Technique: Plucking vs. Pulling

Defining the Problem

According to A Conscious Approach to Guitar Technique by Joseph Urshalmi, to achieve the best acoustic results, a guitarist should pluck the strings in either of two directions: downwards, like rest strokes of the thumb on a bass string or upwards, when playing with i, m and a-fingers on the treble strings.

A third not-desirable direction is when the string is pulled outwards and away from the soundboard, by using wrist or elbow. The result of repeated pulling is that the wrist or hand starts bouncing forward, which brings a lack of balance between the pulled notes of the melody or chord. Another consequence is the limitation in dynamics this playing offers. Most guitarists, when playing a strong chord, are then pulling the strings aggressively outwards, with a harsh sound as a result. One should remark the difference in use between the words plucking or pulling, the latter referring to the outward movement of the hand or arm.

Consequences of ‘pulling’

  • bouncing of the right hand
  • limits speed in playing chords, arpeggios and scales
  • over time: stiffness and / or sensitivity in arm muscles

Because of these issues, it is desired to build a proper right hand technique by starting to reevaluate:

  1. posture
  2. right arm
  3. right hand and fingers
  4. placement of the fingers
  5. rest strokes (practicing scales)
  6. free stroke (arpeggios / chords)

1. Posture

“A comfortably balanced sitting posture is of fundamental importance to the development of a solid technique. Arms, hands, and fingers can only work efficiently from a stable base, which a sitting position free from unnecessary tension provides (Quine 1990).”

Following the advice on Hector Quine one might start by repositioning the left leg. Supported on a footstool, it should be positioned at the centerline of the body. Combined with the guitar resting on the (inside) right upper leg, the guitar’s lower bout tends to rise. By relaxing the right forearm on the edge of the guitar, the player can now clearly feel the weight of the guitar and arm on the right thigh. If the right arm is not supported enough by the guitar, it could slide down the edge. Trying to fix this by keeping the arm ”floating”, and in this way working against gravity, causes tension in the upper arm, shoulder and neck.

2. Right Arm

The point of contact between the lower right arm and edge of the guitar should be where the forearm and upper arm balance each other out.
This point is located more or less (depending on the length of the arm) right in front of the elbow.

Preparatory Exercise for the Right Hand

The following process could help with some basics one can work on without the guitar:
The first step is to sit in front of a mirror. Raising the shoulders and then drop them while exhaling brings them to their best position. Place the palm of the left hand on the area between the right shoulder and neck. Give it a gentle massage, remove the right arm from the body and bring the elbow to playing position while still touching your shoulder with your palm. If you feel the shoulder is rising, one should start over.

The second step is to shape the right hand in playing position and touch it with your left hand thumb and fingers, to check for soft tonus in its muscles, joints and tendons. Then move all fingers back and forth unified together from the knuckle joints in slow motion, without moving the middle joints at all.

When this technique works well, repeat the same exercise but without the i-finger, as if one is plucking with “m” on an imaginary string. Then the guitarist could alternate “i” and “m” after a while. The little finger must always be attached to the a-finger. During this, the direction of movement needs to be towards the forearm, without twisting the wrist to the right.s