Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.
If you're new to guitar and eager to learn about various styles of playing, or are already fluent in a particular style but want to explore others, this article will provide a small taste of the most common styles. Hopefully, the included video performances by masters of their chosen styles will inspire you to learn more.
This is considered the easiest style of guitar playing for beginners. Having learned a few simple chords, use a pick to strum across the strings rhythmically and in time to the beat, and sing. The singing part is important because if you don't sing or get someone else to sing or play a melodic instrument, simple strumming won't impress any listeners. Instead you'll get the comment, "Can you play something we know?" Strumming is an accompaniment style, so develop good rhythm and dynamics, memorise chords and practise clean chord changes. Watch how Bob Dylan uses simple strumming effectively to accompany his singing of "Blowing in The Wind".
Flat picking uses a combination of strumming chords and single-note melodic runs played with a pick. It's obviously more complicated than simple strumming. It's actually a self-contained playing style, as it enables you to play melody, harmony, bass, and rhythm at the same time. You can still sing, but there are lots of purely instrumental pieces. Watch this accomplished flatpicker explain and demonstrate the technique.
3. Fingerstyle Accompaniment
Fingerstyle involves using the thumb, plucking downwards, and three fingers plucking the strings upwards. It's mostly done on acoustic guitars, often in altered tunings. Fingerstyle enables you to play combinations of strings that you can't do with a pick. For example, you can play strings 6 (low E), 3 (G), and 1 (high E) at the same time with your thumb and fingers, but not with a pick, which can only play single notes or sweep across two or more adjacent strings. Here's John Martyn playing a fingerstyle accompaniment to "Spencer The Rover" in DADGAD alternate tuning.
4. Solo Fingerstyle
Solo fingerstyle playing involves incorporating a melody at the same time as playing the chords and bass notes. As it's self-contained with all the musical elements, there's no singing required over the guitar melody, although a song can have both accompaniment sections and solo sections. Watch John Renbourn play "Rosslyn" below.
5. Electric Lead Guitar
Electric lead guitar also uses flat-picking techniques, although some guitarists use fingers rather than a pick. Depending on the musical style, the guitarist may play with clean amplification and some reverb (like Hank Marvin) or use distortion, reverb, feedback and other effects (like Jimi Hendrix). Here's some laid back blues guitar from B. B. King, with lots of tasteful string bending and vibrato.
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6. Classical Guitar
Classical guitar playing is similar to solo fingerstyle playing, but much stricter. Reading music notation is considered essential for learning classical guitar and you're expected to hold the guitar on your left leg if you're playing right handed or on your right leg if you're playing left-handed. A footstool is placed under your left foot (or right foot if you're a lefty) and your fretting hand thumb stays hidden behind the neck at all times. Many women prefer to sit cross-legged and forego the footstool. In this video, John Williams is playing the Stanley Myers composition, "Cavatina".
7. Flamenco Guitar
Flamenco playing is similar to classical playing in the way the guitar is held. Much of the playing techniques are the same too, but flamenco guitar playing is far more percussive and rhythmic. Flamenco is essentially a dance performance art, after all. The chords tend to be simpler than those in classical playing, but the fast melodic runs and complex rhythms make up for it as flamenco master Paco de Lucia demonstrates in the video.
8. Slide Guitar (Bottleneck)
Slide guitar playing produces a lot of notes sweeping up or down in pitch melodically. The slide can be placed on any finger, so you'll see players use the slide on whichever finger suits their style. It's used for gliding from note to note while your other fingers can fret notes as normal. Slide guitarists often tune their strings to a major chord. That way the slide can be placed across several strings to produce a full range of major chords at any position on the neck. Watch how Jamie Dupuis does it in the video below.
Tapping is a highly specialised technique that is usually incorporated into fingerstyle or flatpicking performances in a variety of music styles. As the video below by Latvian guitarist Laura Lace shows, however, it can be used extensively to play long sections of music, even classical music on an electric guitar.
This introduction has covered the most common guitar playing styles, but it barely scratches the surface. If any particular style takes your fancy, there's much to explore, and you can easily find suitable material to learn and practice online simply by searching the headings used in the article.
© 2021 Chas Mac
Jerry Cornelius on October 05, 2021:
Great overview of techniques, thanks.