Mad About Music

Guitar Styles – As Unique As The Guitarists
August 30, 2006, 1:04 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags: , , , , , , ,

A thousand guitars… a thousand guitarists… a thousand styles. I can never quite get over this innate fascination that I have with the myriad ways in which artistes create completely different sounding music from their guitars. Bob Dylan’s guitar has a distinct jangle to it. Ian Anderson produces a gentle tinkling sound that’s focussed more on the treble strings. Jim Croce has a brilliant plucking style that leverages both the bass and treble strings to create a rich, full-bodied sound.

The Scorpions recreate what is essentially an acoustic guitar finger-picking style on their electric guitars using a plectrum. The notes are played in a cyclical pattern to deliver extremely melodic intros. Listen to Holiday, Still Loving You and Send Me An Angel for some excellent examples of such intros.

One style of finger-picking that always leaves me breathless is that of Paul Simon. Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., an entire album created in the folk tradition, has some brilliant guitar-work. In particular, there is this totally acoustic version of The Sound of Silence, along with other masterpieces like Sparrow, Peggy-O, and the mysterious Bleecker Street. Must listen!

Yet another group with a very distinctive finger-picking style is CSNY. They have a rich, guitar-based sound and brilliant harmonisation sequences. Fans of the acoustic guitar should not miss Helplessly Hoping, Find The Cost of Freedom, Daylight Again and Teach Your Children.

Among the ladies, the artiste who wins hands down is Joan Baez. Some songs that will immediately demonstrate her breathtaking finger-picking style are Diamonds and Rust, Dona Dona, The House of The Rising Sun and the ever-moving Prison Trilogy.

There was a time in my life when I wanted to understand what this finger-picking style was all about. I am an amateur guitarist of sorts and wanted to have a bash at the possibility of being able to play at least a couple of songs with this technique. So I piled on to Sanjo.

Sanjo is a friend of mine who’s also a professional guitarist. Wait, change that to professional musician, because he plays a lot more than just guitars. Beyond the six and twelve-stringed acoustic guitars, the bass guitar and the electric guitar, our man also plays flutes, mandolin, drums, percussion, harmonica and keyboards. He’s also an accomplished composer and arranger. So, I suppose you’ve guessed that he doesn’t need much support when he’s making his music. He works only with a solitary partner, a young lady by the name of Chandrani, in his private studio in the western part of New Delhi, the Indian capital. She is the lyricist on his projects. Their debut album titled Barson Huey (which translates as It’s Been So Many Years…) was released earlier this year.

So on a particular Sunday, I dropped by Sanjo’s home carrying my guitar. I explained that I wanted to learn his style of finger-picking. Sanjo is the perfect Mr. Nice Guy. He never says no. So he agreed to teach me. He tentatively played some chords on my guitar and then decided to use his own jumbo six-string acoustic guitar. He pointed out that mine was an F-Hole guitar which isn’t too good for finger-picking since the sound lacks richness.

Sitting down with his jet black acoustic guitar, Sanjo proceeded to sing The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel. I watched the fingers of his right hand avidly, trying to learn a trick or two. By the time he got to the Lie-la-lie bit, I was completely confused. Whoa, I shouted. Slow down.

You can’t slow down, Sanjo explained patiently. It is a bit like juggling. The speed is something you can’t control without botching things up. You have to go with the flow. Sanjo explained how he uses his thumb for picking the bass strings with a downward motion and his first and second fingers for picking the first three strings in an upward motion. Sounds simple enough, but when you see Sanjo’s thumb and fingers flying in perfect coordination with a level of precision that has to be seen to be believed, you start getting plagued by self-doubt.

Anyway, refusing to be intimidated, I asked Sanjo to do a simpler song so that I could learn the technique faster. Then, after becoming more proficient, I would try something like The Boxer. Sanjo was amused. That was a simple one, he said with a patient smile. Oh yeah, I asked, show me a tough one then. I guess I asked for it. Sanjo really rubbed my nose in it by playing the first stanza of John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic.

Cut to the present. Well, with lots of help from Sanjo spanning several months, I can now do some very crude finger-picking on a handful of songs like Neil Diamond’s Play Me, John Denver’s For Baby and The Scorpions’ Holiday (no, I can’t play the intro!)

Ever so often, when I hear a song that has cool finger-picking in it, I pull my guitar out and try — maybe I get only ten percent of it right… but hey, it feels great!