How do I play "strumming-type" patterns while fingerpicking?
September 15, 2006 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Mefi Guitarists! Hope me with a certain aspect of fingerpicking on my guitar!

I've asked a question similar to this on a guitar forum and got dissapointing results, so I've decided to take it to the Mefi hivemind where most people tend to be much more eloquent/thorough in their answers. Anyway, I've played guitar for a little over two years and I'm really starting to delve into fingerpicking as I'd like to be more self-sufficient as far as playing/performing goes. In the past, I've already gotten comfortable playing basic fingerpicking patterns (We Are Going to Be Friends by the White Stripes, Street Spirit by Radiohead, Lullaby by Emitt Rhodes, etc.).

Specifically, what I'm having trouble with now is playing more complex rhythms. Even more specifically and as an example, I'm looking at the beginning of Clapton's Unplugged version of Before You Accuse Me (I'm hoping most people know it or have a recording of it, but if not I found this, which you can use to play the song, though you have to download a plugin first). Everything I've read says this song is played using fingerstyle. My initial question is: How does he (or how would you/should I) play, for example, that first series of chords so quickly with his fingers? It's easy to do with a pick using alternate strumming (down, up, down, up, down), but how is it done with the fingers? Do you use all three finger to pluck the strings successively (if this is the case, I guess it would just be a matter of building dexterity, since I can't seem to pick the chord multiple times in a row that fast at the moment)? Do you strum with one of your fingers or your whole hand (if this is the case, what is the technique to use, e.g. finger position and such and how do you avoid accidentally playing other strings not in the chord)? Or is there another, more correct or better way to do this that I haven't thought of?

I guess the heart of this question is how do I do what sounds to me like "strumming-type" rhythms while fingerpicking? (Another example might be certain parts of Blackbird by the Beatles or (this may not be as apt) Somebody I Used to Know by Elliott Smith where he's fingerpicking the intro but apparently switches to strumming during the verses, though I suppose the answer might be different from song to song).

Also, when fingerpicking is it more preferrable to use a thumb pick or just use your thumbnail?

Note: If it helps at all, although I'd like to be able to play a variety of styles of music, I'm most interested in the styles of artists like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and Bob Dylan.

Also, as a bonus question: Any excellent fingerstyle resources that you would recommend (i.e. books, websites, etc.)?

Anyway, sorry for the length; I really appreciate any help.
posted by Stauf to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure that Eric Clapton switches between using a pick and his fingernails. Its a technique I've never been able to master. Most non guitar hero's just use their thumb and front of their fingernails to strum, then switch back into fingerpicking.

For 'before you accuse me', which I have the legal music notation, and which also appears on many internet tab sites, use a combo strumming and picking, all with fingers and thumb. Don't forget your thumb can strum on the upswing. Thats how I do it. In fact, I think thats the song I learned it on.

That all said, this guy on youtube does it much much better than I without strumming, go figure. Watch.
posted by maxpower at 10:20 AM on September 15, 2006

Like you, I'm somewhat of a novice player, but I play Blackbird pretty well. All of the notes on that song are played with finger picking - I suppose that some of the chord-like sounds you hear are from picking more than one string at the same time. Blackbird actually is a fairly easy one to learn, once you get the pattern down.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:21 AM on September 15, 2006

Well, he could also be using a thumbpick. This is pretty standard for bluegrass - not so much for blues but it could be done. Then you would just strum with the thumbpick and fingerpick with your four fingers.
posted by spicynuts at 10:33 AM on September 15, 2006

Sounds like Clapton is using the "pinch" on those opening chords. The pinch is when you pick downwards on a note with the thumb and pluck upwards with the index and ring fingers all at the same time.

Keep in mind, there are two guitars on that track. I think one is being played with a pick and Clapton is using just his fingers.

The great Mark Knopfler gives a video lesson on fingerstyle.

Many more fingerstyle examples from which to learn.
posted by wsg at 10:34 AM on September 15, 2006

It's very common to use a thumbpick when playing blues. It helps bring out the bass notes better. This page talks about the Robert Johnson's technique, which is the blueprint for blues fingerstyle. There's even a picture of Johnson wearing a thumpick.
posted by wsg at 10:40 AM on September 15, 2006

Yeah, chrisamiller, I noticed after watching some random youtube people play Blackbird that a lot of them just fingerpick it, but then I saw this video, which is a bit different in it's approach. In fact, when I first learned Blackbird on my own for some reason I just started learning using a hybrid picking technique, with my thumb and index finger holding the pick and the rest of my fingers plucking the strings (though this is irrelevent here as I'm trying to focus on no pick at all).
posted by Stauf at 10:48 AM on September 15, 2006

My advice would be to venture down the road of country blues, acoustic blues, that sort of thing.

While I don't necessarily identify with blues music culturally (suburban middle-class white guy filter), I absolutely love early blues music. Eddie Van Halen and screaming guitar god music was never really my thing. But somebody picking smooth honey down an old acoustic... I'm there. John Hurt is one of the best. These guys are all rhythm with cool little runs and turn-arounds that scream for me to pick up my guitar and figure out what the hell they just played. If you want to be a solid guitarist you would be well-served learning a few of their tricks, IMO.

Mississippi John Hurt: 1 | 2 [youtube]

Rev. Gary Davis [youtube]

I really liked this book. Some of the various videos around out there are great too, particularly the Happy Traum stuff.

I prefer using a thumbpick to play. It's awkward at first but you get used to it. Blackbird is all fingerpicking, at least on the recordings that I've heard.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 10:52 AM on September 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

Back to Clapton, I'm pretty sure that's all just quick upstrokes with two fingers (one per string). Slow it down until you can play it comfortably and then gradually increase speed once you've perfected it.

I know Clapton makes it sound easy, but he's God, after all, and you probably aren't. Here's a mere mortal's attempt, which might be a bit less intemidating.

Also, maybe you can pick up the unplugged DVD to get a better idea of what Clapton';s technique is.
posted by timeistight at 12:53 PM on September 15, 2006

Another strum method is kind of like frailing on the banjo. Try sweeping across the strings with the backs of your fingernails. Enough practice and you can get pretty good and quick at it.
posted by The White Hat at 3:11 PM on September 15, 2006

Here's the link I was trying to post:

He's not that good, but I think he's got the general shape of it.
posted by timeistight at 5:08 PM on September 15, 2006

I'm not an expert guitarist by any means, and I don't know the Clapton song (nor is my computer willing to play it), but hopefully I'll be able to answer some of your questions.

For the "strumming-type" rhythms, the simple answer is you just strum. It takes a bit of practice to be able to switch from that to fingerpicking and back seamlessly, but it's not very difficult. You can strum with: your thumb/thumbnail/thumbpick only; the other four fingers only; the other four fingers on the way down, the thumb on the way up; or, the way I do it, hold your hand as if there is a pick in your hand, and strum with that - what is in effect your thumb and first finger. There are probably other ways - whatever you're comfortable with.

Sometimes you would want to 'pinch' (is that the right word? I don't know the terminology) chords, sometimes you would want to strum - they have different sounds, but it is of course much harder to pinch chords at great speed.

As to how to avoid playing the strings not in the chord, it's a matter of muting, both with the fingers of your left hand and the heel of your right hand. If you haven't learned muting already, it's something pretty essential to playing the guitar - there should be plenty of articles and lessons on muting out there.

Hope that helps! My first comment!
posted by Ira.metafilter at 3:12 AM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the response guys. And welcome to (Ask)Metafilter Ira.
posted by Stauf at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2006

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