I have — really! — been doing productive work this summer; more on that later. But I have also spent prodigious amounts of time learning alternate-bass fingerpicking on the guitar, something I’ve longed to be able to do for 30 years or so.
[If you don’t know what “alternate-bass fingerpicking” sounds like, listen to the master, Mississippi John Hurt — here or here. Thirty seconds or so and you’ll get the idea – though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to (or could) stop listening to John Hurt after thirty seconds. ]
It’s a rather amazing thing, alternate-bass fingerpicking. It solves a profoundly difficult musical problem in a way that one would think is impossible, except that guys like John Hurt are able to do it so fluently. The problem is this: How, if you’re a solo guitarist, do you get music — harmony, melody, and rhythm – out of one instrument? The answer, ordinarily, is: your left hand is in charge of harmony (i.e., the chords of a song); your right hand is in charge of the rhythm, and your voice is in charge of the melody. It’s fiendishly difficult to get it all working together, but that’s what good guitarists can do.
Hurt invented (at least, I think he’s the inventor of) a different system. He splits his right hand – his fingerpicking hand – into two parts, with the thumb in charge of the rhythm and the other fingers the melody. Or rather, the other fingers play a melody, with a second melody line in the vocal.
I know of nothing where the difference between (a) how difficult it appears to be, and (b) how difficult it really is, is as great. You can try it at home to get the idea. Pick a simple song — Oh Susannah, say, or You Are My Sunshine. Tap out a nice steady beat with your left hand – one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four …. Keep doing that, and with your right hand tap out the rhythm of the words to the song: You Are My Sun [pause] Shine [pause pause] My Only Sun [pause] Shine [pause pause] …. Once you get that, do the same thing, but with your thumb doing what your left hand had been doing (one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four …. ) and alternating between your index and middle fingers doing what your right hand had been doing (You Are My Sun [pause] Shine [pause pause] My Only Sun [pause] Shine [pause pause] …. ). [And when you get that, sing along, in tempo!]
Yeah, it really is that hard.