I’ve been playing the guitar for around 24 years, and despite my lack of acclaim and evidence of any music releases, I reckon I’m a pretty decent guitarist. I can pat my own back here, as far as I have to admit that my talent hasn’t put me in a financially-free position, and I am still time-constrained by an involving day-job. However, I think I have something to offer to the guitar-playing community, so here it is.
I began playing electric guitar, and had a great teacher in the form of Kip Whitehead, but when I bought my first steel-string Yamaha in 1999, I really started to excel. Now, 13 years later, I’ve developed a style based on the inspiration of several musicians.
- Jack Rose – pure inspiration from his hypnotising and psychedelic fingerstyle technique
- Jimi Hendrix – marrying the different components of guitar music: bass, rhythm and lead, into one fluent technique
- Michael Hedges – making full use of the guitar as both a melodic instrument and a percussive instrument, and freeing both hands to play notes
- Kaki King – being flexible, using the right technique for the right job, and creating a genuinely interesting sound without over-complicating
- Erik Satie – communicating powerful emotions with simple motifs
- Jimmy Page/Peter Gabriel – looking to different cultures for musical inspiration
- Maurice Ravel – painting a visual picture with a musical piece, and the power of achieving virtuoso technique
- Russ Shipton – whose book ‘The Complete Guitar Player’ gave me my first finger-picking experience
- Kip Whitehead – my awesome guitar teacher who taught me everything from theory to technique to spirituality in music
- Troy Stettina – whose speed lead technique books taught me the importance of doing drills in order to gain speed through muscle memory
- Bruce Lee – merged several different styles of martial art to create one effective composite fighting style in jeet-kune-do (ok not technically a musician, but he was an awesome dancer!)
I also took great inspiration from Devendra Banhart’s folk music compilation, ‘Golden Apples Of The Sun’ of 2004. This album revealed the emerging sound of the modern folk scene in the United States, which represented a revival of the folk roots scene from the 1960’s, but with a modern and quirky spin that gave it a fresh sound. As far as genre-ists go, the scene was labelled as ‘New Weird America’ and ‘Freak Folk’, but genres aren’t that important!
Fingerstyle is a very old way of guitar-playing. Indeed, classical guitar grades feature the implementation of finger-picking. Spanish flamenco style and traditional African guitar also use such techniques, but it was the blues, jazz and country music of twentieth century America that brought a modern and contemporary spin to the style. The technique that I have developed involve a combination of fingerstyle with open strings, open-tunings, capo use, percussive technique and use of digital looping technology. This all starts with an introduction to the arpeggiated finger-picking technique that I utilise.
In folk guitar, there are two schools of thought when it comes to right-hand technique. The conventional style is known as ‘Travis Picking’. This involves allowing the hand to anchor onto the guitar body by resting the little finger on the guitar surface on the far side of the strings. Then the thumb, index and middle finger are free to pluck strings. This strategy allows the guitarist to achieve stability with the guitar, and accuracy with the string-picking. However, I favour using a free-hand technique, where the hand doesn’t rest on any part of the guitar. Contact is made with the strings directly without the use of anchoring. With practice, the whole arm develops an awareness of where the strings are without the need for an anchor-point. Travis pickers will argue that this is wrong, but then they can’t do things like pluck five strings at the same time or play five-finger arpeggios, so stick with me on this one!
This is a tutorial that assumes basic knowledge of guitar tablature and music notation. Further notation of picking patterns is explained below. Psychedelic fingerstyle guitar, or “freak-picking” (to coin a phrase), is a straightforward technique that can be picked up very fast. The underlying principle is in maintaining a daily routine of practicing the drills and exercises. What at first feels awkward to play eventually becomes a natural and automatic response as the muscle memory learns the techniques. Muscle memory is bascially the brain optimising the execution of a commonly performed manual task. The only way to ‘program’ your brain to gain muscle memory is constant repetition. Fear not, however! This does not mean that you are to lose hours of your life every day dedicating yourself to learning dry technical guitar technique. I once heard that John Williams, the classical guitarist, stated that to learn an instrument, one has to devote only 15 minutes a day of practice. As long as you can fit in 15 minutes of these drills every day, you will get the techniques, and more importantly, build up speed.
There are several ways to notate finger-picking technique, so we’re going to pick one:
Basic Quaver Picking Pattern
This set of exercises demonstrate the basic starting point for beginning freak-picking guitar. The exercise is in common time (ie 4:4 time signature), and has you picking eight notes within a bar. The pattern for your picking hand is as follows:
T – 1 – 2 – 3 – T – 1 – 2 – 3
Exercises can be performed in two ways. Firstly, you should look at nailing a steady pace for the drills by using a metronome to space your timing. Aim to get the notes bang on, so that you have a smooth regular picking motion. Secondly, you can look at building speed on each drill. Start off at a steady pace and build up speed after each iteration until you are playing the drill at as fast a speed as you can manage, while still being able to space the notes out evenly.
Exercise 1 – Basic Quaver Pattern in A Minor
This exercise introduces you to the technique with a simple arpeggio.
Exercise 2 – Alternating Bass Quaver Pattern in A Minor
A slight enhancement to the first exercise, where we alternate the string picked by the thumb.
Exercise 3 – Alternating Bass Quaver Pattern in E Major
A further variation of the alternating thumb picking pattern, this time with three different bass notes being played, and on a new chord.
Exercise 4 – Putting It Together
Now you’re going to try joining the two chords together to focus on using the technique through a chord sequence.
You should now have a pretty good handle on the basic quaver finger-picking technique. From the fourth exercise, you should be able to formulate your own methods as to how to apply the technique to other chord sequences you know, and how to handle chord changes. Freak picking offers plenty of opportunities to explore acoustic guitar and to create very unusual textures, which we shall investigate in future tutorials.