As a classical/flamenco guitar player who grew up listening to heavy metal and jazz, I’ve always placed a high value on fast scales. I am deeply envious of musicians like John Coltrane and Steve Vai, who have such a thorough mastery of their instrument that it seems like there are no barriers to their creativity; there’s nothing at all standing between them and whatever music they want to produce. Consequently I’ve always equated “success” with being able to play the things that John Coltrane, Steve Vai, etc, can play.
Of course intellectually I know that in truth, success is really being able to play what I want to play. The problem is, at this point I don’t really know what I want to play. So I just pursue whatever seems the hardest, so that I can feel like I can play anything. If it’s not easy for my fingers, or it confuses my brain, or confounds my sense of rhythm, then it’s something worth practicing. If it’s comfortable, easy, or just plain fun, in my opinion it doesn’t really belong in the practice room.
So here I sit in a tricky spot: trying to emulate Coltrane and Vai on a plinky-plinky plectoral acoustic instrument: the nylon-string guitar. Another idol, Allan Holdsworth, was similarly bent on achieving “Coltrane” on the guitar, and in my opinion, succeeded. Holdsworth even captured the tone of the saxophone itself, through his unique legato four-note-per-string scales and ultra-smooth distortion sound.
Me, I am hopelessly, and happily, imprisoned by the nylon-string guitar, played with nails. I’ll never be able to sound like Coltrane in the way that Holdsworth did. It’s a physical impossibility - at least, until some sort of nylon-resonator-slide-sustain-thingamajig is invented. But I can still try to achieve, for my own instrument, something like what Coltrane achieved on the tenor saxophone. And that has been my goal, even if only subconsciously at times, for nearly half my life now.
Little things got in the way, as will happen. Pesky things like marriage, kids, jobs, and not practicing for years at a time… But through it all, I have never stopped filing my nails, and have always planned to eventually get back to the Coltrane quest. At the young age of 41, I’m ready to officially do that, and hope to chronicle my attempts in these posts.
One of the biggest obstacles has been picado. I don’t know if there’s an English word for it, but basically I mean “playing scales where each note is plucked”. In other words, scales that are the opposite of legato, technique-wise. In the classical and flamenco world, this means i-m-i-m-etc played really really really fast. Most flamenco players, and some classical players, have amazing “machine-gun” picado; the kind of picado that gives my generation flashbacks to Yngwie Malmsteen and visions of Eddie Van Halen with a pick attached to a drill.
I never quite got there with picado. I did eventually figure out what I needed to do to get it to work. (See relax-faster.) But that was right about the same time that I read an interview with the guitarist Narciso Yepes. A bit more background: I’ve also always been envious of the piano, and the musical and technical freedom that it has, when compared to the guitar. This is why I was profoundly affected when I read that Yepes developed his (as far as I know unprecedented?) three-finger picado as a way to keep up with the goading of his teacher (a pianist!) to play faster.
After reading that, I could not help but try out three-finger picado. After trying it out, I saw enough promise to warrant consistent practice. And still, after the decade since, I haven’t gone back to normal picado. Don’t get me wrong - I still am not 100% sure that 3-finger picado is a suitable replacement for 2-finger. There was always, and still is, a nagging feeling that I’m wasting my time, and should stick with the time-tested two-finger picado that 99% of the guitarists in the world use.
A big worry has always been that I’ve just become used to the sound, but that everyone else hears my scales as awkward three-note groups. Because the a-m-i pattern naturally devolves into an accented three-note group, A-m-i-A-m-i-A-m-i, etc, I always knew that the only way three-finger picado could conceivable work, was if my hand could be trained so that a, m, and i, where sonically indistinguishable from each other.
So most of my three-finger picado practice has revolved around the accents, and trying every combination of accents other than three-note groups. Remember, I’m going for Coltrane here. Can you imagine Coltrane with the technical limitation of all scales sounding like three-note groups? No, I had to remove that barrier if there was even a chance of sticking with three-finger picado. Have I succeeded? I don’t actually know. I’m about 90% sure I’ve made progress, though, which tells me that my end goal is theoretically possible.
Meanwhile, I have to admit the real reason I have not felt the urge to go back to normal picado: my scale speed has probably doubled. I went from struggling with 2-finger picado to keep my fingers tension-free at top speeds, to blazing past those speeds effortlessly with 3-finger picado, without a hint of tension in my right hand. This was too good to pass up, and I knew that I had to give this a serious try.
So I will wrap this up and go practice some 3-finger picado… I’d like to finally get out of the practice room and gather feedback, so I will try to post the occasional video.
Have you tried 3-finger picado? Do you think it’s good, bad, ugly? Let me know in the comments!