Today I’m going to share with you one of the best-kept secrets when it comes to guitar right hand technique:
Play from the guitar string: one of the secrets of the masters of the guitar.
The best way to pluck the string, whether with a pick or using fingerstyle technique, is to "play from the string."
Whether using classical guitar technique or with a pick, all good players are doing this, but what does it mean?
Ancient Wisdom On Playing Guitar
Throughout my life, I have always looked for nuggets of wisdom that would occasionally drop from the lips of great players.
Unfortunately, I realized early on that most of the time, the “nugget” was all you got! There would usually be no explanation or elaboration of the statement's meaning.
Such statements tended to be obscure, and although I knew they had great meaning, the meaning was inaccessible.
One of the most mysterious statements was the admonition to “play from the string.”
I would run across this statement in different places. Various master players would use it in discussions of how they approached guitar playing, and I would wonder what it meant.
It seemed to have something to do with the idea of “touching” the string before playing it.
Okay, I can try working with that…
How is that possible if you are playing at super-fast speeds? There doesn’t seem to be time for that. That was where my understanding began to break down.
Well, there’s nothing like decades of playing and teaching to help fill in the gaps in one’s understanding! However, I think I have a pretty good grasp of this now. So let me share it with you.
Case Study: My Struggling Scales Student
I was in a lesson that brought this subject to the forefront. The student had brought her scales up to around 80 bpm in 16th notes with a pick.
Due to flaws in her technique, she couldn’t play scales smoothly and reliably at any speed.
And now, as we were hitting a wall at around 80bpm, her technique was starting to break down.
There were no visible signs of things done wrong.
The pick work was fine, and the left-hand motion worked well.
Most students in this difficult position get told to practice more. It seemed like the kind of thing that needed more work.
That may or not be valid:
After months of dogged practice, this student and others in her position may find their speed going up…
But many will not.
I have seen players stuck for years in this spot and cannot make that scale speed budge.
The nature of the problem is very, very subtle. It cannot be seen, the teacher must sense it, and the teacher must guide the student to inwardly “feel” it. And it has everything to do with playing from the string.
How To Improve Right Hand Guitar Technique: Don’t “Bat” The Strings!
As I watched my student’s right hand guitar position while she played, I noticed a “tightness” to it, even though her form was good.
Her hand did not look tense, and the pick stayed close to the strings.
Subtle tension was still present throughout the arm, shoulder, and beyond as she played.
Although she started very relaxed, this tension was there after she struck the first note. The tension remained and got worse as the 2-octave scale progressed. The faster the speed, of course, the worse it got.
So, I began to explain some of the subtle dynamics of the physical act of touching a string with the pick, applying force, and repeating that process.
The first fact to appreciate is that as soon as we play a note, the hand, wrist, arm, and shoulder region tense up.
These body parts must tense up to a degree in reaction to the force the string applies back to the pick.
Often players tense too much during this reaction and, most importantly, do not release the tension reaction before playing subsequent notes.
This flaw prevents many players from advancing to their next level and stops many beginners from being successful in their efforts to learn guitar - causing them to give up.
What do we have if we keep tension in the arm between the notes while the arm/hand moves to the following note?
We have a tense arm swinging through the air, like a plank of wood batting at the strings!
Can you appreciate how destructive that is to the act of smooth playing?
Can you imagine performing physical actions requiring significant coordination and control and keeping the body tense throughout the movement?
Can you imagine running while keeping your legs tense? Or boxing and throwing punches with tight arms?
How about falling and tensing the body as you hit the ground? Ouch!
Most students are suffering from some degree of this situation, and this student has already attained a relatively high degree of smooth functioning, especially compared to where we started.
These things come up for all of us when we hit what for us is our current playing limit - and when we do hit our limit, subtleties like this are one of the primary places we want to look.
I realized that I needed to deepen my student's understanding of these dynamics in a way that would translate into tangible results - and real progress.
The Necessary Conversation Between Player and String For Guitar Right Hand Technique
Let’s cover some imagery and metaphors for guitar right hand technique - either for fingerstyle or picking.
One of the best ways of becoming sensitive to the realities of playing a string is to think of a tightrope walker.
Imagine yourself on a highwire, 100 feet up in the air.
Where we are on the highwire is our first concern. Think of how different it would feel to step with one foot onto the wire at one end with its high tension instead of being in the middle of the high wire with its lower tension.
It’s very different playing near the guitar's bridge with higher tension than playing in the middle of the string.
For our highwire analogy, let’s assume we are lucky enough to start with both feet placed on the wire, near the middle.
Let’s imagine we are balanced with both feet on the wire and will take a step over to one side and walk along the wire.
As soon as we lift a foot in the air, everything changes!
All of our weight goes on to one foot, and our center of gravity is drastically different, requiring an immediate re-adjustment of all our muscles as they seamlessly adapt to the new situation, this new set of dynamics.
People who can do this with some facility are said to have a good “sense of balance.” While that is true, they are employing a few subtle things - and avoiding others.
Imagine if, as we lifted one foot, we kept our muscles tense so that we could not move freely. Instead, we would compel our body to clumsily adjust to a new set of dynamics different from our original stance. We would be in trouble. We would be in for the fall.
What should happen instead?
Get the knowledge & training that will get YOU "playing from the string!"
1st: Study "The Principles"
2nd: Study "The Yoga of Guitar"
Learn the deepest secrets of great guitar playing. These two works will reveal a new level of understanding guitar technique that will revolutionize your playing.
How The Right Hand On Guitar Should Feel When It Touches The String
Obviously, as soon as we begin to lessen pressure with our foot, we should be in intimate contact with the string, its changing state of tension, and how that feels to our body. If we have a sense of balance, that means that our marvelous computer brain can calculate all the intricate muscle adjustments we must make to keep our body upright on the wire.
Of course, this intimate contact with the string is there continuously for the skilled tightrope walker. The wire is always “talking” to them, constantly communicating its condition to the tightrope walker - and the tightrope walker is always listening.
Like this, the skillful guitarist is always listening to the strings. They are continuously in contact with the ever-changing state of the strings, as the fingers of both hands and pick work upon them. (This is one reason slow practice is necessary so that the “listening” can take place on the most intimate level.)
When we are playing skillfully, we are also doing something else. We are also talking to the strings.
Every time we touch the string with a finger or pick, we talk to the string and tell it what we want. The string then talks back to us and tells us what we must do to get what we want.
When this conversation is taking place intensely and unhindered so that there is an intimate communion between finger and string, and a feeling of oneness between ourselves and the guitar, we are playing from the string.
Communing With The String
Perhaps throughout our whole playing life, we have been deaf to the string and unknowingly using a too tensed limb, hand, and fingers to play.
How do we engage in this necessary conversation between our body, mind, and string?
As the wicked witch said to Dorothy when removing the Ruby Slippers, “These things must be done d-e-l-i-c-a-t-e-l-y!”
The situation is this:
The arm and entire upper body are habituated to this level of chronic tension while playing.
Here’s the irony:
The player isn’t aware of this excessive tension; in fact, it feels normal and necessary. Therefore, we need a process of intervention.
Here is how I began to intervene in this process with my student and coax the muscles to a new experience and a new functioning.
First, I had her do an awareness exercise with the pick. We called it “Hello, Goodbye.” Then, I had her play the scale and bring the pick to the string, slowly and lightly, and merely touch the string, apply no pressure, and take the pick quickly away.
I had her slowly play the whole scale like this, with no pressure or sound. This simple exercise taught the arm to bring the pick to the string and avoid the automatic tension reaction that had become habituated.
Second, we performed the same action but then applied a tiny amount of pressure with the pick, paying attention to the slight rise of tension in the arm that must accompany this action. Then we removed the pick - this time paying attention to and enforcing the release of tension.
(Principled Players will recognize this as a version of the gradual pressure technique, a practice tool used frequently throughout the Foundation Exercises from “The Principles”).
Finally, we brought the pick to the string, applied a small amount of pressure, and instead of taking the pick away and relaxing, we pushed through and “relaxed through” the string.
When doing this, we think of, feel, and re-create the same feeling of relaxation in our hand and arm that we had when we merely took the pick away from the string without playing.
The instructions above are the essential procedure for undoing the problem and learning how to “play from the string.” We work with this procedure daily, using the Basic Practice Approach (Chapter 5 in “The Principles Of Correct Practice”), gradually increasing the speed with the metronome.
These exercises must be done daily, with great focus, over an extended period. It will take weeks to months to undo the previous habits and functioning of the arm and hands.
However, a new level of playing will now be possible for the student who wants this higher level of playing ability enough to pay this price.
The “Rubber Effect”
Over time, the entire feeling will change as the arm and the upper body learns to react in a completely new way to the experience of interacting with the string.
When I was in the early stages of this conversion process, I began noticing an entirely new sensation in playing.
It was this:
The strings began to feel like rubber bands! They began to have an entirely elastic quality as my touch became more refined.
I called it “the rubber effect” and started looking for and exploring it.
At the time, I did not understand what was happening and had no knowledge of all the theoretical background I have given you here. I just knew that all of a sudden, playing the guitar was beginning to feel radically different.
This elastic and rubbery sensation replaced a “hard,” unyielding, and inelastic feeling that my hands and body had previously experienced while playing.
But, of course, I did not think of it as a “hard” sensation because I had nothing to compare it to; it was simply “normal”, and this is precisely the fate of so many players.
Playing feels “hard” is often uncomfortable, and players think this is just how it is, and “good players are somehow dealing with it.” But, they are not; good players have a different experience altogether.
The critical thing to realize is that the sensation of the strings as “hard” or as “rubbery” is not a reflection of the state of the strings; it is a reflection of the state of our body as we play.
The “hardness” of the strings before my discovery resulted from my relatively hard musculature coming into contact with the strings with every note I played. I was experiencing my own state, not the state of the strings.
When I changed the state of my body as I played by changing how I was interacting with the strings, I experienced a change in the feeling of the strings.
Well, there you have it, one of the most important and subtle insights you can have into the process of guitar right hand technique.
Take a while to wrap your brain around it.
When it comes to your picking hand, this approach usually takes months to years to fully germinate and bear fruit, so think about it, re-read this many times, make your own observations and draw your own conclusions as you practice and play (from the string, of course!).