Hands Across The Wire
Understand the tricks of the trade in our illustrated analysis of guitar skills and techniques.
Guitar playing has more tricks in it than Tommy Cooper's back pocket: Paul Colbert dips his fingers in a specially formulated lubricant of Long Life, Castrol and Old Spice to reveal techniques cast down since the dawn of time... jus' like that.
Not sure who originated this one, but early experts included Jan Akkerman from Focus and Steve Hackett (more of him later). It involves plucking a string while the guitar volume is off, then rapidly turning it up so the resulting note has a soft attack rather than a percussive one.
It's supposed to sound like a violin hence the "bowing" bit in the title. Most guitarists pull this trick by twisting their little fingers round the volume control — always presuming you can reach it.
If the designers have been sweet natured enough to plant it six feet away, try fixing a rubber band to a point at the base of the guitar, wrap it once round the volume knob, then tug on the free end.
Certain potentiometers have all their volume up the wrong leg, as it were. They require too much twisting in order to go from silence to a reasonable volume. One way round this on a two pickup guitar is to set the volume of one coil at nine or 10, then turn the other up from zero. Providing you're in the middle pickup position this will produce a fast fade up with only a minimum movement. If you don't want to move your hands at all, buy a footpedal.
Incidentally, bowed chords often sound a lot better than bowed single notes.
Probably the most common of all guitar tricks and mainly the province of rock players. Jazzers usually prefer to hit every note with the plectrum.
Today's pickups are highly sensitive and you can generally get a strong enough signal by striking a string against a fret with one of the fingers on your left hand.
For example, say your index finger is on the A of the top E string, you could hammer your third finger on to the B two frets down, then by pulling your finger off again with a slight sideways motion you could convert that digit into a sort of plectrum. It would be plucking that string and sounding the A which your index finger (if it's still there) is holding two frets up.
By using your little finger to do the hammering, you can stretch that trilling interval across quite a distance. An extension of this technique is to use the plectrum or a finger of your right hand as one more hammer.
Back to the first example, index finger on the A, third finger hits the B and then, wack, in comes the plectrum edgeways on and strikes a B on the same string but an octave further up. It doesn't have to be an octave, of course, but it's an easy one to hit and a useful interval.
Steve Hacket (I said he'd get another mensh) made a habit of this, banging the plectrum down, whipping it away quickly to pluck the string, banging it down on another fret and so on to get a repeating arpeggio. Very old people will cast their minds back to the beginning of "Return Of The Giant Hogweed" and know, in their soul of souls, that thus was the heist handled.
Brief Physics lesson: when a string vibrates, most of its energy goes into forming the fundamental — the basic note. But other frequencies are present; they're multiples of the original and are known as harmonics. For example, the first harmonic is twice the frequency of the fundamental (an octave higher).
It's possible to rest your finger on certain points of a string (just above the fifth, seventh or twelfth frets are favourite) and produce a ringing tone once it's plucked. You're encouraging the string to give up its idea of forming a standing wave where its entire length moves in one smooth sweep, and break into smaller vibrating sections that favour the harmonics.
The abovementioned frets are the easiest to work on, though wander around the fretboard and you will find others. With the more obscure positions it becomes important to touch the string only very lightly, or you'll stifle its efforts.
You can play single notes or all six strings if you want, since their harmonic points will be in line. Harmonics are a beautiful effect — they have a clear, sweet and high pitched sustain to them; pretty, really.
And further still, there's this technique for harmonic chords and scales. Here you pluck an open string (say the D) with the third and fourth fingers of the right hand, then hit a harmonic (on the E) with the thumb and first finger. Holding chords with your left hand and working across the strings with your right produces some remarkable scales.
A typical string pattern would be plucked D, harmonic E/plucked G, harmonic A/plucked B, harmonic D/plucked E, harmonic G and then back. The notes those strings produce depend on how you're fretting them with your left hand.
It's a skill mastered by Andy Summers and can be heard on several Police tracks and parts of his solo album with Bob Fripp. Lenny Breau, the inventor, went on to develop further hammering and plucking techniques, writing entire pieces of music with this rather celestial sounding effect.
One last hint on harmonics. New strings, a compressor and a chorus unit help give them extra sustain, body and volume.
The disadvantage is that you're limited to the harmonics found on open strings, and that leaves a large number of notes missing. Of course once you've fretted a string it produces a whole new set of rings at different positions. If you play an F on the top E strings, its favourite slots now fall at the sixth, eighth and thirteenth frets — everything is shifted one fret up.
The harmonics are all still there, it just means developing a new right-hand technique in order to play them. Most guitarists use the tip of their right index finger to rest on the string, then pluck it with the bottom edge of their thumbnail.
This leaves your left hand free to roam over the strings, fretting them wherever necessary. You could hold down a chord, then pluck its harmonics individually with your right hand. For example, a barred G major can be played in harmonics an octave further up in exactly the same shape. One more way round that is not to twang the strings, but to hit them with the edge of the thumb, slapping it sharply against the neck and pulling it quickly away.
Can there be anyone who hasn't given this one a whirl? Take the edge of the plectrum and rub it up and down the bottom three strings. The friction against the rough, wire wound surface gives a fair imitation of 18 double decker buses skidding from Trafalgar Square to Watford Gap.
I'm indebted to Dzal Martin of No Dice for demonstrating this one. Select the neck pick-up, turn the tone right off, play an F sharp on the D string and an A flat on the G string, both above the octave. With the correct beep-beep timing and a touch of distortion on the amp, you should get a convincing Trimphone tweet that drives engineers wild. Thanks Dzal, there's a drink in it for you.
Yes, you're quite right, I made this one up.
Feature by Paul Colbert
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