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 the various styles of playing out there, 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 to get to grips with. Having learned a few simple chords to a song, 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 "Er... 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 picking out single-note melodic runs with a pick. It's obviously more complicated than simple strumming and is a self contained playing style as it enables you to play all the musical elements: melody, harmony, bass and rhythm at the same time. You can still sing but there are lots purely instrumental pieces, too that are flat picked. Watch Rolly Brown 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 , 3 and 1 all the same time with thumb and fingers but not with pick, which can only play single notes or sweep across 2 or more adjacent strings. Here's John Martyn playing a fingerstyle accompaniment to "Spencer the Rover" in DADGAD 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.
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 sitting with it on your left leg if you're playing right handed or on your right leg if you're playing a left-handed guitar. 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 the 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 lots of notes sweeping up or down in pitch melodically. The slide can be placed on any finger, and 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 guitarist often tune their string to a major chord so that 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 to guitar playing styles has covered the most common of them, but it barely scratches the surface of the vast repertoire of music played in those styles. 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 chasmac
Jerry Cornelius on October 05, 2021:
Great overview of techniques, thanks.