OK, we'll get to playing music in a second, but first I need to teach you proper picking hand positioning. This is something that's best to work on right out of the gate. And you know, if you get this right now, you won't develop bad habits that you'll have to fix later. I should mention, you know, as luck would have it, I was cleaning up after my kids this morning and fumbled a glass and caught it just as it was crashing into the side of our counter. And so all superficial wounds. Fingers still work. But yeah, Oh well. You teach your finger style course with the hand you have, not the hand you want, as Donald Rumsfeld said.
OK, so as we go through this and as you practice this, it would be useful for you to be able to see your picking hand, either using a full length mirror--that's what my guitar teacher had me do when I was learning this. You could also open up a webcam window so that you could see yourself, you know, as I'm seeing myself here filming myself, so that you can kind of look at your hand from a third person perspective and compare it to my hand positioning.
So here are my five principles for proper hand positioning when you're playing finger style. The first one is to hold a lemon. And what I mean by that is imagine that you're holding an invisible lemon. That should be the shape that you're picking hand is in. It's kind of like this kind of relaxed claw shape and it's rounded. The fingers are rounded and you can get your hand in this position very easily. You just make a fist and then relax your hand, and it'll get into the shape you want. What you want to avoid is when these knuckles are flattened. Sometimes I see my beginners pick like this. For some reason, I don't know why their hands do that, but this is more like holding a hockey puck, right? You want to hold a lemon like this.
The second guideline is to tilt your wrist, and this is what I mean by that. When I'm picking here like this, my hand has dropped down just from gravity, a little bit like this and not tilting my wrist, looks like this. Watch my hand. There, that would be kind of neutral and then this is down a little bit. You don't need to force your hand down like this. You don't really need to use any muscle. Just let gravity pull your hand down a little bit like that. And the reason for this is, if your hand were in neutral position and you were holding your guitar the way I hold my guitar, the way most people who play like steel string guitar play it, your fingers wouldn't be at the right angle. They'd be like slicing along the strings--it's called slicing-- when you pick at such an angle that your finger kind of skids along the string. Doesn't sound good. You don't want that. And so having your hand tilt down a little bit gives you an angle of attack on the string that gets you a nice, crisp sound.
Classical guitarists, you have probably noticed, hold their guitar like this--and maybe you do too--in which case you don't need to tilt your wrist. See, in classical guitar position, the hand can stay in a neutral position. Can finger pick like that? Perhaps it's slightly more ergonomic to hold the guitar that way, at least for like the carpal tunnel. But this position doesn't seem to cause people much trouble. And there are benefits to holding your guitar like this. It doesn't require a footstool, and it's easier to strum to. And so for most of us, this guitar position works well and we just kind of compensate for it by dropping our wrist down a little bit.
OK, the third guideline is to make a cross and following the first two guidelines: hold a lemon and tilt your wrist, will help you to do this, so make sure you're doing those other two things and then look down at your hand. And as you're looking at your hand from above, what you should see is your thumb and your forefinger (and the other fingers too), crossing like this. See how the thumb and the forefinger make like a plus sign, kind of? What you don't want is this. And the reason for that is if you don't make a cross and you have your fingers too far forward....if you have to pick neighboring strings like the fourth and third strings, your finger and your thumb will bang into each other and it'll trip you up. You won't get a good sound. You want the thumb and the forefinger to miss each other, if you're picking neighboring strings. And so having your thumb stuck out to the side, as I have mine, and picking from the lowest joint, we'll get more into this later. But you stick your thumb way out here. And then you have your fingers kind of curled in a little bit like this. That will make a cross. Tilting your wrist also helps you make a cross, right? And once you've got that cross now, your fingers won't bang into each other.
OK, the last two guidelines have to do with how you touch the strings. The first one is to plant before you play, and planting means resting your fingers on the strings. So basically, they know where the strings are for when you hit those first notes. If you're hovering up above the strings and you want to start a picking pattern, it can be very hard for your fingers to find the right strings. They need to touch the strings first to kind of know where they are. You can use your eyes, of course, but still, it works best if you just touch the strings first. So before you start your song, think about what are the first strings I need to hit when I'm starting to pick my song, and then rest your fingers and your thumb against those strings. And so like, if you're picking a G chord, for example, your thumb would typically be starting on the sixth string. So let's do that. Grab a G chord. Rest your thumb on top of the six string. Just like this. And then let's say your other two fingers were picking in what I call the middle tier, which means the third and second strings. What you want to do is take your first finger--that's going to be the one assigned to the third string--and you're going to slot it in between the third and second strings, a little bit, and then just rest your fingertip against that third string. Your middle finger would be assigned to the second string, so slot that one between the second and first strings and rest the fingertip against the second string. So thumb on the sixth, first finger on the third, second finger on the second string, and now they're ready to pick those strings. You're much more likely to hit the right string because they're touching it.
And then the last guideline is to hover as you play. We can't practice this yet because I haven't shown you any finger picking. But just as a heads up, once you start picking your pattern, you will only want your fingers to touch the strings when you actually pick them. The rest of the time, they're hovering up above the strings, not touching them. You can, by the way, rest your pinky on the soundboard while you pick. There are some great finger style guitarists who do this. Classical guitar teachers think this is like sacrilege, but there are a lot of Travis pickers who rest their finger like this. So if you like that, it feels good to you, go ahead and do it. Just be careful of like having a lot of hand tension around it. You want to just rest it lightly, like this. But my classical guitar teacher--I had a classical teacher who taught me proper hand positioning--had me just hovering over the strings. So you're doing that, then nothing's touching the guitar unless you're picking one of the strings.
And this is opposed to something that my beginning guitar students do usually like in the first week after I've taught them the rudiments of finger style. They come back for their next lesson and they're doing this thing. I cannot for the life of me, recreate it. I've trained it out of myself. I don't think I ever did it to begin with, but what they do is they'll pick a note and then they'll come right back down and rest their finger on the string until it's time to pick it again. It creates this choppy sound. You don't want to do it.
And so really be careful as you start learning your finger style patterns that you're only touching the strings when you're actually picking them. Think of the image of, like, you know, a cheesy sci-fi movie with the alien mothership hovering up above the city. Then, every once in a while, a tentacle streaks out of the belly of the ship to pluck a hapless victim off the sidewalk and then comes right back up to the ship again. That's the only time you come down to hit the string.
So, like I said, I want you to memorize these five guidelines. And you know, the way I teach these to my students is by constant nagging over the course of many lessons as I train them how to play finger style. I'm not going to be around and nag you, so you've got to nag yourself, which can be hard to do, you know! You're distracted when you're learning all this stuff that goes into playing Travis picking, and it can be hard to remember to check your hand positioning. And so I really encourage you, if you've got a mirror, you can position wherever you practice, to just look over there and see how your hand positioning is and make adjustments. That would be great. Or bring up a window on your computer so that you can see yourself in your webcam. Do whatever you need to do to monitor your picking hand so that you can make little adjustments as you build muscle memory. And then eventually it'll become like second nature and you won't have to think about it again. But here in these first few days of learning finger style, you will need to think about it a lot.
How's it going?
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