Guitar in Two Weeks, day 11: Fingerpicking II

Today’s lesson will pick up from where the previous ended and take it further in two directions. And be warned: this lesson is probably the most advanced lesson in the whole series. As one commenter wrote, these songs are not easy to play.  They demonstrate some more advanced things you can do with fingerpicking once you have a grasp of the basic technique.

The techniques we have been using so far are mostly just a more elaborate way to play the chords in a tune, but in principle, they might as well be strummed. Where fingerpicking shines, however, is in the ability to pick out melodies and little riffs.

To this end, there are three techniques that come in handy, and one fundamental fact that is the precondition of it all. The precondition is the stable thumb bass that by now should have been etched so thoroughly into the physical memory of your right hand that you could play it in your sleep, without thinking. (This is not to say that the current lesson will be a waste of time for you if you haven’t het mastered it to perfection, only that that’s the foundation that the rest of the fingerpicking techniques rest upon.)

The other side of this coin is the freedom of the other fingers to do just about anything they wish to, but mostly on the off-beats, between the steady pulse of the thumb. This gives the Travis picking style its particular syncopated feel, as we said last time, but it also has a certain melodic potential, which we will discuss today.

The three techniques that build on this foundation are (1) the use of open strings and the fixed notes of the bass for melodic purposes, (2) the use of hammer-ons and pull-offs, and (3) the use of bass lines.

Open strings

Here is one of the most common patterns in the book (any book):

  E                      E
  :   .   .   .          :   .   .   .
|-0---------------|    |-----------------|
|-----------3-----|    |-----------3-----|
|-------0---------| or |-------0-------0-|
|-----2-------2---|    |-----2-------2---|
|-----------------|    |-----------------|
|-0-------0-------|    |-0-------0-------|

I have marked out the bass on the one hand in blue and the core of the treble fill-in in red: as long as those tones are there, the rest is more random. Frequently, the ring finger chimes in on the first beat together with the thumb to emphasise the first beat, as in the first example, and/or the index finger returns on the last beat, as in the second example, giving the characteristic “boom chaka chaka chaka” rhythm.

When played with a chord like E major, where the tones are fairly evenly distributed across the strings and the two bass strings reenforce each other — in this case by having the same tone an octave apart, in the case of G major, achieving almost the same effect with a fifth — the chordal character is emphasised, as well as the separation between bass and treble.

But what if we apply the exact same pattern to the beginning of “Boots of Spanish leather” from last time? This is how it has frequently been played in Dylan’s live shows during the 2000s:

  Em9
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-0---------------|
|-----------3-----|-----------3-----|
|-------0---------|-------0---------|
|-----4-------4---|-----4-------4---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-0-------0-------|-0-------0-------|

  D7/f#             G       C/g
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :
|-----------------|-----------3-----|-----
|-1---------1-----|-0---------------|-----
0-------2---------|-------0---------|-----
|-----0-------0---|-----0-------0---|-----
|-----------------|-----------------|-----
|-2-------2-------|-3-------3-------|-3---

The difference is huge. Here, the second bass string all of a sudden becomes a member of the treble group for a short while, and sets in motion a melody line which I have marked in red.

The interesting thing is that this happens almost automatically — it simply grows out of the picking pattern itself. I am convinced that a lot of tunes have been “composed” this way: the guitar player is just fooling around with some chords and some variations of the basic pattern, and out of the doodling comes a melody.

The true master of this style is Mississippi John Hurt. The following example is a little mean of me, because it take quite a lot of practice to get right, but it is a little gem, which by the way also illustrates a number of other features that are almost stylistic commonplaces in fingerpicking.

Spike Driver Blues

Hurt can be watched playing “Spike Driver Blues” in all its glory on this video:

While you’re at it, please do youself the favour of watching this clip with Elizabeth Cotten playing her trademark song “Freight Train”:

Not only does she play left-handed, with the guitar stringed normally, with the result that the bass strings are at the bottom, she also plays the whole damn thing with only two fingers. It twists my head watching it…

Anyway, back to John Hurt. Here is what he is playing. The details may differ, since this is tabbed from a different version, but the essentials are the same. Again, I’ve highlighted the melody in red. The asterisks are repetition signs; the whole song consists of those measures repeated over and over again.

  :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .
|-------------------------|-----------------1-------|
|-------------------------|-------------3-----------|
|-------------------------|-----------------------0-|
|-------0-----------0-----|-------0-----------0-----|
|-------------2-----------|-------------------------|
|-3-----------------------|-3-----------3-----------|

    :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .
||--3-----------1-----------|-3---------3-------------|
||*-------------------------|-------------------0-----|
||--------------------------|-----------------3-------|
||--------0-----------0-----|-------0-----------0-----|
||*-------------------------|-------------------------|
||--3-----------3-----------|-3-----------3-----------|

  :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .
|-------------------------|-------------------------|
|-------------------------|-----------0-------0-----|
|-0-----------------------|-----------------3-------|
|-------2-----------2-----|-------2-----------0-----|
|-------------------------|-------------------------|
|-3-----------3-----------|-3-----------3-----------|

  :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .
|-------------------------|-----1-------1-----0---1-|
|-------------------------|-----------0-----3-------|
|-0---------------0-----0-|-------------------------|
|-------0-----------0-----|-------0-----------0-----|
|-------------2-----------|-------------------------|
|-3-----------------------|-3-----------3-----------|

  :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .
|-------------------------|-----3-------3-----0---3-|
|-------------------------|-----------0-----3-------|
|-----0-----0-----0-----0-|-------------------------|
|-------0-----------0-----|-------0-----------0-----|
|-------------2-----------|-------------------------|
|-3-----------------------|-3-----------3-----------|

  :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .
|-------------------------|-----------3-------0-------||
|-------------------------|-----------------3--------*||
|-----------0-----0-----0-|---------------------------||
|-------0-----------0-----|-------0-----------0-------||
|-------------2-----------|--------------------------*||
|-3-----------------------|-3-----------3-------------||

There are several things worth mentioning about this song.

  • The whole song is basically a G chord (fingered with the long, ring, and little fingers), with small variations.
  • The melody of the song is basically what is highlighted in red, although he sings it in the floating, talk-like blues style which is almost impossible to imitate unless you thoroughly know the idiom. Besides, it is even more difficult to sing freely and at the same time keep the fixed instrumental.
  • The three licks at the end of lines three to five are the main contents of the song, both as it is sung and as it is played. They all consist of the same kind of playing around (with) open strings that I’ve been alluding to.
  • Notice the bass pattern: where nothing much happens (the first measure of each line), all three bass strings are involved, but in the measures where the melody is played out, the bass pattern is simplified to just two strings. This may be because it is easier to play it that way, but also because enough is going on, musically, anyway, so that extra variation is not really necessary.
  • In some of the “filler” measures, the index finger fills in the off-beats. This is not necessary, it’s just filler, to keep the motion going.
  • Finally, the part that really stand out in all this are the two measures in line three, where the bass tone on the second and fourth beat changes from d to e.

When I say that it is mean of me to present this song, it is because the melody does not just come out of the picking pattern: there is a whole lot to do, especially in the third measure from the end, where the little finger has to jump quite quickly from the first to the second string. The typical thing to do in this style would be to mask that move by shifting one of the notes a half-beat to either side, and let some other finger play something else in the meantime, thereby giving the melody a chance to blend more fully in with the picking pattern. Here, the little finger has to leave a note which might in principle still be sounding for a while longer, in order to get to its new position. Shame on you, Mississippi John, for making something so seemingly simple so difficult to play! (but damn, is it nice when it works!)

Julia

A version of the technique of using open strings is to simply use the notes that are in the chord. John Lennon’s “Julia” is a great example of this. Again, it is slightly mean to use this song as an example, because it is not quite easy to play it. Or rather: there is one chord in it that ruins it all, and sadly that chord is used a lot. But the rest is very simple, and it is a good illustration.

You can find a full tab of it here.

The difficult chord is F9 (131213), which moves on to Fm7 (131114). I find it almost impossible to play that and get clear tones all the way; it is one of the hardest chords to play, and you need to apply quite a lot of force. Luckily, the capo is a saver here. Lennon plays it capoed at the second fret. The capo has one great side-effect that I haven’t mentioned yet: it lowers the string, which makes it easier to press down.

Most of the chord changes can be done very smoothly, by just moving one or two fingers at the time. C is played x32013, alternating with 3x2013: the ring finger moves between the fifth and the sixth strings. It may take a while to getting used to, but it is a very useful technique to master.

From C, move the ring finger from the fifth to the third string (2nd fret), and you have Am7 (002213).

Then, move the index finger from the second to the fifth string and let go of the ring finger, and you get Em (022003).

And finally: long finger from fourth to sixth string to get to G 320003 (Lennon plays it with the ring finger on the second string: 320033 — do whatever you like).

The rest is mostly a matter of barre technique and finger stamina: finger the chords, let the right hand pick the same pattern throughout, and you have one of the greatest Lennon songs in your repertory! If you want more of the same, “Dear Prudence” is a possible choice.

Hammer-ons and pull-offs

Once you have the basic distribution of thumb strokes on the beats, other fingers off-beat worked into your fingers, the next step is to break down that distribution again, but this time using the left hand. The right hand picking pattern should be a fixed grid, but the left hand can play melodies too, and it is not bound by the grid.

Let’s start softly. Play this, using the standard pattern:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------0-----|---0-------0-----|
|---------------0-|-------0-------0-|
|-----0-------0---|-----0-------0---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-3-------3-------|-3-------3-------|

Then, without changing anything in what the right hand plays, hammer on the long finger on the second stroke on the d string, and continue with another hammer-on to the third fret, like this:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------0-----|---0-------0-----|
|---------------0-|-------0-------0-|
|-----0-------0h2-|-----2h3-----3---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-3-------3-------|-3-------3-------|

The important thing is to let the hammer-on’ed tone come in at exactly the same time as the index finger tone. I’m not talking mathematical precision here, but musical: they should belong to the same rhythmic event.

I know that I found it quite difficult to play that with some kind of fluency. I kept thinking or feeling, Hey, that spot is taken, by someone over there on the other hand”. Again, the secret is to be so automatized in the right hand that that takes care of itself. Be biblical: “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.”

What you have just played is the “G–G6–G7 figure” that Dylan used all the time in his acoustic days, this time fingerpicking style. A song which uses that figure is “Percy’s Song”

Percy’s Song

For the record: it’s not because I think it’s a very successful song; in fact, it’s folksy topical song-writing at its worst. I don’t know where one would get 99 years behind bars for a traffic accident, and I resent the idea of a personal plea to the judge as a way to alter a sentence. But it’s a beautiful tune Dylan has nicked, and — what’s important here — it presents some nice guitar finesses, so let’s have a closer look at it.

If you have been a good student and practiced you pickin’ patterns, the song really shouldn’t present any problems at all. The basic pattern is played straightforwardly in the intro:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---------------0-|---------------0-|
|-----1-----------|-----1-----------|
|-----------0-----|-----------0-----|
|-----2-------2---|-----2-------2---|
|-3---------------|-3---------------|
|---------3-------|---------3-------|

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----1---------1-|-----------------|
|-----------0-----|-----------------|
|-----2-------2---|-----2-------2---|
|-3---------------|-3---------------|
|---------3-------|---------3-------|
                             Bad . . .

We recognize the alternating thumb pattern for the C chord, where the ring finger switches between the fifth and sixth strings; we recognize the right-hand pattern, which is the same as in Boots of Spanish Leather; and we may note the room for variation: in the third measure, the last note is played on the second string instead of the first. In other words: as long as the thumb is rock solid, do as you please. (Well, in this case, the basic rhythm — ba pa ba-da ba-da in layman’s terms — is essential too, but which notes are played at “ba” or “da” is of less importance.)

The chord changes to F in the first line, but the right-hand pattern remains the same:

  C
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---------------0-|-----------------|
|-----1-----------|-----1-----------|
|-----------0-----|-----------0-----|
|-----2-------2---|-----2-------2---|
|-3---------------|-3---------------|
|---------3-------|---------3-------|
  news,       bad   news    come to
   F                 C
   :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----1-----------|-----1-----------|
|-----------2---0-|-----------0-----|
|-----3-------3---|-----2-------2---|
|-----------------|-3---------------|
|-1-------1-------|---------3-------|
  me      where I   sleep

Notice how the chord changes are treated differently: In the transition from C to F, I’ve left out the last half-beat, so that there is time to change chords. Going from F back to C again, on the other hand, I’ve indicated that the C comes in one half-beat too early, so as to fit in with the picking pattern.

This is one of the places where the thumb-F shines, as opposed to the barre-F: it is easier to lift one finger off the board — in this case the long finger — than to move the whole hand, as would have been the case with the barre shape. Thumb-F also makes all the fingers available for hammer-ons, which is a great thing to take advantage of.

I could have left out that last note in the F measure as well, but if I highlight some notes again, it will become clear what it’s doing there:

  C
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---------------0-|-----------------|
|-----1-----------|-----1-----------|
|-----------0-----|-----------0-----|
|-----2-------2---|-----2-------2---|
|-3---------------|-3---------------|
|---------3-------|---------3-------|
  news,       bad   news    come to
   F                 C
   :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----1-----------|-----1-----------|
|-----------2---0-|-----------0-----|
|-----3-------3---|-----2-------2---|
|-----------------|-3---------------|
|-1-------1-------|---------3-------|
  me      where I   sleep

The highlighted notes are in fact a rudimentary outline of the melody of the song.

Then follows the G-G6-G7 turn, twice:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------0-----|---0-------0-----|
|---------------0-|-------0-------0-|
|-----0-------0h2-|-----2h3-----3---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-3-------3-------|-3-------3-------|
  Turn,             turn,   turn a-

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------0-----|---0-------0-----|
|---------------0-|-------0-------0-|
|-----0-------0h2-|-----2h3-----3---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-3-------3-------|-3-------3-------|
gain                              sayin’

The next line is vanilla C–F again; the below is just a suggestion — play any pattern you like:

  C
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---------------0-|-----------------|
|-----1-----------|-----1-----------|
|-----------0-----|-----------0-----|
|-----2-------2---|-----2-------2---|
|-3---------------|-3---------------|
|---------3-------|---------3-------|
  one of      your  friends is in 

   F                 F
   :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----1----------1|-----1-----------|
|-----------2-----|-----------2-----|
|-----3-------3---|-----3-------3---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-1-------1-------|-1-------1-------|
  trou  -    ble    deep

For the end of the verses, Dylan does something nasty, which is part of the reason — apart from the hammer-ons — that I’ve included this example here.

The next chord is a Dm. As you may have noticed, I don’t care much for the D chords in standard tuning.

Dylan starts off “correctly”, with the fourth string as the bass note. That also means that you will have to shift all the fingers one string down: temporarily, the index finger plays on the second string, the long finger on the first, and the ring finger is unemployed.

But where to go next? Dylan does the illegal thing: he plays the next note on the sixth string. This is an E, a note which definitely doesn’t have any business in a D minor chord. And not only does he play it — he stays on it for the full next measure as well, for as long as the Dm lasts:

  Dm      /e        /e      /e
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----1---------1-|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----3---------1-|
|-----2-----2-----|-----2-----2-----|
|-0-----------0---|-------------0---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|---------0-------|-0-------0-------|
          Turn, turn,       to the   

  F                 G
  :   .   .   .     :   .
|-----------------|-----3---
|-----1-----------|---------
|-----------2---0-|---------
|-----3-------3---|-----0---
|-----------------|---------
|-1-------1-------|-3-------
  rain    and the wind

Now, why does he do this? This is not the place for extended dylanology, but it seems clear to me that this is not just a way to grab more strings in a cramped chords, but a way to create lines. Look at what happens in the bass further on: the E in Dm is followed by an F, rightfully belonging in the F chord, and the G, which is the goal of this passage. In other words: with a simple transgression of a fundamental rule of harmony, Dylan binds the passage together. “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” indeed. Who said Dylan is a bad musician?

These last measures also contain the other reason why I wanted to include this example. Again, let me colorize the tab:

  Dm      /e        /e      /e
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----1---------1-|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----3---------1-|
|-----2-----2-----|-----2-----2-----|
|-0-----------0---|-------------0---|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|---------0-------|-0-------0-------|
          Turn, turn,       to the   

  F                 G
  :   .   .   .     :   .
|-----------------|-----3---
|-----1-----------|---------
|-----------2---0-|---------
|-----3-------3---|-----0---
|-----------------|---------
|-1-------1-------|-3-------
  rain    and the wind

Again, what we are playing is an outline of the melody, picked out just by choosing the right strings from among the available ones. The right-hand picking pattern remains exactly the same.

Barbara Allen and Seven Curses

Just to mention a couple of song that belong in this category before we close down: “Barbara Allen”, a true gem which can be found on the so-called Gaslight Tape from the end of 1962. It is played in dropped D tuning, which is perfect for fingerpicking. It uses a straightforward picking pattern, but between the sung lines, there is this little, hypnotic figure:

  D                     Dsus4         D
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---------------0-|h2-----3-------2-|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------2-----|---2-------2-----|-----------2-----| repeat
|-----0-------0---|-----0-------0---|-----0-------0---| ad lib
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-0-------0-------|-0-------0-------|-0-------0-------|

Almost exactly the same figure is used on “Seven Curses”, another gem, from the Carnegie Hall Concert in Oct 1963 when Dylan was at the height, not only as a folksy solo artist, but also as a fingerpicker. It can be found on the Bootleg Series 1–3:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---------------0-|h2-----3p2-----0-|h2------------(2)|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|---2-------2-----|----------(2)----|
|-----0-------0---|-----0-------0---|-----0-------0---|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-0-------0-------|-0-------0-------|-0-------0-------|

  :   .   .   .
|-----------------|
|-----------------|
|-----------------|
|-----0-------0---|
|-----------------|
|-0-------0-------|

Notice the bass: a steady alternation between strings 6 and 4, with no attempts to participate in whatever action the other strings have going, just steady as a bass drum, going boom-boom-boom-boom.

I refer you to the tabs at Dylanchords for the rest [Barbara Allen] [Seven Curses].

Suze

A Dylan-based lesson on fingerpicking wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Suze: the strange tune that is all that remains from what in the liner notes to Bootleg Series 1–3 is presented as Dylan’s desire to make an album of instrumentals.

You can find the song here.

The only thing I intend to say about it is that it uses the techniques that we have talked about earlier: most notably the chords coming in “too early”; the hammer-ons in the F major and D7 chords (which means you have to use the thumb F), and other than that: just one of the standard picking patterns throughout.

Bass runs: Blackbird

I admit it: I made up this headline just to find a place to put Blackbird. Not that I think that there has to be justice in the world so that when Lennon has been credited (rightfully!) with a Beatles song, I have to let Paul have one too, but it is a great specimen of fingerpicking as well as a great song, so what can I do…?

Luckily, there is an excellent tab of this song here, written by Todd Anagnostis.

You will recognize the thumb pattern — don’t let it fool you that the second and fourth beats are on the third and not the fourth string: you should by no means play those notes with the index finger. For this song, the thumb controls the four lowest strings, so you can probably let the ring finger rest. (Symbolical, perhaps, since Paul is an eminent bass player, although his style is too saccharine for my diabetic tastes, and his eyes tell me: “Don’t ever trust this person”.)

Now, all I have to do is to sit back and let you do the rest of the work. Ah, I need a drink now…

All the Lessons


12 thoughts on “Guitar in Two Weeks, day 11: Fingerpicking II

  1. It’s freakin cold in Amsterdam, Holland. Family is gone on vacation. Sitting here with peppermint tea, making the most out of my time, following your course, almost in real-time.
    Just wanted to let you know: much appreciated!

    Axel

  2. I’m just another fledgling guitarist that wishes to express how much I appreciate your lessons here and your dylan chord site. Following your tabs and your dylan commentary has made my learning experience all the more enjoyable and has given my learning much more focus. Thanks.

  3. Another fantastic lesson, but damn these songs are hard! Did I miss a “Fingerpicking 1.5″? I’m enjoying it though. I’ve made far more progress working from your lessons than I have from any others I’ve used.
    By the way, the explanations in Day 12 (“Chords, chords, chords”) are fantastically clear. Very nice job there.
    Thanks again–

  4. The idea was, I think, that “Fingerpicking 1.5″ consists of applying Fingerpicking 1 to any song you like, e.g. the ones listed here, and then move on to FP 2.0 when you’re ready to hit the harder stuff. :)

    EDIT: disregard that list I pointed to — I now see that I’ve used most of them as examples already. So just leave it at “any song you like”.

  5. Alright, I’ve been working on “Spike Driver” for about a week now and I’m starting to see the light, playing it slow. It’s really interesting how the end result sounds so different from the tab, once you learn how to put it in the right pulse.

    Here’s a bit of inspiration to share with anyone else studying here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8RtayjqqIw. RL Burnside. The little solos at about 1:30 and 2:10 are particularly awesome.

  6. Nyder dine lektioner her i forårskulden..
    Har du overvejet at lave en lektion om Travis Picking/Clawhammer? udover blackbird og julia selvfølgelig… Tak for en fantastisk side og blog!

  7. Hello, great website, i always visit it and i really trust your transcriptions. Since it is the fingerpicking lesson could you give some more help, hint, anything on ”Don’t think twice”(studio, freewheelin version)? I mean, it’s really that hard to play that fingerpicking? I’ve been playing guitar for some time, i’m not a great player but i can play nick drake and leonard cohen without much problem. but this song, at least to me, is extremelly difficult.

    • It is hard, at least in the sense that it requires a fingerpicking technique which is almost automatized, with left and right hand able to work independently of each other. Of course, it’s also much more difficult to play it from a score or a tab than by ear/finger. Once you can handle the hammer-ons and free yourself from the score, it shouldn’t be too difficult to play it.

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