Guitar Technique Sessions

Week Number Twenty Eight (March 31, 2005)

Classical Guitar

Rock & Roll

(It ain't Noise Poluution!)

The Tourist Column

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Tone Production

Part One

We've covered how the guitarist's left hand should be positioned -- assuming a right-handed guitarist, that is. Well, the positioning of the right hand is important too. In fact, without a good right hand position, all the well-honed technique you've developed with left hand is nothing more than an intellectual exercise, since the actual production of audible sound is predominantly a right hand issue.

What does that mean? Doesn't all sound production come from right hand motion? Nope. Hammer-ons and pull-offs (legato technique as described in Exercise Week Two) can be responsible for as many as three notes in any four. One pluck/pick can energize the guitar string enough to produce three fingered notes on one string plus the initial plucked/picked note. Factor in an open string at the end of those four notes and you can have five notes on one right hand motion!

Yeah, you will say, but that is a question of left hand strength and dexterity, nothing to do with the right hand at all. Yes, that is true. However what about that initial pluck/pick? Without good energy transfer from hand/finger to string, the left hand will have to work very hard to create strong tone -- tone strong enough to let the notes be recognized as anything more than just weak passing tones.

Both electric guitarists and acoustic guitarists are cognizant of the fact that where the string is plucked or picked results in different tone production. Let's look at two instruments, a Hill Munich classical guitar (one of my favortie instruments) and a Fender Stratocaster (ditto.) Vastly different, eh? Nothing in common in tone production here, right? Tone production is still fundamentally identical! This session, we'll look at the electric guitarist's tasks. Part Two will deal with the classical and fingerstyle players.

The Fender Stratocaster has three pickups placed one at the end of the neck, one centrally located amidships and one placed slightly akimbo by the bridge. By selecting one or two of these pickups, the tone can be altered from a warm(ish) bass-heavy tone to a shrill treble bite that has been described as the scream of a stainless steel angel with a chromium heart. The Munich--naturally--has no such pickups or a selector switch. The classical guitarist shifts his right hand from positons ranging from over the last frets of the fingerboard to a position just fore of the bridge (ponticello.)

Although the Strat player need do little more than flip a switch, he is missing much tonal palette by limiting his input to this action. Placing the pickup selector in the neck or mid position and strumming or picking the strings by the bridge results in a shimmering trebly sound that is warmed by the choice of pickup. It is a neat technique to use to accent a downbeat or interesting chord change in a ballad.

Position of the fingernails or pick can also result in a subtle (and sometimes not too subtle) change in tone. Angling the fingernail so that it slices through the string yields a smoother, rounder tone than placing the nail absolutely parallel and perpendicular to the string and snapping it. Similarly, using the side of the pick or slicing rather than chopping will result in a sweeter tone as well. Using position relative to the bridge or neck plus these techniques will reult in an almost limitless variety of tones.

One of my faorite picking techniques to fatten the sound of my Stratocasters is to hold the pick between my thumb and both my first and second fingers. This forces the top of my second fimger's nail to also impact the string a nanosecond after the pick's initial attack. Once again, the tone fattens with this approach. Of course it also beats the snots out of that fingernail, but it is the price one pays for art...

The photo shows

the right hand positioned with the pick held for a smooth string release. This will yield a very mellow, round fat tone when used with the neck position pickup selected. With the bridge pickup selected instead, the tone will be trebly but with a smoother quality than if the pick is held as in the next photo... Plucking or strumming way back by the brdige results in a very bright -- brittle sums it up -- but only if used with the bridge pickup selected. Applying energy to the string back here while the neck pickup is on will result in a shimmering tone. Okay, that briefly covers where you place your pick.









As I've written previously, how you hold the pick will make a difference -- for some the difference is subtle, for others it can be a dramatic shift in timbre. In this following photo, you can see the purple Dunlop pick (I like 'em heavy and often use a quarter. When the price of the picks went over a quarter, I began using the cheaper alternative!) The pick is positioned so that the side of the pick slices the string rather than grabbing it and pulling it like a bowstring. This yields a softer attack, a smoother tone. It will add shimmer to a chord and a roundness to single notes.

That's one way of holding the pick. The other extreme is shown (or partially hidden!) in this next picture The pick is in there, grasped between thumb and first finger. It is absolutely parallel to the guitar string and will apply energy to the string in a very abrupt and forceful way -- this will result in a brighter, snappier sound. How you articulate the pick during a scale or melody passage can add accent to individual notes, can add articulation to a line -- crescendo and decrescendo as well as tonal variation.

This is a very useful technique for subtle guitar work. Try it!







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