|Guitar Player, November 1987|
Pro's Reply by Jas Obrecht Leo Kottke: Fingerpicks Just Aren't Necessary
Midway through a solo concert, his right arm and fingers froze. "It was as though each finger had to push a refrigerator out of the way before I could get to the string," Leo Kottke describes. The problem was diagnoses as tendonitis, and it signaled the end of the world-class acoustic guitarist's reliance on fingerpicks. In his May '87 Frets cover story, Kottke went so far as to say, "If I could start my career over again, I would never get involved with fingerpicks. They just plain aren't necessary."
Why do you regret ever using fingerpicks?
Basically because it was so hard to get away from them once I had started. Also, they caused me some problems. I developed tendinitis after a few years, and started playing a lot harder than I needed to. There's something about wearing fingerpicks that allows you to go over your muscle threshold. It's called hysteresis: If you accelerate an engine real hard and suddenly take your foot all the way off the gas and put it in neutral, all that force has to go somewhere, and it basically goes into bending the parts in the engine. The same thing happened to my arm. It took me quite a while to recover from that.
Did the symptoms come on gradually?
It was gradual in the send that I was getting warning pains here and there. Then I was playing one night in Denver, and my hand and my arm just froze. It was really bad. When you do very repetitive things in a small arena with the same muscles for that many years, something is usually going to give. I know a lot of players who have the same problem, and fingerpicks are a good, quick way to get there.
Did you abandon all the picks at once?
No. By playing without anything, I literally just couldn't get a sound, so I started out by dumping the fingerpicks which I wore on my index and middle fingers. But things were pretty much the same when I took off the the fingerpicks and kept the thumbpick, so I slowly went to thinner and thinner thumbpicks. Then I got up the nerve to finally throw away the thumbpick. That was the hard part. When your abandon the thumbpick, everything changes. It feels literally impossible, and it's a terrible thing to have to go through. That's why I wish I'd never started with them. But even before that, I had made several albums where I didn't use picks. While I continued to use them onstage, I found I could record without them, depending on the piece. In the studio you don't have that urge to rip into the guitar that you have onstage. I always have the feeling onstage that force equals projection, which is an illusion and not true. But it's very hard to shake that, so I always find myself using a little more power there. You also don't have to play for an hour-and-a-half solid in the studio, so you don't start noticing blister problems, nail fraying, and that kind of thing.
What compensations did you have to make once you have up picks?
In the beginning I had to settle for having just a fraction of the punch that I used to have. But after a while your punch comes back. You just learn how to balance differently, and that's what saves your arm. You begin to use less force and more balance to get the same amount of power.
Did you have to change string gauges?
No. I am using a lighter string than when I first started to play, but that's just because I find that I have a little better luck with sound systems, pickups, and microphones with a slightly thinner string. I used to use a .013 to a .056, and I'm a .054 on the bottom now. I still have a .013 high E, but no it's a .016 instead of a .017 for the B., a .024 instead of a .026 for the G, and so on. I like the heavier high E, though,, because it has more body than a .012. To my ears, a .012 is a little too thin. Then again, it depends on the guitar, too. Some guitars sound fine with them.
Have you noticed that you can do some things fingerstyle that you can't do with picks?
Absolutely. There are more advantages to playing without them than there are disadvantages. You can use the backs of your fingers, as well as all sorts of surfaces on either side of your thumb or fingers that are unavailable to you with fingerpicks. I can also get a much better rhythmic sense without picks. If you were to make a movie of your attack without a pick, the string actually goes across the finger, so in effect you're bowing the string when you don't use picks. It produces a much more appealing note. The note itself has a niftier sound, and you have all that time while the string is going across your finger to color it or to work on it. You also have all that time to release it at the right moment. Without picks, you have more time in general to do what you have to do. With picks, it's just that instant, that one point of hitting and going past the string. I should point out that there are people -- David Lindley, for instance - - who play absolutely beautiful with picks. But I really like to feel the strings. It's a great pleasure to be able to just grab hold with your digits and play. My arms behave a lot better, and it's more fun for me.
To compensate for the lack of tone without picks, did you have to reposition your right hand closer to the bridge?
No. You actually wind up playing further from the bridge and more towards the hole, because you can use a looser part of the string without going out of pitch. You just have so much more control. You can play up and down those strings, where with picks it doesn't pay off quite as much. Overall, my position becomes less contorted without the picks. I had much less wasted motion and more time to pay attention to the music. Once of the most important things -- and it took me a long time to learn it -- was that I had to use much less fingernail than I thought. Nowadays I have almost no fingernail involved in the playing.
Do you keep your thumbnail longer?
It tends to be longer, just because I don't use it much. My playing with the thumb comes mainly off the side. I use a callus that I've built up there. When I'm making single-note runs, sometimes I squeeze my thumb and index finger together and use it like a flatpick.
Did any exercises help you get past tendinitis?
Yeah, I did a few that seemed to help. This was just stuff I found that felt good. One was to lay my hand flat on a tabletop, and then independently tuck each finger under back toward the palm, and then bring them out again. I just did it for a few seconds, and that helped quite a lot. There was a kind of release that I'd get right away from it. Fortunately, I haven't had any problems with tendinitis for a while now.
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