From the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY DAVID HODGE
Sometimes playing guitar requires finesse. It may certainly look like guitarists flail away at the strings. But if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that seasoned players have a subtle control over their instruments. They can hit one, two, three, four, or five strings—accurately, no less—at any given time.
To get your playing to this point requires specific practice. In this lesson, I’ll help you get started on this vital skill. Because all of the examples here are played with a pick, it may take some getting used to, especially if you’re mostly a fingerstyle player. But after a little practice, you’ll likely be impressed with how easily you can switch from strumming full chords to bringing out melodic and harmonic subtleties.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Your primary task is to get comfortable hitting two strings at once, but your secondary objective is to be able to hear when you’ve missed and hit more (or fewer) than two strings. It’s very important at this early stage of practice to listen critically to your playing. (Try recording yourself with a smartphone to check how honest you’re being with yourself.)
Let’s start by focusing on an essential tool for any guitarist—hitting two adjacent strings at the same time—a technique called a double-stop. Ex. 1 is an open E minor chord, played two strings at a time. Begin by hitting the low E and A strings, with short, concise downstrokes. (Everything through Ex. 9 is played entirely in downstrokes, so you’ll get lots of practice!).
Initially, you should be obsessively observant of just what it takes to accomplish this, especially if you’ve not paid it much attention before. Keep your picking hand close to the strings, almost as close as you would when palm-muting. Use just enough of a downstroke to hit the target pair of strings while staying close enough to hit the next pair.
Keeping the Em chord held with your fretting hand, change your picking to the A and D strings. Continue on with the D and G strings, then the G and B, and finally the B and high E strings. Then work your way back down to the original pair.
Ex. 2 is essentially the same exercise, using an A major chord. Start with the A and D strings. Again, work in sets of two until you reach the B and high E strings before coming back to the original pairs.
Ideally, you should be able to do this with any open-position chord you know. The E, Em, and G chords will use all six strings. The A, Am, and C chords will all begin with the A and D strings, and the D chord should begin with the D and G strings.
When you’re comfortable with all your open position chords, move on to something more challenging, as shown in Ex. 3. Start as you did in Ex. 1, but then shift to using just your third finger on the second-fret notes. When you get to the G and B string pair, I strongly suggest using your fourth finger to fret the notes on the third fret. You’re going to want to keep that pinky in shape, after all.
Finally take this last exercise and cut the timing in half, as shown in Ex. 4. This may take practice, but you should find it gets easier with each time you run through it.
Beginners’ Tip #2
While working through Week Two’s exercises, it’s perfectly okay to not keep your first finger flat on the fifth fret the entire time. Feel free to “see-saw” between the first and third fingers as you switch between the fifth and seventh frets.
This week, maintain your focus on picking double-stops, but work further up the neck. For Ex. 5 try fretting the initial pair with your first finger at fret 5 and your third finger at fret 7. Then use only your first finger for any notes on the fifth fret and only your third for any notes on the seventh. When you get to the G-and-B-string pairings, use your fourth finger for the notes on the eighth fret.
Next, repeat the exercise but cut the time in half (Ex. 6) and finally, make some cool, minor variations, playing the notes at the seventh fret as hammer-ons and sliding your third finger from the seventh fret to the eighth and back again, as shown in Ex. 7.
By this point, you can start switching from full chords to fills using double-stops, such as in Ex. 8. This figure is one measure each of G and C, starting with two strums of each chord, followed by four eighth notes of double-stops. It’s the type of guitar lick preferred by players from Paul Simon to Ed Sheeran. Note that each lick begins by keeping the chord in place and then hammering on one (in the case of the C chord) or both (in the G-chord example) strings of the target pair. After last week’s practice, you should be at the point where trusting your ability to hit the correct strings is close to being second nature.
Beginners’ Tip #3
When playing an upstroke, you naturally put in a slight movement away from the guitar, because hitting all the bass strings again muddies up the sound. Take time to be overly deliberate with your strokes—get the feel of just how much push you need to hit the strings as precisely as possible.
It’s time to up the ante with three-string and four-string sets, which are sometimes called partial chords. To accomplish this, let’s take a small step backward with a slight variation of the earlier open E minor chord. In Ex. 9 you’ll play three strings at a time (the first two measures), then you’ll play it using with four strings at a time.
Really take your time with this and listen to what you’re doing. Focus on the highest note, using it to guide you if you’re strumming too hard or too lightly. Don’t be afraid to focus on a simple segment of this example—playing the last five chord clusters of the second measure over and over again, for instance, is a great way to gain confidence in your strumming capabilities.
This becomes even more important when adding upstrokes, as in Ex. 10. Initially, try to catch only two strings when you play an upstroke, listening carefully to each one. Do this exercise very slowly at first until you’re comfortable you’re doing it correctly.
When you’re ready, try Ex. 11. Be especially tuned into whether you’re catching two or three strings on the upstroke. At this point, you’re not going to be totally accurate, but you should be able to hear the difference.
You should also be hearing that your guitar playing sounds more natural and relaxed, much like guitarists you admire. Give Ex. 12 (another pass at the A chord) a try and you should find you’re not the least bit phased by switching between two-, three-, and four-string sets.
Beginners’ Tip #4
It’s important to come up with practical applications of what you’ve learned. For Ex. 13, try to name each chord out loud and then use it in songs that you already know well enough. With Ex. 14, focus on making the pickstrokes clean, to bring out the top note of each chord.
Being able to play just the strings you want also allows you to work in different places along the neck without having to make barre chords for each shift in position. Simple chord progressions, as the I–IV–V (A–D–E) in Ex. 13 become more fun and interesting to play.
Now make some real music! The acid test to see how well you’re doing is to be able to change seamlessly from strumming full chords to partial chords and double stops.
Ex. 14 is much like Ex. 8 in that it’s a simple G-to-C progression, but it also makes builds on Week Three’s skills of changing from downstrokes to upstrokes to emphasize particular notes. And it’s slightly syncopated, to help you stress the highest note of each chord. Like the previous example, it’s a lot more fun to play.
And more fun to listen to, as well.
This is where all your work to this point truly pays off. By now you’ll realize that you don’t have to be 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time—just making the effort to not hit all your strings on every stroke goes a long way toward making you sound like a skilled guitarist.
Take it to the next level
Becoming proficient in picking your strings can bring you all sorts of surprises. If you play a 12-string guitar, you can focus on bringing out the high notes of the third-string course to create a harmony to the B and E strings. (The exercise will also sound great on a six-string guitar.)
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Here’s a typical progression in the key of D major involving the I and V chords (D and A), but the focus of the picking creates a lovely descending melody line. The trick here is to use your second finger as an anchor on string course 3. When both fingers are needed on the same fret, use your third finger on the second course. Otherwise, your index finger will be on course 2.
David Hodge is managing editor of guitarnoise.com and author of seven Complete Idiot’s Guides, including editions for guitar, ukulele, and guitar theory. davidhodge.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.