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Comparing Classical Guitar to Rock Guitar

comparing classical guitar to rock

As guitarists, we explore new and different styles of music in an effort to satisfy our curiosity, utilize our creativity, and improve our technique in the process. In this blog we’ll compare the genres of rock and classical guitar in an effort to understand some of the foundational techniques that can inform our own playing.

A Means To An End: How Technique Serves the Genre

In relation to classical guitar, rock guitar tends to be much more left hand dominant, i.e., the left hand ends up doing much of the work in terms of generating sound. Most rock guitarists play with a pick, thus limiting the right hand to strumming and muting with interspersed single note lines. That does not imply that rock guitar does not, at times, require elite technical proficiency, but rather that in most cases, the use of a pick does limit what the guitarist can do in terms of overall complexity.

For example, no matter how fast or accurately one can play with a pick, the ability to control three or more voices simultaneously is out of the question. Then again, the only appropriate response to this observed limitation is that the purpose of rock music is not to be complex, but rather to rock as an end in itself.

Just as the use of the pick in rock playing has evolved in accordance with the genre, the highly developed right hand of the classical player is borne out of the demands of the classical genre. It should be noted that the term ‘classical guitar’ is used rather loosely, referring to the fingerstyle method of playing while the subgenres actually span several hundred centuries, including music of the baroque, classical, romantic, and modern periods.

The Bridge Between Genres: Hybrid Picking

If there exists anything like a bridge between the technique of rock and classical guitar, it is to be found in the realm of hybrid picking. Hybrid picking is a technique that allows the guitarist to use a pick and the remaining fingers of the right hand to enjoy some of the benefits of both fingerstyle and standard pick technique. We’ll discuss the two basic forms of hybrid picking below.

Pick and Fingers Technique

As the name suggests, this technique requires the use of a standard pick and the remaining right hand fingers. The pick is held between the thumb and index finger of the right hand, while the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers are used to pluck the treble strings in a similar fashion to that of standard fingerstyle and classical guitar.

One of the benefits of this hybrid technique is that the guitarists enjoys the speed and crisp attack of the pick while also enabling a useful, although somewhat limited control of other voices and larger chord voicings with the remaining right hand fingers.

Thumbpick and Fingers Technique

This hybrid approach is exactly like the pick and fingers method discussed above, only that the guitarists employs a thumb pick on the right hand rather than a standard guitar pick. This style is well suited for guitarists who want an emphasis on bass notes as well as the ability to control melodic lines with the other fingers. The thumbpick and fingers method allows more independence than the pick and fingers technique because the index and other fingers are completely free to control the upper strings, without having to support the pick.

At the same time, the guitarist can grip the thumbpick with the index finger at will to produce rapid-fire single note lines in typical rock style. Some of the best examples of this picking style are to be found in the playing of Chet Atkins, Danny Gatton, and Scotty Moore.

Differences in Finger and Left Hand Placement

In jazz, blues, and rock guitar playing, it is common to place the first finger of the left hand flat against the fretboard, such that the string is fretted with the pad of the index finger rather than the tip. This also happens with the other three fingers, and it is not uncommon to see the left hand thumb wrapped around the top of the fretboard, serving either as an alternate method of fretting the low E string or as a sort of stabilization point.

While it may feel comfortable to use both of the aforementioned placements, they invite inconsistency, and even injury in the realm of classical guitar due to the differences in vertical fretboard width and lateral distance between frets. When coupled with the “over the top” thumb placement and/or “flat finger” approach to fretting, this creates a dangerous supination of the left hand wrist, which can lead to carpal tunnel injury. Playing a smaller guitar neck will not eliminate the risk of carpal tunnel injury due to poor technique, so this is an area of concern for both rock and classical guitarists.

Now that we’ve compared some fundamental differences (and a few similarities) between rock and classical guitar, some food for thought: There is no single instrumental technique that is objectively better than any other; rather, the value of a given technique can only be judged insofar as the technique achieves the aesthetic goal of the music. Thus, if a pick helps you create the sound that you’re looking for, so be it. If you require fingerstyle or hybrid picking to find your sound, then that is what you should use.

Give each of these techniques a try, and see where they lead you. Good luck, remember to have fun while you play!

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