Guitar playing styles and techniques: Exclusive Interview with James Fernando

Translated to mean “Thousand Cherry Blossoms”, Senbonzakura is a song written in 2011 by Japanese vocaloid music producer Kurousa-P (黒うさP), released with the voice of Hatsune Miku. It was first posted on Niconico, a Japan-based video-sharing website, where the song quickly went viral, and later inspired cover versions, including Lindsey Stirling‘s (we had an exclusive interview with her! Read it here).

Eddie van der Meer, who displays such impressive guitar prowess in his YouTube videos, is a fingerstyle guitarist from the Netherlands. Ever since my close friend shared this video of his, I have been both mystified and in awe of the guitar. It reminds me of the time I attempted to learn just simple chords, but promptly gave up because my short fingers could not reach the note positions on the frets.


If you feel like you are up to the challenge, and want to up your guitar skill level, let Bloom School of Music & Arts help you! Fill up this Online Enquiry Form for a Free Assessment, or to find out our schedule for individual or group guitar lessons.


I decided to do a little research about the fingerstyle techniques used in guitar playing, and I am adapting from this comprehensive guide, The Complete Guitarist: The All Visual Approach to Mastering The Guitar by Richard Chapman. As I try to comprehend guitar terminologies and core techniques, I am also thrilled to receive input, pointers, and tips by local musician James Fernando! Read on for our interview with him!

Guitars are chordal instruments (meaning three or more notes can be played simultaneously) which are played with the thumb and fingers of the right hand. On the guitar, chords can be played with arpeggiated (a series of ascending or descending notes) variations, as bass movements or as melody lines. Fingerstyle enables chord sequences to be played without imposing technical limitations.

Contrary to what I believed, having nails are helpful for providing optimum playing control and tone production. The preferred length of nail, and the shape of the nail (rounded, or straight-edged) varies with each guitarist. Nails can be easily damaged by regular contact with nylon- or steel-stringed acoustic and electric guitars, due to the the high level of attack on the strings, so sometimes false nails are used.

Flamenco is a song, dance, and instrumental guitar music commonly associated with the Gypsies of southern Spain. Flamenco playing, and some steel-stringed styles of music based on finger picking, each have their own distinctive techniques and traditions; such as the rasgueado, the characteristic sounds of flamenco, played by using the individual fingers of the right hand to strum across the strings as a series of movements in rapid succession.

PIMA variations – The Complete Guitarist by Richard Chapman

Classical guitar playing is based entirely on a fingerstyle approach, and there are many stylistic variations based off  PIMA, a form of notation used to direct fingering for playing all types of scales, chords, and arpeggios. So, fun fact: the fingers of the right hand are designated letters derived from their Spanish names. The thumb is P (pulgar); the index finger is I (índice); the middle finger is M (medio); and the ring finger is A (anular). The little finger, when used, is X (or E). Here is a short demonstration by Fender Play Instructor Matt Lake:

Here are some pointers Richard Chapman brought up in his book:

“Thumb movement is a vital part of the right-hand technique. Mastering a combination of downstrokes and upstrokes with the thumb enables the player to develop an important element of control for playing rhythms with a relaxed and loose wrist. Strumming with the side of the thumb may also be used as an alternative technique.
When strumming with the index finger, the movement should be made by the finger itself, rather than the entire wrist. When using alternating strokes, care should be taken to prevent the nail from catching the strings and impeding movement on the upstroke.”
In short, practice is important!

I am saving the best for last, so here is the final titbit I want to share about fingerstyling.
Open-string tuning is where the strings are tuned differently from the standard EADGBE, such that strumming with no strings fingered or fretted generates a major/minor chord. The application of open-string tuning can vary from altering the pitch of the guitar, to adjusting individual strings to play melodies against chords on other strings, to tuning for rock chord techniques, or Hawaiian and bottleneck styles.

Bottleneck is a term used to describe the slide technique, often used in Hawaiian music, country music, and blues. A bar is positioned directly over the frets to sound chords and single notes. It is then moved up and down the neck, to produce the effect of sliding pitch. The bar can be made of different materials such as stainless steel, ceramic, brass, and glass, and if you have discerning ears, each can give a different feel and sound very different.

Here is another fun fact: You can make your own glass bottleneck slide! Or you can swipe that bottle of Tabasco from the kitchen. Or just use that shot glass from the bar:

I hope these information has been helpful for you in understanding fingerstyle. And after seeing these talented musicians, I also hope it inspires you to strive to improve your guitar skills. Once again, I’m excited to present James Fernando, local musician, and guitar teacher, in an exclusive interview to find out more about guitar playing styles (email interview has been edited for clarity and continuity):

James Fernando during his livestream

How did your interest in music start?

I recall a few of my family members playing musical instruments for leisure, but the primary driver was probably music being played on the cassette players (and later the CD players). There was a mix of oldies from the 60s-80s, as well as a generous selection of classical music, all of which interested my ear because of the arrangements and harmonies which were rich and multi-layered.


Which musicians inspire you? Who are your favourites?

As a guitarist, predictable names like John Mayer, John Petrucci, as well and bands like U2 will pop out. I also enjoy classical composers such as Mahler, Debussy, and Shostakovich, for the depth of emotion in their works as well as the various colours they evoke in their music.


What spurred you to teach music?

Honestly, I got into teaching mainly as a supplement to income from gigging. In today’s Covid world, with performances so restricted or outright banned, teaching has become my main source of income. I will say that through teaching, I learnt a lot about the instrument, and about the different ways in which people process information about music.

What are some guitar playing styles? Do the playing styles differ with the types of guitar?

There are so many. Yes, different guitar types tend to suggest different techniques on each.
For acoustic guitars, there are various techniques for fingerstyle, some more percussive than others. For electric guitars, there are techniques that use the slide, as well as legato, and tapping.

For example, one is much more likely to encounter single note solos with long held notes on an electric guitar, due to the ease of having sustain with overdrive effects, and the ease of manipulating the string via vibrato or similar techniques because of the lighter gauge strings used, and the availability of a vibrato bar on some electric guitars.

Acoustic guitars on the other hand, due to their resonant qualities, tend to be better for strumming, or for chordal-based tapping and fingerstyle. See, for example, Tommy Emmanuel.

And classical guitars, of course, with warm sounding nylon strings, naturally do well for the plucking-based classical compositions, such as the Bach violin sonatas which have been arranged for guitar, for example, this piece.


Do you have any tips for beginners learning the guitar?

I think before anyone even picks up an instrument, it’s a good idea to find songs that you really enjoy and can listen to actively, as opposed to just putting them on as background music. It’ll also help if that song has the instrument that you want to learn in, as it will further help to spark interest.


How do you push past the monotony of practice, until you can finally master a song?

I think this ties in to my previous point. If I really like a song that much, I don’t mind practising it dozens of times just to nail a part. That said, it’s a good idea to know when to stop and rest. Tired brains and tired fingers won’t absorb knowledge as well.

A screenshot of one of James’ collaborations: Africa – Toto

Are you involved in any musical projects or activities?

I’ve been collaborating with Rebecca Louise Burch and Joel Dunstan Chua, amongst others, for a series of livestreams. This is one of our latest livestreams, supported by Eden Resources.


What would you say to fellow and aspiring musicians?

Learn music because you love the way music makes you feel. The pressures of performance and the often-fickle music industry can come later.


I hope you have enjoyed this article as much as I have enjoyed writing it! I hope to see you soon at Bloom School of Music & Arts. Till then, take care!