Back to the flesh of it

I picked up the guitar again mid-2007 and immediately started picking. I’d been a total plectrum kid, but for some reason, after 14 years with barely a guitar in my hands, I not only wanted to play a real instrument again, I wanted to feel as much of it as I possibly could.

...with Benguela, Cape Town, July 2009. Photo: Niklas Zimmer
...with Benguela, Cape Town, July 2009. Photo: Niklas Zimmer

Over the years my approach has been influenced by guitarists from the Congo, Northern Zambia and South Africa. I’ve been inspired and encouraged by luminaries such as Ry Cooder, Jeff Beck and Australia’s Geoff Achison, also a Beck aficionado. I’ve listened and watched guitarists from Brazil and string players on the streets of Istanbul.

I’m still crap at playing, but the joy of having both an instrument in my hands and the quest for expression through all manner of experiences again is more than I could have imagined three-quarters through my life!

On writing about guitar

I’ve been wanting to write about my return to the guitar as instrument of choice for some time now. I’ve kept a kind of guitar journal where I pen my successes, failures and track a kind of practice routine, but honestly, I didn’t think public commentary would be interesting for anyone other than guitar nerds… and may be not even the nerds!

In all honesty, I’m writing this mostly for my own record and for anyone who may be interested. So I thought I’d begin by jotting down a few thoughts about picking. That’s finger picking, and a summery of the choices one has to make with a few samples from the work of guitarists I admire and some I even learn from.

Thank goodness for broadband. Years ago some of us were trying all manner of means to shove audio across a telephone line, from one computer to the next, between buildings, cities and countries. To think we have such amazing advances in compression technologies that online video has become so ubiquitous YouTube logos appear on Indonesian mobile phone adds right next to Facebook and Yahoo.

So, there you go… I’d not have made any where near the kind of progress I sought for, nor been exposed to so many more guitarists willing to share their techniques and had so many of my awkward questions answered.

Nails or flesh?

I love my guitars. I love playing with my fingers. I love plucking, pinching and digging into strings, both nylon and steel, with a mix of delicacy and ferocity. But no matter which way I approach picking I’m left with cracked, split and worn out nails. Am I going about this the right way?

Let’s begin with a lesson from Stefan Grossman. He picks with bare fingers. Bare finger picking hurts. At least until the skin hardens, but at the outset, with a steel string, it feels kind of crazy to be punishing one so much… that said, the sound is rounder and you’re actually getting as close as one possibly can to the flesh of the instrument itself.

As such, I’m gradually moving from nails to flesh… largely due to the fact that my nails, if not worn down by my playing, break! Each time they do my playing feels hampered and any progress I’d made bails.

Recently the nail on my ring finger broke. Until then I’d not realised how much I relied on what would normally be a floating digit. Getting used to playing without the nail has not only been painful,  I’m having to relearn all my pieces. I’ve already leaned on the fleshy side of my thumb, barely using the nail at all. Just love the thumpy, slappy bass sound I get… and it’s easier to whack the face of the guitar for extra percussive effect with the thumb, the hand leaning into the strings rather than suspended above them.

Here’s Stefan teaching us mortals how to play the blues standard, ” Corina, Corina”. Note the position of his wrist and his sound. Where the wrist sits is important as it can either give one, or hinder flexibility of the thumb in particular.

If I wasn’t happy with bare flesh, I could turn to picks. I’ve tried them, but they might put my playing back a few years. Tasmanian guitarist, Piz, told me the first time he used picks his fingers felt six feet long! But he persevered and like the next guitarist, has developed a strong, strident style, particularly on banjo.

Here’s the beguiling technique of Bjørn Berge’s mix of plastic and metal finger picks and slide. I ain’t ever heard a 12 string sound so vast and generous… harmonics ablaze!

Finally, we’re at the nails. I love playing with my nails, but I’m resting my rest more on the bridge than picking directly above the strings. This results in more access to the flesh of the fingers and greater wear and tear on the nails. The proverbial jury’s still out.

Okay, let’s see how John Butler hangs with nails and steel string. How he manages to play this piece without breaking a single nails amazes me. I’m wondering whether the nails are real or plastic…

Ultimately, it’s what ever feels right… problem with me is what ever feels right changes from piece to piece, from day to day. I reckon if my nails never broke I’d keep going in that direction… but for now, it’s a bit of mix, from nails to the flesh of it.

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2 thoughts on “Back to the flesh of it”

  1. I’ve been having weekly guitar lessons, but am still pretty bad & very slow. my teacher says he can see some technique peeping through & I can find some of the notes now so I’m happy (still not good with chords yet – finger stretch/muscle memory problems). the john butler song was amazing – how he played, wow. they hold the neck differently to what I was taught though – my teacher says I should put my thumb parallel to the neck, not over/perpendicular. actually it feels more natural to me to play like a piano – like jeff healey did (but teacher says I shouldn’t do this 🙂 it’s interesting to see how everyone else plays. I guess it’s just finding what feels right for each person. I still have nylon strings though. your poor nails – those steel strings would cut your nails & fingers to pieces! (my teacher has hard callouses on his finger tips – not sure I want those)

  2. What yer teacher says is good… you need the rules to break them. Besides, if you’re playing nylon string the fret board is wider so you need the thumb at the back of the neck to give your fingers ample stretch. it’s good discipline.

    i got callouses. it’s part of the deal. makes typing interesting, particularly on touch screens… one can’t feel the surface, but you can feel guitar strings and the fret board.

    love playing nylon string… came close to selling part of my soul for a handmade nylon string i’d found in vienna a couple of years back. love at first sight! then i played it… in fact, it played me!

    what you’re doing is great. i had a bunch of teachers, but never for any length of time… was too busy trying to play everything. now it’s just the pleasure of the quest, the listening, the writing, figuring it out, playing. i may never get to where i’d like, but what the heck, it’s been an unbelievable trip so far and many more years to go.

    stick with you… “you’ll be so glad you did” 🙂

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