Wait a minute, what? Were both hands on the fretboard at the same time? Did one hand really casually produce bass and percussion simultaneously, while the other hand took over the guitar and melody? These are real geniuses, producing the sound of a whole band with just one acoustic guitar and creating complex songs.
Here's how it works.
Falk Mörsner is fascinated by how fingerstyle guitarists can easily master their instrument, even at fast tempos and with complex songs. Also by the way the sound can be easily brought to large stages using phono cartridges. He launched the Bremer Modern Acoustic Guitar Festival as an ambassador to fill even more people with enthusiasm for this playing technique. We met and interviewed him and the two participating musicians, Sophie Chassée (Ali Neumann, AnnenMayKantereit) and Sönke Meinen. They'll tell us how you can surprise yourself on the guitar and why fingerstyle isn't multitasking. Discover how musicians are reinterpreting the technique and how much they enjoy rediscovering this playing style.
Hello, you three. Just to warm you up, please complete the following sentence – "For me, a guitar is not just an instrument, but...
Sophie: … it means familiarity to me. Many of my guitars even have names. A guitar feels like having my best friend with me.
Sönke: … a way of playing, true to the motto "I'll play the guitar and then see what the instrument can do".
Falk: ... a symbol of (positive) change. Music teachers used to judge how well or badly you played. Fortunately, there is much more openness and tolerance nowadays towards new styles of playing.
What makes you find fingerstyle so fascinating?
Sophie: For me there are three things. Firstly, there's the sound of the acoustic guitar that just makes me really happy. Secondly, individuality. Because everyone plays and sounds different. And thirdly, rediscovering the guitar time and again.
It's those moments when you've found such cool places and you think to yourself: "Wow, that sounds absolutely amazing now."
And then all the surprising things you can do with the guitar.
Falk: It delights people in completely different ways. I see a great trend showing that a lot of people are being encouraged to want to play the guitar like this. I feel that the musicians who master fingerstyle are little geniuses whom I really respect.
Sönke: I'm always surprised at the impact the guitar can have when music suddenly comes out that you aren't expecting at all. And that this one instrument can cover a whole band.
What fascinates me is that bass lines, chords, melodies and percussive elements are all simultaneously integrated as part of what you are playing.
How did you get into fingerstyle?
My formative experience was seeing fingerstyle at concerts. I knew at once that I wanted to play like that too!
When I was eleven, a blues musician showed me a video of Andy McKee's "Drifting". He said I could forget about ever playing like that. That’s when the ambition was stirred in me to learn. Here's a fun fact: Andy McKee and I are friends now. And isn't it crazy that it's sort of based on you just banging around on the guitar – but in a way that it feels good.
I studied music (guitar) to become a teacher. In my free time I arranged pieces for the guitar, but I was limited in what I could do. When I went back to look into it more closely, I came across modern fingerstyle. The power of playing like this can be really unleashed now on stage using phono cartridges, which is what completely won me over. Along with the other fact that it pushes classical guitarists out of their comfort zone to try something new.
Sönke in action:
What are you proud of?
Sönke: When I started exploring the world of acoustic guitar, I played a lot of numbers over and over again at first. I gradually discovered which elements fascinated me so much about this music – and then I used them to compose my own first pieces. Thanks to good teachers and a lot of experience, I was able to slowly develop my personal musical language.
Knowing who I am musically and having ideas about where I could go is a very good feeling.
Sophie: Often you're just playing to yourself with both hands on the fretboard – but for people who have never seen that before, it's really something new. I learned it all by myself, and now I can pass on my knowledge as a lecturer or in workshops. When participants say: “Crazy, I just can’t play that at all now." Or "Woah, how do you do that? I'd never have even thought of that..."
... then I realise that, apparently, what I'm doing isn't that easy, and that's a nice thumbs-up my work.
Falk: Here in the north, there are fingerstyle workshops and concerts, especially in Hamburg and Oldenburg. This is good if musicians want to be inspired and develop further. However, there weren't any in the immediate vicinity of my home in Bremen. That's why I initiated the "Modern Acoustic Guitar Festival", which took place for the second time in 2023. It would be nice if the event became more established and attracted a lot of interested people.
The festival started in 2022 with the aim of improving networking on the modern acoustic guitar scene. Those interested can enjoy the music live there and learn it themselves. The guest musicians give concerts and share their knowledge in workshops. They give tips on how to perform, as well as input, suggestions and practical tips for playing.
Do you keep discovering new places on the guitar that you can play on?
What I think is great is that so much effort has always been made with the classical guitar to avoid ambient noise as far as possible. Because this noise ruins the purity of the sound. With fingerstyle, on the other hand, you deliberately look for all the sounds that you can make anywhere on the guitar. These sounds can be used to introduce additional rhythmic levels
Sönke: Enjoy the spirit of discovery that the guitar offers you. Look at this simple wooden box with six strings and ask yourself: what can I do with this? Where's the music in all that? This is such an absolute motivation for me, which is why I never get bored.
Sophie: Definitely because the sound is different everywhere on the guitar. You have to find your sweet spots and see whether they match your own ideas of sound. Especially with the percussion (that's drums with snare, bass drum), when it comes to:
How should the drums actually sound? How should the bass sound? But that just makes it super interesting for you to discover the guitar like this and figure it all out for yourself.
What inspires you?
Sönke: All sorts of things – like my fridge, which sometimes makes strange noises. This might be an idea for a piece and composing is then the technical process you create with this idea. You don't necessarily have to be inspired all the time. Actually, there is no such thing as bad ideas, as far as I'm concerned. There are only bad compositions.
How do you compose music on the guitar?
Sophie: I often start from how the recording needs to sound on the CD later. So, I have the whole band arrangement in my head that I want to transfer to the guitar. In addition to the drums and bass, there are the melodies and harmonies.
When so many layers happen at the same time, it's not music where there's a lot of improvisation involved. A lot of things are fixed, so that ideally the illusion is created that you can hear all these "band members" at the end. So whether it's vocal cords or guitar strings – a voice, of course, is naturally the most personal instrument there is. But I can get close to this on the guitar using certain techniques.
How do you structure a song?
Sophie: For me as a bass player, the bass is a very important foundation because it sets the groove. After all, the groove takes the body with it intuitively in the first instance, and people respond to that. Next come the drums. Now you've got a good foundation. Then I think about how to play the melodies and harmonies.
Notes are all very well, but how do you write down the fingering?
Sophie (laughs): You don't. I always make videos as I'm creating something, almost like notes, so that I don't forget anything.
For me, the technique isn't about multitasking. If I think about what I'm doing on stage, I've had it. I've got no hope of keeping track of all this.
Even with all the modern playing technology, I compose – also compared to many other fingerstylers – mostly in a very traditional way, in that I do actually write down notes. I've developed my own notation for percussive sounds. When composing, it also helps me to put the instrument away and think about how the whole thing can be implemented on the guitar in detail when the piece is finished. So you don't set any limits when composing, but you may have to be even more creative when it comes to the technical implementation.
Do you know exactly which hand you assign which instruments to or is it always different?
Sophie: It's always different. I always split up the percussion in any case. Sometimes it’s not ergonomically possible to play that with just one hand.
This is how Sophie's playing technique looks.
What advice can you give to those interested in learning fingerstyle? What's the best way to get started?
You need to understand the obstacles are more in your head and not in your inability to do it with your fingers.
Some people tune their guitars to a lower pitch, because then they don't have to play with such complicated fingering. This might help at the beginning, until you're more confident.
Fingerstyle is totally forgiving. At the beginning, you can try out a lot and get a feel for how much strength you need to use.
And you discover how to make it your own. One very important point – get inspiration, for example, on YouTube. And don't set your goals too high.
I would actually learn songs from guitarists that you think are cool. So first, really learn a lot of different material. There are many pieces which aren't that difficult at all. Often most of the techniques you need are already included. Just see what you like and what motivates you. Then, the next natural step is for you to go on researching, maybe develop your own ideas and write your first pieces.
Thank you for your exciting insights into the modern acoustic guitar and fingerstyle!
Headergraphic: Adobe Stock | Roman
Pictures: Christian Olschina | Michelle Jekel | Evelin Hartmann