1/99 - updated 5/1/99
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Every guitarist should learn to play staccato. It is one of my great secret weapons. Staccato is the opposite of legato. Legato notes have significant duration each lasts until the next begins. Staccato notes have minimum duration, with silence between successive notes. Legato is easier and more natural on the guitar, which is why I emphasize working on staccato. The unachievable extreme is zero duration. A drum hit comes about as close as you get. Harpsichords, clavinets and other such instruments are naturally staccato, but this is because of the mechanics of the instrument rather than playing technique.
On the guitar staccato means to make a little left hand karate chop for the attack of each note, nailing it forcibly, then instantaneously withdrawing the finger(s) even faster than as if your hand were a ball or stick bouncing off. The distance moved, while initially large as an exercise, should ultimately shrink to the point that your hand looks more like the ball on an IBM typewriter. The more refined the technique, the more invisible it will become, even to you. (This has nothing to do with the picking hand.)
In automotive terms, your goal is torque (momentarily forgetting about aim): Instantaneous acceleration from rest to stabbing the fingerboard, instant reversal of direction and instantaneous return to resting position. It applies equally to chords and single notes. A side benefit is that accuracy is greatly increased.
Even when playing legato, which is a study in itself, the left hand attack should still be equally sudden. This means you don't have to release the previous note until the absolutely last possible moment before nailing the next one. Christopher Parkening advised slowing a piece down, but making changes extremely fast.
To extend the concept, all position changes (fret location of your first finger on fingerboard) and changes of chord shape should become as instantaneous as possible. Another way of stating it is that all left hand motions should be instantaneous (except sliding, bending and vibrato), with instant acceleration and deceleration. It turns playing the guitar into a series of sub-miniature explosions. It's paradoxical that smooth, controlled playing results from a series of discrete events comprised of jerky motions. Life on the micro level becomes more like a square wave than a sine wave.
I think I demonstrated this in my Hot Licks instructional video, Fingerstyle Mastery. It's a dramatically powerful approach and feels really good, so it surprises me that more guitar players don't work on it. Just picture the IBM ball: Always at rest waiting for the next instruction from the typist, instant almost invisible perfect execution of the move, then waiting again for the next instruction. No matter how fast the typist types, the ball always looks like it's mainly sitting there waiting for the typist to ask it to do something. Imagine a technique so good that your hands were idle most of the time waiting for whatever your ear directed them to do. We all wish.
I originally got the idea for this in the 70's from Terry Saunders, a masterful Bay Area funk guitarist who could make a guitar sound like Stevie Wonder playing clavinet. His hand looked like the IBM ball to me. I played in bands with him for years, and studied him like the textbook he was.
During that period I also spent countless hours practicing in my back yard, where I would be entertained by our cats (Binky and Grey Kitty) and the many squirrels they chased but never caught. I saw that they all had a very beautiful non-human way of moving characterized by moments of stillness broken up by motions too sudden to follow. Even the most graceful humans (musicians, dancers, athletes) looked clumsy and slow next to an average, untrained animal. Their reaction time seemed to be zero, even when asleep. So I began studying the motions of these animals, and they became the biggest influence on my technique. The only guitarist I've ever seen who exhibited such grace was George Benson.
© 1999 Tuck Andress