In 1985 I began working with Michael Hedges to notate his music, and in 1990 I offered the first class to an eager group of students at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. These students were, in fact, a focus group, testing the notation to see if it was up to the task.
It soon became apparent that Hedges’ highly-refined technique of resting his right-hand fingers on the strings was an intrinsic and vital part of his sound — an element without which his music would not be the same, would not rise to the same level of expression. On a musical level it clarified lines, and on a technical level it was integrated with the mechanics of his right hand. Since we could find no precedent for this technique in guitar notation, we developed one.
The first attempt was a thick black line centered on a line of the tablature staff. But what we were looking for was something that was present without being overbearing: this information needed to reside in a layer that was coherent, but also visually dismissible.
I recall having at the time been recently amused by research suggesting that a specific shade of pink (which came to be known as “Baker-Miller pink”) calmed aggressive behavior in prisons and psychiatric facilities. And since learning this new right-hand technique was causing some alarm and concern among students (“Do I really have to do this in order to sound like Michael Hedges?”), I thought that it might be a good choice.
There was always one problem with the term “right-hand string-stopping” that bothered me. While the notation of thick pink lines worked very well to notate Hedges’ technique of stopping a string from ringing once he had played it, it was equally good for indicating planting a right-hand finger on a string that was not vibrating in preparation for playing a note subsequently. So, really, this notational device represented two different functions. In the first case, a right-hand finger stops a string which is vibrating, and the term right-hand string-stopping seems perfectly appropriate. In the second case, a term like “right-hand planting” would probably have been more appropriate, and this was common parlance in classical guitar pedagogy. Ultimately though, the pink line notation proved to be very effective for both, and the term “right-hand string-stopping” came to be used for both cases.
The fact that a horizontal pink line shows both a beginning and an end, worked very well for Hedges’ music, largely because his right-hand fingers were rhythmically placed, a technique which he had developed since he was a teenager. And it’s interesting to note that after a string has been stopped, the finger resting on the string often then plays that same string. This is an area where technique and composition just happen to work together.
Here is the description of right-hand string-stopping that we included in the book Michael Hedges/Rhythm, Sonority, Silence.
After Michael Hedges/Rhythm, Sonority, Silence was published in 1995, when I returned to the transcription and publication of music by Leo Kottke, it was perfectly clear that Kottke, since the late 1970s when he abandoned the use of fingerpicks, also had an idiosyncratic approach to right-hand string-stopping which contributed to his distinctive sound. More on this in the next installment.