When most people pick up a guitar, they apply the usual guitar techniques. Learning how to fret a chord, playing with a guitar pick, finger-picking, maybe even using a slide, are all common techniques that an aspiring guitarist would, and should, explore. For some folks, however, that simply isn’t enough, so they co-opt techniques often associated with other instruments and incorporate them into their guitar playing repertoire. The results can be game changing. If you’re looking to infuse your burgeoning guitar skills with some nontraditional techniques, here’s a look at some players who definitely shake things up.
Stanley Jordan – Touch Technique
Stanley Jordan is an American jazz fusion guitarist whose debut album, Magic Touch (Blue Note, 1985), spent a record 51 weeks on Billboard’s jazz chart. Jordan is also famous for pioneering a two-handed tapping technique he refers to as the “touch technique.” A piano player in his youth, Jordan applied the concepts he learned on that instrument to the guitar when he gravitated towards it at age 11. For example, the touch technique allows Jordan to play melodies and chords simultaneously, just as a piano player would.
Most guitarists play either rhythm (chords) or lead (melodies), not both, and use one hand to press a guitar’s strings, while the other hand plucks or strums the strings. With Jordan’s touch technique, the guitarist produces a note by tapping (or hammering) his finger down behind the appropriate fret on the fingerboard. The force of impact causes the string to vibrate enough to sound the note. So, instead of picking one note or chord at a time to initiate a sound, the touch technique offers the guitarist greater freedom in voicing chords because both hands are on the fingerboard tapping out chords and melodies simultaneously. It’s also interesting to note that Jordan uses an alternative tuning—E-A-D-G-C-F (in perfect fourths as on the bass guitar)—rather than the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning.
Keith Richards – Open G Tuning
Keith Richards really needs no introduction. The Rolling Stones guitarist helped pioneer rock music during the British Invasion in the ’60s and has gone on to craft some of the most memorable guitar riffs in the history of recorded music. What many folks might not realize is that he conjured up those riffs in open G tuning using only five strings on his guitar. Richards’ wanted to imitate the sound of banjos from the old American south, and that’s what led him to develop his unique style. In the most basic sense, Richards removes the low E-string on his guitar and then tunes the rest of the strings to an open G chord. There are other popular open tunings, but Richards’ take on open G probably has had the most commercial success and biggest impact on modern music.
To tune the guitar like Richards, remove the low E-string and tune the A-string to G and the high E-string to D. The other three strings remain the same: D, G, B. Tuning your guitar like this puts it into a G Major chord when you strum the open strings. This also allows you to create major chords across the fingerboard using only one finger. This is one of the tricks to copping Richards’ style—changing the basic chord forms by pressing down on various strings with your second and/or third fingers.
The reason for removing the low E-string in this tuning is that it can cause some awkward resonating frequencies, if it’s accidentally struck in open G tuning. “Honky Tonk Women,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Start Me Up” are all classic Rolling Stones’ tunes that incorporate this tuning method.
Guthrie Govan – Slap
Slapping is a technique most commonly associated with the bass guitar made popular by bass players like Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten. There are, however, a few guitarists who’ve adopted the technique and are using it in innovative ways on the guitar. Guthrie Govan is one such player. Govan is perhaps most well known for his work with instrumental rock/fusion super group The Aristocrats.
The basic ingredients of slap include using the thumb to thump or slap the low E-string. You’ll want to use the joint of your thumb to bounce on the string. Also, make sure that the thumb leaves the string as rapidly as it hits it—it’s the most effective way of getting a nice round note. Slapping with the thumb is usually most effective at the end of the fingerboard, where the neck meets the body. Using the fretting hand to slap the neck of the instrument is the other important component of this technique. Alternating between the two hands (right, left, right, etc.) gives you a very percussive sound. In fact, slapping was practically invented by bassist Larry Graham, who developed the technique to compensate for the absence of a percussionist at certain gigs. Drum rudiments, like paradiddles, can help understand the type of percussive patterns that you might incorporate using both hands in this fashion.
The other component to slapping is plucking. Generally, a player “slaps” the lower strings with the thumb and “plucks” the higher strings with the forefinger. Slapping is not a melodic technique. It’s more of a percussive technique, so a basic understanding of drum fundamentals will help you hone this skill.