Electrical Contact Cleaner

Cleaning Up Your Act

Though not particular to making music or playing the guitar, unwanted noise when turning dials and knobs or flipping toggle or blade switches has been, can be, and might always be, a problem for anyone involved in making adjustments to electronic/electric devices. Most things now have no physical connection needed in order to transmit data from one module or database, to another – technology communicating seamlessly, wirelessly – but many times even pieces of tech need to be plugged into something else in order to function as data gathering or storage devices.

And where there is physical, metal-to-metal contact, given the metals and substances used in connectors, there can be a problem with corrosion, dust or oxidation getting in the way and causing errors.

Weak and Noisy

The problem is especially true when dealing with sound-producing devices being hooked together. The great majority of electronic musical devices – guitars, basses, keyboards, even microphones and other collections of amplifying/sound reproducing systems, i.e. PA systems – still need plugs, jacks and some sort of cabling to interconnect them. Physical connectors, made of metal, allowing digital or analog signals to pass through.

But add time and oxygen in the air – or any other corrosive such as the salt and oils in perspiration – and these connections can become, well…less than optimal. Pick up an electric guitar or bass, plug it in, and perhaps you’ll hear that scratchy sound, that irritating extra noise that has nothing to do with music.

Or if your plugs and jacks in the instrument and amp are fine, sometimes you’ll turn a knob – either on the instrument or amp – and you might hear another scratching noise.

A Feverish Frustration

When I began playing electric instruments through an amplifier, the random (or sometimes not random) noise coming from scratchy volume and tone pots (potentiometers) was maddening. Luckily for me my father had been into electronics beginning in the 1930s or so, starting with the ‘crystal sets’ every boy apparently had in those days. He became a radio enthusiast, a HAM radio operator, was in the Signal Corps in the Army during the 40s, and afterwards worked in the telecommunications industry. His hobby and love in life was still, however, electronics and tinkering with all things electric.

–Which, in my case, afforded some experience in the cleaning of potentiometers and switches. He had an array of liquid (bottled), and aerosol contact cleaners to do the job. When I started playing electric guitar and bass and ran into the scratchy-pot problem I began borrowing some of these noxious solutions to clean the insides of the switches and whatnot.

And they did work.

The only thing was, they only worked for a limited amount of time. They seemed to clean – and dry – the contacts inside the potentiometers, and pretty soon carbon dust build-up from the contacts would again start creating noise.

Over the years, maybe 20, I tried all brands of contact cleaner available from radio parts shops and electronics stores. There was a certain amount of hope involved in each brand purchased, but I was always disappointed.

The problem was compounded when I discovered fuzz-boxes, distortion pedals, echo units, chorus pedals, flangers, volume and wah-pedals. All those plugs and jacks and connecting cables! It was a good thing I was handy with a soldering iron (another gift from my dad), but…really….

And when I finally had too many effects units to quickly setup at gigs or rehearsals and made my first and second pedal-boards, things got even worse: worse because now the pedals were screwed down to the board in close, compact proximity, and in order to squirt contact solution into the jacks and work the plugs in and out a few times, I had to basically disassemble the entire board.

The cleaners I had at the time did work, but it was something that needed to be done about once a week.

The Best

Years after I’d stopped actively gigging and had gotten into home recording, I found a brand of contact cleaner I’d never heard of before. It was mentioned on some home-recording site if I remember correctly. I ordered it, tried it, and, well, never used anything else since.

CAIG DeoxIT.

CAIG has an extremely wide range of cleaning/conditioning products for just about every imaginable application and industry, but I ordered a spray can of DeoxIT D-Series and one can of the DeoxIT Gold. That was it. I still have the first two cans I ever bought because though the stuff is expensive, it just lasts, and you won’t find yourself going through cans and cans of it. I only wish I’d discovered the brand back in the frustrating days of pedal-board maintenance, but better late than never, right?

And I think the reason the stuff lasts (I mostly just use the Gold, now) is because it doesn’t clean and dry the wipers and contacts: it cleans and conditions the internal working parts, preventing build-up and oxidation. Knobs turn more slickly, switches glide and don’t crunch; wonderful. And no noise. Oh, you’ll get a bit of clicks and whatnot depending on the actual age of the pots and switches, but other than that, it’s slick and sweet.

And quiet.

I don’t remember all the brands I’ve tried over the years – stuff from Radio Shack and various other electronics parts stores – but I’ll never spend another cent on anything else.

And, if like me, you have a few guitars or basses you’ve had stored away for a few years – or if you’ve just bought a fixer-upper to be a project guitar – one that spent a lot of time in smoky bars and clubs in the 80s – I still heartily recommend CAIG products to clean things up. I mean, most pots and switches don’t need replacing; just cleaning.

Doesn’t hurt to know how to solder though.

That’s it, and enjoy new-sounding potentiometers and switches with a little help from CAIG.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Guitar Chord Practice Routine – The Left Hand

We’ve spent a little while on your picking hand, the right, and how to get your fingernails in shape or getting accustomed to using finger and thumb picks. But now, holding down those chords.

GRAB A CHORD, ANY CHORD

Now with your guitar chord practice exercises, most likely you’ll have started with the open E-Major chord; which is a good a place as any. You’d think maybe C-Major would be a good place to begin with, but it leads to the G7 and then the – duh-duh-duhhh! – the dreaded F-Major chord, which is, at first, a real hand-cramper.

So, you place your fingers in position, following the dots on the little chord-diagram, start strumming or finger picking the strings, and you’re going along nicely until you start feeling a cramp maybe; a little pain on the inner part of the wrist, maybe some at the back of the hand. You can see the muscles tensing, the tendons working.

When it gets to that point, stop pressing the strings down and rest your hand. There’s really no advantage to holding the chord down beyond the point of tears, or cursing, or teeth-gnashing. It might be okay – aside from getting the aforementioned tendonitis – but the thing is, in your musical career you’re not going to be simply holding one chord down. You’ll be switching back and forth to other chords during a song, so forcing your hand to become a non-moving vice is sort of pointless.

So, lift off a moment, then press down the chord-shape again. Then again. Repeat it – on, off, on, off – over and over again. Not only do the hand and finger muscles have to become strong, they also have to develop ‘muscle memory’ so putting your fingers on the correct strings, at the correct fret become second-nature to you; something you won’t have to think about consciously.

Hold the chord down, lift off, shake your hand out, then hold the chord down again and repeat until you’re finding that you no longer have to look at your fingers in order to get to the chord. With these quick on-and-off repetitions, not only will the muscles get a tiny break between being tense and relaxed, but they will ‘remember’ where and how they are supposed to move in order to get your finger tips to the right place, exactly when you want them to. Even go so far as hold the chord down for a second, taking your hand completely away from the neck of the guitar (pat your head, maybe), then, without looking, grab the chord again.

Then again.

FEELING IT?

It’s about feel, about your hand – not only your fingers but your entire fretting hand – getting used to the feel of guitar neck, the width of it, the thickness, the contour, the placement of your thumb to give you maximum leverage without strain, about the edges of the fret-board, the feeling of the string against your fingertips, and also the feel of the fret below the string.

All very small details, but with quick repetitions – even without strumming the strings or picking them – you start to train your fingers and hand (and arm and shoulders; just be aware of what other parts of your body become involved) to the intricacies of placing your fingers on the strings without having to think about every single motion involved.

It might not sound musical – though you could do a quick strum each time you grab a chord – but in this case it’s not the length of time you hold down the chord, but the number of times you do it. That’s the routine part of your guitar practice exercises.

It’s similar to the difference between a person who’s a weight-lifter as opposed to someone who is a ballet-dancer; the kind of training they each do. One develops thick, heavy masses of muscle while the other develops thinner, longer and quicker muscles. Both strong, but each for a different purpose.

DANCING ON THE STRINGS

And in the case of playing the guitar, the latter is what’s wanted; delicate but quick muscle movements, with just enough pressure on each string to keep it pressed to the frets without overdoing it. Press down, lift off, over and over again. Then, with that part of your guitar practice routine accomplished, go ahead and work with both hands until you can place your fingers on the strings in the shape of a chord just a millisecond before striking it with your picking fingers.

Kind of like a dance, really, though in this case, you’ll eventually be providing the music for that dance.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Guitar Finger Picks

So yes, there’s an alternative to fingerpicking your guitar with either bare fingertips or with carefully-shaped and pampered fingernails. Of various shapes, sizes, designs and made of differing materials, finger picks not only give you a third choice between nails and no-nails, they are also part of the traditional sound and playing style of certain instruments.

You could play the banjo or koto or sitar or qanun with your fingertips alone, but…it wouldn’t sound right, somehow. It would be too quiet in volume, too dull in tone. And with certain instruments, due to the tuned tension of the strings, their length and gauge, setting a string in motion takes just a tiny bit longer with pliant skin than it would with something harder and less flexible.

STRING TENSION

Imagine plucking a tuned-up mandolin. The strings, aside from being in pairs – double-course – and close together, are quite short in length (from nut to bridge) and are tuned really tight. They have to be or they’d be flopping around like rubber bands. For an example, think of tuning the lowest pair of mandolin strings to the same pitch (not only the note but the same octave) of the bottom string of a standard guitar. You’d keep tuning down and down, trying to match the one with the other, and eventually the shorter mandolin strings would get loose enough to maybe have the bridge fall off. It’s because the string length is almost half that of the regular guitar, and so the string tension has to be almost twice as much. Another example is the violin and the bass viol.

And for you old-time bass guitar players out there: I have to admit to it – and you might too – that before five-string basses became widely available, there were times that I had to tune the low E string down to D for certain songs the band was covering. Had to take care not to pluck it too hard so it wouldn’t bounce against the pickup pole-piece. Too loose and floppy; real easy to get the string in motion, but almost…too easy.

With looser strings – lower tension – your fingertips are more than enough to get the strings moving; with tighter strings, the inherent softness of skin doesn’t quite dig in enough. Or quickly enough. There’s the tendency for just a bit of lag, more friction because of the wider surface area of the fingertip as opposed to, say, your fingernail. But with some instruments, even a strong, well-shaped fingernail has a certain amount of give and therefore, slower response time.

ENTER PUSH-ON FINGER PICKS

You’ve most likely seen them in catalogs, online or being used by players you admire, made of clear plastic, shell-colored celluloid, stainless steel and just about any other material that the manufacturer thinks will be both comfortable to wear and afford good, clean sound on the strings.

The first time I bought a set, they were the cheap, clear plastic ones – one for each of the first three fingers and one for the thumb – and though they fit well enough, it felt weird when trying to play. This is after I’d put them on backwards, with the curved, pointed part curling down over my fingernails like little claws. I couldn’t figure what the fuss was about because these claws did anything but make the playing smoother. They grabbed the strings and yanked them.

So, okay…then, I figured they went the other way around.

Still, though: now I had a layer of plastic between my fingertips and the strings which seemed somehow counter-intuitive. It was awkward, clumsy, though in fact they gave a nice, bright, loud sound with a minimum of effort.

Then I tried metal ones, ones made of molded plastic that were meant to be worn over your nails. These were angled down at the strings and still had the cap-visor shape mentioned in a previous post, but they were still not comfortable or touch-sensitive as I might’ve liked. I stuck with natural fingernails for years; that and the flat pick, or a combination of both.

It was only when I decided to try lap steel guitar that I once more got out the fingerpicks. The steel ones. I found that fingernails just weren’t doing the trick with the shorter, more tightly tuned strings. It was part of the basic sound of the steel guitar to have bright, precise contact with the strings, and in the case of this particular instrument, it was a case of Fingers Not On Strings, because there was now steel on my picking fingers, as well as a bar of steel in my other hand: there are no actual frets on a lap-steel or steel guitar, and so no actual pressing down against them.

Now like any guitarist in the 70s – the decade of slide guitar – I had gotten into playing slide, both electric and acoustic; not having contact with the strings with one hand was already old-hand. With the lap-steel though, I just couldn’t get used to having both hands isolated from contact with the strings. That is until the day I took my fingerpicks to my day job and kept them in my coat pocket.

Every chance I got during the day I would reach in my pocket and slip them on my fingers, and just…get used to them. I answered the phone with them, had them on when I used a pen or pencil to write things down or scratched my nose, and by the end of that one day, they felt a natural part of me. Weird but true.

ALL THIS TO SAY…

Over the years I’ve collected quite an assortment of different sets of finger/thumb picks, of various shape and material, but have gravitated towards the simple, traditional metal ones. That’s just me, though.

For you? I still think it’s well worth at least trying finger picks for fingerstyle guitar playing. Probably not with nylon- or gut-stringed instruments like the classical guitar or the lute – because the tension of the strings is softer – but with steel stringed instruments, definitely.

Like always, give it a shot.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

 

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

 

 

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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – Musician’s Bane

CARPAL TUNNEL AND TENDONITIS

Bad words you might’ve heard. There are more, but we’ll start with these. You might’ve heard about office people suffering from it, or the people at a checkout counter at a busy store. It’s a type of injury that occurs from repetitive motions of your hand or elbow or just about anything else. Called Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Tendinitis, Tennis Elbow, or what have you, just focus on the last word: Injury.

Anyone can injure themselves by doing something every day, all day long, over and over again. It’s okay to a certain extent when working out in a gym or lifting weights, but even the trainers will probably have told you to do things in stages; don’t overdo; do such and such an exercise only so many times before moving on to another.

 

So what causes carpal tunnel syndrome – that pain in the wrist or fingers or joints? Overdoing things for long periods of time; moving your fingers, or holding your wrist at an unnatural angle for too long.

Now there’s a certain benefit to repetition of say – practicing your guitar scale patterns: it develops muscle memory so you can rip off a scale without having to think about it. You hear the pattern in your head, know what you want to play and then just let it happen. It becomes second-nature, instinctive, a reflex almost.

But there’s a certain point where all that practice starts to actually injure you. We’re not talking muscles only now; it’s the tendons and the related biological structures, bones, etc., that start to feel the strain. In weight-lifting or working out, some pain is to be expected in order to grow new muscle tissue mass and whatnot. Not so with tendons.

CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME SYMPTOMS

What does it feel like? Numbness and tingling in your hand, usually starting with the thumb and index finger, or the middle or the ring finger. Something like an electric shock going up your fingers. The little finger is most times not affected, but can be from other things.

You know what? Hold your hand up with the back of your hand facing you. Now wiggle your fingers like you were playing a guitar scale or finger picking. See those long things moving under the skin? Yup. Those ridges aren’t muscle and they don’t take well to over stressing.

Actually the first time I ever heard of CTS was back in the 70s. It was in some little article in one of the guitar magazines about a guitarist in one of the prog-rock or fusion bands  of the time who was forced to stop touring because he’d injured himself doing all those nuts scales and figures. Can’t remember his name or the band, but there was a lot of intricate guitar parts going on back then – just as now.

It comes from over doing it, and like I mentioned in another post, it’s not a sign of bravery or dedication or anything else to play through the pain. Not in this case.

PREVENTING CTS

If you want to go all He-Man or Schwarzenegger with yourself, then go ahead and lift weights or go out running. Just don’t expect your tendons will understand. If you’re practicing the guitar – or bass or cello or piano (probably not kazoo), go for 30 minutes, then take a 15-minute break. Shake your hands out, make a sandwich. You might even watch some videos (without your guitar) about picking, fingering techniques, what are the best strings,  and etc. It’s like some of those physical training clips you see, where the athlete goes crazy on certain motions, but only for 2 minutes, then stops, catches their breath, then goes again. It gives the muscles and related tendons a short break. Then the athlete goes on to something entirely different.

But I think you’re getting the idea. And it should be an idea that even the most basic, beginning guitarist or musician should get into right from the start.

CTS TREATMENT

If you’ve already injured your hands or fingers or elbows (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome), there’s a wide variety of treatments. Even ones that don’t include surgery.

Surgery hopefully got your attention.

But treatments include physical therapy, muscle relaxers, painkillers – that sort of thing – though movement training is something that seems to be gaining a following. Modifying how you hold your fingers, how you crook your wrist or cock your elbow, and being conscious of what you’re doing (or having a therapist guide you) creates a way of practicing that doesn’t cause injury.

There’s tons of resources online that should be able to help.

CONCLUSIONS

Take it easy. I know what it’s like when you feel you’ve started your path to becoming a musician too late in life. You want to catch up, to get good fast. It’s hard not to force the issue, to overdo. But there’s a price to pay, and it’s not something that has anything to do with creativity or proficiency in music, and it’s not something that you should feel you have to pay.

So, practice your chords and scales, do your finger picking patterns, but in moderation. That’s not saying to practice only half an hour a day; you can practice all you want, but just do it in stages, in degrees, with breaks in between. Be aware of pain when you’re doing whatever technique you’re working on; you’ll feel the burn, but is it muscles or your tendons screaming out for you to stop?

Think about it, be conscious of what you’re doing, and pay attention to your body’s warning signal:

Pain.

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Bass Guitar for Beginners – Tips (as in your fingers)

Like with guitar, there are a few bass guitar tips and tricks that might come in handy. Though bassically similar, being a bass player has its highs and its lows; though, aside from the pun, you’ll be dealing with the lows.

KEEPING IT ON THE DOWN-LOW

Not too often does a musician start off playing bass guitar. It’s something you gravitate towards, usually after you’ve had some experience with a regular guitar or uke, or some other fretted, stringed instrument. What draws you to it is a mystery I suppose. For me, I simply loved that deep, down-low tone vibrating through my hands as I plucked the string. If you’re playing through a good-sized amplifier, the vibration can also shake your house a tad.

Maybe it was the power of those low notes? The fact that even one of Bruce’s bass notes equaled in power and sound (at least to me) a full chord played by Clapton? Could be, but especially in pop or rock music – well, a well-written orchestral bass part can be electrifying – the bass occupies its own frequency of the music: it’s easy to hear bass parts as they flow along below the higher pitched instruments and voices. The only competition is perhaps the bass-drum, though usually it’s not a competition; more of a blending.

Now, more to the point: Tone.

Yes, that again.

THUMP, NOT SCRAPE

So it’s pretty obvious right off that the strings on a bass guitar – either electric or acoustic – are way thicker than on a standard guitar. That’s why there’s that thump and growl and earthquake sensation. And as such, the ideas of finger nail shape and length are just about the exact opposite of the requirements for guitar because you now wish to stay away from anything high-pitched or scraping noise that might detract from the clean, deep, bassy, thumping, thung sound that is every bass player’s right to explore. In short: short finger nails are key – on both hands.

When not playing finger style guitar, or if I’ve recorded all the other parts of a piece of music and are ready to lay the bass tracks in (sometimes, with certain songs, I put in the bass parts after the drums and chordal instruments have outlined the shape of the piece) I go ahead and get out the sapphire finger nail file and file the nails on the plucking hand (more appropriate term for bass) right down as far as they will go.

Why? Because with such a thick, metallic string, a finger nail will simply scrape across the string instead of contributing anything at all to setting it in motion. Think of running your nail through your hair; some strands will catch a little, maybe get singled-out under the nail a bit. Now think of running your fingers across a macrame plant hanger, or a gathering of ground-crew tethering ropes for a zeppelin: finger nails will just graze off the surface because of the circumference of the things.

And that, when amplified, can sound like a bunch of click-scrapes.

Now it has to be said that there are certain times a brighter, crisper sound is needed to make the bass guitar stand out in a mix. That’s normally a matter of the style of the song or music, or personal taste. But that sort of sound, aside from amplifier tone adjustments, is not about your finger nail length; that calls for the use of a plectrum/pick or slapping the strings or bouncing a drumstick off the strings to be played.

And if you’ve already tried playing with a longer nail getting in the way, you also might find that you wind up with a certain aching, almost bruised feeling under your nails. Depending on the natural thickness or thinness of your nails, even the G string of a typical bass guitar will have more mass than your nail, and instead of vibrating the string, the string will be vibrating your nail, giving you that bone-bruised feeling.

HOW SHORT IS TOO SHORT?

Just don’t draw blood. That’s always a good rule of…thumb. Don’t file the nail down past the nail bed; just leave a bit. And you might, while you’re at it, bevel the remaining edge downwards a little so there’s no flat edge to the nail when viewed in cross-section. Again, get out your 3M 415N and smooth those edges to a glass-like finish so if they do come in contact with the string, they’ll just slide on by.

Remember, tone on finger style bass is the actual flesh of your finger tips against the strings, and nothing else.

DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DID

I have to admit, I did develop blood blisters on my finger tips once, after getting carried away practicing. I always try to remember what sort of music I was practicing, but it was so long ago…

Oh yes, I believe it was when I was playing along with Stanley Clarke’s amazing samba figures on Return To Forever’s Spain from the Light As A Feather album. Yah, that’s the one. Luckily that healed up in a day or three, the skin eventually peeled off and I was left with a rather tough, smooth patch on the skin of my finger tips. You can – and should – do that gradually and not go crazy and over-practice like I did. The same should go for any musician. There’s such a thing as tendinitis which you’ll want to stay far away from.

Good thing is though, if you need to go back to finger style guitar and grow your nails out, those toughened finger tips won’t get in the way.

I guess getting calluses is a thing, right? Shows the world (and yourself) that you’re dedicated to your art and will stop at nothing, and let nothing stop you, from attaining perfection. Funny thing is, when you really get into playing, you might find you’ve even left those hard-earned calluses behind to wind up with smooth, tough skin – on both hands.

KEEP IT SMOOTH, KEEP IT TOUGH

So there’s a middle ground between feeling like you’ve shut a drawer on your finger tips and bruised your nails, and getting tiny little blood blisters on your finger tips from playing too much in one sitting. Keep your nails from coming in contact with the strings of your bass guitar as much as possible by filing them down, smoothing them with the open-coat silicon carbide sandpaper and watching the curve and angle of your fingers as you pluck the strings. And don’t, as I did, play along with RTF’s Spain more than, say, six times in a row. Go Eat A Peach, have A Taste of Honey, or have some Brown Sugar or something; however you Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! Your fingers will get there when you do; not before.

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

 

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Guitar Fingerpicking Basics – Guitar Tips For Beginners

You’ve gotten some help with guitar, read some beginning guitar advice on how to guitar, and heard about different ways to start off playing the guitar – using a flatpick to pick or strum the strings, where to strum how to hold the pick, what sort of pick to use. But you like the sound of fingerpicking or fingerstyle guitar with its inherent rhythms and counter point – fingers working independently to achieve a full, complex array of tones and notes that just feel good when you listen to them. There’s players like Chet Atkins and Phil Keaggy, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke and a host of others, both legendary and new on the scene. And the one thing you love most is how each of them can like a whole band playing at the same time.

So, you have your guitar sitting in your lap, across your knee, or suspended on a strap. The strings are tuned, hopefully by using one of the multitudes of electronic tuners available today (I still have an ancient A-440 tuning fork somewhere, but haven’t used it for decades). Your fingers are at the ready – all of them – and you’re ready to make some music.

Now what?

Make a sound. The sound is waiting right there for you, somewhere between the tension of the strings and the resonant response of the wood – or in some cases the magnetic or piezo pickups. Right there. And the only way to bring it out is to set the string – or strings – in motion. Vibration, from you, traveling through the guitar’s body, the guitar body in turn making the air around it vibrate, and then…into your – or your audience’s ears – to stimulate the eardrum and send that data down proper channels to finally be decoded by the brain.

Most people, like me, would simply pluck the lowest string with their thumb; probably the most natural, instinctive way to get things started. Even strumming across the strings from lowest (thickest) to highest (thinnest), will most likely be done by your thumb. You’ve just set things into motion that can never be taken back, and when you strum the strings the second time, you won’t ever want to take them back.

Ever.

FROM DULL TO BRIGHT – Discovering Other Tones

You’ll have a small chord-book most likely, or have printed out some sheet music from online, or are just staring at the music on your screen. You’ll see the little ‘chord boxes’ above the lines of standard notation, or perhaps you’ll have a tab (tablature) sitting there. You’re ready to learn fingerstyle guitar.

You place your fingertips, sometimes painfully, to match the chord diagram, hold the strings down and then…strum. You’ll hear buzzes perhaps if you haven’t pressed the strings down hard enough, but…not to worry. That part’ll be fine in a few days.

But above and below those buzzes and fingertip ache, you’ll hear something; something that you created. You’ve strummed a chord of music, a grouping of separate notes that go together musically, pleasantly. It’s something not all instruments can do – instruments like the sax or clarinet or piccolo – because they can only play one note at a time. But now, with the guitar, you’re in league with harpsicords, pianos and organs, xylophones, vibes, vihuela’s, lutes, mandolins and the like.

Strum again with your thumb, the most obvious ‘instrument’ you have to set the strings in motion and make that sound. You’ll use your other fingers as you progress further into finger style guitar playing, but for now we’ll just focus in on the basics.

Most likely your thumb-strum will have a dull-ish, muted sort of tone. Or perhaps, if your thumbnail is too long, you’ll hear a crisper tone – a sliding, brighter sound – and hearing this will make you to try it again. Angling your thumb inwards a bit more, so the nail itself makes contact, you strum again and the tone is more evenly bright.

You now have two separate sounds at your disposal.

SO MANY TONES TO CHOOSE FROM

So, how many sorts of sounds can you make, beyond what you’ve just discovered? First thing to do is to listen. Strum again, maybe using another chord – another formation of fingertips-on-strings, because your hand might be feeling a little tight, maybe a little cramped, holding that first chord for so long. Shake your hand out and go to the next chord on your music.

Listen to how it sounds. Hear any nuances.

Now strum again, using just the fleshy part of the side of your thumb. Mellow, soft, understated. Then strum so the edge of your thumbnail catches the strings: brighter again, and crisper. Louder too, no doubt. But as you strum with your nail, you might hear or feel it catching a little unevenly; most likely on the thinner strings at the bottom of your downward stroke. Take another break, shake out the cramped muscles, and have a look at your thumbnail.

But especially right where it joins the skin at the side of your thumb closest to the strings.

GOOD NAILS, GREAT NAILS – Work With What You Have

You might have been born with great fingernails, thick-walled, shaped well, or you might have thin, uneven fingernails which break or chip or shred easily. Either way, they’re what you have to work with. And if you’re a person into nail care, then you perhaps already know what’s required to keep your nails smooth and well maintained. If not, there’s no time like the present.

To even up the score a bit against your heredity if you have thin, weak nails – or to improve on what you already have if your fingernails are perfect – look closely and see (and even touch) the way the skin at the side of your thumb and the thumbnail itself, flow together. The transition from one to the other. It might be that the nail, if not manicured, will protrude a bit, or have a rough, un-cared for edge; perhaps a weird little bulge. Fingernails grow out a certain way: like hair, they are a product of what, and how well you eat. Certain foods and supplements change the health, thickness and even the shape of your nails to a certain extent.

But there’re things you can do to make up for some of these things.

SHAPING YOUR TONE

That’s right, you can change the tone of your guitar by changing the shape of your nails.

Tone – that dull, fleshy, soft sound, or the louder, crisper sound of a nail being drawn across the strings – has to do with that single point where your thumb touches the strings. A rough, uneven nail/skin contour will give a rough, uneven tone to what you play, whereas, a smoother transition in that exact same spot will – yes – give you a more even, consistent overall sound.

Set your guitar down, wring out those cramps (trying to play beyond pain is…not so good), and go find a nail file somewhere!

First choice might be the little, slide-out file included with most inexpensive nail-clippers. Somehow most dwelling places seem to have at least one of these things laying around somewhere. I don’t know why, but they usually show up in the back corners of kitchen utility drawers, in desks, in the catch-all bowls or dishes on the bathroom sink. These might do the trick for the moment, but if you look closely at the ridges on the nail file, you’ll most likely see little cross-hatched lines on the cutting surface; crisscrossed ridges that do all the actual cutting of the nail.

Use these if you have to, but remember: cross-hatched nail files tear and shred the edge of the nail unevenly. An emory board would do better, since the sand-papery particles give a much more uniform ‘sanding’ of the nail edge. But though emory boards are okay, they do tend to wear out quickly and lose their ‘bite’. And sometimes they’re a little too flexible. They also tend to be a little thick, and what we need is something thinner which can be used right where your thumbnail meets the skin at the side.

Use what you have, but with this in mind: next time you head off to the store, see if you can find a more permanent solution in the form of a metal nail file, but one that duplicates the granular surface properties of sand-paper. These will be called sapphire files, or something similar, but whatever you buy, make sure they aren’t just a longer version of the cross-cut, cross-hatched nail file in your nail clippers. You want to shape and trim, not tear and shred.

LOOKING FOR TONE

Use your eye. Hold your thumb up before you so the fleshy pad of the thumb is facing you. This might take a bit of wrist-twisting, but you can see the curve of your thumb-tip, with the nail in the background. In the case of playing the guitar, overly-long nails are not what we’re looking for. Your other hand – the fretting hand – might have already discovered this while trying to hold the strings down in a chord pattern. It’s almost like typing or playing the piano: long nails get in the way of pressing down nice and straight and getting the most out of the leverage of your finger muscles. The same goes for the fingernails of your finger-picking hand.

So look at your thumbnail and compare it to the curve of your actual thumb-tip. Get the file ready and start cutting away at the edge of your nail (or if you already have your sapphire file, trimming), until it more or less matches the curve of your thumb tip. Leave an eighth of an inch maybe, though you could certainly start with a half inch. Even it up, focusing especially on where the skin to the sides of the nail blend in to the shape of the nail itself. Turn your hand so your thumbnail is facing you, then turn it back around again, comparing what the nail looks like both ways. You should see flesh at both sides of the thumbnail, with a smooth transition where the side of the nail joins into the thumb-tip beyond.

Now turn your thumb so you can see it from the side. Your nail might still have ‘corners.’ Take your file and shape these corners a little more so there’s a nice slope from the tip of the nail back to where it meets the skin. Just think of the way the brim of a baseball cap or sun-visor looks – in three dimensions – and you’ll get the idea of the shape we’re after.

When you’re satisfied – you may or may not have removed a lot of nail – dust things off and take up the guitar again.

Have a strum. Does it feel any different? It might take a little getting used to if you’ve always had long, wide nails which grew over the edge of your thumb tip or had corners, but strum again; though it might feel different, it will probably sound different as well. The idea is to strum the strings without anything catching and yanking one or more of the strings unevenly, making particular strings louder than others. An even tone, from an evenly-shaped nail is what you’re after.

And as you strum, angle your thumb a little, your wrist closer towards you or further way, and listen to the difference in sound – the way it feels as the edge of your nail slides across the string or strings. You might feel another small tug or roughness, and if so bring out the file again and trim just a little more on the contact point against the strings. Make it smoother, experiment, trim, strum, try again.

And be aware of that wrist angle and the different sounds you can get that way.

A TOUCH OF GLASS

One day, years ago, after having had a private classical guitar lesson, the subject of nailcare came up. My teacher told me about sapphire fingernail files. Then he handed me a small square of sandpaper. He hardly had to explain – except about how cross-cut files tore the nails – and simply made the motion of sanding the edge of his nails with the sandpaper. I tried it out, rubbing the fine-grit sandpaper along the edge of my nail for a moment or two. And when examined by running a nail from my other hand across the sanded nail edge, I was amazed: it felt like glass. Smooth, with no bumps or high spots. And when I plucked the low E string, the nail just slid across with no resistance.

Well, maybe plucked, a good word in itself, isn’t quite the perfect one for causing a string to start vibrating: perhaps squeezed is more apt. Plucked implies pulling a thing outward (in this case, the string) and the motion should be more of pressing gently and firmly sideways across the string, then letting your fingertip and nail slide beyond it to come to rest on the string below. Almost like in golf, trying to get out of a sand trap: you don’t try to scoop the ball out, but hit and follow through under it, letting the sand explode the ball out.

And when I squeezed that one note off with my new glassified nail, it was a revelation. The tone was as smooth and even as the glassy edge itself.

Of course, there were still three fingers which needed the same treatment, but that’s something you’ve probably already realized. After all, you’re here to get tips on finger picking – or finger style guitar playing – and your thumb is just part of the equation, right?

AS WITH ONE, SO THE OTHERS – Shaping Up Your Tone

It was coming, but you already knew it. Getting your thumb-nail, that point of contact just right – though it takes a bit of experimentation (thank goodness nails grow back) – applies to all your other nails. Finger style guitar playing usually – though not always – includes your other three fingers: index, middle and ring. In some places you’ll see the shorthand of P I M R, which is P=Thumb, I=Index finger, M=Middle finger, and R=Ring finger, in reference to what combination of all four fingers – either at once or alternating – a certain musical passage requires. There are also some styles which use the thumb, Index and Second fingers, or even thumb and Index finger only; different styles, different combinations. On the other hand, there are some players who incorporate the Little finger in their playing, and, well, why not? The more the merrier.

But usually, to begin with, it’s just the thumb and first three fingers; more than enough for you to eventually play anything you need to.

So now it also becomes obvious that like with your thumbnail, your other playing nails need the same trimming, shaping and smoothing as your thumbnail. And just as before, with your hand up and fingers spread – and your palm facing you – have a look. Too long, no good. Same with too short as you might have discovered already, though playing without fingernails, a lute-thing, is argued over ceaselessly in some circles.

But have a look, trim the nails with the sapphire file you hopefully have or will have, follow the shape and contour of your fingertip itself, and leave just enough nail beyond the tip to actually make contact with the strings. Then use the magic sandpaper and glassify those edges.

I later found out that the sandpaper in question was 3M 415N Silicon Carbide, in a 320 grit. It’s no wonder it’s used to smooth the coats of of paint on cars or to smooth out fine wood furniture before final finishing. It cuts great and doesn’t ‘load up’ with the particles it removes. It also doesn’t have that ‘sticky’ feel when rubbed across a surface due to its stearate coating.

But the sanding of nail edges also has another side benefit: with the surface so smooth, there’s obviously less friction, and with less friction – with no bumps or roughness leftover from the filing – there’s less chance for the nail edge ‘catching’ against the strings and becoming worn down prematurely. Imagine two rough surfaces rubbing together and the friction between them. Make one surface smooth and the friction is reduced. Physicists will probably be able to tell you exactly how much less friction there is, but you get the idea.

Now, as mentioned earlier, if you’ve always had longer nails it’ll feel a bit weird having something actually touching the skin of your fingertip directly – if even just the edge – but it’s an acquired taste; it also gives you a more direct feel of the strings against your fingers, a better sensation as to how much pressure to apply, how the string feels gliding itself into motion as your finger slips over and past it. It’s very much a feel thing, like music itself, but it’s also very much a tone and sound thing, which by this time, even with just a few chords under your belt, you might actually be appreciating.

TONES AND YOU – From This Moment Onward

There are more tones and sounds to be gotten from a guitar than most imagine. And it’s not only effects pedals and dead or live recording booths, or the type and gauge of strings you use, nor the wireless systems or cables or amplifiers or which speakers and which tubes or microphones you have in your rig. It all starts with you, your hands on the guitar; flesh and nail (or metal or plastic fingerpicks or flatpicks or baloney sandwich) against the metal or plastic or silk or gut of the strings, the metal of the frets, and the satiny smoothness of the wood of the fingerboard. It’s how you touch the guitar, what your intent is, what’s on you mind, and it precedes everything else which takes it out to your audience or simply reflects back into your own ears. That’s the start: your fingers on your guitar.

And if you can get into that, right at the beginning – just the joy of making sounds and having these simple, smooth tones – starting with your first acoustic guitar, where most of us start, then it doesn’t matter what sort or style of guitar playing you gravitate towards in the future. Even if you wind up not playing the guitar at all (even after decades I’m still drawn to both guitar and electric bass equally), this basic fingers-against-strings ideology – this idea of playing with your fingers, and having your fingertips and nails properly looked – will still be relevant, still be with you wherever you go, whatever kind of music you play, and on whichever sort of (strummed, plucked, bowed, fretted or unfretted) stringed instrument you get the most enjoyment from!

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

 

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

 

 

 

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