How to the play the guitar: part two, Graham Coxon on picking

When Graham Coxon hid his plectrums and began picking, his passion for guitar was reborn

Acoustic guitar is the best, the bones of the music. It has the most integrity because its sound is hard to tamper with. It resonates more with people, who sit in absolute wonder when they see acoustic instruments played well. An electric guitar might look flash, but when you're flash with acoustic instruments it's somehow more impressive. It's much more noticeable if I miss a note on an acoustic, with no cranked-up amp and distortion.

The first acoustic guitar I played was my sister's. It was a Kay and for years after I only played cheap acoustics. Each string felt like a blade as the strings were usually too thick and way too far away from the fretboard. I had no clue I could take mine to Mann's Music Shop in Colchester and ask them to lower the action. There's always going to be some pain involved when learning to play but you can get help with any guitar to make it better.

At first I only learned a few chords to entertain my nana when she was visiting, or to play along with a Jam song. I was about 13. Strange thing is that once you know a few chords, you can't stop. Play a chord and take one finger away and it sounds really pretty - you've just played a 7th or an A-minor 6th without knowing it.

Acoustic guitar playing, in Blur, was a bit of a chore. It was something I'd strum in the background of a song to give it more of a percussive swing. Strumming is one thing, but around three years ago I began to explore the history of acoustic guitar playing. The truly incredible players include John Renbourn, Davey Graham, Burt Jansch and, more recently, people like Martin Simpson, who are largely in the folk, jazz and classical worlds. I get an awful lot of reward working out how to play their fingerpicking stuff, which sometimes isn't as difficult as you'd think - but mostly is.

I sat down at about 10 o'clock one evening and decided to learn Jubilation by Davey Graham, bit by bit. I sat in front of the CD player listening repeatedly - it took me until about 4am to have pretty much figured it out. And then I practised it over days and days. I still can't play it very well, but I had a go and I've since learned a lot more fingerpicking.

When you hide all your plectrums and decide to play only with your fingers, the hardest thing, apart from stopping biting your nails to grow them long enough to pick the strings, is separating your thumb from your fingers on your picking hand. Much like a pianist is able to play different parts with each hand, you have to think bass with your thumb and melody with the fingers. Often the rhythm of the melody will be opposing and syncopated while the bass is steady. Once you master that, that's it, the floodgates open. Listen to any of the blues players like Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James - they were all doing that. The hardest part is switching your brain off and letting it be automatic; look down and your hand is disconnected from your mind, doing its own thing. But as soon as you become conscious of it, it stops.

There's just as much value to playing alone, for yourself, as there is to performing for others. I play on my own all the time. People say that you live longer if you have the comfort of a pet cat. Well the acoustic guitar is my equivalent of a cat.

Choosing the right guitar
In terms of choosing acoustic guitars, remember that the sound is governed by the size. The large dreadnoughts and jumbos, with big, fully rounded sound, are best for strumming, whereas the smaller models, from the OM sizes down to 00 and 000, have a more pokey sound that suits fingerpicking. They're also shallower so they're more comfortable. Pick on a huge guitar and you'll be sitting on a sonic cloud, with no clarity.

I use metal strings, quite thin ones (about 11s - the thinnest you can get), because I like to bend the strings.

I own some beautiful vintage guitars but I tend to think they are like skateboards: after a while they lose their pop. They can get very dry and they lose their sound as the moisture goes, the scratch plate will curl up and the wood will split, necks can warp. All sorts of nasty things can happen. You have to really know what you're doing buying vintage so I generally think new ones are a better bet.

If you do have money to spare, you can get a guitar made for you bespoke by one of a number of very fine luthiers (guitar makers) in this country.

Fylde in the Lake District, Brook in Devon, Alister Atkin in Canterbury, Elysian in London and Ralph Bown in York all make extremely beautiful instruments that can range in cost from £1,500 to around £4,000. A very fine instrument can inspire your playing no end, but maybe get a cheapie first - and go on to the good ones when you have mastered Davey Graham's Anji!

Graham Coxon

The GuardianTramp

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