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How a light touch improved my guitar playing

Squier Standard Telecaster - Vintage Blonde

My playing improved significantly when I learned not to bang strings hard.

The guitar above is the Squier Standard Telecaster, although what I'm about to say applies to pretty much all electric guitars.

In my earlier guitar playing years, I used to play hard. I used nothing but heavy picks, grabbed strings tight during play and really raked over frets whenever I did string bends.

I don't do that anymore and haven't for a long time. After a lot of experimentation and researching how many other famous guitarists play, I came to the realization that "resetting" my guitar for light-touch play tremendously improved my playing ability.

In the old way I used to set up my guitars, there was basically no way I could hold down a fretted (as in "barred") 6/9 chord. Heck, I even had trouble playing standard major barre chords.

I had the thought that maybe if I lowered my strings and adjusted the bow of the neck so that it was as flat as possible without causing string buzz, that may help out.

I was right. It did. But not without a few tradeoffs, which I'll talk about in a moment.

My old way of setup was a neck set with a somewhat-generous back bow and semi-high string action. Setting up a Fender style neck (as in 25.5" scale, Modern C shape, 9.5" radius, medium jumbo frets) this way allowed me to do 2 and even 3 semitone bends with no fretting out whatsoever. But between frets 5 and 12 it was somewhat difficult to hold down a barre chord. Power chords were always easy, but full fretted chords weren't.

My current way of setup is to have almost no bow with super-low action. Same style neck shape, but now I can fret full chords almost anywhere. The only place I can't hold down full fretted chords on the neck now is after the 14th fret. Yes, this means I can hold a full barre chord at the 14th if I wanted to. Not that I would, but I could.

The drawback to this setup is that I fret out fairly easily for anything over a 1 semitone bend. There are some areas of the neck where I can get a 2 semitone bend, but certainly not 3 anymore...

...and this is something I consider an acceptable tradeoff mainly for the reason I don't play heavy metal anymore.

With the change in neck setup, I switched over to medium-thick picks. The Fender California Clear in that thickness is my pick of choice. Prior to that, I used almost nothing but Dunlop Tortex in .88mm thickness. As for why I didn't switch to the Tortex in .73mm or the .60mm, the Fender California gives a much brighter attack when playing clean, whereas the Tortex's edges are a bit on the muted side.

Finally, there was something else I had to do: Learn to play lighter. This took some time to adjust.

With hard rock and metal, the distortion effect covers up a lot of non-desirable noises an electric guitar makes. With cleaner styles like country, jazz and surf, every single non-desirable noise is heard.

I found that it was my playing style that made a lot of those unwanted noises happen more than anything else, and the only solution was to learn how to play lighter. So that's exactly what I did.

In addition to playing light, I also started using fingers to pluck with a lot more. With the pick I strike the strings as I normally would, and with fingers I'll do short pulls on the strings and snap them back to the frets. This allows me to go between fingers and pick almost effortlessly. In my old days of slamming strings hard, this would have never worked. But with a hybrid style with a light play style, it does work.

I should also note that there in fact are a lot of metal players who have adopted a light style of play, but for different reasons. The setup is more or less the same with low string action and an almost-flat neck bow. But the metal player's goal is to make for easier soloing and not for chording. And as for strings bends, the solution there is not to bend at all, and instead use a Floyd-Rose system to accomplish the same goal.

Not much in the way of fret hand fingers are used, but with the pick the metal guys go the opposite route I do and use a super thick pick with rounded edges so little to no strike or "squeak" noises are heard when playing solos using high distortion.

In the end, the light style of play really does make a difference and I'm glad to have switched over to it. Again, the only real drawback is that I can't do crazy note bends. But the fact I can fret full chords in so many more places on the neck now makes up for it.

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