m). The idea is to increase your threshold of power and motion—a small stroke originating from only the first joint will result in a thin tone. Practice alternating strokes, i–m–i–m, on two (Example 5a) or even three strings (Example 5b) at a time, concentrating on movement originating from the base of each finger, not from the finger itself. This is analogous to an athlete training harder than what is required in competition. By increasing the size and power of your stroke, you’ll be able to hone in on good tone and volume and increase your dynamic range.
18. Align Your Wrist and Hand
Keep your picking-hand wrist in alignment with the hand so your hand assumes a comfortable position. Don’t bend your wrist like a bass player, but don’t keep your wrist absolutely flat either (see photo). Find a balance that works for you—probably 30–40 degrees inward (toward the guitar).
19. Initiate Movement in Your Knuckles
Try plucking an open string using a small stroke originating from your fingertip. Now play the open string with a stroke derived from your knuckles. Hear the difference in tone? The finger movement should originate from the knuckles at the base of the fingers, since your knuckles are much stronger than your fingertips. You can see that the arc is much wider from the knuckle compared with an arc from the fingertip. A golfer uses his entire body when he drives the ball, not just his arms. This is a similar idea; the fingers are extensions of the hand, which are extensions of the arms and shoulders. Try visualizing huge tone originating from your entire body.
20. Experiment with Hand Placement over the Soundhole
Every acoustic instrument is capable of tonal variation, and this technique is one of the best ways to explore the guitar’s tonal palette. Take a simple passage like Example 6 and play it four times while positioning your picking hand in four distinct places: right at the end of the fretboard, over the front half of the soundhole, over the back half of the soundhole, and, finally, back in front of the bridge. Moving even a little will change the tone significantly. Plucking and strumming closer to the neck will give you a warmer tone, while playing at the bridge will create a brighter sound. Experiment to find the sweet spot for the tune you are playing. You can even create dramatic effects—without any effects or gear tweaking—by playing in different places. For example, play the verse of a song fingerstyle near the neck and strum the chorus close to the bridge.
21. Nail Length and Care
This is an extremely subjective topic, but well worth exploring. Classical and nylon-string guitarists typically use their nails to achieve volume and tone. Many steel- and nylon-string players prefer a blend of flesh and nail, while other fingerstylists simply opt for flesh, but they can use amplification and EQ to assist with any perceived deficiencies in volume or tone. Observe the players whose tone you admire and try to determine their nail preferences by listening to and/or watching them perform.
22. Practice Dramatic Volume Exercises
To help increase your overall threshold for volume, clarity, and tone, play this simple two-octave ascending and descending scale (Example 7). Start out playing as softly as possible and increase your volume so you are at your absolute loudest by the end of the scale going up. Going down, gradually decrease your volume to a whisper by the time you reach the root of the scale. This exercise will build your control, and control affects tone considerably, particularly when you’re nervous before a gig or haven’t had a good warm-up before a show.
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23. Practice Dramatic Articulation Exercises
This exercise follows the previous example nicely. Start with the same simple two-octave major scale. Pick one pitch (E, for example) to accent heavily while ascending and descending (Example 8a). This is tricky for seven-note scales since the accents will occur on different beats going up and down, but it will help build flexibility. Try accenting all the notes in the scale one at a time, and then try two-note combinations (Example 8b). These exercises are great for developing flatpick control as well. Again, the idea is to increase your dynamic range and develop control to play with clean, even tone every time.
While most discussions of flatpicking tone center on the kind of pick you use, the pick is just one part of your “attack mechanism,” which, of course, includes your arm, hand, fingers, etc. Good tone comes from experimenting with how these all work together, whether you’re interested in playing solid rhythm or jaw-dropping solos (or both).
24. Move Your Hand Closer to (or Farther Away from) the Bridge
You’ve undoubtedly noticed how drastically the tone changes as your pick moves along the string from the bridge to the end of the fretboard, but, as with pick angle, the place your pick hits the strings is determined to a large degree by how you hold the guitar. Changing where you hit the string, as with changing pick angle, may be a matter of changing your entire approach to holding the guitar, but it’s important to at least be aware of where your pick is striking the string and how it affects your tone.
Try playing through Example 9, the first part of the traditional tune “Red-Haired Boy,” and see how the tone changes—on both your upstrokes and downstrokes—as you move your pick closer to or farther away from the bridge. Your hand probably travels in a bit of an arc as it strums down through the strings—if your pick strikes the bass strings right in the middle of the soundhole, it will probably be closer to the bridge end of the soundhole when it gets to the top string. Try to find a place that produces a good sound on all strings.
25. Change Your Pick Angle
Generally you get a fatter, rounder tone if your pick hits the string at a bit of an angle—about 30 degrees—rather than flat or parallel to the string (see photo). But pick angle is determined to some degree by how you hold the guitar, particularly the angle at which it sits in relation to the rest of your body and the angle of your picking arm in relation to the guitar. Most guitarists, especially those who have not been classically trained, have intuitively settled on a way of holding the guitar that is comfortable and that places the least amount of stress on their hands and arms. Changing your pick angle may change your posture, and any tonal benefits you get from changing the angle may at first seem outweighed by an awkward arm stroke. But as long as you don’t notice any real pain or excessive tension, it can be pretty easy to retrain your arm, or adjust the angle of your guitar to your body; it just takes a little time.
26. Try a Heavier (or Lighter) Pick
Heavy picks (1 mm and more) will generally produce a fatter tone, but heavy picks can take some getting used to. Players who want more of a percussive click to their tone prefer lighter picks, which can also make fast, complicated strums easier, but thin picks generally produce a thinner tone on single-note melodies. In general, experimenting with different kinds of picks is a great way to change—and hopefully improve—your tone. You can also try playing with the rounded “shoulders” of a teardrop-shaped pick instead of the point.
27. Use Rest Strokes
Using rest strokes on bass notes, especially in a boom-chuck style rhythm, can help you isolate each note to produce clear, loud bass notes. If you have a tendency to hit the string and bounce up and off it after playing the bass note, it’s easy to accidentally play two (or more) strings at once, which creates a messier sound than a single, clean bass note.
If you haven’t tried rest strokes, look at the boom-chuck rhythm in Example 10a. Hit the first C bass note with a downstroke on the fifth string, and let your pick “rest” on the fourth string, which will effectively damp that string, isolating the C bass note. Then push your pick down across the other strings to complete the strum on beat two. Use rest strokes on beats 1 and 3 (as indicated with asterisks) and strum normally on beats two and four. You can also use rest strokes to play the bass run in Example 10b, and they even work on the downstrokes of quarter-note melodies and hammer-ons like those in the G-pentatonic run in Example 10c.
28. Control Your Strum
By now you’re probably starting to see that tone is all about control. So take a listen to your strum now. The sound you get from your strum will depend on how many strings you’re actually hitting and whether you’re letting them ring or are choking them off—intentionally or not. Play Examples 10a and 10b and listen to see if you can hear the top E note ringing out on the C chord and the high F note on the F chord (in Example 10b). To get a nice chiming sound, your hand should strum through all the top strings. For a chunkier sound, let your pick stop before it gets to the high string.
29. Find Your Tone Ceiling
Most flatpicking guitars, especially dreadnoughts, need to be hit fairly solidly to produce the best tone. Experiment with the tone ceiling of your guitar—the place at which hitting the string harder doesn’t make the note louder, just noisier and more annoying. To find your tone ceiling, take any tune you can play comfortably enough that you don’t have to think about what your fingers are doing, and gradually increase the volume. Notice how the tone changes—it will probably start getting better as you get louder and then start getting worse. That’s your tone ceiling. My guess is that it’s louder than the volume you usually practice at. A good way to practice at the right volume is to play with a duet partner—another guitarist or mandolin player, for example. This will get your volume up above quiet practice volume, but not past the tone ceiling of your instrument.
30. Try Bracing Lightly with Your Pinky
To play fast, complex passages with your pick, you may need to give the pick a bit of a guide as to where the strings are by touching the top lightly with your pinky. Anchoring your hand on the top with one or more fingers (or on the bridge with your wrist) is not a good idea, because it will create too much tension in your hand. But by bracing with your pinky on the top lightly, you can get a little more control than by not touching the top at all.
As you should know by now, in addition to listening to yourself closely and to others whose tone you admire, improving your tone is largely a matter of cleaning up your technique and getting more control of the instrument. Practicing these examples might put more stress on your hand than you’re used to, but you should never play through pain, and you should stop when your hand is too fatigued. As with any athletic endeavor—and you should think of your hands and fingers as athletes, the members of your guitar-playing team—it’s important to learn the difference between the natural soreness of your muscles learning to do new things or increase their capabilities and the kind of pain that can result in injury. If in doubt, do some warm-up exercises—which can be just a matter of playing a few simple things slowly—before you start any “extreme” workouts or try significant changes to your technique.