Strum secrets 2: touch and tone

May 1, 2017

Guitars are percussive instruments. Like drums, we hit them to make a sound. Even a light touch has an “attack”: the way the finger or pick hits the string. The attack is the beginning of what we might call the “envelope” of the sound. If you’ve ever looked at audio waveforms on a computer screen, you know that you can see each individual note: where it begins, and how it “blooms” and fades.

Strumming has an obvious percussive element, and just like with all percussion instruments there’s a direct relationship between touch and tone: the way the sound changes when you change the way you strike the strings. Strum Secrets 1 – power vs finesse explores how arm, wrist, and hand movements create different sounds when strumming. If we take this idea a step further, we can incorporate picking dynamics and the natural properties of a plucked string to expand our tonal palette even more.

Try this simple exercise:

1. Using a flatpick, thumbpick, or bare thumb, strike the high E string as lightly as you can. Continue with slow, repeated strokes, gradually increasing the intensity and force. Notice how the sound gets louder as you apply more force (this part should probably be obvious). Try to play a gradual crescendo (getting louder) and diminuendo (getting softer). Notice how your hand changes as you play with more intensity. The actual hand position shouldn’t really change, but pay attention to the point of the pick or movement of the thumb: when playing individual notes, the arm doesn’t need to get involved. The point that strikes the string, whether it’s a pick or a bare finger, should move more to produce more sound and less to produce less. Picture the movement as an arc, a tight semicircle that gradually increases in size as you get louder.

2. Experiment with striking the strings in different places. Play closer to the bridge and you’ll hear the tone get brighter…it’s a great sound for twangy country and rockabilly, or to add more bite to a blues. Move the picking hand closer to the neck and you’ll hear a warmer, rounder sound. This can be great to produce a soft, jazzy tone or a gentle strum. You probably have a “default” spot where your picking hand hits the string, and that ought to be your norm and starting point. But whether you’re picking or strumming, you’ll see that where you choose to strike the string makes a huge difference. You should also notice that the string tension increases as you move closer to the bridge – so when you want to play harder, moving towards the bridge will give you a little more resistance and allow you to hit harder without the sound breaking up.

3. Even if you play primarily with a pick, experiment with using bare fingers. We can get into a discussion of whether or not to grow out your fingernails – that’s a discussion in itself…what whatever is on your finger right now, try playing with it and see what kind of sound it creates. Notice how many more variables there are in playing with the fingers vs the pick. The hard surface of the back of the nail produces a very different sound from the rounded fingertip or the pad of the finger. Don’t worry about “proper” technique, just explore. If something feels really unnatural, leave it alone. The goal is just to see how many different ways you can strike a string, and how it changes the sound.

Check out this video of the great maestro Andres Segovia demonstrating how he used different types of attack to create different sounds. Of course, playing in the classical style he’s plucking and not strumming, but the concept still applies. He gets very specific in his description of how the different tones evoked different instruments of the orchestra. Even if you don’t have any interest in classical music, it’s a great illustration…watch video of Segovia in performance to hear him put the technique into practice.

It’s unlikely that you’ll need to be quite so dramatic in your choice of contrasting “timbres” or tonal qualities. But it’s an important aspect of guitar playing to be aware of, and a concept and technique that can add great variety and expressiveness no matter how or what you play.

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