Expressive Guitar Playing
Tapping Your Student's Inner Artist, Part 7
by Daniel Roest
Add pitch effects to the list of expressive modes to develop in lessons and improvisation. A well placed bend or slide can make a melodic line "just right." Check this column for tips on teaching all about pitch.
If you're just joining us, this series is about teaching expressive playing using a set of effects - think of them as virtual knobs on the guitar that can be dialed up or down. Because they are adjustable and together make up the whole, we're calling them parameters to underscore that concept. A look back at May (dynamics), June (tempo), July (the big picture), August (rhythm) and September (balance) and October (rubato) will catch you up.
You've just been invited to smell a delicious hot casserole, and when you inhale the flavors wafting up, you might say "Ahhhh!" in delight. In comes another person - "Ummm! What's that smell?!" If you accidentally touched the oven-hot casserole dish, an "Ow!!" is likely. Each exclamation is marked by pitch changes - which communicate emotion. Pitch changes make speech expressive, and pitch changes make music expressive. Teaching expressive playing includes teaching a range of pitch options:
Grab a guitar and run through a few effects with me before you spring them on your students. As always, see if you can get your students to learn the range of options and discover their own preferences as they learn them. I like to relate expression in guitar music to the rest of life: think for a moment of these vocalizations and their inflections:
- Call the dog
- Call the cat
- Talk to a baby
- And all the rest of the soundtrack of life
Steel-string fingerstyle players have been plumbing the depths of the low register with altered tuning - for example, Open C tuning: C - G - C - G - C - E. Guitarists who can't get enough of the basement tones have even added strings or changed instruments. A friend of mine, Matt Grasso, is now performing on the extended 7-string guitar (made by Greg Byers, Willits, CA.) The 7th string has two extra frets past the nut, (729.6mm scale length) allowing the guitar to reach a low 'A' or 'G' (beneath the low 'E' string). With the sliding capo system, it is possible to stop the string chromatically within the first five frets. There are three extra high frets on the first string, reaching 22 frets, or a high 'D'.
There's a harp-guitar revival of the once popular member of mandolin orchestras. Do a quick search on harp guitars, and you'll be amazed. The object was increasing the range of the register. Muriel Anderson has added harp-guitar to her concerts with great success.
If you haven't done dropped D tuning with your student, it only takes a moment and can be an eye-opener. Instant power chords! Low tones! Better D chords! Classical guitarists have huge portions of their repertoire in dropped D.
And of course, waaaaaay up the neck, there's a whole other vibe, kind of like mosquitoes if you go off the fret board...
Harmonics automatically at least double the frequency of a string (octave harmonics), so be sure to show them natural and artificial harmonics.
What feels as good as bending a string in a blues solo? Doing it again. Here is where the vocal-like expression of the guitar shines. If you can show your student how to bend a string, your student will have an incredibly expressive tool. It's amazing how effective this tool is.
"I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one, and it will probably whip the guy with twenty notes."
- Les Paul
Les Paul's quote especially applies to the well placed and well executed bend. Whether your style is classical, blues, rock, jazz, you name it, this is really effective.
When I was working as a restaurant guitarist at a hotel, B.B. King stayed there, leaving me with a photo and inscription to "stay with it - I know your students will be grateful." Since I saw him first at the Fillmore West, he has been an inspiration to me for his economy and taste - and who hasn't enjoyed those slides of his? I have loved the sound of slides from Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk" when I was a kid - to Gutpuppet's show this weekend, with slide guitarist Scot Ray creating in rapid succession, country blues-gypsy-jazz-indo swami-bluegrass-raga-didgeridoo-funk-reggae-klezmer-Hawaiian - all through the deft use of his slide and fingerpicks on some crazy looking guitars. Find the slides in your own repertoire to show your students. The object is to add that tool to their expression toolkit. Whether you're a classical guitarist executing a glissando on nylon or holding a metal slide like Scot Ray, pick a great one and give your student a smile at the magic moment.
The twelve half steps of fretted guitars make it harder to create microtonal pitch changes, given the stair-step nature of pitch selection. Fretless basses and guitars have no such issue, just like cellos and violins. On the other hand - microtonal pitch changes are happening with every vibrato and throughout every bend.
When we consider language, all the dialects we know hinge on inflections with bigger or smaller pitch changes. When a question is asked or a statement is made, pitch rises and falls are essential. If you channel speech in your playing, "make you guitar talk," microtonal shifts figure prominently. Consider the vocalization examples listed above - moan, sigh, etc. - for expressions to imitate. For something different in your next lesson, see if you and your student can evoke them on your guitars.
The Gipsy Kings took hitting the guitar to whole new level. Spanish gitanos living in France, their music has a Rumba Flamenca style. Besides the open handed slap, flamenco guitarists incorporate the golpe - tapping the guitar top just below the first string with the tip of the ring finger. Classical guitarists increasingly use percussion. Jorge Morel teaches these percussion options:
- Right hand thumb strikes bass side of soundboard near soundhole
- Right hand thumb on the bridge
- Right hand tambura (tap) on the strings
- Right hand finger taps on face of guitar (treble side) just beneath sound hole
- Right hand closed fist slaps string down above the soundhole
- Left hand finger taps face of guitar on upper right bout near 14th fret, treble side
- Left hand open hand slaps side of guitar on shoulder
Where you tap will create different pitch effects. Add to these the option of nails or flesh, and you have plenty to show in your teaching studio.
It's easy to go on automatic pilot in lessons - and hey, if it's not broken, why fix it? But good teachers surprise and inspire their students with new ideas and techniques. If your teaching feels very routine, give a little thought to the points in this and previous columns on teaching expression. After all, that's what the students are after - expression. Catch my next two columns in this series for six more parameters of musical expression to teach!
Copyright © 2008 Daniel Roest
www.danielguitar.com - All Rights Reserved
About the Author
Daniel Roest (pronounced "roost") started playing guitar at the age of seven and never stopped. Today he has performed in countless solo and ensemble events in nearly every kind of venue, and his concerts are praised for being entertaining and informative. For ten years he served as President and Artistic Director of the South Bay Guitar Society based in San Jose, CA, preparing many successful grant applications, and is now Director Emeritus. He is recognized for presenting gifted guitarists such as Laurence Juber, Peppino D'Agostino, Muriel Anderson, Jeff Linsky, Franco Morone, Michael Chapdelaine, Richard Gilewitz, Chris Proctor, Mark Hanson, Duck Baker, Sharon Isbin, Lily Afshar, Carlos Barbosa-Lima and many others. His Great Guitars! 2004 CD received 5-star reviews.
Roest majored in guitar in college and earned three degrees in music performance. He participated in dozens of masterclasses, including many he produced. He taught guitar and music fundamentals at California State University Stanislaus and De Anza, Foothill and San Jose City Colleges and now maintains a full-time teaching studio in Folsom, CA. He has adjudicated several multi-instrument competitions, presented music clinics and introduced many new audiences to the art of the classical guitar. His original solo composition, February 4th, was selected from hundreds of submissions by the ERMMedia "Masterworks of the New Era" CD series. This year he was selected to be a teaching artist in the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission's Artist Residency Institute. Previous columns for Guitar Sessions include: "So You Want to Make a Living with the Guitar, Parts 1, 2 and 3," August-September 2007.