Guitarists don’t often put a lot of thought into where they strum the guitar. over time players find a spot and generally stick with it. To some degree it becomes more about comfort then sound.
I’m lucky enough to live in NYC. I get to go out and watch some of the best guitarists in the country on a regular basis. It’s a great reminder of how differently people can play. Also, it’s a spotlight on what makes their tone so different.
Often, we all play through the same amps. The guitars also don’t vary that much. The vintage of a guitar may have some influence on sound, but nothing nearly as much as playing style. It IS in the fingers.
The Proximity Effect
On a recent outing I was sitting in a cafe as an excellent guitarist was sitting in with a band. This guitarist was using the proximity of his right hand to adjust tone during strumming.
Moving your hand in either direction by a quarter of an inch varies the sound greatly. Don’t believe me? Close your eyes and strum as you move you hand all the way to the right and left. Hear it changing?
Deciding on whether to use a pick or strum with your fingers will greatly affect the way the guitar sounds. Flesh is much softer then even he lightest pick. Picks are more percussive and bright.
You can use either of these to their advantages. Once you master both techniques, you’ll be able to apply at taste. It is about taste too.
The sound of a strummed guitar closest to the bridge is bright and tense. You can hear the tension as you strum. The strings aren’t as flexible and they sustain more.
You’ll see some country twangers play back there on a Tele. This technique lends a lot to that sound.
Over The Neck
It could be said that the guitar sounds the most glued together when strummed at the spot where the body meets the neck. It can also be categorized as more bass heavy.
You’ll see Keith Richards play here a lot. It’s one of the main components to his sound. The tension is lighter at this position then near the bridge.
How hard you strum the string not only affects volume, but tone. The lighter you play the less the low end will be pronounced. As you dig in harder, the bass thickens.
If you play light you can get a nice ghostly sound without that “smack” of hitting hard.
Strumming hand technique on guitar is under appreciated. Many see the strumming hand merely for speed. It is the tone!!
I have had students come to me looking for tone secrets. Most of the time they were expecting me to point to a specific pedal or amp. Thinking that the answer must lie there. Sometimes they already have some nice gear, but there is still a link missing.
The majority of the time I diagnose the problem in the strumming hand. It’s the biggest tone influence.
You should make a decision on what strumming technique to use based on the music you’re accompanying. How is the vocalist singing? How much space do they need?
With some singers a pick is not always best. It can be too percussive and obtrusive. With other singers they may need that choppy rhythm only a pick can provide.
I also adjust my velocity depending on the type of vocalist I’m working with. The key here is to listen. Do more listening then playing. Listen BEFORE you play.
If you listen well, you’ll be able to choose the appropriate rhythm guitar technique for the song.
Easy Does It
The more accustomed you get to this idea, the less you’ll struggle with guitar tone. Think about all the nuance in expression we have when we speak. Wouldn’t it be great to implement some of this nuance into your guitar playing?
One way of practicing different picking methods is to take a song you already know well. The point here is to play a song that you won’t have to think about your fretting hand.
You should be on automatic pilot for chords. Now, each time you play the song use a different method. It’s best to play it through instead of changing techniques every few bars. You want to really absurd the new sounds and how it changes the expression of the song.
Next: write down you thoughts about the sound of each movement. This means that you can write down: Pick near bridge sound glassy. No Pick near neck sound pillowy. Write down your opinions too. I love this sound. I don’t like this sound.
After you’ve concluded your research on that song, move onto another songs and repeat. You’re going to find you opinion changes based on the song.
Make this a regular addition to your practice regime. It will open up many tonal flavors in the future.
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