My thoughts on 'finger tone'

So, finger tone. This was something that I was thinking about when playing guitar yesterday. A lot of people talk about it when it comes to playing guitar but never really quantify what they mean by it. I'll attempt to give my own interpretation and definition of what it means, in a series of posts to try to give some actual meaning to a lot of guitar related fluff words. Keep in mind that these are my own interpretations and ramblings.

First off, what finger tone is NOT. It is not an inherent thing that certain players have that makes their 'tone' sound better. Your guitar, pickups, amp, etc, have much more effect on the actual tone you get. I find this to be an overly simplistic explanation that doesn't really get to the core of what finger tone is, which in my view is something that can be learned.

So to me, lead guitar playing can be broken up into 5 basic things:

  • Technique: the actual mechanics of playing, including left and right handed mechanics such as picking, slides, hammer-on, etc.
  • Note-choice: self explanatory, but probably not so relevant when talking about finger tone in my opinion.
  • Rhythm: The length and divisions of the notes and rests you play. Again not as relevant to this discussion.
  • Control: This is about how you actually fret the notes, and the accuracy with which you can change notes, use rhythm and apply the techniques or mechanics of playing.
  • Expressiveness: This is probably the hardest to quantify and is the most subjective, but essentially is to do with how you attack the notes, i.e. sliding in, using bends, legato, etc to emphasise certain phrase. Basically look at how Guthrie Govan plays. This also involves note choice and rhythm, but we aren't focusing on those two.

You can see that these five aren't mutually exclusive; there is crossover and all five are necessary to effective lead playing. So for 'finger tone', I've picked our technique/mechanics, control and expressiveness as the important three.

Technique is probably self explanatory, you need a good grasp of the techniques available to you on the guitar to begin playing with control and expressiveness. A lot of expressive playing isn't possible as well without a good grip on your guitar techniques. So given that we have our techniques on lockdown what we want is good control, and to play expressively.

Control is something that is actually really difficult to get down. I've seen players play solos, but something about it to my ears just sounds awkward. This is because player in question doesn't have full control over how they are fretting and playing notes. Everything can make a subtle difference, in how hard you're fretting a note, how wide your vibrato is, how accurate your bends are, how hard you're picking, etc. Alternate picking is accurate, legato is fluid. Control makes everything you do on guitar very deliberate. Nothing is by accident, and you can pick and choose how the notes and techniques come out. This is probably one of the biggest things that contributes to 'finger tone'.

Expressiveness like I said can be subjective, but essentially we want to be able to attack the notes in a way that sounds interesting. Instead of playing just the note, we can slide into it, we can bend instead of picking, etc. This brings 'life' into leading playing, and is a big 'value-add'. It can make the difference between a well played solo, and a truly exciting solo and is definitely a contributor to 'finger tone'.

So in summary, finger tone to me is to be able to play notes and use techniques very deliberately in a way we have control over the sound coming out of our instrument, and to use those techniques to play the guitar in an expressive and lively way. This is also why I argue that finger tone can be 'learned', because none of what I've described is intrinsic. Given enough time and practice and you can definitely nail these points.

Hopefully this long, meandering post made some sense and is of some use to the guitar players out there.