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Ring Music

Torontos guitar specialists since 1969

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What is a Fingerstyle Guitar?

The last few years have seen a tremendous explosion of interest in playing the guitar with one's right hand digits instead of the trusty plectrum. (Eric Clapton's hugely successful "Unplugged" album is not insignificant in this development, I feel). This surge of interest has led the industry to use the words "fingerstyle guitar" almost ad nauseum. What is actually implied by these 2 simple words? Well, friends, here is an analysis of what it might all mean.

Firstly, a fingerstyle guitar is generally of lighter construction than a guitar designed for Bluegrass flatpicking. This is because less force is generally used playing with the fingers that with a pick. This requires that a guitar be dynamically responsive to a lighter touch.

Many so-called fingerstyle guitars are of the popular "OM" or Orchestra model size. This is a smaller, shallower guitar than a Dreadnought of Jumbo. OM's are usually well balanced from the bass strings to the treble strings resulting in a more defined and compact tone that speaks well in multi-voiced fingerstyle arrangements.

It is worth noting that traditionally, the "OM" and "OOO" guitars from Martin were identical except for their scale length. The "OOO" had approximately a 24.9" scale length and the "OM" had a 25.4" scale. This resulted in the "OOO" being a bit looser feeling and a bit less punchy than the longer scale "OM". For many years now, guitars have been called "OOO" but have actually had the longer "OM" scale. Martin has of course reissued both these guitars in their vintage reissue series with their original scale lengths.

As far as body size, Lowden Guitars of Ireland have become very well known for their "O-Style" (for "Original") size guitars which are pretty big-boxed guitars. However, they are so lightly built and so incredibly responsive, many fingerstylists have taken to using them including Canada's own Don Ross and France's Pierre Bensusan. Lowden also builds an "F" style guitar which is roughly the same size as an "OM" and an "S" style which is close to a "OO".

Many fingerstyle guitars feature slightly wider necks and string spacing, particularly some of the "vintage" style guitars from Martin, Collings, Santa Cruz, etc. Most of these measure 1 3/4" (45mm) at the nut as opposed to 1 11/16" (43mm) which is roughly the standard acoustic nut width. Some players prefer an even wider board of 46 or even 47mm (1 7/8").

The string spacing at the bridge may be as wide as 59mm which is about 4mm wider than what you find on an off-the-rack acoustic. This really gives your right hand fingers the room they need to work, especially on arpeggios. Not all fingerstyle guitars have this wide a bridge spacing (many are around 57mm) but it can really make a difference.

Light guage strings (012-054 is common) are usually the best choice for these guitars as they allow slightly easier playability for both hands. For those with powerful hands, however, mediums do yield more volume so experimentation is the key.

Although action height is largely a matter of individual taste and preference, an action height of 2.5mm at the twelfth fret under the bass string (low E) and 2mm under the high E (measured from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string) is a good place to start. This will allow clean, buzz-free playing in standard tuning as well as most open/altered tunings. Extremely low tunings (ex. where the low E gets down to C or B) may require either a higher action or as an alternative, a heavier string (try a 056 or 059 if tuning below a drop "D".

So-called fingerstyle guitars can be made from a variety of tonewoods. Here are some general tonal descriptions of the various choices:

Tonewood For Tops

Sitka Spruce (Canadian and Northwest Alaska) is probably the most common wood used for steel-string tops. It is extremely vibrant, bright and loud.

Englemann Spruce: The North-American equivalent to European (German) White Spruce. Very light in colour, very light in weight, and perhaps a little more "open" and loud than Sitka. Expect to pay more for this type of wood.

European White Spruce: Very similar to Englemann Although even more expensive. Often used on premium priced acoustics from custom luthiers.

Cedar (North America): Rich mid to dark brown colour with an extremely open, played-in sound right off the bat. Has long been used for classical guitars due to its warmth and openness. In steel strings it is coming into its own largely due to the efforts of Seagull Guitars (Canada) and Lowden Guitars (Ireland).

Koa (Hawaii): Beautiful grained wood that produces a very bright sound with less volume than Spruce or Cedar.

Mahogany (South America) has historically been used on less expensive guitars (and ukuleles too!). A mahogany-topped guitar is somewhat mellower in tone and has an emphasized midrange.

Tonewood for Backs and Sides

Mahogany: Much lighter in weight than rosewood, Koa or Maple. A nice loud sound with an emphasis on clear, bright trebles.

East Indian Rosewood: Very richly grained dark brown wood. Extremely warm and deep sounding. A tad heavier than mahogany.

Brazilian Rosewood: Very beautiful, often stunniung visual appearance. This species of rosewood is no longer harvested so when the available supply is gone, it's gone! Fortunately, many builders and manufacturers still have some on hand for use in guitars. Unfortunately, due to its "nearly extinct" status it is formidably expensive (Martin rosewood models before mid-1969 were Brazilian rosewood, thus their exhorbitant price tag on the used market). It's debatable whether Brazilian is inherently better sounding than Indian rosewood, but that hasn't stopped the lively debate that rages over this issue.

Walnut: Walnut is becoming more common due to its availablilty and great sound. It lies somewhere between mahogany and rosewood in terms of tone, weight, density, resinousness, etc. George Lowden has proclaimed it to be a superior tonewood for acoustic guitars.

Koa: Again, very beautiful looking stuff which is less bassy than Rosewood and less trebly than Mahogany. A well balanced compact guitar with stunning good looks.

Flamed Maple: Less common than Mahogany or Rosewood, it is used primarily on archtop (Jazz) guitars. It is extremely hard and reflective giving it a loud, powerful sound.

That concludes this look at fingerstyle guitars. Please drop by our store and check out examples of this growing category of guitars by Martin, Larrivee, Lowden, Guild, Beneteau and more.


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