I feel very strongly that becoming a good finger picker is ultimately much more satisfying than just strumming. In the most basic sense this is because when someone learns a good variety of finger patterns often times just picking through the chords of a song without singing can be almost as satisfying as singing along. I always urge people to sing but in spite of my best efforts to make my students know that I am totally non-judgmental about their vocal abilities, singing is just not a comfortable thing for some people. So for a while at least, I do all the singing to demo the songs (and record that with the guitar part on the CD I give every student). Hopefully, my less than perfect voice will inspire them to think, hey, if he can do it, so can I! But I would never, ever try to force someone to sing if they didn’t want to.
And that’s why I do push finger-style playing on my students as soon as possible. The key there is knowing when that moment arrives.
When someone strums, the ear tends to focus on what’s good about a chord, not what’s bad. That is, notes inside a chord that are muffled are more easily overlooked when five or six strings are strummed and at least a few of them are right. In the very beginning when I do introduce some songs that will be strummed I am pretty forgiving of less than perfect chords because I focus much more on rhythm: keeping a steady beat with the strumming hand, counting measures, and anticipating chord changes. As the student advances however, it’s time to clean up those chords. I have lots of hints and techniques that will help them this but of course there are variables that affect how long it will take for those chords to clean up. Those include – but are not limited to – things like hand strength, understanding correct wrist and thumb position, finger arch and relationships to the frets, and even things that are more out of their control like width of their fingers, flexibility related to age, and the relative quality of the guitar they are using.
Why is that so important? Because when finger-style playing is introduced, suddenly that chord that you thought sounded just fine……doesn’t. Picking individual notes inside a chord will immediately reveal any deficiencies. Without exception, this is the biggest source of frustration I see with just about every student who begins to learn finger-style guitar. But here’s the peculiar part.
In the very beginning anyone learning finger-style MUST look at the hand with which they are picking. Picking out individual strings in a specified order is tough! Plus, there is nothing in everyday life that prepares you for it. So I do allow a student to watch his or her picking hand, for a while at least. But as soon as possible, I urge them to look away from that hand and do the picking while looking at the hand that is holding a chord. Sounds hard? It is! Finger picking is such a small but precise physical action that being inaccurate is just about a given, for a while at least. But I use a few technique tricks to help develop the essential muscle memory required to find the correct strings. In pure classical guitar method, which I do not teach, there are many, many exercises using one, two or three fingers on individual strings that help develop picking accuracy that is essential for that style of playing. My students however are not interested in classical method or music; they want to play popular, folk, blues, jazz, and country music. This involves repeating patterns (numerical sequences). I always start with simple patterns that require the thumb to play bass strings “on the beat”, sometimes combined with a treble or higher sounding string, and the treble strings often played on the second half of a beat. This is the essence of American popular music finger-style playing.
I could of course use one of the standard guitar courses from Mel Bay, Alfred’s or the like, which are kind of a hybrid between popular and classical techniques but long ago I came to the conclusion that most of those courses are fine for kids but adults quickly tire of their regimentation and the lackluster songs that they offer. Sure would make my job easier though, when it comes to lesson planning…. But no, no Mel Bay or Alfred’s in this studio.
Getting back to the core issue – why is it so important for a person learning finger style to look away from their picking hand as soon as possible? Because as always, it all comes back to rhythm. Fast, accurate chord changes in tempo with chords that sound clean will make even the most basic finger pattern sound interesting and satisfying. And there is no way to accomplish this without looking at the fretting hand and anticipating the next change, or fix what might be wrong with a chord you’re already playing.
It’s very easy for the habit of looking at the right hand all the time to become something of a crutch. When a student does conquer a pattern but is still looking at their picking hand I know this is their “happy place.” It took lots of long hours of practice to get that pattern right, damn it, and they are NOT going to take the chance of messing it up by looking away! Or so their brain is telling them, whether they realize it or not. So I make them look away, look at the music and/or their fretting hand and often they panic. Mistakes are made and frustration grows. “I did it great at home just before I got here!” I’ve heard that a hundred times.
What I always do at this point in that crucial lesson when a person must break the habit of watching their picking hand is to kind of press a mental “clear button.” We stop, take a few deep breathes, relax, and then I allow them to watch the picking hand for a few pattern sequences without changing chords. Then, gently, I urge them to look away. Yes, they often hit the wrong string or strings but they almost always hit most some of the right ones, too. We look back at the picking hand, then look away again. After a few times of doing this, accuracy improves.
And then I always say: see, you can do it without looking! Now let’s look at the fretting hand and try a couple chords with a specified number of picking patterns on each. Without stopping, keeping a steady beat.
And you know what? That almost always works. Then comes bigger task of taking bigger bites of a song, always keeping a steady beat. This is never easy but at least when the student leaves the lesson I know that THEY know how and what to practice.
Must you ALWAYS look away from the picking hand? Of course not! Experienced finger pickers all glance down from time to time and that’s perfectly fine. Just be sure the focus remains on what is about to happen in the song and chord changes, not just what IS happening via your picking hand. The result will be a complete, rhythmic and fun guitar experience.
Peace & good music,