How To Implement Classical Guitar Technique in Worship!

Kevin Ott Editor Writer for Rocking God's House[Note: after you read this article about classical guitar, if you’re a fan of U2 or C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy that will explore 13 U2 albums and 18 C.S. Lewis books to answer one question: how do we experience true joy, even in the midst of our deepest sorrows?]

As a musician, sometimes it helps to try something that might make you uncomfortable. A way to do that with your guitar is to set down the most fundamental component of your playing: your pick—even if you’re playing electric guitar. Although fingerpicking is not uncommon, the technique of classical guitar is rare, unfortunately. However, its delicate, versatile method can open up some interesting possibilities.

Before we look at a couple of those possibilities, let’s break down how to play classical style with right-hand fingerpicking.

*The proper right-hand position: with your right hand (assuming you play a right-handed guitar) make a “thumbs up” shape as if you were telling someone “Good job!” Then rotate your hand counter-clockwise until the thumb is sideways as if your “Good job!” turned into a “so-so job.” Relax your fingers so they curl out a little. This is the position your hand should maintain while fingerpicking.

*The thumb plays the three low strings exclusively: Like an athlete placed in zone defense where he or she must cover an assigned area, the thumb is assigned to the three low strings: E (6th string), A (5th string), and D (4th string). This frees up your other fingers to do fancy work on the higher strings while the thumb simultaneously thumps along on the low strings like (for example) a bass player in a mariachi band. This is partly why classical guitarists can create the illusion of two separate guitar parts playing simultaneously.

*The index, middle, and ring finger play the high strings: Whenever you’re arpeggiating chords, these fingers have their assignments too. The index plays any notes on G, the middle plays the B string, and the ring finger plays the high E string. Therefore, if you’re fingerpicking a D Major chord with fast eighth notes, the order could go, for example:

thumb (open D string), index (A), middle (D), ring (F#), middle (D), index (A).

Having the thumb assigned exclusively to the three low strings means you can pluck low notes while you’re simultaneously playing notes with your other fingers. While your other fingers are finger-picking the notes of the chord with eighth notes, the thumb can plunk along at quarter notes, as marked with the bold font below:

thumb (open D), index (A), middle (D/thumb open D), ring (F#), middle (D/thumb open D), index (A).

Although this is only one basic element of classical technique, this style of fingerpicking opens up the following possibilities during worship services:

1. Rich fingerpicking patterns: When you become comfortable with the methods mentioned above, you can be creative with how you arpeggiate chords while involving the thumb on the lower strings. Generally, the result is a fuller, more intricate sound that spans the frequency range. However, this style is really only suitable for quiet situations and slower songs.

2. Authentic classical guitar sound: Because you’re employing the classical technique on an electric guitar, the sounds will not carry as they would if you were playing an actual nylon classical guitar that is well miked. If you happen to have an actual classical guitar, by all means use it. The warmth of the nylon strings will add an elegant tone to the mix during slow songs. However, never use the classical guitar for strumming rhythm parts as you would with a metal stringed acoustic guitar. It was not designed for that—unless you’re playing flamenco guitar music, but that’s a different article for another day.

3. The mandolin effect: One of my favorite things to do with the classical technique is to transform my electric guitar into something similar to a mandolin where I’m fingerpicking rapid notes (as fast as I possibly can regardless of song tempo) but at a quiet volume so that it is graceful and gently beautiful, similar to what you would hear in classic Italian music.

For example, you can do the following:

With your left hand, place your index finger on the fifth fret of the A string.

1. Place your ring finger on the seventh fret of the G string, an octave above the first note. Your left hand is thus forming a two-note chord.
2. Now, play the A string with your thumb, and play the G string with your index finger.
3. Alternate between the thumb and index finger as fast as you possibly can.
4. With your left hand, feel free to move around the fret board as needed (depending on what song the team is playing), sliding up and down the same strings while maintaining the octave chord shape.

* If you have a reverb, delay, or other pedals that add density and space to your signal, this mandolin effect will be even more beautiful during a quiet, slow song. Click here for further suggestions about interesting pedals that you could use with this technique.

* If it’s a fast song, you can use an overdrive pedal, and this technique adds a powerful sound during instrumental sections—probably one of the only exceptions where classical technique can add something to a fast rock song.

While these tips certainly do not cover everything that can be done with the classical technique, it is a fun place to start if you’re willing to throw away your guitar pick for a song or two during the worship set.