Excerpt from the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Marie Flower
If you’re new to fingerstyle, here’s how to play a melody and a bass line on the guitar simultaneously. To understand, try a melodious exercise in first position, with a slow bass line and simple rhythms.
Adopt the basic concept
Students often ask how they can play melodies and bass notes at the same time, and I tell them it’s easier than they think. For example, an exercise I call “Nimble Fingers”, which is a little thing in the key of C major that I may have stolen – I’m sure you’ll let me know if so.
“Nimble Fingers” sounds vaguely classic and uses notes that involve basic chords like C, Am, Dm, and G. I tend to play it with picks and fingers; however, the straight fingering technique will also work well. Whichever approach you prefer, choose the bass notes for this lesson, those on strings 6 through 4, with your thumb, and play the melody with your index and middle fingers on the higher strings.
Before you get into the full exercise, I’ll break it down for you. Throughout the song, it’s best to let each bass note sound as long as possible. In some bars, like those based on the C chord, this will be tricky. As shown on the Example 1, start by playing the third fret C with your ring finger. Since you must also use this finger to play the G of the third fret on beat 4, you will not be able to sustain the note of low C throughout the bar.
A few other chords, like Am (Example 2) and Dm (Example 3), use an open string as root. In these cases, you can easily play the bass note for the entire duration of the bar. You may have noticed that these different chords share the same ascending three-note melody (E–F–G), but when you get to the G chord (Example 4), the melody notes move in descending order.
The first pinch of the exercise occurs when you pick strings 1 and 5 together on the downbeat of the second occurrence of the Am chord, as shown in Example 5. While all the previous examples have followed a simple set of rules for the left hand, with the first finger assigned to fret 1 and the third to fret 3, I fret certain bass notes, namely F and F#, with my thumb, as noted in Examples 6 and seven, respectively. I make a final pinch in the last bar (Example 8), where I play a double-stop (F–D) that sounds like a G7 chord. And for the last appearance of the Dm chord, I do a hammer stroke with the first and second fingers on strings 1 and 3, respectively (Example 9).
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Chain it all together
Now try the complete “Nimble Fingers” exercise (Example 10), which includes all previous digits. Play it slowly at first, making sure none of the bass notes dominate the melody, again letting the notes ring out as long as possible. If you have trouble with certain bars, be sure to practice them until you can play them seamlessly. The beauty of this piece is that the bassline works with the melody so the harmony is clearly defined, even if you’re not playing full chords. However, it can also be satisfying as a duo – just find a partner and take turns playing the melody and accompaniment, using the chord frames shown above the staff.. Note the use of Am7, Dm7 and D7/F# chords, which helps keep things colorful, harmonically speaking.
Mary Flower is an award-winning guitarist, touring artist, and teacher based in Portland, Oregon.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.