Handy Playing Tips

Picking stuff

  • Do I have to use a pick?
    Depends what you’re trying to play. On steel-string guitars playing modern Pop and Rock the answer is yes. Fingerpicking doesn’t achieve good enough projection for anything with a Rock edge to it but if you are playing an older Blues style, a Reggae or African Blues style then the pick may be not necessary (players of those styles tend to finger-pick, or combine pick and fingers). For Jazz single-note lines and rhythm-chord work are generally performed with a pick, whereas many players prefer to play melody-chord work, and ballad chord accompaniment finger-style.
  • Electric guitars are designed for plectrum playing (yeah, yeah, yeah, we know who Mark Knopfler is) and generally will lack the sharp articulation needed for Rock playing if fingers are used. Nylon-string guitars sound good when played with a medium-gauge nylon pick but the tone will be thinner than if you fingerpick.
  • If it is Classical guitar (and Spanish style) you are considering then don’t even bother buying a pick! This is fingerpicking genre with highly developed techniques. Most nylon-string players groom their nails to a length and shape that allows them to combine finger and nail to strike the strings. The notion that they 'pick with the nails' is a littel misleading; they combine the fingertip and the nail to create the tone required. This is capable of considerable variety to shape the sound and you need to consult with a good teacher of those styles to learn this in depth. All in all, the issue of pick or fingers really comes back to the style you are aiming at; the technique employed creates the sound you need.
  • Is a pick and a plectrum the same thing? - Yep
  • What is a ‘flatpick’? - a plectrum.
  • What is a ‘plectrum’?  -  a pick
  • What is a ‘thumbpick’? - the curly type that fits around your thumb.
  • Why is the use of a plectrum sometimes referred to as ‘flatpicking’?
    Seems that this is an old Country/Folk distinction between thumbpicks and the plain flat picks that have been more common since the Rock era began. It may also imply the style of ‘flatpicking’ down onto the next string, especially on the bass strings, a common technique with thumbpicks on steel strings. This produces a louder and sharper attack in the same way that ‘rest strokes’ do in Classical guitar technique.
  • What is ‘alternate picking’ ?
    A methodical use of that plectrum that plays downstrokes for notes on downbeats and upstrokes for notes that come on upbeats. It is the standard system picking technique for all straight quaver and semiquaver work on scale, scale passages and basic arpeggios. For an excellent introduction to this topic see William G. Leavitt’s Modern Method For Guitar Volume One pages 18 through to 69. That should clarify it!
  • What is 'hybrid-picking' ?
    This refers to combining pick and fingers. Rock players will sometimes use the ring finger to add notes above bass notes played with the pick, and some acoustic steel-string players combine use a thumb-pick with two, or three, fingers. There are variations possible on both these styles and ultimately the technique is adapted to the sound requirements.
  • What’s ‘chicken-pickin’ ?
    Just something chickens do.


Chord stuff

  • What's a Sus4 ? (or a Sus2 for that matter!)
    The abbreviation 'sus' stands for 'suspension'. This is a harmony term that is given to an embellishment note that ‘suspends’ the arrival of the proper chord-tone that we expected to hear. The technique and term come originally from polyphonic vocal from many centuries past. In modern guitar parlance suspension chords are really embellishments, commonly used to spice up routine chord progressions. Do not think of D4 and D2 as different chords to D major; They are simply the chord of D with embellishment notes added in and are most commonly used in conjunction with the D chord. All ‘sus’ chords work like this. If in doubt about such a chord (unsure what to play) default to the plain major or minor chord indicated by the chord prefix. (ie: F#m for F#m sus2 etc.) There is an excellent section dealing with embellishment chords, and how to use them in Modern Guitar Chord Styles, Volume 1  – check it out


  • Who invented the open-position chord of F ?
    We’re not too sure but just wait ‘til we get our hands on ‘em!
  • How can I get better at chord changes?
    Chord forms, and chord changes are only learned by committing them to muscle-memory. Take two chords and practice moving between them, one strum each but slowly, and watch you fingers. Be sure to hold any finger that is on the same note (string) in both chords. By repeating this,  at least 8 times, you will commit it to memory as its own specific action. Be patient and do these excersises daily and before long you'll have them under control. To learn more about chords and chord changes, and how to combine them with strumming and finger-picking rhythms, get yourself a copy of Modern Guitar Chord Styles, Volume 1  - once you have worked through it you will be able to play stacks of songs!
  • What’s a power chord?
    An electrical cable that you plug into a wall socket.
  • No really, what’s a ‘power-chord’ ?
    A tonic bass note with a perfect 5th added above and with an optional tonic octave above the 5th. It is possible to place the 5th below the tonic on some power chords but in low voiced chords the sound can be so ‘thick’ that they will lack harmonic clarity.  Some high position power chords, on the first four strings, sound good with the 5th as the lowest tone.
  • What is a 'triad' ?
    A triad is a three-note chord: they are the building blocks of all larger chords. There are four essential types: Major (tonic+major 3rd+perfect 5th), Minor (tonic+minor 3rd+perfect 5th), Augmented (tonic+major 3rd+raised 5th), Diminished (tonic+minor 3rd+flatted 5th). All other chords are an extension (a variant) of one of these.
  • What’s a bar chord?
    Oh that’s easy: it’s the noise you hear when three or more sheep are going ‘baaaahhhh’ all at once!
  • Alright then, what’s a ‘barre chord’ ?
    Oh who cares about the spelling – it depends on where you woz brung up anyway! Bar-chords involve the index finger being flatted across all of the strings right behind the relevant fret. In Classical & Spanish guitar the term ‘grand bar’ is used to indicate the finger holding six, or sometimes five, strings down. The term ‘half-bar’ indicates holding two, three or four strings down with the index finger ‘squared’ at the edge of the fretboard.  Indeed, some players will refer to this as ‘squaring the finger’ and it may be required to be done by any finger (yes even the pinky!), especially in jazz chord-voicings.


  • Chord symbols – confused?
    Well don’t feel like you’re the only one; you practically have to do a music degree to understand this subject in its entirety! In previous decades there was a lack of agreed standards for naming some chord ‘extensions’ (various notes that are added to a basic major or minor chord). The result was a profusion of names that could easily confuse. Even a simple chord extension like a major with an added 2nd could have many acceptable names. Example: Cmaj sus2, C2, Csus2, Cadd9, Csus9, C add D, and so on (all the same chord!). These names are all clear enough to a trained musician but not so to a lot of students and hobby-players. Fortunately in the computer age there has been a big swing towards standardized chord symbols. This is in part due to some international agreements reached in the 1970s & 80s and then, in turn, to the professional standard music publishing programs adopting these. If you have found a chord symbol you are unsure of you can reduce it down to its essential major or minor basis. This will fit what you are playing but will lack the “pretty note” - this will create a less exciting sound but will still work as an accompaniment (ie: if you don't know what C2 is just play C - it will work but may sound a bit plain).
  • What is a chord 'extension' ?
    Okay - no electrical cable jokes here!  A chord 'extension' is a note added to a basic Major, or Minor chord. All chords are essentially 'major' or 'minor' (yes, very much like the 'birds and the bees') but all basic chords can be added ('extended') by extra notes that will create some type of 'dominant' or minor 7th entity. The most common extensions are embellishments to dominant 7ths: 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and to Minor 7ths: m9ths, m11ths, m13ths. Then there is a plethora of 'altered extensions' - chromatically altered embellishments that can be added to any dominant or minor 7th chord.
  • Okay, so what's a G7#5b13 ?
    Something weird that jazz players do (okay - serious: it's a dominant 7th chord, built on a G bass, with a sharp 5th and a flatted 13th. The nucleus of the chord, that must be present, is the tonic + 3rd + flat 7th [G+B+F]. This is the kind of chord the previous entry describes in the last sentence; These sort of chords are often described as 'altered dominants' and are common in jazz - but rare in Pop styles).
  • What is a 'Cadence' ?
    A 'structurally significant chord progression' is the best way to think of 'cadence'. Not all chord changes are important to the overall structure of a piece of music. A cadence is a chord change that concludes a principle phrase (a section of melody), and in doing so either sets up the harmony for the following section, or concludes it. The important cadences are: 'Perfect' I-V, 'Imperfect' V-I, and Interrupted V-II, V-IV, V-VI. Traditional harmont texts always list 'Plagal' too - this is the IV-I progression that creates the 'amen' ending heard in many hymns and sacred songs. Its use is uncommon outside those genres (this is not to say that IV to I is not a common chord change but that is not the same thing as a cadence). 


Solo stuff

  • What are Slurs?
    These are techniques that create a new note without the pick having to strike it. Principally these are 'hammer-ons' (ascending slurs), pull-offs (descending slurs), slides (in either direction), bended notes (ascending only), or wammy-bar dives (can go up or down but down is most common).
  • What are Ligados?
    Whole phrases of slurred notes played at speed to create a quick-silver stream of notes: Originally a technique associated with Spanish guitar (Flamenco style), it has been very succesfully adapted into Rock technique by players such as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.
  • What are chops?
    Well down here in lovely, sunny Australia a ‘chop’ is cut of meat that one cooks on the BBQ – an integral component of Aussie summers! In America, however, it seems that jazz players refer to single-note phrases as “chops” – wow! If one talks about “getting one’s chops up” then one is indicating they will go home and practise all of their pre-constructed ‘improvisatory’ phrases until they can be whipped off at high speed! Invite them to your next BBQ!
  • What are 'Runs' ? 
    Pretty much the same things as chops.
  • What about 'lines' ?
    Again, the same general idea: the official music term is 'phrases' - coherent groups of notes that make musical statement.
  • What exactly is a 'bend' ?
    A note that slurs upwards by bending the string up, or down, to raise the pitch. Students tend to feel unsure about wether to push the string up, or to tug it downwards to create a bend: Here is a handy rule to remember the correct technique (the technique that works best): "Big bends go up - little bends go down".  So, push the string up, with at least two fingers, to create whole-tone, and half-tone beds, and tug the string down (usually with just one finger) to create quarter-tone bends. Most full-bends (whole-tone and larger) are played with three fingers: index, middle & ring fingers to create a stable tone and pitch. Do not use the little-finger for bending; it is too weak to be of much use without the other fingers supporting it, and it is usually needed for a note following soon after the bend.
  • What is a ‘unison-bend’ ?
    An effect that creates the same note on two adjacent strings: the note on the lower string (thicker string) bends up to match the top note.
  • Is a 'Wammy-bar' the same as a 'Tremolo-arm' (or 'Tremolo-bar') ?
  • What’s ‘Guitar-pro’ ?
    a)    a professional guitarist
    b)    a computer program with about three million songs in it, most of them more-or-less correct: not a bad starting point but don’t forget to use   your ears! (as in, make sure you reference the original recording).



Equipment stuff


  • Stratocaster pick-up positions
    If you own a Stratocaster, a Fender or a copy, then you are able to use the pick-up selector to get 5 different sounds out of your guitar, even if you have a humbucker in there. Stratocasters are renowned for their versatility and you can play many different styles by knowing your pick-ups. Most traditional Strats will have 3 single coil pick-ups, and all are very different.  Heaps of great players use these: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck,Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler and many more.
  • Postion1 (neck pick-up) Gives you a strong lead sound with lots of bottom end. Tons of tone in this pick-up. SRV uses this one to tremendous effect.
  • Position 2 (neck and middle) This is the out of phase position, it gives you the bottom end of the neck, and  the high end of the middle pick-up. Hendrix used this one a lot, as has Albert Lee on his fiery country solos.
  • Position 3 (middle pick-up) Gives you a bright sound but not as twangy as the previous position. David Gilmour likes this one. It’s good for reggae too!
  • Postion 4 (middle and bridge) This is another out of phase position, it has heaps of twang and more brightness than the 2nd position, due to the bridge pick-up's influence. Sounds great for twangy country. SRV uses this on Love Struck Baby and in his fabulous rendition of Little Wing.  It’s also Mark Knopfler’s Sultan's of Swing sound too!
  • Position 5 (bridge) This is used in country a lot; it has heaps of brightness and lots of top end. With distortion it becomes a little meaner, and this is widely employed for rock soloing, along with the 1st position . Some Strats have a humbucker in this position for a crunchier sound.



  • Bridging channels on your amp
    Here’s a neat trick if you have an amp with 2 channels with 2 inputs on each. Most Marshall heads will have this, and some combos too. You get a stronger tone due to the two channels being used simultaneously. Channel 1 has more punch and brightness. Channel 2 is a little quieter but gives a little more twang, especially with a Strat. Mix the two channels together by connecting a short, screened patch lead between the second input of Channel 1 and the first input of Channel 2. If you then plug your guitar into the first input of Channel 1, you can mix the different tonal characters of each channel for greater flexibility. Cool!