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Acoustic Blues Guitar - Finger Picks or Bare Fingers?

Easily the greatest question you have to answer when embarking on blues guitar lessons is 'what style do I want to pick in?' The sound that you want to make definitely impacts the choice in using bare fingers or finger picks.

fingerpicking acoustuic blues guitar with steel picks

Guitar Lessons Finger Picking Advice

Firstly, any type of guitar pick acts as a natural amplifier and creates a clean sound. The ends of the picks are considerable narrower than finger tips, unless false nails are glued to existing finger nails. The latter technique was favored by the great Chet Atkins. The use of a plastic thumb pick is very common amongst finger stylists, and some use picks on their fingers as well.

Fingerpicking Using Finger Picks

Nylon picks have quite a different shape to the steel variety, which are strong, but can be bent to intimately follow the the shape of the finger end. This assures that the point of contact is almost identical to the bare finger end. The big advantage of using picks is that you can pick hard and not make callouses on the finger ends, which is a big help if performing without an amplifier, or in an open space, for instance.

 Jim Bruce and Ken Mayall perform Baby's Gone by Brownie McGhee

American Fingerstyle Guitar

Extracted from the CD insert of:

"Guitar Fingerstyle - a Narada Collection"

The guitar has become an undeniable American icon, finding its way into every corner of American culture.  Just as the modern classical guitar was refined in the inspired hands of the Spanish, the modern acoustic steel-string guitar is a distinctly American contribution.  Indeed, many of the great innovations of the past century were wrought in the shops of C.F. Martin, Orville Gibson and many others.  The instrument continues to be molded and refined, in response to the demands of today's master players as they push the limits of what their instruments can do.

Perhaps no single approach to playing the instrument has pushed those limits more than fingerstyle -- a technique that uses, to great advantage, the fingers of the right hand to individually pluck the strings, rather than a flatpick to strum or pick them.  It is here that the greatest potential of the guitar is realized.  Melody, independently moving bass lines and inner voices combine to create a complete, almost "orchestral" sound.

In the disciplined hands of the fingerstylist, the guitar takes on many attributes of the piano -- but can be held in the player's lap!  What other instrument can boast such portable polyphony?  Fingerstyle guitarists are unique among musicians in their ability to simultaneously and independently express every musical thought with all the dynamics of a symphony (strong words but try to get a vibrato on a piano).

It's no surprise then, that the guitar figures so prominently in the history of American music.  It was through guitar -- and fingerstyle guitar in particular -- that blues, ragtime, country, gospel, jazz, and other forms melded with regional music traditions extending from the Mississippi Delta to the Memphis barrelhouses to the back porches of Muhlenburg County, KY.  Scratchy 78 sides cut in the '20s and '30s testify to these roots of American fingerstyle music.  In the forties, struggling guitarists would listen to their radios, mesmerized by Chet Atkins' magical sounds, concluding that there must be at least two guitarists playing.  There weren't.

Today, the genre has proliferated and flourished as at no other time in history.  In the inexhaustible quest to discover new sounds and make new and daring musical statements, players slap, tap and pop their strings.  Rapping the body of the guitar, they extract percussive accents as though it were a drum.   They reach over and fret notes with the right hand.  Their ventures into the realm of altered tunings effectively extend the harmonic range of the instrument, creating deep, resonating basses, new and wonderful chord voices, and sonic textures never before realized.  Combined now with the spirits of South American, African, Middle Eastern, Oriental and European music, the resulting contemporary American fingerstyle repertoire is exciting, challenging, inspiring, stirring.

John Schroeter

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Finger Picking Guitar Using Bare Fingers

Many players, such as Merle Travis and Tommy Emmanuel, use a plastic thumb pick and bare fingers. In fact, Merle Travis used just one finger, as did the majority of the old master blues pickers. Acoustic guitar lessons should teach the styles common to both playing with bare finger and with picks - this is the way to create the authentic sound of the original blues. Many guitar lessons only show one style of picking, which severely limits the kind of music you can play.

Doc Watson - Deep River Blues taught by Jim Bruce