Expressive playing is critical to elevating your fingerstyle guitar technique, distinguishing yourself from other guitarists as a musician who not only knows how to physically play the notes, but also inject emotion into them. Music, after all, is an art, and mastering the various techniques to communicate your creativity and emotion through expressive playing is key to good musicianship.
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Musical Concept: Articulation & Texture
While there are a myriad of ways to achieve expressive playing, today I'm just going to focus on two of them. They are articulation and texture.
It's easy to simply play a note on the guitar - anyone can do it. However, articulation refers to how you choose to play that note. Common articulations you can use on the guitar are the vibratos, slides, bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs. Now as with all musical techniques, it's not about simply throwing them in and expecting your music to magically become expressive and beautiful. Again, it's about having the musical discernment to know how to apply these articulations.
Texture is one of the harder-to-describe elements of music, as it covers a wide range of musical devices and is rather all-encompassing. In a nutshell, texture is how musical elements such as harmony, melody and tempo are combined to influence the overall musical quality.
Common ways of describing texture are a a thick texture, implying many notes played at any one time, or even notes and chords played very quickly and close to one another. The opposite of that, a sparse or spacious texture, implies few notes and much more space between them.
Musical Example: 'Though You Slay Me'
This lesson's musical example is my fingerstyle arrangement of 'Though You Slay Me', a deeply emotional worship song by Shane & Shane on the reality of suffering in following Christ.
In order to inject emotion into my playing and make it more expressive, I carefully add in pitch bends and slides into the melody. Taking it a step further, I intentionally maintain a very open and spacious texture, playing the harmonies softly and sparsely, allowing the melody line to shine through with a lyrical feel.
Musical Exercise: Articulating the Melody
Let's try our hand in achieving expressive playing through employing articulations and a spacious texture (note that you can achieve it in any texture, it's how you craft the texture).
You might recognise the piece as Pachelbel's Canon in D (this is in C), but the piece itself isn't important. We're going to just play the melody and bass note. That's all, a sparse and open texture.
Play it plainly first, then try adding in various articulations to add expression and emotion to the melody line. You can even add articulations to the bass line and vary the rhythms slightly to create more distinction between the bass and melody.
And that's a great step to applying two key techniques that you can use to increase the expressiveness of your fingerstyle guitar playing! Remember, strive to become a musician, not just a guitarist. Any guitarist can read the tab before and play those notes, but it takes a musician to turn those notes into something beautiful and artistic.
Do leave a comment with any questions you might have and I'll do my best to answer them. Follow along my musical journey on my YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and website neilchanmusic.com as I share new music videos and lessons on those very music videos, each and every week, to help you along your own musical journey.
Until next time, I'll see you again!
By Neil Chan