View Full Version : Questions for guitarists/harpists

05-20-2009, 05:39 AM
I have a few questions about stringed instruments. I've never played one or been around anyone who plays, so I hope these are not stupidly obvious questions. :)

Does a guitar sound different when the player uses a pick versus when he uses his fingers to pluck the strings? This is for a fantasy book, so the instrument in question here is actually a lap harp; I know you don't use picks for a harp (well, I assume), but one of my characters has claws and will use them to pluck the strings. I'm guessing the difference in sound (if any) between claws and fingertips would be roughly the difference between a pick and fingertips. :)

Also, how long does it typically take to build up calluses on the fingertips to play a harp comfortably? Or is that really an issue with harps? And lastly--and I know, I should probably just Google this, sorry for being lazy here--do people play tunes on harps? I've only ever heard sort of chord-like harp playing with lots of dreamy-sounding sweeps of sound, but without a tune like a guitarist would play.

Thanks! Any interesting tidbits you musicians have about playing/learning to play a stringed instrument would be helpful. The clawed character actually ordinarily plays a cello-like instrument (except that instead of a bow, the stringed are always plucked), so if any cellists want to weigh in, that would be helpful too!

05-20-2009, 06:39 AM
Yes, there is a softening in tone when not using a pick. You can also play 3+ notes simultaneously with the same tone without a pick. One note will have a brighter tone if you do it with a pick.

A pick or claws would be more likely to create a buzz on the wound strings of a harp. Finger strength is very important for harpists. You can hear a significant difference in tone between people with different finger strength. The time to develop callouses and develop playing ability kind of go hand-in-hand. You can have callouses and still not be a good player.

Yes, harpists can play melody and complementary chords. Most harpists have the same number of fingers as pianists. :)

05-20-2009, 06:44 AM
Oh, wow, thanks! That's exactly what I was hoping to hear! (And I hadn't even thought about finger strength--that'll introduce an interesting twist.)

05-20-2009, 09:58 AM
There's a lot of good information on harps in this thread:

"Musical Instruments"

05-20-2009, 12:46 PM
Hey Saanen!

See you are from Tenn, I used to live in Memphis!

I play guitar. Picking technique with a pick/plectrum is different. You get a louder, crisper sound, but you can only pluck one string at a time. With fingers you can do a lot more, for example have a thumping base line with your thumb and pick the melody with your other fingers. However, they make finger pics which fit over the end of each finger, kind of like the claws you are talking about. If there is a music store in your area, go there and put some on and try and strum the guitar. It will show exactly what playing with claws (or long fingernails) would be like.

Dale Emery
05-20-2009, 02:23 PM
Picks (including fingerpicks) give a brighter tone than the fleshy part of the fingers. Metal fingerpicks give a brighter, sharper tone than plastic fingerpicks. Fingernails are about as bright as plastic fingerpicks.

Similar for flatpicks (the kind held between thumb and fingers). Most are made of plastic, which gives a moderately bright tone. There are flatpicks made of felt, which soften the tone and the attack. I've never used those (maybe they're more common for bass players). And there are flatpicks made of metal or stone, which give a brighter tone. Brian May (guitar player for Queen) uses a coin with a serrated edge. That accounts for a small but noticeable part of his unique tone.

Also, the thickness of a plastic or metal flatpick matters too, but in ways I don't know how to describe. Not in tone so much as in attack (the initial sound made at the instant the string is plucked).

My calluses come back very quickly. One night in March I played for a few hours with friends, after not having played for over a year. Over the next few days (while not playing) my calluses returned. They lasted for a week or two, then began to peel.

I don't remember how long it takes do develop calluses initially.


05-21-2009, 06:50 PM
Thanks for all the information! This is great stuff! I'll go hop over and read the musical instruments thread--that'll probably give me even more ideas.

05-22-2009, 12:26 AM
Acoustic steel-string Guitar Martin DX-1
I travis pick. I use only a thumb pick and my fingers play the high strings.
but with the thumb pick, I can slap, mute, strum, make it sound soft or bright and it can sound different on different part so the fret board or from the neck all the way up to the bridge.

look up tommy emmanuel on youtube for advanced playing techniques. Get ready for a guitar ride...

I quit playing guitar for 18 years. When I quit, my callouses were extremly thick.
When i started again it was painful almost immediately. To build callouses quicker, I played until I got blisters and then I dipped my fingers in acetone (uncented fingernail polish remover is the same thing). This dried out the blisters and I got another 20 minutes of playnig.

Took me about 3 months to build up to where i can play about 4 hours now with no discomfort. my fingers get tired befor the tips get sore so i don't know how long I can go with my calouses.

I don't have near the thickness in calouses now but it doesn't seem to bother me.

Ideas 'R' Us
05-27-2009, 02:08 AM
I'm not a cellist (I play violin, but this goes for both instruments) but it would be hard to play a cello with claws, because they would hit the fingerboard. I have to keep my nails pretty short. A friend of mine who also plays violin has really long fingernails and has a lot of trouble with it.

Since you said it was a cello-like instrument, this might not be a problem but I thought I would mention it. :)


05-28-2009, 05:50 AM
Guitar player, fiddler here.

There are different types of plastic picks. The softer the pick, the softer the sound. Really hard plastic is almost as good as metal. Fingers don't produce a very sharp tone.

Callouses: I used to have really thick ones, then didn't play for quite awhile. They're coming back pretty quickly though, so I figure the second time round is easier. Since I had the callouses, the fingertips on my left hand (the one I use on the fretboard), have been less sensitive to everything. My right thumb used to have a callouse too, because I used it for picking when I was at home (less noisy for anyone who didn't feel like listening to me...:) )

If I'm on stage playing rythym guitar for Square Dances, etc, sometimes I get so into the music I forget to watch the fingers on my right hand (strumming hand), I play with a pick, but if it slides too far into my hand, the knuckle on my index finger starts to rub against the steel strings. I've scraped it up pretty good more than once. I usually don't realize that until I put the guitar away and realize my finger is missing a layer of skin...lol.