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Paul Yandell (continued)

When arranging a tune for thumbstyle playing, Yandell notes that certain restrictions apply when selecting an appropriate key. "You just can't play it in any key. Some tunes have such a wide range, that you first have to determine where the melody lies. For thumbstyle, open strings sound better than fretted strings- they sound fuller. An open A sounds better than an A played elsewhere on the neck. That has a lot to do with determining the sound. Also, it's a lot easier to play thumbstyle tunes if you have open strings in the bass. In standard tuning, that leaves you with E and A. A lot of Merle Travis tunes are played in E or A. No matter what you do though, there's always one part that gets you. Ever notice that? Every tune's got one part you think about all through the thing "Boy, I hope I get through that hard part". But I've learned that if there's a hard part there's always another place to play it. There are always two places to play everything on a guitar. If you've got something hard to play, work it out in a different position. It'll sound a little different, but it might be better too."

Other than a guitar, the only required equipment for thumbstyle playing is a thumbpick. "You have to use different kinds of thumbpicks for different kinds of tunes. On nylon string guitars like the ones Kirk Sand makes, a lot of tunes sound better with a lightweight pick. I like the Herco pick. It looks like a straight pick with a shank on it. They're a little loose on the thumb, so I glue a little piece of sandpaper in them to keep them from squirming around. Chet uses a heavier pick. He cuts them down a little bit and shapes them a certain way. You just can't buy good thumbpicks anymore."

Yandell recommends a lighter-weight pick for ballads, where a more subtle bass is in order, and a heavier pick if you really want to dig in. "I've never liked the picks that come to a point. They're real bad. You need a pick that's got at least 1/8th end on it and is rounded, sort of oval. I don't know why they can't make good thumbpicks. They must mold those things around a chimpanzee's thumb. I never saw a human being that had a thumb that would fit those picks. If he did, he's in a hospital somewhere!"

To a large extent, the use of a thumbpick dictates the right hand position. But Yandell notes that a more fundamental aspect of thumbstyle playing has more to do with hand position: "You have to deaden the bass strings - the term Mose Rager used was "choking the strings". Basically, you just mute the strings with the heel of the right hand. If you do that, it automatically puts your hand in a particular position. Players who use their thumbnail, instead of a thumbpick, don't deaden the bass strings. They have their hand in a traditional classical position, which puts the hand at a right angle to the strings. Being an uneducated guitar picker, I just put my hand up there where it felt good and started playing. You don't think about things like that out in the country. You're lucky just to have a guitar. You don't worry about where to put your hand. I guess it all depends on how you learned, and what type of music you play. If you want to be a classical player, they'll make fun of you if you don't hold your hand in the classical position. They'll write articles about you." Yandell also notes that switching between the two right hand positions can interfere with your technique. "You can never be good at anything by changing all the time. You have to get on one thing and ride it out. If you want to be a stylist, you have to make your mind up what you want to do."


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