Watch the Left Hand Techniques online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman
So we want to move from musical concepts and harmonic ideas to the nuts and bolts of how we articulate this on acoustic guitar. So we’re going to look first at the left hand. Here’s a personal detail- I’m left handed! It’s not evident from the way I play guitar but I am profoundly left handed and there is a surprising number of guitarists you see playing in this way who are left handed. Another example is Mark Knopfler and he springs to mind as his story is exactly the same as mine. His introduction to music was not the guitar but violin- same with me. I remember on day saying to the teacher “excuse me, I’m left handed” and she looked down and said “and your point small boy?” in the violin world you don’t get to choose. In the fiddle world there a few notable left handed fiddlers but there are none in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. So when I went to violin lessons I learned to finger with my left hand and this is the way that feels natural to me on guitar. This feels natural- but this left hand is my stronger hand and developing strength in this hand is very important. In this music you are using your left hand not just to carry but to propel the melody.
Now I’m assuming you all have beautiful guitars that will sustain for days on end. This one will sustain for about three days. So you want to use that! You don’t just want to hit one note and wait for it to go away.
That’s just a bunch of notes but what I’m doing is using the sustain- all I did was pluck the string once. All the rest is the left hand. It’s a combination of the hammer on and the pull off. Those terms have become common currency in the guitar world and the “hammer on” is unfortunate because you don’t hammer anything. You touch, that’s all you do- the guitar will do the work for you. You need to develop fluency so you need to be able to do it with every finger- and you need to be able to go from one finger to the other. So, that’s a combination of hammer on and pull off.
Very often we go up and then down- in classical music it’s called a “mordant”. When you pull off you are putting energy into the string so you’re helping it sustain so it’s not just the initial pluck with the right hand- with the left hand too you are plucking the string. So there’s a basic move. If you start on the second finger that’s harder- you have to develop strength in this boy (pinky) which is not your strongest finger.
That’s something I do as a warm up thing is just...improvise! I’m not a strong improviser but just as an exercise in getting this hand moving. That’s just going across the open strings. It’s just an exercise but little fragments of that will be used all the time in arrangements. So you need to develop some fluency and strength in this hand. Practice this kind of thing!
There’s another useful thing. I’m not plucking that note- the little finger is just hitting the string. I talked a while back about using open strings to get movement. Now remember the guitar is not linear so those ornaments arise all the time in this music. Another useful thing to have- not so much from above but from below we’ll often slide up to a note sometimes using two fingers sometimes just one. So, have those at your fingertips as well because we’re going to use them.