Something about the intimacy of a guitar sound makes people pay especially close attention to the way it sounds. The particular way that a player conveys his emotion or sentiment can vary greatly by the way he uses different techniques that accentuate the song being played in a particular way. One of the most aggravating things to a beginning player is that he cannot successfully convey what he wants because he has only a rudimentary control over the different elements that make up a guitar's sound.

Acoustic guitars are more percussive in nature, and so there are a different set of techniques that can apply in this arena that do not coincide with anything similar on an electric. The adverse is also true, however, since because of the speaker and pickup system that an electric uses, these other elements can be used to affect the tone and to change the sound in other ways to convey a particular feeling.

Even simple songs that are played by affluent players seem to sound better than the same song played by a less-experienced player. On a meta-level this is due to finer muscle control and greater flexiliby in the tendons and ligaments in the hands. But what in particular can a player do to achieve this control?

  • Rhythm Hand Control (Right hand for most players)

    Using a Flatpick

    • Picking Basics
    • Probably the most common problem that people have with flatpicking is that they are holding the pick incorrectly. The proper way to hold a pick is that it will extend probably about 1/8" outside of the grip -- this is the available tip of the pick for plucking the strings. The pick should be held between the thumb and index finger, with the tip poking out PERPENDICULAR to the index finger-nail.

      The other aspect of holding a pick that is frequently done incorrectly is the angle of attack relative to the strings. Imagine that the pick must be hitting the strings orthogonally, or it will slide along the strings, giving a most unsatisfactory tone. The proper hand position will be with the wrist straight out; if your wrist is bent side to side then you are most likely losing tone out of your strumming because the pick is sliding along the strings, killing all of those great harmonics that make for a full sound.

    • Alternating vs. Sweep Picking
    • There are generally two types of picking when using a flatpick. Primarily, players use the alternating pattern of picking, where downstrokes and upstrokes are alternated. The other type of picking is called economy picking, or sweep picking. This technique is utilized by more experienced players to do very fast runs and arpeggios due to less wasted motion. A simple sweep picking pattern would include just fingering a regular barre chord with the left hand, and drawing the pick downward so that it hits each string successively, but not all at once.

      This is not the complete benefit of this technique, however, because now with your hand at the bottom of the strings you can draw them back up over the strings in the same manner -- if you did it right, you could have just played up to twelve distinct notes in two hand motions! More complicated utilization of this technique involves changing the fretting hand position while doing the sweep to add in even more notes as pull-ons or pull-offs, or to generate more complex arpeggios that are not generally reachable from one hand position alone.

      The sweep picking technique is definitely difficult, and quite maddening when you start learning how to do it. Perseverance is the key, and remembering that when you just started playing, even fingering the most basic chords was equally as difficult as what you're feeling now. The most common problems with this technique are as follows:

      1. Choked notes -- Your picking hand is rotating the pick too far in the course of the downward motion. Ideally, you want to have the pick somewhat relaxed so it does not get hung up on any one string
      2. Inconsistent rhythm -- Your downward motion is not uniform, and you are moving inconsistently down/up the strings. This will take some time. Since this motion is governed by both your arm and your hand, this will take some time to get down properly. Keeping your hand relaxed but firm will help, and most importantly do not rotate the wrist excessively which will eventually cause you a great deal of pain. See RSI.
      3. Going back up is exceedingly difficult -- The downward motion makes good sense to a guitar player, but moving the pick back up along the strings requires a fairly uncomfortable motion of the hand, and a resistance felt in the pick at each string that most players are unfamilar with. After trying to do this for a while, you will get more accustomed to this motion, and it will be more controlled. Perseverance will pay off; this technique was used very frequently by some of the greatest and most technically profficient players like Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen (and many others, these guys just do it all the time).
      4. Seriously, go and check out the links in the references section at the bottom of this write-up for more thorough discussion of this topic. There are many, many example arpeggios there that I will not reproduce here for the sake of space, and not repeating the more succinct words of others. Consider this an introduction.
    • Tremolo Picking
    • Tremolo picking is basically alternate-stroke picking done as fast as possible. The trick is that it can really sound terrible if you do it faster than your hand is prepared to do with a good form. You will know that you are going too quickly if you notice that you are getting stuck on the upstrokes, and generatting a kind of "blat" that makes the volume level of the strumming very inconsistent.

      More advanced tremolo picking involves more than one string. In this instance, it is especially important to go for uniform volume and rhythm to achieve the correct effect. The only way to get speedier at this and other picking techniques is to practice. The most effective practice to get faster picking speed is this:


      Seems incredibly straightforward and simple, right? Okay, now go and play that for a while. Then come back and tell me in a month or two if you got any faster at picking.


      See Also: Speed exercises for guitar


Playing without a pick will in the end allow you as a player to have more control over what comes out of the instrument. By using your fingers, you can also play much faster than you can with a pick. However, learning the patterns of playing that allow you to do so is NOT trivial.

The easiest to learn fingerstyle technique is to alternate notes between your thumb and your index finger. This same methodology would be applied to using more than two fingers. Say in the case of playing with three fingers, you now have the choice of playing starting from the thumb and going up to the middle finger, or starting at the middle finger and going back to the thumb. These two techniques will take some time to master, but they are the underpinnings of most classical guitar pieces.

The other related patterns are to play an eighth-note or triplet pattern on one string with these fingers, in stead of going over multiple strings. Once you have become comfortable with a variety of fingerstyle patterns, you can begin to worry about how it sounds. Some players grow their nails out, and some use metal or nylon fingerpicks so that their nails don't split. I prefer to use my fingertips, but here you will run into the same problem that you will have with a flatpick, that you must be plucking the strings orthogonally, so you are not sliding along them and killing the harmonics.

Palm-Muting and Other Hand-stops

The amount to which you mute the strings while strumming and whether you use all downstrokes or alternate, these all have an enormous impact on your overall tone as a player. What makes some players sound more percussive and consistent rhythmically is generally how they position the heel of their palm while playing. The closer you are to the bridge of the guitar, the less dampening effect you will be introducing to the strings.

                      Palm-muting hand position

Chunky, mostly percussive                    Legato tone
(piano/pianissimo on acoustic)      (mezzo-forte/mezz-piano)
Soundhole/Middle Pickup                            Bridge

Contrast this with the way the tone will vary based on where you are actually strumming:

                      Strumming Pick position

Mellow, dark sound                          Bright, harsh
(piano/mezzo-piano)                        (forte/fortissimo)
Soundhole/Middle Pickup                            Bridge

Learning palm-muting is essential to playing most other artists' songs, and to writing effectively. A very good way to practice palm-muting to gain speed and to get a better tone out of it would be to simply play this:


Just leave the strings open, and chunk along with your right hand until it gets tired. Don't overdo it. Once you become familiar with the technique, you can easily practice it by moving between power chords on the neck, or between chord shapes.

  • Fretting Hand Control

    Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

    Tied notes are very commonly used because the motion of adding a note through hammering down with an available finger or pulling off can be accomplished while the player is picking other strings that are not in use. This goes along with the idea of sweep picking, that saved motion can be used to the advantage of the player. These patterns are most frequently also used in conjunction with sliding the hammered note up or down in order to change neck position in a fluid way.

    Scales such as the minor pentatonic that are geared around alternating large and small intervals are especially easy to play using this technique, since moving between the strings while hammering-on extra notes in these scales is built into the pattern.

    Trills and Grace Notes

    Adding in these two techniques spices up guitar lines, and makes the songs sound more like what can be expressed with the human voice. Trills are easy to do, just hammer-on and pull-off two notes next to each other as fast as possible. However, to really be able to use this technique, it will take a good bit of pracitce to get up to a speed that will sound satisfactory to most players. Grace notes follow the same pattern, where you are going to add in very briefly intermediate notes in runs or in transition between notes in order to make it sound more fluid.


    Finger-tapping entails using your strumming hand to fret notes on the fretboard. In order to do this, it is best to start using an electric, because the required pressure to produce a note with the fingertips of the strumming hand can be daunting to beginners. The best way to learn this technique is to learn where the perfect fifths are of notes that are already fretted at the time with the left hand. These notes will sound good to begin with, and will allow you to concentrate on the technique itself.

    Typically, the index finger and middle finger of the strumming hand are used to tap down on the fretboard, with the thumb also being used occasionally to begin the strings' vibration in order to make the tapping more effective. This technique is also employed by many bass players, because due to the thickness of bass strings this is easier to accomplish. On guitar, this technique is usually employed in the higher register by lead players, in order to get intervals into their solos that are not easy to reach with the left hand, or allowing for more notes in a given measure by supplying notes with both hands at one time.


    String vibrato once again follows the idea that a guitar will sound the best if it closely emulates what can be accomplished with the human voice. This effect can be done by moving the fretted notes up and down in a rhythmical way while playing. This technique is probably the easiest to learn with one string at a time, but more strings can be used at a time if your fretting hand is strong enough. A key aspect of using this in playing is that in order for it to sound like it fits in, it must fit the rhythm of the song being played.

    It is also easy to over-do it and bend the notes out of pitch with what is appropriate in the song. This is also not a technique that should be employed all the time, because then it will get old with the people listening to you play. Varying up these techniques and incorporating your own personal style into your playing will be more pleasing to you and your audience. Also, a great deal of practice is the most important thing in learning how to play the guitar -- when you practice enough, you will be more familiar with the instrument, and so your playing will also sound more familiar.



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