“It’s easy to misunderstand fingerstyle guitar,” says Adrian Legg, cradling his custom Puplett acoustic-electric. “It starts when people say, ‘How do you play two things at once? You’re playing the tune and you’re playing the bass.’ The truth is you don’t—it’s the wrong way to look at it, because you can’t possibly do two things at once. You might be able to stir your tea and talk on the phone, but there’s a good chance you might spill something, isn’t there? Yet you can do very complex things in a linear fashion. And that’s the essence of fingerstyle technique: Instead of learning the treble, learning the bass, and then putting them together, you learn vertical slices along the bar. Ask yourself, ‘What is everything doing at this beat, what is it going to do at this beat?’ Suddenly it starts to make sense. For me, the concept of vertical slices made it possible to learn fingerstyle guitar.”
An Englishman with a sharp wit, dry sense of humor, and keen appreciation of history, Legg also knows a thing or two about fingerpicking. Guitar Player readers voted him Best Fingerstyle Guitarist from 1993 until the Readers Poll was retired in 1996, and heaped awards on his albums: Best Acoustic Album in ’93 (Guitar for Mortals) and ’94 (Mrs. Crowe’s Blue Waltz), and Best Overall Guitar Recording in ’95 (Wine, Women, & Waltz). Legg’s latest record, Inheritance [Favored Nations], is a genre-warping blend of snappy chicken pickin’, bagpipe-like drones, real-time retuning, Travis-style alternating bass, and pedal steel-inspired bends—all played fingerstyle.
“I remember hearing the Tennessee Guitar album years and years ago,” says Legg. ”It featured a host of Nashville guitarists, including Billy Byrd, Jimmy Capps, Thumbs Carlisle, and Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith. I was a kid in England, and the fingerpicking just went straight over my head. I couldn’t understand how they were doing it until I realized the vertical slice thing. I know there are teachers who say you should separate bass and treble, and possibly you reach a point where you can do that. Or possibly if you’re having difficulty in the treble or bass, you can isolate the part to identify it and sort it out. But in the end, to perform the piece, you create a flow of vertical slices from start to finish.”
To make his point, Legg tunes to DADGAD, and clamps a capo at the 5th fret. “I like the sound of DADGAD as a high-G tuning,” he explains, as he picks Ex. 1. “This is a bit from ‘Waltz for Leah,’ a tune on Inheritance. It’s a simple descending phrase supported by an easy bass line. If you look at the vertical slices, you’ll see that two notes—played by the thumb and one finger—occur only on the downbeat of each measure. Everything else is a single note.”
Legg begins and ends this four-bar phrase with pull-offs cushioned by a ringing open sixth string. Bars 2 and 3 feature a cross-string fingering that creates a tinkling, harplike sound. “I’m stealing a banjo technique pioneered by Bill Keith,” reveals Legg. “He put the melody into the picking hand. Before Bill, you had the Earl Scruggs approach where the picking hand plays a repeating rhythmic pattern, and the tune is somewhere in the fretting hand. Bill sets up shapes with his left hand and uses his right hand to pick out the notes he wants from within those shapes. He’ll mix forward, backward, and broken rolls to attack the melody, which is what I’m doing here.”
As you work out bar 2, notice how it contains a pair of partial backward rolls, played by the thumb, middle, and index fingers. (All the examples in this lesson contain suggested picking-hand fingerings. The p, i, m, a markings are what classical guitarists use to respectively indicate the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers.)
Bar 3 contains a straightforward roll using thumb and three fingers—a departure from banjo picking patterns, which generally do not incorporate the ring finger. “If you let the fourth, third, and second strings sustain,” says Legg, “you’ll hear a cluster made of a minor second plus a major second.”
Another excerpt from “Waltz for Leah,” Ex. 2 includes four backward rolls (bars 1, 2, 5, and 6). As in the previous example, your thumb plucks bass notes on the downbeats. “The melody isn’t totally constructed of alternating strings,” says Legg, as he plucks the slowly rising and falling line, “but there’s enough of the cross-string picking to make it ring.”
Also from “Waltz for Leah,” the melody in Ex. 3 is constructed from alternating strings that shimmer over the sixth-string bass line. Notice how in bars 1 and 2, there are always two overlapping melody notes; in bar 3, this expands to three overlapping stepwise scale tones that set up a delightful dissonance reminiscent of a bell choir.
“This business of laying open strings against stopped [fretted] strings is what distinguishes ‘Waltz for Leah’ from some of my other tunes,” says Legg. “It’s a handy technique, useful if you want to introduce a different texture or make a different emotional point. There are people who do it much better than me. Lenny Breau, for example, developed it to the nth degree.”
The next step in our fingerstyle odyssey is to insert an alternating bass pattern into the sonic mix. This is particularly challenging when the melody occurs on alternating strings, as it does in Ex. 4. Played in DADGAD and capoed at the 5th fret, this passage is a descending G major scale supported by a root-5 bass. Though the melody moves down using unbroken stepwise motion, at times you’ll find yourself shifting from lower to higher strings to perform it. Don’t despair if you find it daunting to combine alternating bass with alternating treble strings. “Remember the vertical slices,” counsels Legg. “Start slowly and master one beat at a time.”
Ex. 5 offers a new challenge. “Here, I’m playing a bass note on every beat,” says Legg, as he glides through this chimey ascending and descending G major scale. “This offers a way to develop the necessary independence between your thumb, which is alternating on the fifth and sixth strings, and your fingers, which are playing partial forward rolls on the ascent, and full backward rolls on the descent. It’s a practical approach: You start with a couple of banjo rolls, then add an alternating thumb below the rolls, and finally explore weird things people do with these basic techniques. Classical guitarists have a method—they spend five years developing technique. But we fingerpickers simply cobble up skills, so we can get on with making music right now. This is a vital part of the folk tradition.”
Diving into Open G
“I wanted to quote the banjo tune ‘June Apple’ in my piece ‘Ghosts in the Hills’ [from Guitar Bones, on Favored Nations],” says Legg, “but I had to practice some specific moves before I could manage it. I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s retune to open G [D, G, D, G, B, D], but keep the capo at the 5th fret to give us a high open-C tuning.”
As Legg descends and ascends through Ex. 6, a C Mixolydian (C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C) phrase, his ringing open strings sound startlingly like a banjo. “See how I’m skipping strings,” says Legg, “and alternating between my middle and index fingers to play the melody? This is another example of the ‘melody in the right hand’ technique.”
Shifting to the tenth position, Legg plays Ex. 7, which features alternating middle and index fingerpicking, a quarter-note bass line, some mind-messing string jumps, and Appalachian-sounding hammers and pulls.
“Now here’s a section from ‘Ghosts in the Hills,’” he continues, “that incorporates the moves I took from ‘June Apple’ [Ex. 8]. It’s important to hold your finger on the second string as you shift between stopped and open tones on the first string.”
By parking your finger on the second string, you set up harmonic intervals—including tangy major and minor seconds—which resonate within the melodic line. And the sitar-like run in the last two beats of bar 2 sounds like a psychedelic flurry from the Beatles’ Revolver. Don’t be intimidated by the long strings of sixteenth-notes. At a slow tempo, simply inch through the phrase using the vertical slice principle.
“Nail Talk”—another tune from Inheritance—illustrates Legg’s approach to playing rippling arpeggios. We’re in dropped-D tuning (D, A, D, G, B, E) with no capo. Distilled from the A section, Ex. 9 combines jazzy chord voicings, a recurring, classical-sounding picking pattern, and a relaxed root-octave alternating bass. The melodic syncopation—which occurs on the and of beat two in each measure—gives this passage an elliptical lilt.
“Played with thumb and three fingers, passages like this help you develop dynamics,” states Legg. “For example, you want the notes’ volume to match, whether you pick them using your ring finger or index finger. Working through a series of arpeggios lets you develop such control.”
Ex. 10, another “Nail Talk”-inspired phrase, applies the same picking pattern to a lower group of strings, and features a descending bass line on the sixth string. The progression’s relentless rhythmic flow brings energy to the simple harmony.
“You can get terribly abstruse and abstract and write very complicated tunes,” says Legg, “but how many people understand them? For me, the point of making music is for something emotional to happen in somebody else. I build pieces to carry the emotions I want listeners to experience. Not everybody can follow complex solos or complicated harmonic structures, so I strive for simplicity and accessibility in my composing.”
“When we borrow ideas, they typically lead to interesting failures that produce interesting results—which is all part of the adventure. For example, years ago I played in social-club bands in Liverpool. We guitarists would go around and steal each other’s licks, and we’d always get them wrong. We’d come home and practice incorrect, stolen licks, and somebody else would come ’round and steal these and get it wrong again. Everybody sounded distinct, because they’d cocked-up in different ways. Really, our musical characters were formed as a by-product of inept pilfering. Never underestimate the power of evolution through cock-up.”