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Bad rhythm guitarist wants to take the lead.
May 13, 2014 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I am reasonably competent at playing guitar chords. I prefer to strum them with my fingers/nails, but can use a plectrum as a blunt instrument. I seem unable to get the right hand coordination together to do any single notes/scales/tabs. Can mefi guitarists suggest exercises that might help me? It needs to start at real remedial beginner level.
posted by bystander to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in a similar position -- I've been fingerpicking and strumming on acoustics for years, but now I'm trying to build up more skill with individual note picking.

Check out this tutorial from Steve Stine -- he demonstrates three basic exercises that will build up the strength in your left hand as well as the coordination between your left and right. I've been doing them for a few weeks and am definitely seeing an improvement. They key thing is to only practice at a speed at which you can cleanly and evenly pick the note -- which may be really slow at the beginning, but you'll gradually pick up speed.
posted by BurntHombre at 6:51 AM on May 13

They key thing is to only practice at a speed at which you can cleanly and evenly pick the note -- which may be really slow at the beginning, but you'll gradually pick up speed.

This is so very true.
posted by thelonius at 6:57 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

If you're truly at the most basic level, you need to start slow and simple. Index finger on the 5th fret of the high E string. Use either your index finger or stroke down with the plectrum and make a single note (A). Then, fret the same string on the 6th fret with the middle finger and make the note (B flat), using either your middle finger or stroking up with the plectrum. Then, fret the same string on the 7th fret with your ring finger and make the note (B), either with your index finger or stroking down with your plectrum. Then fret the string on the 8th fret with your pinkie and make the note (C) with your middle finger or stroking up with the plectrum. Then go backwards (B, B flat, A), using the same fingers to fret the notes that you used on the way up and alternating between index and middle finger to pick them or alternating up and down strokes with a plectrum. Do it slowly, like one second per note. Don't speed up. Repeat until absolutely perfect: every note exactly the same volume, the same attack, the same clarity. Trust me: it's not easy to get it completely perfect when you're just starting out. Once you can do it, switch to the B string and start all over. Then the G string. Etc. Once you can get perfect, clean notes every time, at a slow and steady pace, try moving down the whole thing down or up a couple of frets. If you can perfect this very basic, very boring exercise, you'll have made enormous progress in building the coordination you feel you lack and you'll be able to tackle more interesting and more complicated exercises and scales.
posted by dhnyny at 7:03 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]

Can you play a barre chord?

The basic "G" barre chord that starts on the third fret is a great start to learn alternate picking, that is, down up down up down up from the bottom string to the top.

Grab your pick, firmly but not too tight, pluck the 6th string (bottom) in a downward motion, then pluck the 5th string in an upward motion. You just alternate picked a 5th! Continue this pattern until you hit the top string. Now do it backwards starting from the top.

You can do this with any chord.

Start slow. Get each note to ring clearly. Increase speed with comfort.

The next level is alternate picking a scale or arpeggio, which requires moving the fingers on your left hand. You can start with the G note again on the lowest string, then up two frets to the A, then the 5th string seconds fret (b), then the 3rd fret (C), then the 5th fret (D). Up to the 4th string 2nd fret (E), 4th fret (F#) and finally the 5th fret (G).

You just picked the G major scale.

An easier version of that scale is the major pentatonic, which is just 5 notes instead of 7, it's G A B D E. A super easy shape to practice with. Practice picking each of those 5 notes cleanly as your left hand frets each one.

It's about timing and muscle memory, unfortunately, start super slow, nail each note. Increase speed over time. Oh, and keep your pinky tucked in, don't "anchor" it on the guitar, very bad habit to avoid.

PM me if you want more advice, I've been playing for decades.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:30 AM on May 13

One more thing, which actually should go before you start scales:

A great, if very boring, exercise to practice alternate picking ( down up down up, notated as v ^ v ^ ) is just to play the first four frets of the bottom (low e) string.


pointer finger on the first fret, down stroke of the pick
Middle finger on the second fret, up stroke of the pick
Ring finger on the third fret, down stroke
Pinky on the fourth, up stroke.

Now do it descending, 4 3 2 1. Faster.

Now do the same pattern on the 5th string. Faster.

Now do the 6th string immediately followed by the 5th string. Faster. Work your way up to all 6.

It's incredibly boring, doesn't sound like music, but boy oh boy does it lock in that muscle memory and timing.

Alternate picking, rather than just downward picking each note, is incredibly important and great to start now, as you advance in your playing and want to go faster, skip strings, economy pick, sweep arpeggios, play a legato major pent run up the neck and other terms that are meaningless right now, a solid alternate picking technique is essential.

And don't anchor your pinky. Your right hand should be hovering.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:56 AM on May 13

use a metronome. There are a variety of simple exercises you can do (including the ones that are outlined upthread) but it is never too early to start caring about and working on having a good rhythmic feel. You can get perfectly fine metronome apps for little money, and by all means go as S L O W L Y as you require - be brutally honest with yourself. Maybe you'll be the kind of musician who can't play fast, who can only play slow - but when you DO play slow, it's the most gorgeous music anyone has ever heard. OR - maybe you'll be blisteringly fast, accurate, etc. Either way - you'll need a metronome.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:22 AM on May 13

Others have covered technique in detail, which is great, because you absolutely need to focus on the physical movements of your fingers.

But I'm also going to suggest a big-picture shift in thinking about the instrument.

Try not to think in terms of "rhythm" or "lead." Try to think of the music, the sounds you're making, and play around with everything from single notes to two-note harmonies to three-note chords & so on.

Your curiosity & creativity & desire to play sounds beyond what you're comfortable & familiar with will push/pull you to work on the techniques you need to play what you want to hear yourself play
posted by univac at 9:22 AM on May 13

I have recently started guitar lessons in order to start learning fingerstyle. My teacher has me doing basic exercises from Bruce Emery's Fingerstyle Guitar from Scratch. I have always been in the same predicament with left / right hand coordination, and this seems to be helping alot.
posted by Benway at 11:31 AM on May 13

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