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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

The Cinderella of Guitar Technique

Make way for the fat one, and welcome it back into the fold of the finger family

Millions of words have been written about guitar technique in great detail: left hand, right hand, how to sit, whether to use footstools or not, rest stroke, free stroke, scales, arpeggios….the list goes on and on except for one thing. Of this one thing I think I can claim to be a champion. I am referring to that digital underdog, that workhorse of a finger, fat and stronger than the rest and consequently taken for granted. Have you got it yet?

There it is underpinning all that we play, without it there would be an emptiness, a stillness, a thinness of sound, that would make listening tedious, and musical textures barren. Now do you know to what I am referring?

It is the right hand thumb of course. It hangs from the hand like its brothers and sisters, but yet detached from them. Loud and ever present it is more likely to be told to keep quiet rather than speak up. Like some obese and unsociable member of the family its presence is inevitable, but its company best appreciated when quiet and discrete. When it leans down into the next string with some loving apoyando stroke it is more often than not told to go away and not to do that again. When it takes up all the strings in one clutch of an embrace some people wince at the exaggerated display. One clutch of an embrace….more commonly called a strum.

Yet strumming the guitar is the first instinct of the novice still in the first raptures of love with the instrument. Strumming is what is most associated with the sound of the guitar. Strumming is how Joaquín Rodrigo introduces the most famous theme composed in the history of guitar music in the slow movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez. Strumming is how we hear the individual notes of chords at their clearest. Strumming is also the easiest way to get to make a good sound. Strumming is the best way to get a big sound on the guitar. You can strum with the nail of the thumb and if you don’t have a nail, well no matter, it sounds just as good. Actually no, it sounds even better. Have you tried strumming purely with the flesh of the thumb with no hint of nail? Try it by turning the thumb to a strange angle.

So why is it that so few teaching manuals dedicate a whole chapter or more to the virtues of the thumb? Why is it that there is scarcely a beginner’s piece for classical guitar which makes any extensive use of the thumb strum? I can only speculate that the thumb is the ugly duckling of the finger family. To get lift-off with the thumb you need to strum by holding down a succession of chords. This is considered by some too difficult at developing stages. What rubbish! Ask any electric or folk guitarist what they think and they will look astonished and rightly so. At a higher level, strumming chords is considered by some a romantic excess, and frowned upon, no matter that this is a classic way to play the guitar advocated by countless manuals up to the 20th century. No wonder the thumb dangles there shy and unsure of what to do next.

So let us welcome back the thumb into the fold of the finger family with open arms, so to speak, and treat it with the deference and respect that its true versatility and importance merits.

24th November, London

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Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=2861 .
© 2017.

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