Your tone isn’t amazingly beautiful, like Andrés Segovia’s. And you want it to be.
Relearn your picking-hand approach by breaking it down into discrete steps.
There are good and bad characteristics inherent to every instrument. The acoustic guitar has several drawbacks: It’s too quiet, doesn’t have much sustain, and arguably lacks any significant repertoire from most periods before 1920, other than some lute, simple keyboard, and J.S. Bach violin and cello suite transcriptions. And it is extremely difficult to play polyphonic music on the guitar, even though it is often used as a solo instrument.
The good thing about the guitar—and it is so good that it makes us want to toil endless hours with our aching fingers and strain our ears and stretch our musical boundaries trying to overcome the aforementioned problems—is that gorgeous sound. That beautiful, sweet tone, which can soothe the ear and bathe the mind in a euphoria that is as close to bliss as sound can bring us. Strong statement? Not if you play guitar.
I think that possessing beautiful tone is most of what it takes to play great. If you have lovely tone and have done the work that is required to achieve it, then it’s more likely that people will be moved by your playing and will want to hear more of it. Hearing a lovely sound is much of what is appealing about music. If you play a simple melody with beautiful tone, you will touch the souls of more people than if you tear through Niccolò Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” with bad tone.
The process of acquiring fine tone will define to you all the things that are possible when the union of your hands, ears, mind, and soul with the guitar occurs. You don’t play a typewriter or a blender. The guitar is a magical thing with which we can access a very profound level of consciousness and communication not easily available in our normal existence. I am certain that when we understand how each note on the guitar sounds, from its birth until the time when our ears can no longer hear it, and how that sound makes us feel, then we will have some idea of what to do with the notes. The great Zen teachers say that when one can find joy in silence and find interest simply in the feeling of the breath entering and exiting the body, then everything else will be powerfully stimulating.
GET THE RIGHT RATIO OF NAIL AND FLESH
So how do you get this great tone? OK, here it is. And make no mistake, this is for all guitarists and not just for those eccentric classical players. First you will need to shape your nails in a way that takes advantage of the softness of the flesh and precision and hardness of the nail. The nail should protrude about 1/16th–1/8th of an inch beyond the fingertip, as viewed from the palm side of the hand, shorter on the thumb side of each finger and slanting to longer on the pinky side.
You must first contact the string with the flesh, very close to but not quite touching the nail. Then you pull the finger through the string so that the string gradually ramps onto the nail, which transfers the energy of your motion to the string, causing it to vibrate. The muscles used for this are only those that pull the finger straight back toward the wrist (flexors). Don’t use any muscles that make your finger twist or move toward another finger. It should feel neutral.
AVOID THE DREADED BZZZ AND CLICK
The nail gives the clarity and power to the sound, and reduces the friction created when a finger moves across a string. While a fingertip without a nail certainly can pluck a string, plucking with a thin surface like a nail or a pick will give the attack of the note more definition and projection. It will also reduce drag, allowing you to play more efficiently and ultimately faster and with more control.
The problem, however, with nail or plectrum playing is that if a softer surface is not used to dampen the string before the nail or pick contacts it, the note will begin with a click. Not pleasant! Then, there is the bzzz factor, that nasty sound that a vibrating string makes when it is touched by a hard surface like a nail, pick, or calloused fingertip. This is difficult to avoid with a pick, but a fingerstyle player can solve the bzzz by using the fingertip’s flesh to reduce the degree of insult occurring when nail meets string.
The flesh, the skin just in front of the nail, must be used to dampen the movement of the string if it’s vibrating from a recent pluck. The softer the flesh is, the better it will accomplish this mission and the less bzzz your tone will have. If your flesh is calloused or dry and rough, you must use some kind of moistening cream to soften it while not playing.
Click! This is the sound that your nail will make if you begin the stroke from a point on the flesh which is any distance away from the nail. So, you must begin the stroke at the nail, but without the nail making initial contact with the string, as that would make a bzzz.
“But oh, maestro professor, how do I dampen the string with the flesh and start the stroke at the nail at the same time? It sounds impossible,” you are screaming. That’s right, it is impossible. So here’s how it’s really done: You must first land on the string with the flesh, so that the nail is a tiny fraction of a millimeter from the string—or way close but not quite touching it. To begin the pluck, you simply apply pressure to the string and your nail then contacts the string without a bzzz or a click. Then you pluck it. Eventually, this will all happen in one motion, and you will not think about it. Challenging? You bet it is. But if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.
DO THE WORK
Do the work in a very quiet place. Any sound other than your guitar will cover up the bzzz and click and make it impossible to evaluate your work. Do it for a week, twice per day, for a half hour each session. Don’t play anything else; that will only reestablish your old habits and tone. Take the following steps; listen hard and get it right:
Position your right forearm such that it crosses the midpoint of your guitar’s lower bout a few inches from elbow. Your wrist should be way relaxed and the hand hanging like it’s asleep. Then, bring it to the strings with minimum motion and effort so that your thumbnail is parallel to the fifth string and resting on it between nail and flesh. That will result in about 0–5 percent of wrist arch and bend. Rotate your forearm so that your index palm knuckle is slightly closer to the top of the guitar than your pinky knuckle. Play over the soundhole.
• Relax all the muscles from neck to fingertip, while engaging your bicep to hold your hand gently in place.
• Place the flesh of the fingertip on the string, so that the nail is less than .000001mm from the string.
• Relax. Listen to the silence.
• In a quantum (all at once) motion, pull the nail through the string so that the fingertip comes to rest on the next string. (Classical guitarists call this “rest stroke,” or apoyando).
• Relax again and listen to the string until its sound is gone.
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• Bring the finger back to the string that you just plucked and repeat from step 1. Make sure you return to the string with the least travel possible. Don’t make an arch or overshoot the string that you are playing. Repeat on all trebles. Do the same with your thumb on the basses.
That’s it. If you do these steps slowly enough and with great care and dedication, you will reduce or eliminate the dreaded bzzz and click. When those are absent, what is left is the best sound your guitar can make—and an open gateway to the sound of your soul. This, I think you will agree, is a very beautiful thing.
Michael Chapdelaine is the only guitarist to have ever won first prize in both prestigious classical (GFA International Classical Guitar Competition) and fingerstyle (National Fingerstyle Championship) competitions. He was a professor of music at the University of New Mexico for 33 years and performs and teaches internationally. michaelchapdelaine.com
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.