I’ve written about this in my Tip of the Week in the past but I think it bears repeating. How do we best accomplish clear, clean tone? This is something that I work on with my students on a weekly basis. The two most important elements are simple in theory but difficult for many in execution. First and foremost – arching the fingers and using the finger tips ONLY. All too often players get into the habit of allowing the fingers to flatten out so they use more of the pads of the fingers rather than the tips. I have a theory about this. I think it’s a two-fold problem and many players don’t analyze their playing enough to recognize the problems. It would seem that covering a wider area would lead to better coverage, and therefore a better chance of playing individual strings more accurately but that is not the case; flattening out is more likely to lead to touching (and killing) strings that are adjacent to the one or ones you’re trying to play. The second element is more practical. Playing with just the fingertips HURTS! At least in the beginning. But after calluses develop and strength improves, accuracy follows.
But to do that you have to employ the other essential, which is correct overall hand position. Dropping the wrist is the starting point. What that means is never allowing the inside of the hand to push UP on the back of the neck. Am I doing that, you think to yourself? Well, if your thumb is pointed back toward the head of the guitar you most certainly are. I’ll repeat a little tip a great guitarist told me not too long ago: make sure the tip of your thumb is parallel to your second (middle) finger at all times. This simple little trick will ensure your wrist is in proper position. If your wrist is positioned correctly it is much, much easier to arch the fingers and use only the tips, as outlined above.
One more thing (OK, that’s three things to keep in mind!): Stay close to the frets! But not on top of them! This is particularly important in the overall set up of a chord. For example, with first position C Major, if you don’t start with your 1st finger close to the 1st fret of the second string it is all but impossible to stretch out the 3rd finger to the third fret on the fifth string. Think about it.
Uh oh. One more thing. Press down hard! Yes, it might hurt but that will pass or become tolerable over time. The resulting clear, clean tone is worth it.
Along the same lines, I’m sometimes amazed by how very experienced players will accept sloppy playing as the norm. It’s taken me a lot of years to come to this conclusion but I hold it to be gospel truth: It is a far, far better thing to play a simple tune as perfectly as you can than to try to play something much more complex and accept sloppy playing as the price for those hot licks. Electric guitarists sometimes get away with sloppy playing by covering it up with distortion or other “effects.” Acoustic players don’t have that luxury.
Sometimes it’s not about the fretting hand at all. I heard a player recently who was quite accomplished but he was in the habit of playing back toward the bridge rather than near or over the sound hole. The result was a harsh, brittle sound that all but destroyed the wonderful complexity and resonance of the very expensive guitar he was playing. In my own playing I sometimes shift back toward the sound hole just a tiny bit during more forceful passages in a song, to minimize string noise that I might get if I tried those passages over the soundhole where the strings are more flexible. But I don’t stay there long because I want my very nice guitars to sound as good as they can. I would rather adjust the force of the attack, whether with fingers or a pick and play a bit softer than I would like, to ensure I get the BEST sound out of my guitar. Food for thought. Where do you keep your hand or pick when you play? Does your guitar sound good when you play there?
One more element in the quest for the best possible sound. How old are those strings? Even if you do everything I’ve mentioned you will not get a decent sound with strings that are old and dead. New strings are the least expensive way to immediately improve your sound. I’m often asked how often I change my strings. Well, depending on whether I’ve been gigging a lot with a particular guitar or it has been hot and humid and my hands have been sweating when I play, I might change them as often as once a month. Otherwise, I usually go 6 – 8 weeks with a set. I could probably go longer as the strings are totally dead by that point but I want my guitars to sound there best. So do your guitar – and your ears – a favor. Change those strings!
Peace & good music,