It is quite amazing how unique we are as guitarists. If
10 players were to play the same
instrument with the identical
setup, each would sound very
different from the others. This
is due to the different ways we
touch our instrument.
I want to delve into this
subject a bit this month
because of some recent personal experiences that opened
my ears (and eyes). Specifically,
I’ve been reminded how dramatically the tonal landscape
changes when you attack the
strings with only bare flesh and
nails. For starters, your sound
is a bit darker when you strike
the strings with flesh instead of
plastic. And when fingers wander, they have a tendency to
direct you to new discoveries.
If you try playing sans pick,
you’ll soon find that your fingers become one with a guitar
after only a few hours—they
don’t require much time to
acclimate to their new surroundings. What happens next
is really cool. It’s as if you have
to play without a pick to experience all the little things that
make a huge imprint on your
sounds and styles.
We can use Jeff Beck as a
prime example of this concept.
I believe Beck totally dropped
his pick and started using a fingerstyle technique somewhere
around ’ 83 or ’ 84. (You can
do your own detective work by
scoping out the many You Tube
videos that feature Beck over
the years.) This one shift in
coaxing sounds from his strings
put Beck miles ahead of the
game, tonally and otherwise.
Playing fingerstyle is most
definitely a huge factor in the
number of sounds he’s able to
coax from his instrument.
If you watch and listen
closely to Beck, you’ll notice
how he can shift the timbre
of each note or phrase. One
key is to keep an eye on his
pickup switch (again, there are
plenty of examples to study on
You Tube). Often, he’ll keep it
stationary (perhaps on the neck
pickup), yet a note will sound
mellow one moment and cut
sharply the next. He uses his
fingertips as an equalizer by
striking the string at differ-
ent points to create a range of
tones. Within a split second,
he’ll move from decidedly gor-
geous tones to sounds chock-
full of attitude.
In addition to Jeff Beck, legendary U2 producer and Black Dub
guitarist Daniel Lanois is one of the masterful players who has
discovered the bottomless well of tones available when you jettison
your pick. Photo by Adam Vollick
If you watch and listen closely to Beck, you’ll
notice how he can shift the timbre of each
note or phrase . . . He uses his fingertips as
an equalizer by striking the string at different points to create a range of tones.
is not a bad thing. It’s merely
part of the process of making music. Once you get the
proper feeling in your picking
hand, it will all kick in. Believe
me, the rewards are massive.
Lately, I’ve noticed that
many of my favorite players seem to like the direct
approach of using bare fingers
on thee strings. Daniel Lanois
is another wonderful example
of this—a great producer and
greater musician, quite frankly.
Lanois pulls out unique and
exciting tones from his Les Paul
and pedal steel. His new band,
Black Dub, is truly amazing, so
be sure to check them out.
One last thought: I’ve discovered that playing au natural
actually improves the way I
play when I use a pick—which
is often. That was another
aspect of the fingerstyle journey that took me by surprise.
The moral of this story?
Getting into the rawer down
’n’ dirty basics can yield some
beyond-cool sounds. So dig in
and find out for yourself.
DEAN FARLEY is chief
designer of Snake Oil
Brand Strings, and his
ideas have had a signifi-
cant influence on contem-
porary string design. He
is also known as a great
source of guitar, amp, and gear lore. For
more information, visit snakeoilstrings.com.