Finger picking hand techniques

Part 2: Tone Production

– Version 1.7 by Dale Cotton, © 2010, all rights reserved.

You may have spent considerable money to buy an instrument with a good sound. But the sound a guitar produces is as much about how it's played as about its intrinsic qualities. There are many ways to set a guitar string vibrating. It's not so much about finding the best approach as it is about finding the one that produces the sound you like best. Click on the link below to hear a short MP3 file illustrating the different sounds a guitar string produces when struck with different materials:

MP3 sound file (48 sec, 1.1 MB)

Audio 1: Alternate tones (illustrates differences in tone but not in loudness)

Audio 1 records a series of strikes of the D note at the 2nd string, 3rd fret. It starts with a heavy gauge flat pick used edge-on to get the clearest, sweetest, most forceful tone I know how to generate with an acoustic steel string guitar. If the steel string acoustic were an orchestral instrument, this is the tone quality that its players would be striving to attain. The sound starts immediately, has virtually no non-musical noise factor, has full presence, and seems to go on forever.

Fig. 1: 2nd string struck with flat pick held edge-on

Now, whether this is the sound you want from your guitar is an entirely separate issue. Just as Louis Armstrong's voice was very different from Enrico Caruso's, just as Coltrane's soprano sax sound is a different beast from Kenny G's, so you may not be on the purity wavelength. That's good, because playing with a hard flat pick edge on is about the most impractical way there is to play the guitar – and none of the practical approaches achieves quite that purity of sound.

Bare flesh. A traditional and very practical way to generate a sound when finger strikes string is to use the bare flesh (actually, calluses) of your finger tips – no nails or finger picks. The sound this generates is on the quiet/mellow side but with a slight bit of raspy, hissing edge. In practical terms, the upside is that all you need to bring with you to play the guitar is your fingers. No picks to lose or nails to coddle and fuss over. One downside is that bare flesh somewhat dampens the volume of sound you're generating. Another is that the friction inherent in bare flesh forces you to attack each note with considerable force in order to overcome the bit of grab that takes place as the finger tries to move on past the string it's striking. This both slows you down and limits your ability to play with subtle dynamics (changes in loudness), since you need to use a certain amount of force just to overcome the grab.

But again, if your goal is to reproduce a traditional style of playing that is based on bare finger tips, then of course that's what you want to use. Or you may simply like that sound.

Nails. The vast majority of nylon string guitarists play with their natural fingernails or an artificial substitute. Unfortunately, you need really tough natural nails to keep steel strings from chewing them up. Some guitarists strengthen their nails by applying successive thin coats of cyanoacrylate AKA Crazy or Super Glue. Others use acrylic powder sculpting, as pioneered by Vietnamese nail salons, to add extra thickness and hardness. Other players glue on artificial nails. (A serious caveat to any of these approaches that add material to the fingernail: your nails become very prone to fungal infection.) Still other guitar players swear by aLaska picks, which are actually more a form of artificial nail than a traditional finger pick.

Problem nails?. Few guitarists have naturally good fingernails to work with. Some of us have brittle nails that crack and split easily. Another common problem is nails that are too thin and flexible. If you're not keen on Crazy Glue or artificial nails, in theory, either problem can be simply a matter of diet. I've read one glowing report on gobbling down large quantities of wheat germ. Plus, a few minutes with Google will turn up any number of lotions and potions to apply to your nails that claim to help (one of which is made for horse hooves). A serious enemy to your nails is the combination of soap or detergent and hot water, which leaches out their natural oils. If you're really desperate, wear a rubber glove on the right hand when washing dishes or bathing/showering (secure the cuff with a rubber band). Bear in mind, however, that all these remedies take months to show results, since new nails have to fully grow in before any improvement can show. But if a remedy hasn't helped after four to six months, you can cross it off your list.

Update June 2011: I've strictly followed the regimen of wearing rubber gloves when showering for most of the past year. The results have been little short of astounding. After even a few months I noticed a significant difference, but now my nails are hard as rock. I'm getting a really great tone – very nearly comparable to steel finger picks – from relatively short finger nails. Of course metal strings are still going to chew them up with sufficient playing time, but that will take much longer than before.

Fig. 2: canting to the side (exaggerated for clarity)

The problem with nails is getting a strong bell-like tone instead of a clicky or thin sound. Simply striking the string with the nail straight on from behind, as in Fig. 2a, causes the string to meet the nail at two points simultaneously. To avoid this, many nylon string guitarists cant their fingers slightly so the string slides along the left or right edge of each nail, making contact with only one point along the nail at a time, as shown in Fig. 2b (and this only applies to nail playing, not finger pick playing). Either way, it's essential that your nails are filed so there are absolutely no irregularities or bumps along the curve of their edge. The top edge needs to be one smooth curve. We see how to do this in Fig. 3:

Fig. 3: nails and filing angle

(Note that individual fingernails very greatly in shape, so what follows may not apply directly to your own situation.) By holding the nail file steady at roughly a 45 degree angle along two axes as you file, you create a straight edge yet one that appears smoothly curved when viewed face on. When using the right-edge approach, the nail then slides along the string at much the same angle when playing.

Fig. 4: honing stone

Filing and finishing. Most emery board type files are far too abrasive. The file shown in Fig. 3 is metal with fine diamond grit, which represents a good compromise between taking off enough nail and not chewing the nail up in the process. After shaping with a file, most guitarists have some collection of emery cloth or ultra-fine grain sand paper. Far better is to use a polished knife-honing stone (looks like marble), as shown in Fig. 4. I use the wide edge for knife sharpening and the narrow edge for my nails. No fuss, no muss; available wherever knives are sold and never wears out.

Fig. 5: medium-length nails ramped on right side

Ramping. The nail shapes shown in Fig. 3 are symmetric and round. Recently, many guitarists have moved to an asymmetric shape shown in Fig. 5, based on the theory that the longer the nail's edge is in contact with the string the better. Scott Tennant explains this approach here (first half). Definitely worth experimenting with. One advantage is that steel strings have much less tendency to chew up your natural nail when filed this way.

MP3 sound file (11 sec, 300 KB)

Audio 2: Short nails ramped right sample

Skin + nails. Another approach is to combine bare skin plus nails in a certain manner that has a bit of the power and clear tone that finger picks provide, while eliminating some of the disadvantages of skin and nails taken separately. All you need to do is:

  1. Play with relatively short nails, ramped as shown in Fig. 5 or symmetric as shown in Fig. 3. For me, short means that the nail is no higher than the tip of the flesh of the finger.
  2. Attack the string from either the left or the right side as described above, but let the flesh of the finger just to the side of the nail contact the string either before the nail contacts the string or at the same time as the nail makes contact. You'll also need to experiment with how much flesh is involved.

The nail provides the solidity needed for a good tone, while the flesh mellows some of the thin, nasal sound that nails alone have when used with steel strings. The combination also eliminating much of the rasp that flesh alone yields. Of course, you may need to develop a whole new set of calluses...

While there is less grab to overcome than from a simple bare fingertip approach, there is still a noticeable amount, depending upon how much flesh is involved.

MP3 sound file (10 sec, 250 KB)

Audio 3: Short nails ramped right plus skin sample

Finger picks. The steel string acoustic guitar is often called a plectrum (fancy word meaning pick) instrument. Just as a violin is normally played with a bow and a drum is normally struck with a drumstick, scholars think of the steel string acoustic as requiring something as hard as a pick in order to really elicit a strong, clear tone from the instrument. It's certainly true that when sheer volume of sound is required, neither bare skin nor nails can compete with a pick.

Finger picks are of a generally similar shape – a ring that goes around the fingertip plus an extension, or tongue, that protrudes from the ring in order to contact the string. Finger picks are available in metal, plastic, and celluloid. I have no experience with celluloid picks; I just know that they exist and that they reportedly have less pick click then even plastic picks (thanks to Big Mellon Rick for this tip).

Fig. 6: finger picks – A: metal from store B: plastic from store C: plastic re-shaped

Fig. 6 shows a Dunlop metal and plastic finger picks, much like what you'll find in any music store. (Strangely, the Dunlop metal pick still says patent pending just as it did forty years ago when I first encountered them. I wish them well in resolving this matter.) Dunlop metal picks come in different gauges (metal thickness). I prefer a heavier gauge (.025) so the pick is less likely to get squished when in my pocket. Metal picks can be bent into almost any shape with nothing more than a pair of pliers. When shaping a finger pick you want the get the ring to fit snugly but without pinching. After considerable experimentation with various tongue curves and angles, I'm finding the factory tongue shape and angle works best for me. All I need do is squeeze or open the ring as needed to fit each finger.

Dunlop plastic picks come in clear and tortoise shell and small, medium, and large sizes. Err toward the tighter size. Plastic picks need to be heated for a few seconds in boiling water before shaping. I can't make the factory tongue shape or angle (Fig. 6B) work for me. Fig. 6C, which essentially copies the metal pick's tongue, is the best I've found to date.

As well as shaping, you'll need to experiment with how much of the tongue you have protruding past the end of each finger. Too much protruding produces wobble and click; too little encourages the string to slip between pick and fingertip (ideally, your right-hand nails are cut short, unlike mine in Fig. 6). Once you get them shaped and seated correctly, I think you'll find the bell-like tone you get from the guitar using finger picks will blow you away.

MP3 sound file (12 sec, 250 KB)

Audio 4: Metal finger pick sample (but no thumb pick)

Test drive. A good test whether you have your finger picks shaped and seated correctly is to play a simple scale like this one:

e|-----------------|-----------------| B|-------------0-1-|-1-0-------------| G|---------0-2-----|-----2-0---------| D|---0-2-3---------|---------3-2-0---| A|-3---------------|---------------3-| E|-----------------|-----------------|

Play with just your fingers (no thumb), alternating index + middle or index + middle + ring, depending on how many picks you use. Gradually increase the tempo over successive repetitions to flush out any problems.

The upsides of finger picks are the bright, bell-like tone, sheer loudness, and the lack of grab. Downsides are needing to put them on and take them off, needing to remember to have them with you, possible issues with getting the pick to hit the right string (at least while getting used to them), and pick click. Pick click can be minimized and virtually eliminated by proper shaping, as you can hear in Audio 4, above. But you also need to be aware when putting the pick on that you have it rotated so the tongue strikes the string at the optimal angle. You also need to remember to keep your fingers curved. While many believe that plastic picks have less click and a less metallic tone than metal picks, I'm not finding much of a difference myself when both are properly shaped. Also, some claim that finger picks limit the variety of tone colours achievable, although you can obviously still play near the bridge, over the sound hole, etc.

Thumb. So far discussion has focused on fingers, but nearly everything said about fingers applies just as much to the thumb. Thumb played with bare flesh (no nail or pick) gives the same sort of muted, raspy tone as do fingers played with bare flesh. One exception is that if playing with the thumb nail, you use the corner of the nail to grab the string. All you need is that fairly sharp corner ... and a pretty tough, solid nail. Every one has a different take on exactly which thumb pick shape is best, but they're easy to experiment with.

Fig. 7: thumb nail and thumb pick

Since I happen to have a fairly tough thumb nail, I use that instead of a pick (as you can hear in Audio 2, 3, and 4 above). This has two advantages. Thumb nail playing produces a little less loudness, which I happen to prefer since the melody line is more often in the treble. Also, for an even softer bass line, I can easily switch to a flesh-only attack.

* * *

...And that's a very short survey of some of the many ways finger pickers have found to get sound out of a steel string acoustic guitar over the past hundred years or so. I started playing guitar doing steel string finger picking but soon switched over to classical. Just a few months ago I got the urge to revisit steel string, but soon found that what creates the loudest, clearest tone on a nylon string doesn't necessarily transfer to steel strings. This caused me to revisit the issue of tone production for the first time in several decades. As is often the case when stepping outside my comfort zone, I learned things and found myself traveling in directions I hadn't in the least expected.

Know another and perhaps better approach? I'm, as they say, all ears.

* * *

Back to Dale's Music Stuff