Attack: In the simplest sense this is often a question of how much force is being used when I play. Some players are very aggressive and play “hard.” There are times when this is necessary and even desirable but usually moderation is a better approach. Hard strumming and single note picking requires tightening of the wrist and forearm, and with that some loss of control and accuracy, for most players anyway. If your guitar is strung with light gauge strings and the action is relatively low, this also leads to string buzzes and pick noise. Even an expensive, high quality guitar sounds bad when resonance and complex tonal quality is buried under extraneous noise. If you’re a player who needs or wants to play in a loud and aggressive style, at least use medium gauge strings and set the action a reasonable distance above the fretboard. Or better yet, use electronics (on board pick-up or a microphone, or both) to get the volume you need. Using a moderate attack not only sounds better but it’s less fatiguing too! I read a profile of the great Tony Rice, arguably the finest modern bluegrass style soloist and the writer was amazed by how light a touch Tony used when playing both complex single note runs and while strumming. I have absolutely no doubt this contributes to his fluid, clean style.
Strumming/pick technique: I believe this is the single, most important variable in achieving the best possible sound. Many guitarists begin using thin picks. While there is no doubt that thin picks are easier to control than thicker ones, what players often do not realize is that they’re relying on the flex of the pick to do what their wrist should be doing – turning slightly with each stroke, both down and up. I was one who started with thin picks and while playing back-up guitar for fiddler Marie Rhines I soon found that I was breaking a half-dozen or more picks every time we performed. It was so bad that I took to taping a small piece of paper on the upper side of my guitar that I tucked a few spare picks into so I could toss away a broken one and grab a new one mid song without breaking the beat (hopefully!). Worse than that, the thin picks sounded, well, thin. The plastic clicking of the thin picks was just as apparent as the sound of the strings on my Martin D-28 and it was annoying to say the least. Finally I forced myself to move up to medium gauge picks. It took some getting used to but in a short amount of time I found that my strumming and single note playing was “looser,” I wasn’t breaking picks anymore and the tonal quality was vastly improved. It was also a revelation to me at a bluegrass festival we did to hold a pick used by the great Doc Watson – it was a heavy gauge, genuine tortoise shell pick with no flex whatsoever. And if there has ever been a flat picker who had a cleaner tone than Doc, I’ve never heard him! I now use heavy gauge small teardrop shaped Fender “jazz” style picks and I think the tone I get is the best it can be.
How the pick is held is another very important variable. Never “point” with a pick; it should extend (slightly!) below the thumb at about a 90-degree angle and it should meet the string with the tip FLAT into the string, not angled toward its side. Players sometimes turn the pick slightly so the tip kind of slides over the string, which allows for less resistance. While this is easier than a flat attack it makes for a duller, muffled tone. You should also experiment with different pick materials and shapes – there are literally hundreds of different styles available and one of them will surely affect your tone quality for the better.
If you’re a finger-style player you will need to develop “the touch,” which is the perfect angle of attack on each string using the tips of your fingers and a corner of your thumb. This assumes you’re looking for a clear tone and not the purposefully muffled sound that blues players like. I tell my students to try to have the index, middle and ring finger pick across (not under!) the treble strings at about a 45-degree angle. Classical guitarists or anyone who uses fingernails to play should angle their wrist up so the nail strikes the string in much the same way as I described above when using a flat pick – straight, or flat into the string. This minimizes the sound of the nail scraping across the string. Pure classical technique encourages draping the arm over the guitar (with the guitar held on the left leg, assuming you’re a right-handed player) and the guitar elevated by placing the left foot on a small stool. This way the fingernails can attack the strings from an absolutely flat plane.
Applying correct technique that results in clear, clean tone makes even simple strumming, single note flat picking or finger picking sound great. Take a look at how your right hand is affecting your tone. And if everything seems right, you’ll have to blame your left hand for those bad notes. But that’s a discussion for another day!
Peace & good music,