Category Archives: Tips

CORE 301 • Focusing on Dynamics for Guitar

One sure fire way to improve your playing or bring new life to your repertoire is to focus more on dynamics. Most often, we think about volume when speaking of dynamics – softer passages within a song versus a louder climax or even softer songs versus louder ones. I also like to think about other aspects such as:

– How you play a chord or phrase – with flowing tones or sharp staccato?
– Where on the fretboard you want to play a phrase – low on the neck, high on the neck, do you want to use open strings or harmonics?
– The balance in EQ between bass and treble, particularly with fingerstyle guitar

Of course there are many more concepts that fall under or are tangential to dynamics. Jimmy Page often talked about dynamics in terms of “light and shade,” which is a great metaphor to apply to your sonic palette on the guitar. And really, for such a compact instrument, the guitar has a very wide range of sounds. Thinking about all of the sounds you can pull from your guitar will give your performances more impact and make you a better player.

TIPS 112 • How to Get Your Whammy Bar to Stay in Place

This video shows how to use a Q-tip to hold the whammy bar / tremolo arm on a Strat (or other guitar) in place so that it doesn’t dangle. Unlike other methods such as using plumber’s tape, you can set the whammy bar to either stay put or dangle when you’re not using it. This method was apparently invented by Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar tech, who used it for years.

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GEAR 503 • Using a Partial Capo – Drop D / 6th String Open Capo

This video gives you a brief introduction to using a “Drop D” partial capo, which leaves the 6th string open. This partial capo is often called a “Drop D” capo because you can get a tuning similar to Drop D by using it on the 2nd fret. This capo can also be used in other positions though, and people use these capos a lot on the 4th fret as well. This video offers a brief overview on using a “Drop D” capo, however I’ve decided to include a few more in-depth pointers below for those interested.

The following are some additional things to consider when using a “Drop D” capo, some of which are covered in the video:

Popular Keys – I mainly talk about playing in the key of E in the video, and this is logical since we have an E in the bass. With a partial capo, the key of E works well in both the 4th fret and 2nd fret capo positions. Of course there are other key options, and songs in a given “key” often contain non-diatonic chords. Experiment to find out if the chords in a given song sound good with a partial capo. For example, on the 4th fret you might also play in the Key of B; on the 2nd fret you might also play in the key of A. It depends on the chords involved. Something like a missing ‘E’ or ‘Em’ shape (see more below) may rule out a particular partial capo option.

Some chord shapes don’t change – Any voicing that doesn’t use the 6th string will be the same, although you may now be able to add the open 6th string in if it didn’t work before (see more below). Any shape that does use the 6th string will be the same as long as you’re fretting notes above the capo. (Chords that normally use the open 6th string probably won’t work, per below.)

The missing chords – any fist position chord that uses the open 6th string in the bass won’t work the same – notably the “E” and “Em” shapes. For example, if you’re playing in the key of B with the partial capo on the 4th fret, the vi chord – G#m – will be tough to grab unless you leave the 6th string out. One option here is to move the capo back further from the 4th fret so that you have space to fret that 6th string 4th fret note with your finger, but I’ve found this is not always practical – either the capo still gets in the way or the strings start to buzz because the capo isn’t close enough to the fret. So you may want to try another capo position &/or other chord voicings when you’re ‘missing’ these chords.

Deciding when to use the low E in the bass – while the open E bass string may not work with some chords (and can be left out), it may be usable for other chords – either in strumming the chord or as part of an alternating bass pattern. For example, with the partial capo on the 4th fret, the “D shape” gives us an F# Maj. We probably want to leave the low E bass out of this chord. (Note you could make it F#7 by adding the low E, but a voicing with the b7 in the bass may not work.) More examples – still with the partial capo on the 4th fret: we can play C#m using the “Am shape”, and of course E is the minor 3rd. Even though E is part of the chord, it may not sound good to play C#m with E in the bass when you’re strumming… however the low E could work as part of an alternating bass pattern when fingerpicking. Use your ear to decide in borderline cases like this. Playing the A (“F shape”) and B (“G shape”) chords with fingerpicking, you could try alternating the 6th string bass between a fretted note and the open string. You may find this works better for the A chord (where E is the 5th) than the B chord (where E is the 4th). Even if you don’t know all the theory, you should be able to figure out what sounds good for your song – experiment and use your ear.

Expanding your key options with a second capo – A second ‘normal’ capo (or one that can cover the 6th string) can be used to give you more key options using the partial capo either 2 or 4 frets above a normal capo. For example, put a regular capo on the 2nd fret – this gives you F# in the bass. Then use the “Drop D” partial capo on the 6th fret and it will work in F# similar to how the partial capo works by itself on the 4th fret in E. You could also play in F# with a normal capo on the 2nd fret and a partial capo on the 4th fret, giving you the Drop D style tuning. For the key of G, you could use a normal capo on the 3rd fret and a partial capo on either the 5th or 7th fret. Other options are around, so feel free to experiment.

Using a regular capo ‘off-center’ – if you don’t already have a partial capo, you may be able to experiment by using a regular capo ‘upside down’ and ‘off-center’ (as shown in the video) to see how the tuning sounds. You may decide you don’t need a partial capo, but if you like the sound you get and want to use it a lot, it’s probably good to go ahead and use a partial capo.

A final note – while you usually see partial capos used on acoustic guitars by fingerstyle players or singer-songwriters, you can of course use them on electric guitars and with different styles of music.

TIPS 110 • Tips & Tricks when Using a Capo

Capos can be used by anyone from singer-songwriters who want to change keys (usually to find an appropriate singing range for each song) to people playing fingerstyle or flat-pick guitar instrumentals who want to find a new voice for their guitar. Of course you don’t need a capo to play in different keys, but a capo allows you to use first-position style chords or other voicings with open strings that may not otherwise be available. Open position chord shapes lend themselves well to fingerpicking where you’re adding ornaments / runs as in folk, blues, and bluegrass guitar, in a way that is endemic to those styles. From that standpoint, a capo may be a required piece of gear for playing certain styles of music. These days, most capos fall into one of two camps – those with a lever or clamp like Shubb, and spring-loaded capos like Kyser. The Shubb style ones give you a nice grip and have an adjustable thumbscrew for optimum pressure at different points on the neck. Kyser style capos are great for people who use the capo a lot and need to quickly change capo positions. (They can also clamp on your headstock for handy access.) In addition to touching on these two popular capo types, the video also covers some tips & tricks for getting a good sound with your capo – including flipping the capo over / upside down &/or using two capos – and avoiding the confusion that sometimes comes from what to call chords when you’re using a capo.

TIPS 109 • Fingernails for Guitar

I’m lucky in that I have great fingernails and don’t need fake / acrylic nails. A lot – probably most – great fingerstyle players use fake nails however, so if your nails aren’t naturally strong enough and you want to use fake nails you’ll be in good company. For me though, I find my regular nails work fine and I really enjoy not having to fool with fake nails. In fact, I don’t even use nail files for shaping my nails anymore. In this video I’ll talk about the fingernail approach that has worked for me, and the only nail tool I use (hint: clipper). Again, this isn’t going to work for everyone, but I do recommend that you try your natural nails FIRST before you get into using acrylic / fake nails as it will save you time / money if you can use your natural fingernails.

TIPS 108 • Find and Use Good Cables

Today’s tip involves finding good cables – both guitar / instrument and microphone cables. I talk about what you might look for in a cable, including length, what it’s covered in (i.e. rubber, braided / mesh, etc.), and connectors. In general, I look for cables made in the US, and there are several affordable US-made brands carried by a lot of music stores – these include CBI, RapcoHorizon, and Pro Co. I will include some links on my webpage to where you can find these if your local music store doesn’t carry them.

I will have some links to cables on the Accessories page.

TIPS 106 • Take Private Lessons

Today’s tip is to take private lessons, face to face, from a guitar teacher if you can afford it and can find one in your area. One benefit from private lessons is that the teacher can SEE what you’re doing wrong and quickly correct mistakes. This is important, especially when you’re starting out. There’s also no substitute for playing music together with other people, which is another benefit. I realize that some people are unable to afford private lessons, which can be expensive, and others may not have convenient access to a teacher. In that case, there is a ton of great material available online, as well as books and other resources. Online lessons are great – that’s why I’m here – but use them as a supplement to private lessons and you’ll get even more mileage out of them.

TIPS 104 • Use a Thumbpick

If you’ve never really tried one for an extended period of time, you should use a thumbpick for several months to see what it’s like. Of course you can play fingserstyle with a thumbpick, but you can also hold it like a flatpick for strumming chords and playing single note runs. Try wearing one for a couple of months, and just hold it like a flatpick most of the time. After a while, you’ll find that you are using a combination of playing with your fingers and holding it like a flatpick – the best of both worlds.

Using a thumbpick is obviously great for folk / fingerstyle on acoustic guitar, but you can also use it on electric guitar to great effect. The thumbpick lends itself to roots music of all sorts, including blues and country. Chords come alive with dynamic control in jazz, and riffs can really pop when you’re playing rock. Even bluegrass – that traditional bastion of flatpick on guitar – can benefit from a thumbpick… and as mentioned you can still flatpick with it.

For the most part, you don’t give up much when using a thumbpick as a flatpick, though certain techniques like picking/pinch harmonics won’t come off the same way. You may not be able to get quite the same dynamics, but overall what you gain will probably be more useful. (As another bonus, because a thumbpick is secured to your thumb, you won’t drop it.)

As noted in the video, I prefer Fred Kelly’s Delrin Slick Picks – generally using medium for acoustic, and heavy for electric. These picks have a snug fit which may feel too tight at first, but they do loosen up a bit after you wear them for a while. They also make a ‘large’ size version of the pick, and of course there are many other brands / styles that fit differently which you can try. (One trick – that may not work with all pick materials – is to run them under hot water for a while, and then you can loosen / tighten the fit.) Use your common sense and intution – obviously avoid thumbpicks that are outright painful, but be willing to try out ones that are merely uncomfortable for a while, potentially adjusting them, to see how you like them.

One final note – generally I do not recommend thumbpicks for beginners unless they only want to do fingerstyle guitar. I think it’s better to develop your technique with a flatpick and then add a thumbpick later on. I may change my mind on this in the future, but for now that’s how I feel.

Fred Kelly page for Delrin Slick Picks –
Note – this page is more for reference. To order Fred Kelly picks a few at a time, try the Elderly link below. They also have other brands / styles you can try.

If you want to try out different picks and just order a few at a time, Elderly has a great selection – It might be good to order several different sizes / shapes styles to see what you like.

TIPS 103 • Freshen Your Guitar Case with Altoids?

Can you freshen your guitar case with Altoids? Well, no, but you can organize it and you might freshen your breath along the way. Altoids tins – once emptied of the mints – can be used to store things like picks, capos, allen wrenches, and batteries (as shown). Note with batteries, as mentioned, you want to make sure they are still in the package or the contacts are otherwise not exposed. So a few things that don’t fit in the tin are – most guitar slides, spare strings, wire cutters, most string winders. Still, they can help you organize your ‘small stuff.’ You can also use the small Altoids tins as pick holders, and these are great to throw on top of your amp for easy access. Hope you have fun organizing your guitar case with Altoids tins. If nothing else, your breath may be fresher. 😉

Wikipedia –