Pinky rest #2

As we’ve said in the 1st part of this article, resting your pinky is a quick way to stabilize your hand. So let’s look at what to pay attention to when playing that way.

There is really not much to it position-wise. The point of contact will change depending on your hand size and angle at which you pluck the strings with your fingers. Best advice I could give here is to look for what works for you.

As for what is the actual role of the anchor, it’s important to note that you don’t put weight of your hand on it. When I first started playing, I put some serious weight on my pinky. And I had a reason! If i didn’t, my hand (and pinky) would just jump on and off the soundboard. But with time, especially after some longer practice sessions my pinky would start to hurt. Something had to be done. Only when I understood that the proper function of this tool, I could find the right way to use it. Here is what I learned:

There should be little to no weight on your rested pinky. Instead think of it just as some sort of a probe telling you how far the soundboard is. Check this video:

and notice how Tommy’s pinky freely moves on the soundboard. It’s especially visible in pieces like this one or Tall Fiddler. So once I started working on my hand stability and lifted some weight from my pinky everything went back to order. It stopped hurting, the rest of my hand relaxed and my overall technique moved forward.

The secret to playing with pinky support but not straining it is practicing also without it. Start by playing very easy things without pinky support (pinky should move together with 3rd finger. If you’re not sure, just watch some classical guitar videos). Then play the same things with pinky laid very gently on the soundboard. Let it move a little as your hand moves while switching strings etc. You should be able to brush the soundboard with pinky effortlessly at all times. As you play more and more difficult things without the support try to implement this gentle touch as you play with the anchor as well. Try some strumming with pinky support. Again, while strumming, pinky should brush the soundboard up and down. It shouldn’t impair your hand movement. Soon you’ll get used to new way and your hand will gain new level of freedom.


Pinky rest #1

Virtually unknown to classical guitar, resting right hand pinky right under the sound hole is rather common in fingerstyle world. What are pros and cons of it?

When you start to learn classical guitar you’ll often have some trouble with right hand stability. At this stage individual fingers aren’t properly mobilised yet. There is then a strong tendency to use bigger segments of your upper limb to produce a sound. It might be a move from your wrist or even from your elbow. Of course it’s impossible to play that way and a lot of effort has to be put into stabilising your hand and moving just the individual fingers.

Pinky rest resolves this problem almost instantly and that’s its main purpose. This comes at a cost however.

Pinky and ring finger having some tendon connections tend to move together. Anchoring your pinky on the face of the guitar makes it much harder to play with the 3rd finger (“a” finger). It’s inhibited and it’s more difficult to perform techniques like rolls or classical tremolo in even and steady manner.

It’s hard to say whether it’s worth it. Also depending on your target repertoire pros can outweigh cons and vice versa. For me, given that I was always interested in Tommy Emmanuel style music, it was easy choice. But now I have to pay for it when I’m trying to tackle classical guitar songs.

To sum up, if songs that you’d like to play are being played with pinky rest then it’s probably good idea to implement it in your playing or to at least check it out. Otherwise maybe it’s better to work more in the beginning but later to have more choices in your repertoire (especially if you see yourself playing difficult classical stuff at some point).

In second part of this article (coming soon) I’ll try to point out what to pay attention to when anchoring your pinky.

Problem in a song. What now?

You learn a new song and there is this place that gives you so much more trouble than all the rest. First thing that usually comes to our minds is: “practise the hell out of this bugger!”. But now is not the time for mindless repetition. Actually it’s probably the most inefficient thing you could do. Instead it’s time for some mental work. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Isolate the difficult part. Find last easy (comparatively) notes and where the difficult part ends.
  2. Is the difficulty of the part in technique? Or maybe you don’t understand the rhythm?
  3. Is the problem in your right hand, left hand? Maybe both hands are difficult or rather it’s not a problem of each hand separately or synchronization between two hands?
  4. Can you play it correctly very slow? If you can, notice what happens when you speed up? What is the core of your problem? Tension, slow movement, precision, stretch?
  5. Once you have the problem pinned down you might be ready to go rest of the road with brute force approach. But if you have any doubts keep going to the next point.
  6. Try isolating just the troublesome movement. The more you narrow it down the easier it’ll be.
  7. Cut out all that is irrelevant for your problem. If problem is just in one hand, cut the other. Divide the movement into segments (for example if it’s arpeggio practise just two-three fingers at a time. If it’s a chord change, learn just the vertical movement and then horizontal separately).
  8. If you see that difficulty would be much better addressed in some kind of technical exercise that you know or can come up with, go for it.
  9. Once you know the fundamental part, “dress it up” progressively with more and more of what you cut before until you’re back where you started.

With time and experience you’ll be able to skip steps and arrive at conclusions almost intuitively. For that to develop, however: you’ll have to do those steps consciously for some time.

Why a fingerstyle guitarist needs music theory?

This vast and often dreaded area of knowledge gets a lot of bad reputation among beginning guitarists. It’s often viewed as limiting on creativity, not romantic enough and generally uncool. At the same time however I doubt if you could find even a handful of renowned guitarists who submit to this point of view.

Although it is possible to play rather well without music theory, being a well rounded guitarist is whole other thing. But let’s take things one at a time.

1. If you know theory behind the song, you’ll learn the song much faster.

It’s like having whole new reference point. Let’s say that you have this transition inside a song:Aprog

If you don’t care about music theory you just remember the arrangement of fingers. If you forget anything about that, you’re “doomed”.

At the same time, if you recognize this passage as A-Amaj7-A7-A6 its hard to forget it.

To put it differently, let’s say that you have to memorize a word: “drink”. Pretty easy, right? But now let’s take as many letters. Try to memorize a word “jfilr”. Entirely different situation. That’s because you’re concentrating on letters and not on word itself. Understanding and recognizing chords makes remembering songs more like a first case scenario.

2. Understanding how rhythm works makes you a better player.

Time signature, bars, beats. It’s all there to help you, not to distract you from music. Granted, if you have a good ear, you’ll be able to play a lot of things without understanding how it all works, but sooner or later you’ll encounter a problem in which only careful analysis and counting of beats (or even smaller subdivisions) can help.

3. There is no writing or arranging fingerstyle songs without a backbone of theory.

Of course you might be able to create something based on most popular chords with easily reachable melody. The moment you need to step off the beaten path, without theory you’re in much trouble. There are simply too many notes available to search haphazardly for a next one. And arranging is even more difficult. You’ll usually have to transpose the song, find chords, change a base note etc. Without some theoretical knowledge it’s almost impossible.

4. Understanding the theory behind a song allows you to fully appreciate composers effort.

Some most amazing and most ear-pleasing effects in your favourite songs are based on very clever harmony or rhythm. On the other hand you can be surprised by how harmonically-wise simple are some of the coolest and most fun sounding phrases.

5. In each song there is much more to learn than just notes.

By analysing songs you learn, you can get so much more from them. You get the ideas that you can use later, you learn more about theory itself, you expand your musical vocabulary and your imagination.

6. Knowledge for the sake of it.

In our utility driven society we often forget about it. Acquiring knowledge just for the sake of it is what makes us human. Even if we don’t see benefits right away (and trust me, sooner or later you will), sometimes just learning new things is its own reward.

How to learn songs by heart

If you learn your songs from tabs or standard notation, you might be struggling with learning them by heart. I remember that when I was beginning, my sight reading was so poor that I had no other choice but to memorize the material. What I see in my students (especially playing easier pieces) is that they keep on reading from the paper no matter what. The way I try to get around that is to make them learn and practice a song bar by bar. And it’s much easier to memorize it that way.

When you take up a new song you probably play through it couple of times. Oftentimes that’s how people keep practising – just playing the whole thing in a rugged way and hoping that it gets better. Practising smaller beats is much more effective but the quickest way to learn the song and to free yourself from the tyranny of paper is to make the bit you work on as short as possible. Learn just one bar (two at the most). Practice it without looking at the notes until it flows. Than practice next bar the same way. Then join them etc… Practice that way until you complete a single phrase. Than play this phrase over and over again until you don’t have to think about correct notes or fingers.

The funny thing is you have to do this work either way. But by doing those small bits by heart you’ll end up with well practised and memorized song. If you put the memorization work in from the beginning you’ll barely notice it. The alternative is you can learn the whole thing from the notes and only than start memorizing it. But than you’ll have a lot of unpleasant work to do.

If you practice with the notes in front of you, the temptation of looking at them might be too strong. Consider putting the notes at the other side of the room so that you have to get up every time you forget what you have to play. That way you’ll have much more motivation to remember what’s next. Also whenever you struggle to remember something, when you finally do it on your own it’s written much better into your brain. On the other hand, if you just look at the paper, the brain learns that it doesn’t have to remember because the paper is available. So once you read the piece you want to practice, use the notes only as a last resort.

Is it OK to simplify?

It happens pretty often. You choose a song to learn, go through it and notice that some part of it is simply beyond your reach. Or even worse, you spend a lot of time learning first half of the song only to notice that in the second half there is a part that is impossible (or too costly to learn) for you. All this time spent and you aren’t able to finish the song. If you were a classical guitarist there would be very little room to manoeuvre. Classical discipline usually requires fidelity to the musical text. However, since we are playing fingerstyle, which is light music, our reality is more forgiving. Of course some people preach that any changes in the original are bad. But ask yourself this: would you rather play the song you like with couple simplifications or not play it at all?

I firmly believe in compromise approach. Whenever I simplify a song, it’s not because of my laziness. It’s because I know learning it 100% accurate is impossible or  it would take too much time that I could use elsewhere. Of course the ultimate goal is to learn a song in it’s entirety. But it’s not always possible or practical for me. I could do it if I spent very long time practising but at the moment I can’t afford it.

Does it mean it’s OK to simplify? No. It’s not OK. Simplifying becomes addictive and if you don’t watch yourself it can become your second nature. An easy way around things you have to work on. So I think a musician should always treat it as evil… It’s just that it’s sometimes necessary and lesser evil.

One last thing. Try to keep track of all the changes you made to the original. Once in a while, check if your abilities have grown to the level at which you can tackle the difficult part. You can also consider creating simplified version for occasions when you want to just play the piece for someone,while patiently practising the difficult original.

Voices distinction

One of the things that from the get go drew me towards fingerstyle was the way in which voices seem to be split and individualised. It’s achieved in couple of ways. For example base line can be palm muted to create an illusion of another instrument. On higher levels it’s also possible to gain such independence between two parts of a song that the player can insert changes into rhythm or melody of a song to deepen an illusion of another musician lurking in the shadows.

But all the technical tricks are of little help if they aren’t the result of our imagination and mental image of the song. There is little chance that the musician creates multidimensional panorama of voices in his arrangement if he doesn’t first hear it in his head. That’s where it should all start. To play like two (or more) musicians you should first hear those separate instruments in your head. Of course it’s not some sort of a switch that you can just flip. It’s rather a skill that should be continuously developed. Here are couple of tips on how to approach it.

  1. While listening to songs played by a whole band try to distinguish individual voices. A good place to start is early Beatles stuff for example (back when they didn’t use additional instruments as much). Bare in mind that given voice can be played by more than one instrument and instruments can switch between different voices. Try to listen to some songs you know well and concentrate only on one voice at a time (first listen – base, second – guitar riffs etc.).
  2. Listen to some polyphonic music. Polyphonic music and counterpoint has been mastered in Baroque period and Bach is an obvious place to go. Try Das Wohltemperierte Klavier or Goldberg Variations to see how one man can simultaneously play up to 4 voices on one piano. Once you start to distinguish some of those voices, you are on a good track.
  3. Listen to your favourite fingerstyle stuff and follow the same routine.  First try to distinguish melody and accompaniment. Then search for different voices in accompaniment (though maybe there is just one).
  4. Take some song that you can play well and that has clear cut voices (some boom-chick or moving base song for example). Listen to the original and repeat previous point. You can try to sing the separate voices. Also try to imagine that the song is played by two or more instruments.
  5. Then try to play it concentrating on just one of the voices. At this point try to bring each voice (one at a time) forward as much as possible. Continue working with your imagination. Really put some effort into imagining two or more instruments. While concentrating on a melody try to imagine that the base is played by another musician. Repeat for base.

Try to implement the initial points into your normal music listening. Try to de-construct the wall of sound into voices. It will influence your playing.

After you do all this there is a question of how to approach the performance of a song containing multiple voices. But it’s a topic for another article.