Picky, Picky, Picky!
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
I studied the Segovia method of classical guitar playing (via Douglas Neidt) for 3 years in the late 70's at the UMKC Conservatory of Music. Per this method, the right hand position involves the fingers being perpendicular to the strings and the default string-to-finger assignments for arpeggiation are index to 3rd string, middle to 2nd string and ring to 1st string. This hand position renders the pinky unusable because it's too short. This explanation is simplistic - actually, any finger can play any string depending on what's most efficient - but "simplistic" will suffice for my purpose here.
There is another method I've seen that keeps the Segovia hand position but reverses the string-to-finger assignments. Additionally, the pinky is used on the 4th string and the thumb on the lower 2 strings. I messed with it a little but, after being trained in the Segovia method, I decided it was going to be too much work to reprogram things for a not-so-much advantage.
After I left school to study jazz with John Elliott I decided to alter the Segovia hand position so that I could use all 5 digits on my right hand to pluck strings. I worked out many arrangements wherein my thumb covered bass lines on the 6th and 5th strings, my index, middle and ring finger played chords on the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings, and my pinky played the melody on the first string. These string-to-finger assignments were fluid of course, depending on what was needed, but that was the default.
One of the things you must master when playing solo guitar arrangements is bringing out the melody. This means that the melody note must be plucked harder than the others so that the melody stands out. With my bastardized hand position that meant the weakest finger (pinky) was the one playing the melody. I worked for quite a while at training my pinky to bring out the melody in the arrangements I was coming up with.
By the mid-eighties I had a steady solo jazz gig playing from 4:00-8:00 five days a week in a downtown hotel lounge for Happy Hour. Basically this was background music; providing ambiance for businessmen's after-hours drinks and trysts. No one was paying a lot of attention so I was free to sit in the corner, experiment, jack around - and get paid for it! Sweet! (Most days I would then run off to a 2nd gig playing dance music in a club from 9:00-1:00).
Keep in mind that this was long before loopers or tracks. It really was solo guitar with no technological aids - 4 hours worth, every day.
One of the problems I encountered was that, while I was fine playing my worked-out arrangement on the head, when I was improvising I never got comfortable improvising single-note lines finger-style. I was much more fluid in every way - speed, legato, general musicality - with a pick. I felt that even Joe Pass, who was the model for this kind of thing at the time, didn't sound as good finger-styling a single note solo as he did with a pick. There are guys today who sound great at it (Martin Taylor and Tommy Immanuel come to mind) but I just couldn't get comfortable with it. There was a guy from Cincinnati who had a bit of a run in the late '70s - early '80's named Cal Collins who I was into - he played guitar with a pick only - no finger-style. The opposite problem presented there; single note runs were great but the possibilities for pianistic chordal stuff seemed limited. Cal Collins pulled it off as well as anybody I've heard.
I struggled for quite a while on integrating the finger-style stuff with the pick stuff. The problem was; What to do with the pick when playing chords or arrangements finger-style?
Any solution that involved tucking the pick between 2 fingers or between the 1st and 2nd knuckle of a finger eliminated a finger.
I've seen guys pick it up and set it down on an amp, or a vice-table, or a music stand (a vice-table is where you set your drink, cigarettes, ash-tray etc.). This is very distracting - pickin' it up, puttin' it down - pickin' it up, puttin' it down - pickin' it up, puttin' it down - all night long.
A particularly distasteful technique is putting the pick in the mouth when playing fingerstyle and taking it back out to solo. Yuck - just yuck! Think about ingesting tiny little flecks of plastic and metal, not to mention whatever it is that grows in the wrap of your strings nourished by sweat and body oil. Ever notice that your strings get discolored if you go for a while without changing them? That stuff is green! That's some nasty shit! You want that in your mouth!? Plus you have Eddie Van Halen blaming guitar picks for his tongue cancer. I am not surprised (smoking and excessive drug and alcohol use might also be a factor there - ya think?).
Another possibility is using a thumb-pick. That way all 5 digits are available. This seems like the most viable alternative and is in fact what most of the Travis-style pickers like Tommy Immanuel do.
My problem with using a thumb-pick has to do with the fact that it's too long. I hold my picks very close to the tip. This creates less movement which equals more control, speed, accuracy and stamina. "Less movement equals less potential for error" (Douglas Neidt). When using a thumb-pick as a flat-pick you can't choke down on it and hold it close to the tip. It also eliminates the ability to execute pinched harmonics.
I briefly considered experimenting with filing down a thumb-pick to a length that was comfortable for me but didn't pursue that idea very far - too much trouble. My picks last a couple of weeks at the most before the tip wears down and I throw them away.
All of these techniques (except the use of a thumb-pick) cause awkward breaks in the music because of the time it takes to execute them &/or awkward moments due to a dropped pick - not to mention the stress of searching the stage for dropped picks. A dropped pick is like a football - you never know which way it's going to bounce. Of course, you should always have a spare handy for just such an emergency.
It was while working through these possibilities that my protocol of only using white picks began. You can see them on the floor easier after you drop them. Even though I rarely drop a pick anymore, I long ago crossed the line into superstition and ritual - it just doesn't feel right if they're not white. I buy them by the gross (Fender Extra-Heavy) and every one is white.
Eventually, being dissatisfied with everything else, I compromised. I settled on a hybrid approach. When plucking chords I use the pick for the bass lines. This occupies both my thumb and index finger. Yes, I sacrifice chords where 5 notes can be plucked simultaneously. But what I gain is seamless integration between playing single note lines with a pick and 4-voice plucked chordal stuff (occasionally I'll do a song with no pick action at all. In that case I use all five digits).
My altered Segovia hand position still applies. The work I did training my pinky to bring out melodies still applies. However, now I had to train myself to back off with the pick or the bass line would overwhelm the melody. Not a big deal.
I will tuck the pick between the 1st and 2nd knuckle of my index finger when playing octaves with my thumb a la Wes Montgomery or when strumming chords with my thumb. Otherwise, I use all combinations of the pick-plus-fingers.
The video below was done with an I-Phone clipped to a mic stand. This is in the context of a band but aptly demonstrates how I use my right-hand pinky as an essential component of my hybrid style. It also demonstrates the integration of the fingers and the pick as well as the seamless transition from finger-style to single-note picking and back. No picking it up and putting it down, no putting it in and out of the mouth, and no dropped picks!
There is more detail about my pick-only technique in the video below.
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