These are some of the most essential, bread-and-butter, don’t-leave-home-without-them type acoustic guitar techniques. You’ve probably heard them on many recordings. Let’s start with what I call…
Pluck & Damp
This is a fingerstyle technique that I like a lot. The alternate plucking and damping creates a very nice percussive groove that is just perfect for mid-tempo songs. Just think of the 90’s hit, More Than Words by Extreme.
Here is a simple 2 chord example in A maj:
Step By Step
- Start by plucking all five strings with the right hand. I like to use all five fingers for this - yes give that pinky some work to do!
- Dampen the strings by bringing your right hand fingers back down. This creates the distinctive ‘tap’ sound.
- Pluck the 5th string (A) with your thumb.
- Pluck the 4 upper strings with the i m a and pinky.
What is the i m a:
In fingerstyle guitar technique, p i m a is used to indicate the fingers of the right hand. The original Spanish names are:
pulgar - thumb
indice - index finger
medio - middle finger
anular - ring finger
- The most important thing in the Pluck & Damp is the groove. If you have a metronome, set it to around 115 bpm and practice at keeping a steady, constant rhythm.
- Experiment with different plucking and damping intensities.
- Keep it interesting by adding a few syncopated rhythmic variations. For example, try damping twice in succession.
- This is an excellent technique for vocal accompaniment. Use it for songs that require a breezy feel.
So there you have it, the Pluck & Damp. Depending on how long you’ve been playing guitar, you should be able to master this technique fairly quickly. All you need to do is…practice. Hope you enjoyed this lesson.
Next up, a fingerpicking pattern used by the likes of Chet Atkins, Dan Fogelberg and Paul Simon…
Travis Picking is one of the cornerstones of acoustic guitar fingerstyle technique.
The basic pattern consists of the thumb playing an alternating bass, with the other right hand fingers plucking the fill and melody lines.
The Name Travis refers to Merle Travis (1917 - 1983), an American country singer and songwriter. His unique playing style has influenced the likes of Chet Atkins, Paul Simon and John Lennon - the very haunting Julia essentially uses an altered Travis picking pattern.
I first learned this technique in 1981, from Dan Fogelberg’s Leader Of The Band. The intro is an excellent example of how you can use this pattern to articulate a melody line. (This definitive ‘father’ song is still one of my favorite ballads.)
Basic Travis Picking Pattern
Here’s the basic pattern in the key of D maj:
Step By Step
- Pluck the 1st and 4th strings together in a pinch-like motion with the
p and m fingers. Let the notes ring.
- Pluck the 3rd string with p.
- Pluck the 2nd string with i.
- The rest of the pattern follows similarly in the sequence
p (4th string), m (1st string), p (3rd string), i (2nd string).
Don't worry if this sounds a little confusing…it’s really easier to execute than it is to describe.
- Vary the basic pattern by replacing the pinch with a hammer on (on the 1st string).
- Include the ring finger for added variety. Hold down an A maj chord and try the following:
- As mentioned, this is also an excellent technique for playing melody lines.
Try combining it with other figerstyle patterns to create interesting rhythms.
D maj Chord Progression
Once you’re comfortable with the basic pattern, try this simple D maj chord progression. For added interest, I've also included a hammer-on on the Em9 chord:
The keys of A, D and E are especially important to the guitar. This is because, in each case, the root note conveniently falls on an open string (the 5th, 4th and 6th respectively).
This makes it easy to move around the guitar fretboard, while pedaling the open bass note. In fact, this is also the primary reason why E maj is such an important key for acoustic blues.
Shape Shifting in E
Here’s a ‘shape shifting’ example in E maj (for clarity, the tablature omits the in-between rhythm fills):
Step By Step
- Begin by playing an open E maj chord. What we’re going to do is maintain this basic shape, and just move it up and down the fretboard.
- The 2nd chord is the basic E maj shape moved up 7 frets.
- The 3rd chord is the basic E maj shape moved up 5 frets…and so on.
- Use left hand finger muting to accentuate the rhythm.
- The same concept applies to the A and D shapes as well. Try playing the above riff in those keys.
- Here’s something else you can have fun with – an Asus2 chord moved up 4 frets becomes an Amaj7add9.
- Play around with different combinations of shapes & fret positions. You‘ll be pleasantly surprised by some of the voicings you uncover.
‘Shape Shifting’ can be used to create a myriad of interesting riffs, and whole songs can be written around them. So just unleash your imagination and have fun…we’ll be seeing you on the charts!
In Shape Shifters technique, we introduced you to the idea of pedaling an open bass note, while moving a fixed shape up and down the fretboard. Here we’d like to expand on this concept a little further.
Pedal points are a very important ingredient in creating memorable hooks and chord progressions.
The idea is to create a harmonic anchor, in the form of a common note (or a few notes), around which a chord progression is played. You can find many examples in pop and rock music.
Treble Pedal Points
Anchors can either be in the bass or treble notes. (In our Shape Shiftersexample, there are pedal points in both.)
Here's a progression that uses treble pedal points:
Step By Step
- The 1st chord is a Dsus2. The upper notes E, D and A will serve as our treble pedal points.
- Maintain the Dsus2, while moving the bass note in a downward progression from D to C# to B to G.
- It’s important to mute the D bass when the C# is played, otherwise the two notes will clash. Use the left hand pinky for this.
- Play the arpeggio with a moderate swing feel.
- This chord progression is great for rock ballads, especially when coupled with a strong melody line.
- Another common technique is to play the I, IV and V chords over a Ibass, as in the following example:
Pedal point progressions can have an almost hypnotic effect. Experiment with both bass and treble anchors…and be sure to let us know what ‘killer’ hooks you come up with! 😉
Play The Blues!
Try this - next time you’re asked by a group of friends to play something, let rip a ‘12-bar’ or two…then just sit back and enjoy the adulation. 😉
With its roots in African American music, the blues has influenced much of today’s popular fare – from rock to R&B. So whether or not you aspire to be the next King or Clapton, a pinch of the blues certainly belongs in every acoustic guitarist’s grab bag.
The Pentatonic and Blues Scales
The blues is characterized by the pentatonic scale, which makes it a perfect companion to the guitar. This is because the notes fall conveniently across all 6 open strings (in the key of E).
The notes of the E minor pentatonic are E, G, A, B, D.
See how the dots line up perfectly across the nut? Whether by coincidence or design, this sure makes playing the blues a sweet thing indeed.
The Blues Scale
The Blues scale has one additional note, a Bb (shown in green).
So in the key of E, the 6 notes of the blues scale are E, G, A, Bb, B, D.
This is easily the most used movable box shape in rock guitar leads. (Learn more in our lead lessons)
Right Hand Plucking Exercise
Here’s a right hand technique that is essential to acoustic blues. It consists of the thumb playing the down beat, while the other fingers articulate the lead lines. Mute the bass strings lightly by resting the edge of your palm on the guitar bridge.
“Let's Play The Blues!”
Let's try a short piece that brings together what we’ve talked about so far:
Step By Step
- Use the same plucking technique as the earlier exercise. Remember to lightly mute the bass strings with the edge of your right palm.
- Play a steady four beat bass rhythm with your thumb. This builds the foundation for the lead lines.
- Pluck the lead lines with the i m a fingers. (The exact fingering isn’t that important, just use what feels natural.)
- Do a 1/4 step bend up on the D note (2nd string). Bends are integral to the blues.
- Although the bass should mainly be on the 4 down beats, don’t worry if the thumb sometimes plays an extra syncopated note or two. We all tend to do that. 😉
- Add excitement to your playing with a few string pulls with the right hand fingers – the snap and buzz of the strings are like energy spikes.
- Stop the bass when doing a lead run. This is a great way to spotlight leads.
Blues and the acoustic guitar just naturally go together. They’re also one of the most fun styles to play. Listen to recordings by the blues masters and of course…keep practicing!
Hope you enjoyed this free acoustic guitar lesson. Be sure to check out our free tabs section for more blues guitar tabs.