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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,Patrick Costello Self Taught: Fingerpicking (40) RE: Self Taught: Fingerpicking 23 Mar 05

Learning the guitar isn't easy. You can read about what I went through here.

In terms of the original question my advice would be not to worry about a specific picking pattern. An awful lot of fingerstyle guitar "stuff" out there gets a tad too wrapped up in the presentation and finger movements of a particular tune when all you really need is some basic ideas to start working with.

When I was studying Kenpo karate there was a saying my instructors uses to toss around now and then that went, "It's better to have one technique you can fight with than ten techniques that fight you."

You can carry this kind of thinking over to the guitar pretty easily if you start messing around with the idea of core techniques.

In frailing banjo the core technique is a simple right hand picking pattern made up of a quarter note and two eighth notes. Almost every "advanced" frailing banjo technique is a adaptation of that basic picking pattern.

If we stop to realize that a lot of early folk, country and blues guitar players started out on homemade banjos it's easy to wonder if that core technique from frailing carried over to the guitar.

If you start out playing a simple thumb-brush:
(this will look better in a monospaced font like courier)

Count:  1  2    3   4   |  1  2    3  4 

(we're playing a simple quarter note strum here)

And once you practice that for a little while and use it in a jam it's easy to move on to the Carter Strum - which is actually nothing more than the "bump dit-ty" from frailing banjo

Count:  1  2  &  3   4  &  |  1  2  &    3  4  &

This isn't a quarter note strum, it's a quarter note and two eighth notes played in a "down, down, up" pattern. You can do it with a flatpick, but to "get" the rhythm down for fingerstyle guitar it's better to play the pattern with your thumb and index finger. Down with the thumb on the bass string, down with the thumb for the strum and then strum up with the index finger.

You jam with that for a while and the next step is to change up the rhythm into something more like fingerstyle guitar by replacing the strums with a single note.

Count:  1  &  2  &  3   &   4  & 

And it doesn't have to be single notes:

Count:  1  &  2  &  3   &   4  & 

And you don't have to take out all of the thumb-brushes:

Count:  1  &  2  &  3   &   4  & 

Once you can keep the rhythm smooth playing a string of eighth notes the next step is to mix the alternating bass with the scale (I went into this n an earlier Mudcat post)

Count:  1  &  2  &  3   &   4  &

And right here you have the pattern that Doc Watson uses for Doc's Guitar, Don't Think Twice, She's Gone Away, Deep River Blues and a bunch of other songs. It also shows up in the playing of musicians as divers as Merle Travis, Leo Kottke, Gary Davis, John Cephas and God only knows how many others.

If you tab out, say, Deep River Blues and Doc's Guitar on paper it looks like there is this long string of individual finger movements you have to memorize to play the song. The reality is that you only need to understand a few concepts to be able to play those songs and a thousand others.

Part of the trick is to realize that any song can be played in an almost infinite number of ways. Hardly any player worth a hoot will play something exactly the same way twice. Don't be afraid to experiment.

When it comes to what fingers and how many fingers to use my advice is to figure that out for yourself. "How" you play a song isn't important as long as you are making musical sense.

When it comes to fingerpicks, learn to work with them and without them. Remember that some situations are going to call for different approaches.

For my own playing I really hate standard thumbpicks. The blade of a thumbpick makes it really tough to throw in a thumb-brush now and then so what I wound up doing was making a metal band that went right around where my thumb hits the strings. I get the volume of a pick, but I don't have a blade to get caught in the strings.
If you don't feel like making one a standard left-handed metal thumbpick worn on your right thumb will work. You can also start messing around with some cool slap-bass ideas to mix into blues tunes.

Be careful of books - an this is coming from a guy who writes music books for a living. A lot of teachers get too wrapped up in giving you what he or she thinks is the right answers and that just won't help you. Find a resource that makes you ask the right questions. It's the process of looking at things and asking yourself how or why something does or doesn't work that will lead to finding your own voice on the guitar.

It's not a matter of right and wrong. Use your head, follow your heart and keep in mind that advice you pay for will always be what you want to hear, but almost never what you need.


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