Just as the term “jazz” can be used to describe a wealth of different musical styles, so too can the term “fingerstyle.” Many aspiring fingerstyle guitarists start out by learning basic picking-hand patterns or memorizing note-for-note arrangements of popular tunes. Some spend their time ensconced in a particular genre, perhaps taking on a study of fingerstyle blues or delving into the world of open tunings, as in Hawaiian slack-key guitar. However, after some time, the advancing player might begin wondering how to embellish the tunes in his or her repertoire, or maybe even how to improvise freely, instead of always playing by rote. This Weekly Workout is intended to give you some new ways to practice and to set your own path as a fingerstyle player.
To get started, it’s important to have a solid understanding of the basic subdivisions of time and how they apply to fingerpicking. Most importantly, you want to work on developing thumb-finger independence in your pick hand. Start with an easy exercise, as shown in Ex. 1, the ascending E-major scale, played in quarter notes on string 1. Use whatever picking-hand fingerings feel most natural—you might try alternating between your index and middle fingers, for instance.
The next step is to practice pinching the open sixth string with each of the scale notes. Try Ex. 2, picking the sixth-string E with your thumb and the higher notes with your index and/or middle finger. Although this may seem like a simple task, it’s important to practice slowly, ideally with your trusty metronome accompanying you. In Ex. 3, play the same scale, but in eighth notes. Pinch every other note in unison with your pedal tone (constant note), in this case, the open sixth string. If those eighth notes seem too difficult, just stick with quarter notes for awhile; there’s no hurry.
After you feel comfortable with the eighth-note idea, try playing the E-major scale with the root on the third string, like in Ex. 4. You’re playing the scale in the same octave as before, just in a more efficient manner. This will also make it easier when playing 16th notes (Ex. 5) and eighth-note triplets (Ex. 6).
Considering the open bass notes available in standard tuning, the keys of A and D major are also good options for expanding on this concept. And if your vocabulary extends beyond the major scale, you can apply the same technique of pedaling a bass note and exploring the various subdivisions of time. Just remember to make everything you play as musical as possible.
Beginners’ Tip #1
If you’re just getting started with fingerpicking, try to avoid resting your picking hand’s pinky on the top of the guitar, and keep that hand as relaxed as possible.
After you’ve got the scale mastered on one string, it should be easy to add a harmony note, as in Ex. 7—the E-major scale played in diatonic sixths. Again, pick the low E with your thumb and each pair of sixths with your index and middle or ring fingers. The bass notes have switched to half notes; feel free to try this with the examples from Week One as well.
You might recognize some of these shapes as fragments of chords you already know. If they don’t seem familiar, not to worry: just enjoy the wonder of new and unknown areas on your fretboard. It’s the journey, not the destination. Using what you learned in Week One, you can create simple melodic ideas by varying the rhythm and phrasing of these harmonized pairs, as depicted in Ex. 8. Another option would be to harmonize in thirds on adjacent strings, with the roots on the fourth string (Ex. 9). These shapes will come in handy for next week’s workout.
It’s important to spend time moving your harmonized string pairs around the neck and getting used to how they sound in conjunction with the pedal tone. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t worry too much if what you’re playing sounds “right” or not. When played with a certain intent, even notes that are technically incorrect can sound musical. Be sure to jot down any new harmonies or sounds that you discover, and use them in your playing. After all, this lesson is all about helping you find your own style.
Beginners’ Tip #2
If you feel your bass notes are ringing out too much, mute the string by lightly resting the side of your pick hand just near the bridge; this technique, known as palm muting, comes in handy if you’re going for a more bluesy sound.
Although the idea of banjo rolls on guitar might seem a bit strange, they really are quite easy to play and add a whole new sound. Rolls are just repeated picking-hand patterns, often played at breakneck tempos. Try a forward roll, using a combination of your thumb (p), index (i), and middle (m) fingers—p–i–m–p–i–m–p–i—as shown in Ex. 10. Here the pattern falls on the open top four strings, allowing you to focus on your picking hand. Let each string ring freely throughout the rolls; play the pattern repeatedly, until it is well-lodged in your muscle memory.
Beginners’ Tip #3
As usual, slow and steady wins the race. Although you may want to play these as fast as you can, as soon as you can, make sure to concentrate on getting the pattern down solidly before speeding it up.
After you’ve spent some solid time in the woodshed with each of the new techniques, the real fun happens when you start to piece them all together. In Ex. 12, you’ll find just one suggestion of how to do so. This is a great time to start incorporating the expressive elements available on the guitar. For example, you could play the harmonized string pairs as written, but they sound great when you slide into them from a half step below. Also, you could add a ritard (slowing of the tempo) when transitioning between the techniques.
Again, this example is just to give you some ideas, which you can transfer to different techniques, keys, tunings, and more. It’s my sincere hope that some of these concepts will help spark some creativity and encourage you to go out and explore that fretboard for yourself. Don’t forget: One of the most valuable things you can always have with you is your beginner’s mind—a willingness to embrace the unknown, without any preconceived notions.
Beginners’ Tip #4
If you haven’t done so already, learn to love your metronome; keeping a steady groove is a must for any fingerstyle guitarist.
Jamie Stillway is a fingerstyle soloist and educator in Portland, Oregon. jamiestillway.com.
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
As an added challenge, try an alternating bass pattern while working through the ideas in this Weekly Workout. For example, in the key of A, alternate your thumb between the open fifth and sixth strings—the root and fifth, respectively, of the A chord. These are common choices for alternating bass patterns in a variety of styles. If you move the bass notes to the open fourth and fifth strings, the same techniques easily transfer to the key of D. Again, make sure to play slowly, ensuring that your thumb is consistent in its rhythm and note choices, and make it musical!