Fingerstyle Guitar “Secret”
Playing Fingerstyle guitar for me it's fun. But it hasn't always been that way.
There was a time when I thought it was totally baffling. It seems hard enough to strum the chords and change from one to another in time... never mind playing the melody, the bass line, and all the notes in between that make up a fingerstyle guitar solo.
Can you relate to this?
If so I have good news for you. That will change.
Not overnight... but with time and patience… little by little you'll find your fingers just going where they're supposed to go. It is kind of a miracle when I think about it, though most of the time I just take it for granted.
“That's all well and good” I hear you saying, “but what about that secret you promised”.
I am going to give you a secret, but it's probably not what you're thinking.
It's not some super cool technique that, when you apply it, all of a sudden your fingers just seem to flow. That doesn't mean there aren’t techniques that will help you. I encourage you to practice basic fingerpicking technique a little every day.
It's also not some amazing piece of information that, once you know it, you'll find yourself somehow different than everyone else that doesn't know it. I was always kind of hoping for something like that.
No, the secret is in some ways more subtle, but also way more powerful. This secret has to do with attitude. It's the biggest single change I can attribute to being able to play beautiful fingerstyle solos with feeling and finesse.
When you get this it will change the way you approach playing guitar… for the better of course 🙂
Whoops... I gave away the secret. I bet you didn't notice. It was in the paragraph just before this one.
Go ahead and read that paragraph again. I'll wait...
Did you get it? Most people don't.
The secret is contained in the word “playing” guitar. This is the key to playing solo fingerstyle guitar. Approach your time as playing.
I know, I know. You probably think I'm losing it.
Hear me out.
What I mean by “playing” is an attitude of experimenting with curiosity and low expectation. One more time… Curiosity AND Low Expectation.
When you're curious you're happy to try out different notes and different combinations of notes You are always deciding what you like and what you don't like. It's not hard. It's just what you do when you're curious. You say to yourself “let me try this”, then “how about this?” or “maybe this will sound better” and so on. There's no mistakes. If it doesn't sound good to you just try something else.
When you have low expectations there's no stress or discomfort if it doesn't sound the way you want the first time you try it... or the second...or the third. You get the idea?
You’re just playing guitar. There's no expectation that it has to sound a certain way. You can always change it and try to find something that you like better.
You don't have to believe me to get some benefit from this. In fact I don't want you to believe me. I'd encourage you to just try it on. See if there's some value for you. Be sure and let me know in the comments if you discovered something.
For those of you to find this a little too ethereal or new age mumbo jumbo I'm including a step-by-step process that I also follow when I'm arranging or composing a piece for fingerstyle guitar. See… this isn't actually either/or. It’s both. Follow a process and adopt an attitude of play.
Give it a shot. Let me know what you find out.
Four steps to arranging a simple song into a Fingerstyle guitar solo:
Step #1 - Pick Out The Melody
The first thing to do is to pick out the basic melody. If it's a song you know you may be able to do this by ear, but you can always refer to the sheet music as well. I recommend keeping it on the simple side and not putting in every little embellishment. You can always add to this later in the process. Of course don't make it so simple it doesn't sound like the tune anymore.
On the downloadable cheatsheet you'll find a version of the song Fisherman's Dream with just a melody. You may want to play this first before going on to the version with bass notes.
Step #2 - Figure Out Which Chords Go With The Melody
Next figure out which chords to use and where they go. I often do this by ear, but for most beginners it’s a tough way to go. I'd recommend referring to the sheet music if it's available.
To figure out the chords by ear I hum the melody and experiment with chords until I get something that sounds right. I actually prefer this because I can come up with something that sounds a little different than the standard sheet music and likely more interesting.
Another approach is kind of a hybrid of the two. I'll have the sheet music handy and use it as a reference. I will start by listening to a version of the song (often on YouTube). Then I'll try to play the chords the way I hear it, referring to the sheet music from time to time to get some help if I feel stuck.
It's taken me years to develop the ability to do this completely by ear. I tell you this so you don't get too frustrated if this seems difficult at first. The way you get better at this is the practice your chords and common chord progressions. Try to figure out easy songs at first using the sheet music as a backup. Little by little your ear will get better.
Step #3 - Choose A Bass Note To Represent The Chord
Choosing bass notes is fairly easy once you’re clear on which chords to use. The safe and easiest approach is to use the root of the chord. I often like to be a little more creative and add a few 3rds and 5ths. I'm not just randomly choosing different notes but rather trying to create a pleasing bass line.
The simple version of Fisherman's Dream (see download) demonstrates one way to add the bass line to the song. When you play the simple version you're playing the melody and the bass line.
Step #4 - Add The Full Chord (Either Block Style Or Arpeggio)
Now fill in some of the other notes from the chord. A good starting place is to just play all the notes in the chord while playing the bass line with your thumb and the melody with your first two fingers. When you play the notes together of the entire chord we call this "block style", or a block chord.
After playing through the tune block style you can start adding a little movement by playing arpeggios (also called a broken chord)... In other words using a fingerpicking pattern. Start with a very simple pattern like a simple arpeggio with the notes either going up or down.
You can hear what this sounds like in the more complex version of Fisherman's Dream that I play at the end of the lesson video. If you listen carefully you'll notice that I’m also adding some harmony notes to the melody now and then to give it a little more color.
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