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Category Archives: Guitar

Ye Olde Solo Project

So it’s taken me a while (oh, probably not more than 15 years) but I’m finally ready to announce that my new solo project is ready to launch! So please go to Ben’s Cabinet Of Weekly Musical Curiosities and have a listen. I’m going to be posting a new song every week!

There are individual songs available for download, and if you’re interested in being a Patron Of The Arts, there are Patron Packs in the Shop as well. Hope you enjoy the strangeness that is available 🙂

Picking Technique

I’m exploring different picking techniques today.

I’ve put in a lot of time over the years on my picking (a lot – think 8-hour days when I was young enough to have that kind of time, and did not as yet have a girlfriend!) and I can do the standard things – the Yngwie/DiMeola/McLaughlin bag, I can do that stuff. But it costs, physically, and I don’t think that tension, stress & pain should be a part of music. So I’ve been analyzing my picking technique – which is pretty standard 70s/80s fusion/shred style – to see what could be improved.

As you probably know, I’m also a violinist and mandolinist (among many other instruments of course… musical ADD!). I think this is a big asset (as well as a big pain in the assets). It was because of reading Flesch’s book on violin technique that I started to think about how the wrist actually moves. Flesch maintained that a side-to-side motion of the wrist is unnatural and inefficient. Now given that I’ve put in a good 25+ years of hard work to get that side-to-side motion going, that’s not necessarily what I wanted to hear! But it made me think, and really analyze how my wrist works. I don’t think he’s wrong. 

Standard right hand position, on which I’ve devoted so much time over the years! Note the nice straight wrist. But does that motion make sense?

When I bow the fiddle, and I want a fast détaché, I use a combination of an up-down motion of my wrist and a push-pull motion of my fingers. This is very good in terms of flexibility, and consequently speed, as it’s the way the wrist and hand was evolved to move. In fact I remember wondering, about a year after I’d started to play violin, why my bowing was as fast as my picking ever was on guitar, despite not having played for very long. Turns out it’s because it’s just easier and better aligned with the way the hand works.

Approximation of oud plectrum hold – note arched wrist. Also note that I’m not using an eagle quill for a plectrum…

Watch an oud player, or a vina player. Their right-hand technique uses a rotating motion of the wrist and forearm, and the results speak for themselves – blinding speed, and astonishing precision. Some mandolinists use a similar technique (although most mandolinists use an incredibly stiff-armed technique that seems destined to cause problems later in life).

So I’m trying out a variety of things. Trying a new pick direction, with the pick at more like 45º to my thumb rather than 90º; a curved wrist to go with the oud/vina approach; and even thinking about ways to make the violin hold work for me (although I’m not even sure how I’ll hold my pick then!). This is my standard hand position when I’m picking tunes, whether jazz or Celtic:

My hybrid comping/soloing hand position, which I use when I’m not strumming aggressively – allows me to pick with my middle, ring and pinky fingers as well as the plectrum. Looks much more tense than it really is. I have big hands.

What are your thoughts? What crazy pick holds do you use? Do you pick with your thumb? (I’m learning that one). Classical style? Do you use a cordless drill with picks stuck to it like Paul Gilbert? Let me know!

Stage Tuning Thoughts

Tuning onstage can be the bane of my existence.

If you’ve seen me onstage, you know I use a lot of different tunings. Generally I’m using a different tuning each song. I’m pretty obsessive about the tuning, and Heather is also a bit… um… fixated on tuning. So I take care to tune well past what most of the audience is hearing, based on the assumption that I play better when I feel like I’m actually in tune.

But on tour, there are many variables to consider with tuning. Every day we’re in a different climate, and there are variables of humidity, temperature, light levels… the usual prescriptions of “just put a humidifier in the case” are about as useful as any prescription that starts with “just”. Add to that the fact that I’m often keeping 20 or more strings in tune (6-string acoustic, 10-string cittern, 4-string fiddle… sometimes an extra electric, and a mando… it adds up!) and it becomes a bit of a nightmare. Most important of course is a well-maintained and well-set-up instrument (and I’ll have a few things to say about this later too). But there are a few considerations that I keep in mind to make tuning easier and faster:

1. Think about which tunings are coming up next, and consider which strings you want to change first. When you lower one string, the rest of the strings will tighten slightly in response, and vice versa. I often start by tuning strings down (to keep from increasing the overall string tension too much, which can stress the instrument’s neck) and then tune any strings that need to go up, up to pitch. The one exception is if I’m tuning to CGCGCE (Fille du Roy, Ten Feet Tall) when I tune the B up to C, then tune the lower strings down.

2. Remember you’re going to have to tune at least two times, possibly three times. Again, this is because changing the tension of one string impacts the overall tension of the system. This is even more the case with any kind of floating bridge. When I use my lite-ash Strat, which has its bridge set up to float (so I can pull up and push down), I have to tune several times to change tunings, because not only does the system include six strings and a neck, but also three springs in the back. (I don’t change tunings on that one often, because frankly it’s a pain in the backside.) So do a rough tuning, then go back and adjust each string.

3. I often find it’s best to tune the strings alternating from one end to the other – for example, E – E – A – B – D – G. This helps to keep a floating bridge from getting pulled to one side.

4. Consider what the song you’re tuning to will contain. If I’m tuning to DADGAD for a song with lots of drones, I’ll make sure to keep the strings pretty closely to their tuner-dictated tunings; but if I’m playing EADGBE and in G or C, I’ll often tune my B string very slightly flat, as that compensates for the slightly wide fifth of the G chord on the B string. (I’ll come back to the subject of compensated and tempered tunings, and the nightmare that is the guitar’s tuning system, in a later post). When I tune to CGCGCE, the E gets tuned about 2 cents flat to widen the major third in a C chord.

5. Tune your higher strings slowly; even tuning down from E to D too quickly can make a .012″ string go spoing (as I’ve discovered twice on this tour!)

6. When you’ve tuned the guitar, strum a few chords and listen carefully. If the overall tuning doesn’t feel right, trust your ears over your tuner.

I hope this helps a bit. Let me know what you think – any problems you encounter or tips & tricks you’ve learned over the years?  Maybe your tips will help me tomorrow night in San Diego… 😉