It is hard to say what exactly Fingerstyle Guitar is, given how many styles it encompasses.
Fingerstyle Guitar is a term that has come into use in modern times to distinguish styles of guitar where the strings are plucked as opposed to strummed, often on acoustic guitar but also on the electric. This broad term would put classical guitar styles, flamenco techniques and blues and jazz styles all under the same heading. For obvious reasons, it’s easier to just refer to classical guitar, or flamenco guitar, but for blues that are not strummed, it’s helpful to have the term fingerstyle blues. Fingerstyle blues has it’s own lexicon–inversions and riffs that work well with blues, including techniques developed by early bluesmen, especially that of maintaining a steady quarter note beat or a shuffle rhythm with the thumb on a single bass string while pinching the treble strings in unison with the thumb and alternating treble upstrokes between thumb strokes. Fingerstyle Jazz–where the solo guitarist plucks the melody along with interspersed chordal accompaniment–is called ‘chord-melody style‘ to further distinguish it from other approaches.
Fingerpicking tends to refer to a specific kind of folk and folk-blues picking and has its own repertoire, including a number of techniques that bring out melody and embellishment over an ‘alternating bass‘ pattern, but can be applied, as in ‘Travis Style‘ picking to pattern picking over standard chords. Various more generic picking patterns are used in modern rock settings as accompaniment. Other elements, such as a muting of bass strings with the palm of the plucking hand, the use of thumbpick and/or fingerpicks, using the fretting hand thumb to reach over the top of the neck and fret-notes and combining strum patterns with picking, as well as rhythmic percussive hits on the strings–are all elements of personal choice and individual style. In discussing fingerstyle, ‘right hand technique‘ is meant to designate the plucking hand, whether the player is right or left handed, and ‘left hand technique‘ refers to the fretting hand. Further stylistic divisions include whether a player uses two fingers, thumb and index, to pluck, three fingers, adding the middle finger, or four fingers, using the ring finger as well.
More recently fingerstyle has come to mean a whole array of right and left hand techniques that have been developed over the last decades by many guitarists. Building on styles in Jazz, Flamenco and Fingerpicking, artists have been using such effects as artificial harmonics, struck harmonics, right-hand tapping, and percussive strokes on the body of the guitar for some time. Currently, the use of these in combination and even to the exclusion of more standard techniques, has become it’s own style, especially in instrumental guitar music. Building on new age guitar, and adding in elements as disparate as middle-eastern drum rhythms, slap and pop bass, and even banjo frailing, many creative artists are working in this style, exploring the sonic boundaries of what the guitar can do. The acoustic guitar is clearly the best venue for these explorations. The most signficant of these is the advent of a kind of polyrythmic fingerpicking that allows for incredibly fast arpeggios and accents, with a similar flair to those in flamenco guitar, but without the being an imitation of the cadence of rhumba or flamenco dance.
Since the interest in this school of modern fingerstyle is growing, it has in some ways subsumed the broader category of fingerstyle. Without it’s own stylistic center, there is not much likelihood that a single name that can encompass all of this is going to appear. So more traditional fingerstyle guitar, already an arcane backwater itself, has suddenly got a brand new, flashy development between it and the main highway.
You can hear the old fingerpicking guitar farts grumbling. According to some, because of the use of open tunings, and the pyrotechnical aspect of some performances using these techniques, this style can veer into a kind of vapidity, where the effects are the only point. Strong compositional structure and real meaning–as in emotion–are needed in any style, no matter how fancy or difficult to execute (or appear to be) a guitar technique may be. As new age guitar can become ‘sonic wallpaper‘, modern fingerstyle is always in danger of merely being ‘loud sonic wallpaper’–or, as the bard said: “sound and fury; signifying nothing”.
One artist working in this style who knows how to let the technique work in support of the song (as opposed to trying it the other way,) is Vicki Genfan. The first person I personally saw using this style at an advanced level–Vicki has been a pioneer and at the forefront of bringing this kind of guitar music to the attention of the wider music world.
Calling her style ‘slap-tap‘–her music has lots of different textures and is chock a block with emotion. As a singer/songwriter who also plays instrumental tunes, she has an incentive to keep technique in it’s proper place. But what good technique it is. Economy and efficiency are not really poetic terms, but what Vicki does with them is poetic. Plus she actually has the chops to throw in awesome, colorful, polyrythmic riffs that use more standard guitar styles.
Genfan is an internationally touring artist and so keep an eye out for her. I’ll be catching up with her at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival this August 09 in Santa Rosa. She’s also putting out an instruction video, which should be available in the near future.