(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-07-07)
When thinking about the acoustic guitar, being flashy is not the first thing that pops to mind. Certainly we were mesmerized by the skills of Andres Segovia, but in modern guitar playing the electric wizards stand in the spotlight – Vai, Satriani, Gilbert, Dimebag, and many others. However, what makes their stylings so in-your-face is the use of effects and the super-sensitive electrified instruments, and not just skill. The sounds they produce grab your attention immediately and refuse to let go.
Some acoustic playing is attention grabbing, like bluegrass and some Deep South blues, but the ear has become accustomed to those genres and it no longer has the same ‘wow’ impact. Then you have a person like Bob Kilgore who has finger tapped his way to glory, and particularly with his Harmonic Capo. Now we’re getting back into the ‘wow’ factor.
With the resurgence in showboating on the acoustic comes Evan Hirschelman’s Acoustic Artistry, a new book and CD compilation from Hal Leonard (one of the leaders in instructional materials) and Musician’s Institute, which teaches tapping, slapping, and percussion techniques for both classical and fingerstyle guitar. If you’ve ever heard unusual and unique sounds and tones coming from an acoustic, then the technique likely is found in this learning package.
Tapping on acoustic?
The first section deals with tapping techniques, which most people think was developed by Eddie Van Halen, but which has existed long before he picked up a guitar. Evan begins slowly in his lessons with working the right hand on its own, then the left hand on its own, then combining both hands into ascending and descending slurs, arpeggios, scales, slides, bends and harmonics. All these techniques then integrate into the use of bass lines, polyphonic (dual string) double stops and some challenging compositional studies.
The tapping techniques certainly take playing into a new realm, but there are a few caveats: 1) lots of practice; and just as important 2) plug in! First, a person needs to develop the strength and calluses of the right hand and fingers, just like it had to be done with the fretting hand when you first began to play. Also, how the strings are attacked and the notes pulled on and off takes some practice, although there are plenty of exercises found in this book in order to achieve that outcome.
Unplugged or plugged?
I talked to Bob Kilgore about not receiving an effective and audible response when tapping on an acoustic, and besides plugging in, this was his advice: “It does take a lot of practice. But getting good clear tone without unwanted noises is hard, even on a very good guitar. You can spend years developing the ideal touch to make it work, but sometimes it's a whole lot easier to just plug in and eliminate most of the acoustic gremlins. Most of the unwanted tones will come from the part of the string on the ‘nut side’ of your tapping finger. Using a bridge pickup and amplifying the signal makes most of that go away. You can learn ‘touch’ techniques to reduce the noises acoustically, but that isn't easy and takes lots of time. The biggest mistake that new tapping players make is that they tap too hard and hold the string down too hard. You want to tap hard enough to sound the note and then imagine that your finger has landed on a soft pillow. There's no need to hold the string down firmly, that will only make the unwanted notes sustain longer.”
Slapping? Not just for bassists
Part 2 of the learning package delves into slapping, a very dynamic technique that shifts from the quiet and romantic to the boisterous and highly expressive and passionate. It teaches how to be percussive with a lot of transient sounds, but also how to dampen strings to get more of a drumstick hitting a drum.
Although more challenging than bass slapping, it is an easier technique to master than tapping and one you will be able to apply this to your practice and compositions more readily. And the author does a good job in applying exercises that deal with rests and rhythm, scales and arpeggios, slapping multiple strings and octaves, and moving into slurs. Examples of songs utilizing the slapping technique are found in the composition studies section of the learning package.
The ‘Additional Techniques’ in the book and on the CD have some association with slapping in that they integrate more subtle percussion applications. This includes the Bartok pizzicato, which most guitarists refer to as string snaps or pops, produced by pulling a string and letting it snap across the fingerboard to produce a sharp snapping note. But what sounds very dramatic is when you combine the slaps with the pops, the slaps with the dampening – all of which Evan applies to single notes, double notes and chords – and even slap harmonics.
At this point it only makes sense that the Author explains how the guitar can be used as a percussive instrument, by tapping and slapping the body of the instrument, which he does.
He makes good on explaining how to integrate various areas of the body to produce various tone/timbre qualities, how to use different parts of the hand, and even a section on drum rudiments for one and two hand application. By the time you’re done assimilating this and the techniques described above you will have your audience amazed at the range and divisibility of your playing, no longer a campfire guitarist.
The bottom line
In sum, this learning package provides some very useful techniques, some of which can be quite challenging to the guitarist used to only strumming and a bit of finger-picking. However, this should not cause you to avoid the techniques since although directed toward the intermediate and advanced guitarist, the exercises presented are meant to stretch and enhance both practice and composition to a new dimension. If you’ve ever heard some amazing acoustic guitar playing during a documentary, commercial, or soft background music and wondered how some of those textures were produced, they likely can be found here. At $19.99, the Acoustic Artistry book and CD set can be purchased through www.MusicDispatch.com (http://www.musicdispatch.com/product/viewproduct.do?itemid=695922).