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I don't play the guitar and have only a casual knowledge. (I was defeated by the barre F chord.) I have the impression, though, that guitarists tend to specialize -- or at least favor -- specific playing techniques: pick vs. no pick, fingerstyle vs. (what do you call the alternative?), slide, etc. I'm not well-versed enough to name all the different approaches.

So, two questions:

  1. Is my perception at least broadly accurate?
  2. If yes, then why specialize in this way?

A couple of my own speculative ideas that it would be helpful to have addressed:

  • the techniques are so different that they are effectively like playing different instruments
  • guitar learning tends to be genre-specific, and particular genres tend to favor particular playing styles/techniques.

My point of reference is piano, where my experience has been to learn and apply "all" of the techniques.

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I think you might be exaggerating a bit. For example, flat picking and finger picking I think are both learned by any competent player. I think a lot of guitar players at least try to develop familiarity with a lot of techniques and types of guitars.

But I agree there is sure to be genre specialization. If you don't like metal, it's hard to imagine someone practicing long and hard to play like Eddie Van Halen. And vice versa if you didn't like classical music, etc.

One technical thing to consider is the slide and tuning. With some slide playing the guitar is put into open chord tunings where fretting changes completely. And sometimes the action, the string height off the neck, is higher on guitars for slide playing, high enough you can't play it the normal way. In a way it's like a different instrument, similar to what @ggcg said about electric and acoustic guitars.

Coming at it from the perspective of piano, it might be better to think in terms of keyboard instruments. Do all pianists also learn organ (with pedals), clavichord, harpsichord? Should accordions and keyboard percussion instruments be included too? That might sound silly, but if you can play classical guitar, steel string slide, electric rock guitar it might not seem so far fetched. Why shouldn't a pianists be able to play a marimba? It's just a big keyboard you play with sticks.

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  • Regarding your comment on string height, is that one reason guitarists will have multiple guitars on stage? To accommodate the setup/tuning needs of different styles/techniques of playing? Also, I'm with you on the piano/harpsichord/etc. analogy. It seems like a very fair comparison. I could play a harpsichord, but I certainly wouldn't have the nuances of technique and style that a trained harpsichordist would have.
    – Aaron
    Feb 19 at 21:48
  • 1
    re. multiple guitars on stage, some will probably be about the stringing or tuning, but for a lot of rock players it is probably about tone, neck feel/action, and just plain old affection for certain guitars. Feb 19 at 22:19
  • @Aaron I think it’s a bit of both. Jimmy Page is one example of a guitarist who is at least competent at many styles of guitar. With Led Zeppelin, he recorded fingerstyle, flat picking, altered tunings, slide guitar, nylon string, and also mandolin and banjo. He changed guitars between almost every song during the Madison square garden gig that was filmed for The Song Remains The Same. Some of those changes were definitely for different setups/tuning, and others were for different sounds or styles. Pro players in pit orchestras also usually command most of the popular techniques. Feb 19 at 22:25
  • I wouldn't call playing like Eddie VH a technique but a style. Many players, including classical players like the Romeros, use the same techniques.
    – user50691
    Feb 20 at 3:13
  • @Aaron Very rarely if ever. The main reason you'd have different guitars is that they sound different. Different pickup types sound different on an electric, and of course electric and acoustic guitars sound different. Some bigger name guitarists will also have different guitars for different tunings so the show doesn't have to stop while they retune, or plugged into different amps for different tones, as well as spares in case they break a string. It's an entirely practical thing, not just "style". The rest of us just use one instrument and change settings/tunings.
    – Graham
    Feb 21 at 12:05
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I would say a true professional will NOT specialize in a given technique. But your perception of technique might be a bit off.

Classical guitar and electric guitar are completely different instruments. "Finger style" electric picking will not produce the same quality of tone as one a classical. You need to get used to the physics of the instrument and there is completely different physics at play here.

On the other hand, in the electric guitar community there is strong opinion on the best way to pick, alternate versus consecutive, sweeping, tapping, etc. Also, in the classical world there is more than one technique for finger style, free stroke versus rest stroke. Within a given style I would expect a true professional to be well versed at all possible methods and techniques applied to that instrument. I would not expect a great guitarist to say "alternate picking is for fools, only do consecutive" or vice verse. But a classical guitarist would probably not even understand the conversation and that's okay.

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There might be some statistical effects related to which guitarists you see the most.

There's saying that it's better to know to do 1 thing best on the world than to know to do 100 things. Is it true? Hard to say. However if you look at famous artists, many of which started as amateurs without formal education, they often became famous for doing their "one thing" better than anyone. On the contrary, we recognize less names of session musicians, or musicians in cover bands who need to be more rounded up in order to handle larger variety of repertoire. In the end the day has 24h for everyone, and everyone has to decide how to distribute their practice time.

In the artistic process it's also important to focus on your idea and commit to realize it. This favors specialization.

Moreover it's rather an exaggeration to say that famous musicians know one technique only. But imagine you're an artist known for your mastery of A, and you also have some skill in B. Would you want include B at all in your performance? In various situations the answer might be either yes, or no.

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  • I think you nailed it. Was James Hetfield better off spending countless hours practicing downpicking until he had mastered it to a jaw-dropping level and could play Master of Puppets the way he did, or should he have spent the time becoming a mid-level jazz guitarist, a mid-level country guitarist and a mid-level classical guitarist instead? Feb 21 at 20:23
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Reflects the rest of life in some ways. If one either finds they're good at something, or particularly likes something, one will pursue that something more than other things.

Learning the guitar from scratch, one learns certain common techniques, for want of a better word. One happens to like, or be good at, some more than others. So one continues with those more and more, getting better and better. Those 'techniques' which one doesn't much care for get left at the wayside.

For the guitarists who become better known for their capabilities in certain directions - Wes, octaves, EVH, tapping, Mark King (Level 42) slap 'n' pop, etc., then that becomes their trademark, and that's what fans expect. Go off at a tangent, lose sales, folly.

Changing 'techniques' into 'style', which is probably more appropriate, makes the question applicable to just about any instrument. It happens that we perceive so many different guitar 'techniques' as inseparable from the style of playing they're used in.

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I have been playing the guitar for about 10 years, and in my experience, it's a mix of a lot of things. Keep in mind that I have had little formal training, so my learning experience has been basically along the lines of "Hey, this sounds cool, lemme see if I can do it". Learning it this way, I've noticed that there are some things that I just don't appreciate and thus, don't have a motivation to learn except being more well-rounded. So there's definitely an affinity thing going on that will at least influence what techniques you know well and what techniques you can't even do. There's also the issue of practice time. Any amount of time you spend practicing a technique is time you didn't spend practicing some other technique. Ideally, you'd set up your practice routine such that you go over all major techniques, but in the real world, affinity again plays a really big role in this. If you're a professional metal guitarrist, for example, chances are that you don't have 3 or 4 hours a day to practice classical guitar, because you're gonna use every lick of time you have to practice metal. This is not to say that there aren't people out there who can do both really well, but at the end of the day, the guy who is dedicated only to a single technique or range of techniques will probably be better at it than the generalist. Overall today I have a very different outlook than I did when I first started playing, and I wish I hadn't just gone along with what I enjoy and instead had focused on being more well-rounded when I had the time to practice 6 - 8 hours every day. If you're new to the instrument, it's probably a good idea to be a balanced musician until you are confident that you know enough about it to specialize.

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