a world of music, based on the guitar,
and on visualinear tablature
D. L. Stieg
In the early history of the guitar, the tradition of two basic styles of play, consisting of either strumming the strings or plucking them with the fingers, became well established. The guitarís unique capability for making beautiful and satisfying music in either of these seemingly disparate styles of play was well known to early guitarists. In early guitar studies dating back to the Renaissance, strumming styles of play are referred to as rasgueado (rahs-gay-`ah-do) styles, and plucking styles are referred to as punteado (poon-tay-`ah-do) styles. In rasgueado styles, strums were sometimes made with the thumb or fingers, but for the most part were made with a small hand-held device called a plectrum.
Early plectra were very crude in comparison with their modern day equivalent (flatpicks), as they were much thicker and usually made of wood, ivory, or bone. In addition, prior to the end of the 19th century, the guitar itself had a much smaller soundbox than the modern day instrument, and was therefore a much quieter instrument. As a result, early strummed guitar music bore little resemblance to the beautiful and resonant strummed guitar music that is possible today. Apart from the increased size and volume of the soundbox, the improvement in sound can be traced to the introduction of steel strings (beginning around the middle of the 19th century), and to the development and manufacture of thinner and more responsive flatpicks (beginning in the second quarter of the 20th century).
The argument can be made that the most beautiful and tonally rich strummed guitar music can be made on a steel string guitar with a thin flatpick. The steel strings allow for a much greater degree of balance in volume and brightness between bass and treble notes than is possible with nylon or gut strings, and also better allow for a ringing through of treble notes, both of which are important for strummed music. While the electric guitar can of course also be strummed, the resonance of an acoustic instrument is an essential component of the beauty of strummed guitar music. Flatpicks come in three basic thicknesses (thin, medium, and heavy), but a thin flatpick best allows for a subtle touch in strumming, and best allows for good tonal production. When a thin flatpick is used, a softer touch is required, and strummed music is not as loud as when a thicker pick is used. But as with any other subtle playing technique on the guitar, a lack of volume is no longer an objection, given the advanced state of the art in amplifying acoustic instruments. The main disadvantage to the use of a thin flatpick for strumming is that thin picks sometimes break, especially when fast-paced and energetic music is being played. A medium flatpick is not as responsive for strumming as a thin flatpick, but it is practically impossible to break a medium flatpick while strumming the guitar.
A flatpick can also be used to play individual notes, which allows for the development of interesting flatpick styles of play in which individual notes are combined with strums. These styles of play are generally most effective when a medium flatpick is used, since a thin pick is not well suited to making a clear and emphatic sounding of individual notes, and a medium pick is flexible enough to make pleasant sounding strums. Bluegrass guitarists tend to favor heavy flatpicks because they are best suited to the lively character of the music, and to the frequent use of lengthy melodic runs. Nevertheless, rhythmic pick and strum bluegrass music is best played with a medium pick, because it is nearly impossible to make pleasant sounding strums with a heavy flatpick. Electric guitars are normally played with a flatpick (medium or heavy), although some electric guitarists have developed interesting and effective styles of play for which a pick is not used. Nylon string guitars are not normally played with a flatpick, since a flatpick is not used for either of the two styles of guitar music (flamenco and classical) that are normally played on this type of guitar.
Strums can also be made with the fingers of the playing hand, as in flamenco guitar music, but far more often than not the fingers are used to play the guitar in punteado style (now called fingerstyle), by plucking the strings individually. Classical guitar is a fingerstyle tradition, and a great many fingerstyles of play are possible in a wide variety of musical genres. When playing the guitar in fingerstyle, the strings are usually plucked with the fingertips, but longer fingernails on the playing hand allow for the partial use of the nails in sounding notes, which produces greater volume and brilliance. Some players grow the fingernails even longer, and sound the notes with the fingernails alone, which has an even more brilliant effect. This manner of play is problematic with steel string guitars, however, because the wear and tear on the fingernails produced by the steel strings is considerable.
The advent of steel strings in the 19th century, and in particular the superior volume and sustain of the treble strings, allowed for the development of subtler and more sophisticated folk fingerstyles of play. The distinctive and assertive character of the sound of the steel treble strings contributed greatly to the development of new styles of play like fingerstyle blues, ragtime, and fingerpicking, all three of which are based on a constantly moving up and down bass line called an alternating bass. When playing music in these styles, the alternating bass can be sounded more prominently by the use of a thumbpick, a plastic device that is fitted over the thumb, and basically transforms the thumb into a heavy flatpick. A thumbpick can be worn either alone or in combination with metal or plastic fingerpicks that are fitted over the fingertips of the playing hand, and lend greater volume to treble notes (and, in the case of the preferred metal fingerpicks, also a sharper edged and more metallic sound). Thumbpicks and fingerpicks are still used occasionally, especially for fingerstyle music in which an alternating bass is employed, but most contemporary fingerstylists do not use picks of any kind.
The extensive use of thumbpicks in the second quarter of the 20th century gave rise to an interesting new style of play in which rasgueado and punteado techniques were combined into a single style. By substituting strums for the upper bass notes in alternating bass patterns, which is called brush style, guitarists were able to incorporate the solidifying rhythmic effect of strums into a fingerstyle pattern of play. The resultant emphasis on the backbeats (the second and fourth beats in 4) is an important component of the guitar-based country and rock and roll musical genres that were developed during this same period. If a thumbpick is not used, the guitar can be played in a brush picking style by strumming the strings with the thumb. By comparison, the use of the thumb produces strums of a less precise rhythmic character, but of a much mellower and more pleasant tonal character.
Strums can also be introduced into a fingerstyle of play by strumming the strings with the fingers, which is well demonstrated in flamenco guitar music. But it is not possible to play the steel string guitar in flamenco style, at least for extended periods of time, because the wear and tear on the fingers of the playing hand is too great (a skilled guitarist, however, can simulate a flamenco style of play with a flatpick). A number of steel string guitarists make use of the most basic flamenco strumming technique, which consists of positioning the hand as if holding a pen or a flatpick, and strumming the strings with the fingernail of the index finger. This technique allows the guitarist to switch back and forth at will between strumming styles and fingerstyles, and to develop interesting hybrid styles of play in which the two basic styles of play are combined. Strums made in this fashion have a richer and more beautiful tonal character than strums made with a flatpick, but lack the same rhythmic precision, and cannot be as easily controlled.
Hybrid styles of play can also be developed by using a flatpick and playing fingerstyle passages with the flatpick and the middle and ring fingers of the playing hand. This technique allows for the full range of expression with the flatpick in strumming, but it is difficult to play fingerstyle patterns effectively, because the flatpicked bass notes tend to dominate. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the index and middle fingers, which are normally used for fingerstyle patterns, are far more dominant than the middle and ring fingers. These and other experiments with hybrid styles of play on the guitar will no doubt continue, and will likely reveal new dimensions of the instrumentís amazing versatility. But the fact remains that, to a much greater extent than early guitarists could ever have imagined, the guitar is indeed capable of producing beautiful and effective music in either a strumming style of play or a fingerstyle of play.
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