Acoustic fingerstyle guitar tends to be viewed by outsiders as a sound and style steeped in, if not slavishly devoted to, traditional idioms like blues, folk, and old-timey music. But there have always been artists who have used the form to explore new and exciting territories, be it Pentangle’s progressive folk, John Fahey’s American Primitive stylings, or Michael Hedges’ extended technique experimentations.
Today, a new crop of players continues to push fingerstyle guitar toward the future while celebrating the sounds of the past. The five artists showcased here—Christie Lenée, Brooks Robertson, Daniel Bachman, Sarah Louise, and Gwenifer Raymond—exemplify some of the rising stars in the world of fingerstyle guitar. But even as they gravitate toward different areas of the acoustic music spectrum, they share a similar adventurous, exploratory spirit when it comes to their instrument. Acoustic Guitar asked each of them to discuss their approach to fingerstyle music, the guitars and gear they use, and their tips for honing their craft—or yours.
Christie Lenée had been studying classical and jazz guitar for four years when, as a senior in high school, she attended a Dave Matthews Band concert. “That was the moment I decided I wanted to be a songwriter,” she says, “so it was interesting to start with a lot of advanced classical music and then go backwards and learn how to sing and play Dave Matthews songs—which was actually more challenging than some of those classical pieces.”
The blending of acoustic-based singer-songwriter fare with more technique-heavy instrumental guitar music is still at the heart of what Lenée does. On Chasing Infinity, her 2013 instrumental album, Lenée—winner of last year’s prestigious International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship—showcased her extraordinary classical-rooted fingerstyle playing augmented by extended techniques like overhand tapping and percussive slapping of her guitar’s body. “I heard Michael Hedges and it made that connection for me of how an ensemble or more symphonic type of orchestral arrangement could be put into an acoustic guitar,” she says.
At the same time, Lenée’s most recent release, Stay (which also features DMB guitarist Tim Reynolds), is a more folk-pop-influenced affair that puts her vocals and lyrics front and center. Currently, she is making more of a point to bring the two sides of her guitar personality together in her music. “I’ve been trying to write simple songs,” she says, “but also find those moments to put in what I guess you could call ‘ear candy,’ for the guitar fans.”
That ear candy, it would seem, is there to please Lenée, as well. “Yeah, that’s true,” she admits. “I need to soothe that part of my soul that loves this crazy guitar stuff.”
Rather than discussing various techniques or practice regimens, Lenée offers a broader point about playing music: “Follow your heart and play the music that you love,” she says. It was while teaching a workshop at the George School in Pennsylvania that she realized how rare this is. “There were 600 students there, and I asked them, ‘How many people in here love music?’ Everybody raised their hands. Then I asked, ‘How many people in here play music?’ Everybody raised their hands. Finally, I asked, ‘How many people in here play the music that they love?’ Shockingly, about a third of the people raised their hands.
“That really set off a lightbulb in my head,” she continues. “Musicians get so caught up in their studies that they forget why they’re studying in the first place. So the best tip I can give to anybody is follow your heart and use your ears. And keep listening. The more we listen, the more we can tap into our own voice. And I don’t mean our physical voice—I mean the voice of our own self-expression.”
Leneé demonstrated how she has tapped into her voice when she visited AG’s studios recently and played her composition “Breath of Spring,” excerpted in Example 1. At the heart of the piece is the seven-note ostinato (repeating pattern) that appears throughout in the up-stemmed layer of music. Leneé plays the ostinato entirely with hammer-ons and pull-offs. At the same time, she does a bit of two-handed tapping with her picking fingers (down-stemmed notes). In the interest of efficiency, keep your fingers close to the strings; if need be, learn each hand’s part separately before combining them.
What She Plays
Maton 808 (main live acoustic), Martin D12-35 50th Anniversary, Veillette Gryphon Soprano 12-string, Veillette Baritone 12-string, Martin J-40, Martin D-18 Golden Era, Gretsch White Falcon, Luna Artist Series, Luna 8-string ukulele. Amplifier: AER Acoustic. Effects: Boss Chromatic Tuner, MXR 10 Band EQ, Boss DD-20 Giga Delay, Eventide H9, TC Helicon Harmony Singer, Boss RC-30 Loop Station. Other gear: KOPF Percussion “Toe Kicker” stompbox, the Engle (drumstick for guitar; used on selective pieces), Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre preamp. Strings: Martin SP 92/8 Phosphor Bronze Medium (SP Phosphor Bronze Light on 12-string guitars) Picks: “I rarely use them, but if so, I like the 1.0mm size. More often, I like to angle my hand and just use the front/back of the nail of my index finger. The nails have a glued tip with acrylic gel powder and are filled in every two weeks or so.”
Brooks Robertson was just 11 years old when his father brought him to the Nokie Edwards Festival near his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. There, he witnessed a performance from fingerstyle legend Buster B. Jones (nicknamed “Le Machine Gun”) that changed his life forever. “After the first few songs in his set I turned to my father and exclaimed, ‘Dad, I want to do that!’” Robertson recalls.
Not only did Robertson start playing guitar soon after that day, but through a fortuitous turn of events, Jones also became his guitar teacher—and within six months, the two were performing on stages together. As for how the young Robertson progressed so quickly: “I had an inextinguishable desire to play like my new mentor and was essentially a malleable blank canvas,” he explains. “I had a hunger to learn all I could.”
Robertson learned a lot—and quickly. A fingerstyle prodigy, he performed on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion at 14 and took first prize in the 12-to-20-year-old talent competition. He recorded his first album, 2006’s Thumb Like It Hot, when he was just 17, and has since released two more solo efforts, as well as a pair of albums in a duo format with fingerstyle champion John Standefer.
Robertson’s fingerpicking is characterized by the same sort of dynamic, percussive rhythms as those of Jones, but it’s also informed by artists ranging from Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed to Tommy Emmanuel and Lenny Breau to Michael Hedges and Antonio Carlos Jobim. “I think of my style as a melting pot of instrumental Americana, country, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and folk,” he says. And just as Jones took him under his wing, Robertson, now 28, instructs others in masterclasses and workshops all over the world (including at Tommy Emmanuel’s Guitar Camp and the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention), as well as offering his own courses through truefire.com and fingerpickinglessons.com.
When it comes to playing fingerstyle guitar, Robertson says that maintaining great technique is essential. “Spending time working on thumb and finger control, strength, and independence can allow you to have command of any digit—which directly impacts volume, tone, dynamics, speed and accuracy,” he explains. “Strive to develop agility and fluidity with each finger so that each digit is as developed as the next. Working to improve right-hand technique, whether it be through playing tunes or doing exercises, has never failed to elevate my fingerstyle skills.”
An excellent way of building that technique is to include a variety of banjo rolls in your practice regimen. Robertson demonstrates some basic forward and backward rolls in Example 2. Practice them as written, with your thumb, index, and middle fingers picking three-note groupings. Learn them with other finger combinations, as well—thumb, middle, and ring fingers, for instance—and plug these patterns into your own favorite chords and progressions.
What He Plays
Collings OM2H, Kirk Sand Brooks Robertson Model nylon-string, Gibson ES-125. Strings: Elixir (acoustic steel-string and archtop), high-tension nylon strings (classical). Thumbpick: Fred Kelly Slick Pick (Heavy). Amplification: AER Compact 60/3 through a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb and an L.R. Baggs Venue DI.
As a teenager, Daniel Bachman was heavily influenced by American Primitive guitarists like John Fahey and Robbie Basho. But it was another artist playing in this style, Jack Rose, who proved to be his biggest inspiration. This was as much due to Rose’s playing—“He was in avant-garde music scenes but was also a really good guitar picker, doing country blues, Piedmont stuff, that whole vibe”—as for the fact that Bachman, like Rose before him, hails from the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. “He was a guy that was around that I could actually watch,” Bachman says. “That meant a lot to me.”
In fact, Bachman’s surroundings inform his music to a great degree. His rigorous, long-format instrumentals are steeped in the American Primitive style, but they also incorporate elements of “other rich traditions from this area, like hillbilly, blues, and gospel, as well as all the crazy early American stuff that’s part of the makeup of this area,” he says.
On first glance, Bachman’s sound and sensibility might seem to be merely a throwback—indeed, he is currently working on whittling down his three-finger technique to a two-finger approach, inspired in part by Virgil Anderson, “a banjo player from the Cumberland plateau who is bad to the bone,” he says. But the 28-year-old is hardly just recreating a bygone era. He has a background in noise and avant-garde music, and points to everything from hip-hop to hardcore country to electronic music pioneer Laurie Spiegel as inspiration.
“You can take traditional motifs and themes that are old as hell and make them brand new,” Bachman says about his approach. “Or try to, at least. That’s always part of the challenge.”
In order to be a good player, Bachman says, you should be a good listener. “You have to have a couple-year period where you’re completely obsessed with music and you just listen to it all the time. You can’t be a good performer, composer, or guitar player in general if you’re not an active listener. I’d honestly say that, at least at first, you should listen to the music you want to play more than you should actually try to play it. That way it just gets in your head.”
When you do start playing it, he continues, you should be similarly obsessed. “For about three years I played guitar at least two or three hours every day. When it came to something like learning a picking pattern, I would sit and just play it over and over again until it was drilled into my head and I could do it up and down, fast and slow, two-finger and three-finger. It sounds so stupid and obvious, but that’s the key. You just have to do it all the time, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the guitar unless you absolutely love it.”
Lately, Bachman has been enjoying playing lap slide, and Example 3 gives a sampling of what he plays in open-G tuning on the accompanying video on AG’s website. Notice how the slides and rolled chords (indicated in notation with squiggly vertical lines) add liveliness and expression to the performance. Don’t worry about playing things exactly as written; instead, experiment with your own articulations and embellishments.
What He Plays
Bachman’s two main guitars are a 1971 Martin D-18 and a reproduction Weissenborn “that I got from Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, and no one knows who made it—it’s a complete mystery guitar.” Other instruments include an early-’70s Gibson J-45, an early-’80s Guild D-55, and a vintage Stella banjo. Strings: D’Addario (“I use medium gauge 13s on the D-18 and Resophonic 16s on the Weissenborn.”) Fingerpicks: Dunlop brass. Thumbpick: Dunlop plastic. Slide: Stevens Steel Bar.
Sarah Louise Henson
On her third solo album, Deeper Woods, Sarah Louise Henson (who performs and records under the name Sarah Louise) takes much inspiration from her natural surroundings. But even with songs named after local flora (“Bowman’s Root”) and fauna (“Pipevine Swallowtails”), Henson, who lives in rural North Carolina near the Appalachian Trail, stresses it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as some sort of woodland fairy.
“People could make assumptions that I’m this shut-in who translates the whispers of leaves into guitar notes, which is just not true,” she says with a laugh. “But I do have old roots in this area.”
Those roots come through in her music, which incorporates elements of everything from Appalachian folk, American Primitive, and prewar blues, to drone, minimalism, and traditional balladry into meticulous, spiraling 12-string solo guitar arrangements. And she weaves it all together using her own idiosyncratic picking patterns and alternate tunings.
“I’ve always made up my own tunings when it comes to writing,” Henson explains. “I’m after a particular sound, something I hear in my mind, and the tuning is a vehicle for that. I change it however I need to in order to get to what I want to hear.”
Henson’s first two solo recordings, 2015’s Field Guide and 2016’s VDSQ Acoustic Series Volume 12, were centered almost exclusively on her entrancing acoustic playing. For Deeper Woods, she added in her own singing, as well as snatches of synthesizer, recorder, drums, distorted electric guitar, and other instrumentation. The sound, she says, “was something I had been working up to for so long.”
At the same time, she also plays alongside multi-instrumentalist Sally Ann Morgan in House and Land, a duo that blends traditional folk music with more modern compositional elements. “If we start to restrict or embalm folk music, it’s no longer folk music,” Henson reasons. “It’s just people kind of acting out this idea of folk music. So you have to think of it as a living, breathing thing.”
Henson likes to create unique picking patterns by combining two or more patterns into a “bigger, more complex one.” To do this, she suggests starting with two patterns in different time signatures—“like, 1 2 3 would be in three [3/8], and 1 2 3 4 would be in four [4/8]”— and practicing them slowly. “When you feel confident, combine them and start increasing the speed,” she says. “After a while, it becomes its own pattern. And I can’t overemphasize that there are infinite possibilities for variation. Don’t be afraid!”
In Example 4, Louise demonstrates the concept on a 12-string guitar in one of those tunings of her own invention—Db Gb Db Ab Cb Db. But the tuning and the fretting fingers are less important than the rhythmic and picking patterns. “It will work well with any chord that uses those strings,” Henson says. “I would also encourage people to make up their own tunings.”
What She Plays
Taylor 356e 12-string, 1972 Guild F-212 12-string, 1986 Alvarez-Yairi 12-string, early 2000s Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster, 1990s Danelectro 12-string. Amplification: 1960s Airline, 1970s “chopped” Fender Super Six Reverb. Pedals: Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, Dunlop Cry Baby.
Gwenifer Raymond’s hauntingly mesmeric fingerstyle compositions are influenced by distinctly American artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Roscoe Holcomb, and John Fahey—unusual source material given that she was born and raised in the small Welsh village of Taff’s Well. Similarly unusual, Raymond, who is 32, came to this music through a unique entry point: Nirvana’s cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
“After that, I started to buy these cheap compilation CDs called Blues Influences of…” she says. “There was a great unpolished, angularity to a lot of those songs—an old, weird sound that mirrored the somewhat louder but equally off-beat weirdness that I would always look for in the relatively more contemporary music I was listening to.”
Raymond’s affinity for that old weird sound can be heard on her debut full-length album, You Were Never Much of a Dancer, which brings together blues, roots, banjo music, and a healthy dose of American Primitive–style picking on a collection of 12 original instrumentals and one cover. She also pays tribute to one of her favorite artists with the song “Requiem for John Fahey.” “He was able to somehow express the verbally inexpressible with his instrumentals,” Raymond says. “That was, and is, very inspiring to me.”
As for whether or not the Welsh-born Raymond finds it odd to be expressing herself through such specifically American forms of music? The answer is: not really.
“American folk music is really a hodgepodge of harmonic traditions from lots of other countries, and especially Britain,” she reasons, adding, “I think the great signature of Americanness on this music is a very cinematic sense of expanse—I find it both isolating and comforting, and somehow nostalgic. The Welsh word hiraeth might apply. It doesn’t directly translate, but sometimes it can be used to convey a sense of homesickness for a place or time that never existed.”
Raymond offers unique advice on how to become a better fingerpicker—repetition and watching TV. “A lot of my songs hang off of driving alternating thumb bass lines, and the only way I’ve found I’m able to do that well is to make it completely mindless, turning the thumb into a third party that acts entirely on its own accord,” she says. “So, seriously, sit and watch Netflix while your thumb goes off and does its own thing. And while that’s happening get the other fingers to join in—slowly working their way through increasingly complicated melodies.”
Raymond demonstrates this sort of repetition in open-D-minor tuning in Example 5, starting with a thumb-picked alternating bass line, adding double stops with her index and middle fingers, and then single-note syncopations in the last four measures. Try coming up with some of your own picking patterns over the steady thumbed bass, in open D minor or the tuning of your choosing.
What She Plays
1929 Supertone Bradley Kincaid “Houn’ Dog” parlor guitar with Martin SP Lifespan 80/20 bronze custom light-gauge strings (primary guitar), Grafton #3.5 and #4 banjos with .011 gauge strings, National Polychrome Tricone resonator with phosphor-bronze Michael Messer National Guitar strings (.013 gauge), Regal squareneck dobro with D’Addario .015 gauge strings. Raymond’s primary live guitar, she says, “was gifted to me by the mighty Henry Kaiser—an 1890 model built by Joseph Bohmann.” Thumbpicks: Dunlop plastic. Fingerpicks: Dunlop 15-gauge steel on index and middle fingers.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.