The cornerstone principle

March 18th, 2011

In most things in life, there’s a basic underlying principle that holds the whole thing together, a critical element that seems insignificant until you remove it, and then you suddenly realize how crucial it is to the entire structure.

It’s something we can call the ‘cornerstone principle.’

As it so happens, just such a principle exists in guitar playing too.

It has to do with when you release your effort after you pluck.

Do you do it at the point of impact (with the string) or do you do it after the impact?

For many people, releasing the stroke at the point of impact is a completely natural reflex, they don’t think too much about it.

As soon as they pluck the string, their finger automatically relaxes. It’s the same reflex that tells us to relax our grip on the hammer as soon as we hit the nail too, otherwise we could seriously injure ourselves.

Yet I’ve found that sometimes, this perfectly natural reflex can be superseded by other concerns.

I was not immune to its effect either.

I was a free-stroke player for many years. When I first started playing rest-strokes, I found the technique unwieldy and clumsy. No matter how hard I practiced, I was unable to match the light effortless rest-strokes of my teacher, Karl. Unfortunately, Karl was not much help. He was from the old school and didn’t believe in saying too much when he taught.

So I was left to my own devices.

It took one year of experimentation and practicing before I realized what my problem was.

I was focusing too much of my attention on the ‘resting’ and not on the ‘plucking.’ In other words, I was making the ‘resting’ the target of my stroke rather than the ‘plucking.’

To clarify, there’re two main parts to a rest-stroke, the plucking and the resting on the next string.

Instead of focusing on the plucking, I was slamming the finger onto the next string because I was so focused on ‘resting’ my finger there. The plucking was occurring almost like an afterthought, something that I happened to do on my way to the resting.

Let me explain with a small exercise.

Pluck the g string with the i finger. Focus your effort on resting the finger on the next string.

When you hit the string, don’t relax your finger. Instead, keep it going toward the next string to rest on it. In other words, make the ‘resting’ (on the next string) the target of your stroke, not the plucking.

Because you’re not relaxing the finger on impact, the stroke will feel heavy and tense, as if you’re just slamming it against the next string. The unreleased tension in the finger will also make it much harder to execute with precision at high speeds.

Now try it this way.

Pluck the g string again with your i finger. As soon as you hit the string, let go all tension in your i finger, allow the finger to relax instantly.

(It’s important to emphasize that the plucking and the release should occur simultaneously – the moment of impact (the plucking) must be the moment of release.)

And let the finger follow through to rest on the next string. Allow that motion to occur naturally.

When you play this way, you’re making the plucking the target of your stroke as opposed to the resting. As soon as you’ve accomplished that target (plucking the string), you automatically let go all tension in the finger and allow it to ‘rest’ on the next string as an aftereffect of the stroke.

The sensation is quite different in this stroke. You will feel the release in a very physical way and it will feel much more relaxed and controlled.

The rest-stroke is not the only place where we can misplace the target of our stroke, it also occurs when we overemphasize the follow-through in free-strokes.

As I mentioned before, the follow-through is a natural part of the plucking action. It’s something you don’t want to suppress, but neither do you want to exaggerate it too.

The reason is that when you focus too much on the follow-through, you shift the target of your stroke from the plucking to the follow-through. This means that you will not relax your finger on impact with the string, instead you will continue it toward some imaginary point in the palm to effect the target of your stroke, the follow-through.

The result is an overly tense, heavy and less precise stroke.

The great thing about focusing on the plucking is that it not only produces a more relaxed stroke but it also increases precision. That’s because we tend to hit with greater precision what we focus our attention on – if you focus on hitting the string, you will hit it with greater precision – this is another crucial point but it’s for another post.

The point of release in a stroke may seem a small insignificant detail but like the biblical stone that the builders rejected, it is the cornerstone of an efficient and relaxed technique. I know, I had to learn it the hard way.

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