How is she playing this?!

This girl is finger picking Scorpions’ Send me an angel: At the 0:40 mark, she starts playing the rhythm (arpeggio) and melody together. As someone who plays electric guitar and just beginning to finger pick, I am utterly flummoxed how anyone can play a backing rhythm track and a lead melody at the same time. When I try to play both together, I either lose track of the rhythm or the lead as my brain can’t “compartmentalize” into two parts. Can anyone who knows this stuff elucidate?

Hi there. There are a few different ways to practice this, beyond just hacking through it. The below may seem daunting when you first read it, but try it out, it’s really good. Below is what I’d do for polyphonic music like this:

  • probably the most important is “concepts separate” - play the accompaniment using the same fingering as you would as if the melody is playing (different fingers), then do the same with the melody. Both should feel natural. This is similar to piano, where it’s common / best to practice hands separately (left hand and right hand).
  • once you’ve got those down, you can start to join the two hands together, but you should try practicing hands together a very specific way: first, break the song down into small sections, then take a section. In practice session, you need to practice just one section so that you can play it perfectly 7 times, in 20 mins or less. If you can’t do that, you have taken on too large a section, so you’ll need to shrink it down further. Sometimes a section may only be 1 measure, or even 1 beat. Don’t work on it for longer than 20 mins. At the end of the 20 mins, play that section slowly and perfectly, with proper dynamics, voice balance, no tension, etc – that will give a clear signal to your brain, and wrap it up nicely.
  • Then, stop practicing. 20 mins is enough, more is wasted effort. Come back to it the next day, and play that same section again – you should be able to play that small section (measure, beat, whatever you could do in 20 mins the prior day) perfectly. If you can’t, work on it again with the same process, no more than 20 mins.
  • Then do another section, etc, ensuring they all reach the same standard. 20 mins per section per day only.
  • When you join sections, you may find that you’re back to square one. Don’t worry about it, just practice a pair of joined sections like the above. There’s a mental component to it too … your brain has to get used to thinking more “long form”, and when it first starts joining things it might lock up. Mental tension leads to physical tension, and things start falling apart. So take it easy and keep working it.

To practice one section, you can try a few things:

  • backchaining - start at the end, and then add a few prior notes, building up until you reach the whole phrase
  • ghosting - where you only play one of the voices (melody or accompaniment) out loud, but continue to fret the other voice(s) and pretend you’re picking them. This ensures that you’re really playing each voice, and not just smashing through it with big blocky hands and muscles.
  • modify the dynamics - play the melody ff (fortissimo) and the accompaniment pp (softly-tissimo), or vice-versa

With something like this, when you really get the hang of a few measures of lead/accompaniment, the rest will probably become much easier. Your brain will be able to compartmentalize, it’s an interesting feeling. Take it slowly, bit by bit, perfecting and joining small sections. Keep it smooth, no tension, effortless, etc, and be musical.

You’ll sort it out. Make a plan, and stick with it. If you want you can DM me or post here with your plan and we can hash it out. Cheers! jz

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First, thank you for taking the time to reply in detail. I really appreciate it. The learning technique you suggested makes sense to me and I will try it.

A broader question is, what’s going on in this lady’s mind as she’s playing this piece? I can think of two different scenarios:

  1. She’s playing the rhythm part autonomously, without thinking. Almost like a programmed robot. This leaves the cognitive part of her brain to actively play the melody part. (Is this the way pianists play rhythm with their left hand and melody with the right?)
  2. The other scenario is that she has fully integrated the two parts and in her mind, is playing just one song, but because of the way the notes are integrated, it sounds like a rhythm part with a melody overlaid on it.

Does my question make sense? Or is there another way to think about it?


For me (on piano, at least – I don’t play much of this kind of stuff on guitar yet) It’s a combination of the two. For complex stuff, everything needs to be practiced until it is automatic, but you have to practice beyond that to ensure that you’re still fully engaged with it. Mindless playing and practicing isn’t good. Unless you’re shredding, in which case I think we’re going for something different, :slight_smile: , and it’s still all good because why the hell not. :stuck_out_tongue:

But for something like this, my initial thoughts re the two modes of thought you mention:

  1. In some places, the melody reigns and the accompaniment is there for the backdrop. In this case, you’re more looking at controlling the dynamics, so that the acc. is providing the harmonic backdrop. You focus more on the melody, and work at it. Everything flexes and breathes – but some piano teachers apparently insist that the accompaniment play strictly on time, while the melody is more rubato (free). That would take more effort to reach, but would probably be very rewarding to play and listen to. In that case, I expect that the acc. part would need to be more automatic (but not robotic).

  2. happens when there is a push-pull between the acc and the melody. Sometimes one is in the forefront, and the other behind. This happens more with polyphonic music, where you have two voices weaving in and out, but even with something that’s straight melody/accompaniment you can have them trade off.

I think these are both good ways to look at it, and you can try approaching it from both angles, and see how it feels for you. No matter what you do, if you work at it and always pay attention and be present while playing, it will integrate in your mind, and you’ll find different ways to explore it depending on your taste and mood. Cheers! z

To paraphrase @jzohrab - you just need to get the arpeggiated section, which isn’t particularly busy down to the point where you can leave it on autopilot while you add the melody on top. As guitarists lots of us don’t have a great inner metronome :sweat_smile: so this stuff can be really challenging to keep in time as you have to keep the rhythm section in the pocket while adding the lead lines on top; sometimes the extra notes don’t fall on a strong beat so that makes it especially awkward. The actual mechanical action of what’s occuring (individual fingers plucking each string) isn’t overly complex but putting it all together can be a little confusing at first.

I would look into some Travis picking stuff too - that might help develop the mental independence for playing two different melodies simultaneously. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a technique popularized by Merle Travis where you’re playing a bassline with the thumb while playing the melody with the other fingers. I think Merle mostly just used his thumb and index but you can obviously incorporate all of them.

This is a pretty cool video on it, and he breaks it down from the simplest pattern - all while explaining in it in real time as he plays :sunglasses:

When learning these types of arrangements it helps me to play the simpler part of the melody (or with the Travis picking stuff, just the bassline with the thumb) for a few bars, and then add in the complex melody on top once you feel pretty locked into the beat; rinse and repeat at gradually higher tempo.

Contrary to the common CtC practice of starting with speed and slowly ironing the kinks out while keeping things fast, this kind of stuff definitely can benefit from starting very slow and gradually speeding up as the mechanics of slow and fast fingerpicking in this style is pretty much identical. I started out as a classical guitarist doing Royal Conservatory stuff and learned pretty much everything with a metronome and gradually speeding things up; while I don’t think it’s essential it can definitely help.

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I don’t reply often on here anymore but I wanted to add my perspective ;). I started off on acoustic in a more classical style and got used to this type of playing before ever touching the electric guitar.
The way I approach it is actually as one song/line, In the beginning I learned a lot of different picking patterns and as the music became more complex I noticed that my fingers could easily adapt to the different patterns. I learn the music as if it is just one “voice” and it is more a question of timing when notes fall together. I start off rather slow and just play through lining up the notes that need to be played together and figuring out the rythm of the individual notes. In classical music you play different “voices” simultaniously often but as opposed to piano where you have two lines (one for left hand and one for the right hand) I’m never consciously trying to play two lines. once you get the hang of how the song is played and it becomes easier to play the patterns you automatically start using accents and dynamics on the main line.

There’s a whole branch of guitar technique called Chord Melody, that this is an example of. It seems most popular with players from a jazz background, but there’s nothing really stopping any stylist from developing solo guitar chops. Matt Sickels is really great at it:

Thanks all for your thoughts, ideas, and links. Super helpful. One of the main takeaways is that there’s no secret so start super slow and just stick with it. I am trying to teach my brain new things and rewire it, so to speak. In systems theory, this is like the concept of “emergent behavior” and as I add the two parts together, there will be a satori moment when the integration will work and come to appear out of nowhere.

This definitely makes sense. In fact, for this song and the way this lady is playing it, you will notice that the melody notes don’t even always fall on the same beat as the rhythm. The rhythm is in 4/4 time but the lead notes sometimes fall “in between”. Almost like the player has “finger independence” on her picking hand – will that also emerge out of practice, or are there special exercises for that?

Hi again @superstrings, reading the mighty @Philausopher ‘s points above I’ll add another point where you can get started with this. :slight_smile:

Essentially you might be able to boil much of the piece down to something like:


That is, a ringing melody note on top with a sustained arpeggiated chord below it. You could work on the above, and make sure that the melody not is loud, while the accompaniment is soft.

If you get the above to a point of relaxed ease where you can control the dynamics while keeping a steady rhythm, that might give you a good place to start. Then you can move the top note around in time as well, to explore different rhythms.

My initial response is still good but when you are just starting out simplifying the problem can be good.

I hope that the wave of input you’e getting isn’t making you drown. It’s important to think, but easy to overthink. :slight_smile:

Cheers! Z

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I think it’s something that will come with repeated practice. Like I eluded to before, unlike fast picking, the motions for both slow and fast playing in this style are pretty much the same so it’s something you can apply the metronome method to. I’m a drummer as well and it’s similar to learning how to keep constant time with the left foot on the hats while playing a groove with the right and left hands/right foot. At first, you’ll need to separate the two things since it’ll be mental overload to jump into the deep end and try everything all at once but once the muscle memory is established you can start to develop that independence.

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It’s a good idea(at least it was for me) to learn a song your not that familiar with for this particular technique. IDK maybe I give rotten advice. First one I tried was “Song For George” by EJ. I had skipped over this song so many times I figured I’d learn it! :wink: It seemed so daunting but I just broke it down into pieces and what seems like some kind of magic picking really lines up pretty easily once you get the thumping Travis picking thing down. Good luck! Check out Tommy Emmanuel!