Continuing the discussion about right hand technique, one of the most important aspects is very basic but often very difficult: relaxation. Keeping your picking hand as relaxed and loose as possible is critical for success. Most players find this quite difficult in the beginning for many reasons. But to be accurate and to build up speed your hand and fingers can’t be tense and tight. A very fine classical guitarist I know always begins his practice sessions by “shaking out” his right hand before he begins to play – keeping his hand as relaxed as possible he shakes it up and down for 10 seconds or so and this seems to help. Also, remember to play softly, at least in the beginning. Volume is not all that important; clarity is! Which gets to the next thing.
One of the most common questions I get from students who are learning to finger pick is whether or not to use their fingernails. You can find many discussions about this on various guitar forums but I think for most people using finger tips rather than nails is easier and the sound is more pleasing. Remember, I am talking about playing steel string acoustic guitar. Classical guitarists always use their nails because nylon strings will produce a more crisp sound when played with fingernails. Steel strings are brighter sounding to begin with.
This is not to say there aren’t some very fine steel string guitarists who use their nails. The great James Taylor even has a video on his web site showing how he applies and files artificial nails. I have found however that being able to feel the strings with my fingertips allows me to be more accurate and by slightly varying the angle of attack (plus locating my hand closer or farther away from the sound hole) I can get a pretty wide range of tonal variation. Plus, as the tips are used on the steel strings they too, just like on your fretting hand, will build up calluses and this too aids in attaining a crisp tone.
How about the question of where you play in relation to the sound hole? As I said in the previous post, the angle of attack on the string should be about 45 degrees compared to being totally vertical (as many classical guitars play) and horizontal (i.e., playing “down” the string toward the bridge – an effect employed by many blues style players to generate a funkier, thuddy tone). For most players maintaining that 45-degree angle of attack means they will slightly behind the sound hole. The only reason you would want to change this is for tonal variation; playing directly over the sound hole gives a warmer, mellower sound. Playing back toward the bridge gives a tighter, more crisp sound. For what it’s worth, when I play a very fast tune I do move my hand slightly back toward the bridge because the strings move less than farther up toward the sound hole. This allows me to be more accurate, plus the clarity of individual notes is better. On slower, mellower tunes I adjust to be slightly over the sound hole. The overall tone is pleasing and the notes seem to blend better, which may be important in songs that have longer lasting melody notes.
I hope this discussion of hand position helps as you explore finger style playing. Everyone develops their own little technique adaptations and this is just fine. Just remember – if you’re struggling with things like accuracy, speed and tone there are adjustments that can be made to make your playing more pleasurable for both you and the listener.
Peace & good music,