The acoustic guitar is a popular instrument amongst all age groups and is a very rewarding instrument to learn to play even though you do not get to fool around with cool electric guitar sounds. So let us take a look at the techniques you will learn as an acoustic guitar player and some legendary guitarists whose work will need to become familiar with in order to hang out with other acoustic guitar players.
You can think of acoustic guitar technique in two ways: you can be a strummer or a picker. A strummer plays by dragging your thumb, index finger or plectrum across the guitar strings. You can find a multitude of strumming patterns on the internet. Start with the simplest you can find. Some strumming patterns simply show the names of the chords you are supposed to be strumming, and others show that you include only selected strings. The strings that are not included can be damped with the little finger of the left hand or the heel of the right hand.
You can pick using a plectrum – this technique is called flatpicking – or use your fingers. If you decide on fingerpicking you might want to use picks which fit on the thumb and tips of your fingers. Steel strings are hard on the fingernails so you might need fingerpicks to stop your nails being torn to shreds. Nylon strings do not demand the use of picks but after you have had some experience playing guitar you can make the decision based on the kind of sound you want.
A simple start to fingerpicking is to finger an E minor chord and place your fingers on the strings you intend to play. Do not try and do any picking, just decide which strings are the ones you are playing in this chord and place your right hand fingers in a plucking “stance” ready to play. So for the E minor chord you could place your thumb on the sixth string and your first finger on the third string, you second finger on the second string and your first finger on the first string. Now pluck each string by pressing down with the thumb and pulling up with the fingers.
If you want to see what you can do if you foster your devotion to the acoustic guitar, Leo Kottke is a good start. He is an innovative fingerstyle acoustic guitarist who is strongly influenced by folk music, jazz and blues. Another great is Tommy Emmanuel, an Australian acoustic and electric guitarist known for his energetic fingerpicking style. He has developed his own style based on the “travis picking” style of playing he heard played on records by Chet Atkins.
“Travis picking” is a style of finger picking which involves playing bass with the thumb, and melody with the first two or three fingers simultaneously. This picking style was developed by Merle Travis, an American country and western singer and songwriter who composed one of the early fifties hit songs, “Sixteen Tons”. While we are talking about travis picking, you have probably heard of Chet Atkins. He was an influential Nashville guitarist and producer of records for many famous recording artists. He played mostly electric guitar and his picking technique was inspired mostly by Merle Travis with musical influences from Django Reinhardt and Les Paul.
For the acoustic guitar player who elects to stay with the plectrumn, “Doc” Watson is an American bluegrass, folk, country, blues and gospel music singer and guitar player. He is revered by other guitar players for his astonishing flatpicking style although he does do fingerpicking.
The acoustic guitar repertoire of today owes alot to the folk revival of the sixties. Here are some names from that era whose work you should catch up with:
John Renbourn the English guitarist and songwriter is best known for his work with fellow guitar player, Bert Jansch and his career with the English folk group Pentangle. Renbourn’s musical interests include early music, folk, classical music and blues.
Bert Jansch is a Scottish folk musician whose influences include English guitarist Davy Graham. His music has influenced Jimmy Page, Ian Anderson, Donovan and Neil Young.
John Martyn is an English guitarist who also sings and writes songs. He has made twenty studio albums and worked with famous musician like Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and Phil Collins. He has invented his own sound featuring an acoustic guitar played through a fuzzbox, phase-shifter and Echoplex.
Davy Graham is a guitarist who featured heavily in the English folk scene in the nineteen sixties. Many acoustic guitar players like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy and Jimmy Page. His acoustic instrumental piece, Anji was recorded by Paul Simon on an early Simon And Garfunkel album.
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