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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."



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November 3, 2011 | Right hand considerations for flatpicking--John McGann

We've had the pleasure of knowing multi-instrumentalist/educator John McGann for most of a decade, and have always appreciated his words of wisdom in personal correspondence as well as the generous public free resources on his website. Though his tenure at the Berklee School of Music has supercharged his pedigree the last few years, he was already well established as performer, recording artist, author, and clinician years prior.

We've borrowed the following treatise on picks from his site for you to read, and we encourage you to dig deeper into his brain and visit his site for even more gems.



JohnMcGann.jpg

Right hand considerations for flatpicking
John McGann

The right hand makes the instrument speak, so you can consider it the source of your voice on the instrument. Wind instrument players refer to " embouchure" when discussing tone production--the way the mouth and lips fit on the mouthpiece to create their personal sound. Awareness of right hand position is crucial to achieve a great tone on your instrument.

Pick material--the choice of material and thickness of the pick has a huge effect on your tone. A medium Fender pick, played in a traditional fashion with the point, has a totally different tone than a 1.5mm Dunlop Tortex (synthetic tortoise shell) pick played on one of it's upper, beveled edges.

Explore the options of tone by trying different picks. You'll find a snappy, trebly attack from the thinner picks, and a warm, burnished tone from the thicker ones. Irish musicians tend toward the thin picks, as they like the quick snap for fast picked triplets. I DO NOT use thinner picks for Irish music, or any music for that matter. My favorite American acoustic musicians (Tony Rice, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Russ Barenberg) all use the rounded corners of their picks to get their individual, amazing sounds. Experiment with different picks until you find what you like best.

My belief is that thicker picks make acoustic instruments do what they NEED to do to project the best tone- RESONATE. The thin pick deflects off the string, and the string does not take the full energy of the pick attack. A thick pick delivers all the energy to the string, which vibrates fully, making the bridge and top resonate, creating the sound waves that bounce around in the box and pour out of the soundhole(s). With a thin pick, the string plays the pick as much as the pick plays the string!

It is my opinion the thicker picks allow you to maximize tone production and volume.

Also consider acoustics--bass frequencies travel further than highs. Thin picks do not bring out the low end of an instrument, but the brightness gives the player the illusion they are creating volume. Walk down a city street and wait for a car with "bass tubes" blasting hiphop (it won't take long!) and listen to the drive toward the hills. You hear that "thump" in the bass long after the shimmering audio detail :) in the upper freqencies is inaudible.

If you play electric, you may want a thinner pick to go with the lighter string gauges.I use the 1.5 Dunlop Tortex 500 Series Delrin on acoustic AND electric (regular .010 set). You may want to go lighter on electric; I used to use a Fender Extra Heavy but have grown to like the feel of the Dunlop on electric.

On the "Django" guitars I use a custom made 3.5mm tortise shell pick. It is a school of tone production peculiar to the "Gypsy Jazz" idiom, and certainly brings out the best tone these guitars have to offer. Gypsy Jazz Guitar is a whole 'nother world of right hand technique. Downstrokes, rest strokes and all: Check out www.djangobooks.com and Michael Horowitz' "Gypsy Picking".

Pick angle--if you hit the strings with the pick at a flat, perpendicular angle, you'll be slapping the string. I like to get a loud,warm sound by picking at a slight angle, tipping my right thumbnail toward the floor.The idea is to draw the pick through the string, much like a fiddler draws the bow across the string.

The "window of travel"--visualize a window starting on the 5th string (A). The pick can reach back to the 6th string and up to the 4th string. If you stay within that window while attacking the A string, you'll achieve economy of motion. To continue this concept to the other strings: imagine the window on each string. To deliver the pick to the string, you must have mobility. You should have your elbow relaxed enough to drop your hand down to the 1st string, and back up to the 6th string. Any kind of anchoring of your hand will limit your mobility and ability to deliver the same stroke, with maximum effect, to each string.

Remember turntables? The early ones had a pivot point, and the needle would be at a much sharper angle on the last song of the LP than the 1st. Then, the "linear tracking tonearm" came along, that allowed the tonearm to move laterally, so the angle of the needle remained the same. Try to imaging your pick as the needle, and your "tonearm" moving to deliver the pick to each string at the same relative angle, without twisting to reach any string. It is really comfortable and easy when you get the hang of it!

The pick motion comes totally from the wrist, and the elbow moves only to deliver the pick to the string. Gravity allows you to "fall" through the string with very little effort. Picking should not be like driving a nail!

Pick motions made solely by the thumb and finger produce tiny tone and volume, because there is no support behind it.

I touch just above the "karate-chop" edge of my hand on the bridge pins (acoustic guitar) or just below the saddle (mandolin, electric guitar) and let it move as I play. I can retain a sense of where I am, without impeding motion. Many great players play "freehand" with the right hand never touching the top. The universal tip is that you should be as loose and relaxed as possible, even at maximum volume.

BALLING YOUR HAND INTO A FIST will create tension and limit mobility and the ability to generate a rainbow of tone colors. You may get a lot of volume, but the tone is sure to be brash and nasty -and if that's what you are going for, then go for it!- but good technique should not make you a one trick pony.

The fingers that aren't holding the pick should feel 'numb' and relaxed, they will curl about halfway to the palm. This allows gravity to work in your favor. Keep the 'novocained' feeling in your wrist joint as well. Tension is the enemy!

If you do make a fist, you have to expend more effort to make the pick stroke (try it!)

"Should I plant a pinky?" There are some players who do this "posting" and make it work. I don't suggest it, as I feel it can limit mobility and create tension.

Mobility--To alter the tone quality of your sound, you'll want to move your hand from just above the bridge (most bright and trebly) toward the neck (increasingly warm and dark). There is a huge range of expression available in tone color, with the pick or with bare fingers (or nails, as in classical guitar). One of the great tone colorists on the guitar is Julian Bream. Listen to any of his recordings, especially his interpretations of Bach-- it's hard to believe it's all coming from one guitar played solo.

Further:
10 Questions for John McGann
John McGann YouTube
Berklee Faculty Profile
Last Call; "Lizard Ear Chords" on Mandolinsessions.com
Just A Little Lovin; The Wayfaring Strangers

Posted by Ted at November 3, 2011 1:48 PM


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