Ready to become a full-fledged acoustic guitar fingerstylist? In part four, we addressed essential elementary plucking patterns, starting with a “clean” thumb to provide a solid anchor in the low end.
Taking the next step to incorporate a melody on top requires an “educated” thumb. It’s a serious discipline, akin to learning stride piano, where one hand plays bass and the other plays melody, except that on guitar both hands participate to create a uniquely interwoven musical tapestry.
Developing the ability to multitask on such a level unlocks fingerpicking styles from Travis picking to Piedmont blues, and it’s the final route in this series on our path to finger freedom.
How To Develop An Educated Thumb
For starters, the thumb needs to be “smart” enough to execute elementary bass lines almost automatically, otherwise rhythm will falter, and even a simply lovely melody will sound sickly. Run through all the rudimentary open chords with root notes on the four “bass” strings and find the common bass lines.
You’ve heard them a million times, alternating between the root and the 5th, and often incorporating the 3rd every other time. The notes can be found on adjacent strings or on strings separated by one or two others, depending on the chord. Practice various basic bass lines until they become second nature.
Add Melody Notes
Start down the melodic road by hitting a note on the “one” of each measure while the alternating bass line is played underneath. It can be any note in any chord. C is a natural beginner, so start there and use the tonic at the first fret of the second string as the first melody note.
I recommend plucking that with the middle finger, as I try to keep the first three fingers aligned with the top three strings whenever possible.
Precision is the primary concern. Can you pluck it with a clean strike at the top of each measure and hear the note ring out clearly while your thumb plucks some variation of root – 3rd – root – 5th on beats 1 through 4?
Once you have that dialed in, try playing the V chord in the same key, which here is G. Repeat the whole process using the IV chord, F, and then put it all together in a typical I - IV - V chord progression lasting a typical 12 bars.
Once that’s clicking like clockwork, add another note on the upbeat of “two” for each chord. This is the first step toward syncopation, which is key to sounding like two guitars playing at once.
Can you do it consistently throughout the progression? Add another melody note on beat three. Now you’re making something approximating music. It’s time to move on to the real deal.
Pick A Tune Apart
Pick a tried-and-true fingerpicking tune. “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten exemplifies an elemental educated thumb in her style known as “Cotten picking.” Pete Seeger’s “Living in the Country” is another standard that Leo Kottke mentions in this month’s Frets feature as a milestone he wound up taking to a new level in his own style.
For an excellent pop music example that shows the possibilities of a well-educated thumb – and requires a bit more dexterity – try copping Lindsey Buckingham’s approach on Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again.”
In every case, make sure you’ve got the bass line down, and then focus on learning the whole melody without the bass. Don’t submit to the temptation to skip ahead. Nail the entire melody note by note, as that familiarity will come in handy during the final step.
Bring the bass line and the melody together one beat and one measure at a time. Like going through a checklist, knock off each note one by one, or two by two, as the case may be.
There will be frustrating moments when it feels impossible to marry them, but hang in there and work it out. You’ll start to realize how the two parts come together as one, and then there will be times when they do so almost automatically.
Eventually, you’ll have an epiphany and rejoice in exaltation, “Yes, I got this!” You’ve reached the end of the initial trails and are moving onto the next level of the path to finger freedom. Keep going, and don’t stop until you reach the mountaintop!
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