The focus of this section is to help you overcome some common obstacles encountered while learning this style. We’re going to focus on the basic rudiments of playing what I like to call Roots music. Blues, ragtime, folk and jazz.
Hey, this isn’t classical, flamenco or a lesson on manicures. There are no hard fast rules about how to maintain your nails but there are some things you should be aware of. Remember this: you are playing with your flesh and nail, the flesh of your finger hits the string first. If your nails are too long they’ll be more brittle and cause extra resistance on the strings and you’ll lose some of your tone. Avoid any peaks or indents, either shape them to your finger or slightly angled, and keep them nice and smooth.
If you’re so inclined find some finishing sandpaper (+300 and up) at a hobby shop, it’s inexpensive and will give you a perfectly smooth edge. When you look at the palm of your hand you should be able to see the tips of your nails over your fingertips. The thumbnail can be a little longer, but make sure it doesn’t catch on the string. There are as many opinions about nails as there are players, but for now we’ll stick with this. The nails of the left hand should always be kept as short as possible.
To Pick or not to Pick: Thumbpicks
The use of fingerpicks is largely a matter of personal preference, there is no right or wrong. Certain styles like slide guitar lean heavily towards their use, but most can be played however you feel comfortable. Thumbpicks generally increase your volume and put more emphasis on the bass notes. Listen to some players from both camps before you decide and don’t fret too much, its not a permanent decision and the skills you’re learning apply to both methods. Two easy examples: Merle Travis used a pick while Mississippi John Hurt didn’t. It’s pretty hard to say one is better than the other, but they are different.
If you do choose to use one, here are some helpful tips:
* Don’t get discouraged these things take time. The key in the beginning is to always practice with it, don’t switch back and forth. If you practice an hour a day, by day two or three you’ll start to forget you’re wearing it.
* Choose a pick that fits snug, better too snug than too loose. If its tight enough that it starts cutting off circulation to the tip of your finger you can bend it (carefully), heat it up a little if needed.
* When starting out some players find a shorter pick is easier to work with. If you can’t find one you can always sand or file down the one you’re using.
* Use medium to heavy gauges, they produce a nice fat sound. You can always switch once you have the basics down.
Personally, I’m a fan of the Golden Gate thumbpick pictured above. It’s a nice, chunky, fairly long pick that feels snug and has a good shape for my fingers, but might take a little getting used to if you’re new to using them. My second choice is the Dunlop, which is a decent all around pick. The pearl/white ones are a bit lighter and more natural feeling, but I find them easy to break. I’d lean towards the heavier tortoise gauges but try out a few and get a feel, they are all pretty different. Especially in the beginning. Another cool one is the pick/thumb pick combos, which are basically a guitar pick with a plastic strap for your thumb. It takes getting used to on both fronts, but if you spend some time you can use it as both a pick and thumb pick. Normally I tend to avoid the steel ones, my playing style leads to badly damaged instruments.
If you’re unfamiliar with this term it refers to using a flat-pick for the bass notes and picking with your middle, ring and pinky fingers. Once again this is a matter of personal preference. This is excellent for switching between flat picking and fingerstyle and is used a lot by electric players, country and rockabilly predominantly. Everything here can be applied to this method as well, the difference being you lose the use of your index finger. It’s more difficult to master, but in the end you’ll be a little more flexible. It’s a good idea to be able to play with your fingers as well because you’ll always be a little weaker than a fingerstylist, if you can play both its easier to evaluate your playing.
If you choose to learn this way be sure you’re getting a solid bass note when picking, be wary of the angle you’re holding the pick. There will be a section specifically devoted to hybrid, as there are many different applications that won’t be addressed here.
A few players who use this style: Tommy Emmanuel, Brian Setzer, Richard Thompson, Danny Gatton.