I promised a deep-dive into the entire chain of events that produce the modern electric guitar sound and I figured there's no better place to start than at the beginning. We'll start by focusing on the physical aspects of the guitar. To hear a note a string has to vibrate in space. To start that vibration we have to temporarily displace the string from its normal resting position and let it snap back into place. Eventually physics takes over and the string stops vibrating and producing sound.
There are numerous ways to initiate this event, but in the broadest terms it comes down to using your fingers (or fingernails) or pick of some kind. If you try each of these out you should be able to hear the tonal differences between each technique. Once you've experimented with each for a bit you may be wondering why each technique sounds different from the others?
Attack of the Transients
Part of the answer lies in the transient that each approach creates. In audio-engineering terms a "transient" is a very brief sound encapsulated in the larger sound of a voice or instrument. Some transients are undesired like bumping into a mic or a voice making explosive "p" sounds. Others are more desirable and define the characteristics of the instrument.
Many years ago synthesizer manufacturers developed a model to describe all sounds called the "ADSR Envelope". Keep your slide rules in your pocket. It may sound like a NASA probe to Mars, but it's actually a very easy-to-grasp model of sound. ADSR is an acronym for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. Each of these describes a phase that every sound goes through, regardless of the instrument. The ADSR model is focused primarily on volume which makes it easy to visualize graphically:
Stringed instruments that are plucked (like guitars) or hammered (like pianos) have an envelope that ultimately decays to zero (there's something kind of Zen about the inevitable death of every note.) Whereas a horn player or a bowed instrument can effectively sustain a note indefinitely with proper technique.
In terms of the guitar, the transient is the brief sound you hear at the beginning of each note. Playing finger style with the fleshy parts of your fingers produces a very soft transient while playing hard with a plastic pick makes a much more pronounced "click" at the start of each note. Each of these different kind of transients play a role in defining the style of playing that you ultimately hear.
If we were to boil-down all of the options for playing a note, one way to categorize them might look like this:
Since our focus here at Six String Recess is primarily rock guitar, let's take a closer look at using a pick. There are a lot of amazing finger-style players in rock (Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Derek Trucks to name a few), but the vast majority of rock players use a pick of some kind.
To be fair, even the phrase "using a pick" isn't quite precise enough. Bluegrass, folk and country players will use all sorts of different picks that attempt to mimic the effect of long fingernails. The type of pick you're most likely using is called a "flat pick" (I'm sure you can figure out how it got that name.)
The simple act of using a pick has already introduced a proxy or intermediary between you and your instrument. One could argue that your picking hand is no longer playing the guitar as much as it's "playing the pick" which in turn acts on the strings. That thought could be terrifying or you could view it as an opportunity for freedom of expression.
Did you ever play the telephone game as a kid? In this game a group sits in a circle. The game starts with one person whispering something into the ear of the person next to them. Each person in turn whispers the message to the person next to them and this continues around the circle until it gets back to the original person. At the end the original message and final message are compared—usually to hilarious effect.
The point is that anywhere there's a point of translation in a signal-chain there's an opportunity for a change in that signal. When it comes to negotiating arms-treaties this sort of message-mutation should be avoided at all costs. But for music it opens up a lot of artistic possibilities. When it comes to picking a guitar string, the dimensions of expression boil down into three facets:
- Angle of attack
- Striking force
- Pick material
Angle of Attack
The transient that your pick produces is effected significantly by the angle of attack. This is the angle between the flat part of your pick and the length of the string. A flat, dead-on approach would have an angle of 0° where a much more pronounced rotation may get close to 45°.
The steeper the angle, the more of a "scraping" sound you'll add to your picking transient sound. As an experiment, pick up your guitar and grab your favorite pick. Fret a single note and play a steady stream of quarter-notes while slowly changing your angle of attack. As you rotate the pick, pay attention to how the tone changes. Remember to focus on the transient of the note as the remaining decay phase of the notes will generally sound the same regardless of pick angle.
Guitarists rotate the pick for tone as well as ease of playing. Adding a slight rotation to the pick will help it get over the strings a little more easily as the curvature of the pick helps deflect some of the force applied to the string. Try the same rotation exercise again but speed up to sixteenth-notes. You should notice that a flat picking angle makes it more difficult to get the pick back and forth across the string than when you play with some angle.
Which angle of attack you use is likely to be a compromise between ease of playing and the sound you like. For some players, like Paul Gilbert, they prefer more "scrape" to their sound which provides the added benefit of easier movement across the string. If you want a less-scrapey sound but still want to get the pick across the strings easily you can shorten the amount of pick that touches the strings. By the way, this is one reason why those tiny little Dunlop Jazz picks were invented. The small profile means you have less pick to push through the string which allows you to have a shallow angle of attack. Stylistically this fits with the jazz guitar idiom where a scrapey attack isn't very desirable.
One important thing to be aware of is that the angle of attack effects the transient differently on different strings (yay! more variables!) One wound strings (typically the bottom three strings) a steeper angle of attack will cut across the windings resulting in more "scrape". This effect is much less pronounced on the un-wound strings. On un-wound strings a steeper angle of attack results in a softer transient and a shallower attack adds a little more "click" to the transient. Try it for yourself and see.
The amount of force you apply to the string works hand-in-hand with the angle of attack in affecting the tone of the vibrating string. In the simplest terms, a harder attack is going to displace the string further which will make it louder and cause it to sustain longer.
A shallower angle of attack will result in more "click" to the transient sound. An extreme example of this would be any pop song you hear with a heavy strumming acoustic guitar in the background. Producers will often EQ them to make the clicking attack of the transient stand out (often by subtracting the lower frequencies where the actual notes are). The result is something closer to a percussion instrument than a harmonic one, but it works really well in the right context. Think of Fleetwood Mac's Secondhand News as a great example of this.
Another important component to your overall tone is the material of the pick. Experienced players often settle on a particular kind of pick based on how it feels as well as how it sounds. As an example, I like Fender heavy picks but really dislike the feel of Dunlop Tortex picks. I don't think Tortex picks are poorly-made, I just don't like the way they feel on my finger tips or how it responds when I push it across the strings. Other players swear by them. Different strokes for different folks.
If you haven't yet settled on a favorite pick, do yourself a favor and drop $5-$10 at your local guitar store on a wide assortment of picks. Try different materials as well as different thicknesses and shapes. Experiment with each one and pay attention to how they sound and how they feel. You'll probably find two or three picks you really like that respond well to different playing styles. File this away in your mental library for future use.
One last little tip I'll leave you with is experimenting with flipping the pick around. Players as different as Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Edge have been known to play with their picks "upside-down". For SRV this allowed him to play with a tremendous amount of force while still being able to push across the strings relatively easily. Playing with as much attack as he did with the sharp-point down can easily catch on the strings and push them so hard they go temporarily out of tune.
For The Edge, he's been known to use nylon picks with a textured grip. By playing them upside-down the grippy part of the pick scrapes across the strings in a really unusual way producing a very different sounding picking transient. The genius of a player like The Edge is that he understands how that effect gets mutated as it goes through the remainder of his very complex signal-chain. We'll be getting to that later!
For now, take some time to experiment with your picking choices. Don't be afraid to try something new. Sometimes the very act of doing something weird and uncomfortable results in fresh inspiration. If you have the time and space, think about spending an hour in a dark room with about ten different picks and try different attacks with each one. You're bound to get some new insights into your playing.