Years ago I studied Kenpo karate. I was a good and dedicated student. Because of my athletic background, the movements came pretty easily, and because of my musical background, I was able to mentally organize the sequences and execute them without too much fumbling around. Plus, I had a killer horse stance. Just ask around.
I made it all the way to 3rd degree brown belt before my music travels started to really conflict with my karate studies, so unfortunately, it was bye-bye Kenpo. But like most students on a martial arts journey, I had spent quite a lot of time learning about the legendary Bruce Lee.
Now any serious martial artist has studied and dissected the teachings and techniques of Bruce Lee; it’s required knowledge, like reading the works of Plato and Socrates for philosophy majors, or learning “Johnny B. Goode” and “Purple Haze” for rock guitarists. It’s what you do.
Fast forward to a recent lesson with a student (Yo, Bailey!). We were working on a particular guitar technique – that had absolutely nothing to do with karate, mind you – when, all of a sudden, the spirit of Bruce Lee entered the room and said, “Teach Bailey about the One-Inch Punch.” So I did.
The One-Inch Punch
Bruce Lee was famous for many martial arts techniques, but one of his most legendary is the “one-inch punch”. He demonstrated this at karate tournaments and seminars. In a nutshell, he held his hand about one inch from his volunteer’s solar plexus and proceeded to punch him, from that short distance, knocking him clear across the floor.
The technique is significant because most folks recoil their arm and generate momentum in order to deliver a punch. Bruce demonstrated that, if you can generate enough power through the torque in your hips and legs, you can deliver an effective punch with little to no recoil. For more than you ever needed to know about Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch, check out this fun documentary video, grasshoppers!
What does this amazing, solar plexus-crushing, hip-torquing karate technique have to do with guitar? When it comes to the execution of some fundamental guitar techniques, quite a bit!
Let’s Cover Some Ground
Bruce was doing some serious damage while covering a very short distance with his right hand. Of course, Bruce was the man, and the one-inch punch is a very advanced concept requiring years of dedication and body awareness. Pay attention to the “body awareness” part, because that’s the part with which most of us struggle a bit.
Advanced guitarists would probably tell you to be more economical in your movements – that is, cut down on the distance the pick travels from string to string, for example. I used to preach this same thing in my guitar classes. My mantra was, “Small movements”. What I didn’t realize at the time was, guitar students need to cover some ground!
For picking purposes, they need to move their hand through space and really FEEL the difference between the down- and the upstroke. Most of the problems students encounter with picking is actually a result of them NOT moving with a purpose through space. They play a scale and miss the next string or get caught between strings – they’re not moving through space. Their notes may sound weak – they’re not moving through space. They are trying to use a one-inch punch approach, but they haven’t learned yet to navigate the subtleties of the stroke or generate power in the attack by covering ground.
This applies to strumming as well. Professional guitarists will move their strumming hand as wide as the song allows – that is, the slower the song, the wider the strumming path and vice versa. But less experienced players have a tough time gauging this, and will often err on the side of strumming too small of a path. I say, go big or go home! Cover some ground with a wide strumming path and then dial it back when you’ve learned to generate a solid strum. At that point, your smaller strum will sound big because the concept will be locked in. (Of course, very fast strums cannot be effectively played in a wide path, so use common sense when “go(ing) big”.)
Takeaway point: When picking notes and strumming chords, exaggerate your right hand movement a bit and move through space, so that you can clearly “feel” the nuances of the movement and generate power. Too short strokes tend to blur the details of the movement and encourage weak pick attacks.
Bring the Hammer Down
As you probably know if you’ve been playing guitar for more than a couple months, a hammer-on is a guitar technique whereby you pluck any note and then generate a second note by slamming (or “hammering”) one of your left-hand fingers onto the same string at a higher fret. The key point is that this technique produces a second note without the benefit of another pick stroke.
Sometimes a guitarist will correctly (sort of) hammer the note, but the note winds up being very weak. His/her lack of hammer-on power minimizes any chance that note has of being heard. And most often, the problem is simple: Our guitarist is trying to use a one-inch punch!
Instead of reaching back and using distance and momentum to generate velocity – and therefore, power – students will often start the finger too close to the string. This puts them in a position of weakness, not strength. This weakness is really magnified when playing acoustic guitar, which requires a more forceful approach than the electric. If you don’t cover some ground when hammering on an acoustic, you just won’t hear the note. Period.
Takeaway point: You are not yet Bruce Lee. You may not yet understand how to generate velocity to the string within a short distance. So reach back with your hammering finger and slam the fingertip down HARD on the string! Don’t be shy about generating power here – you can never have too much, especially on acoustic guitar.
But I Wanna Do the One-Inch Punch!
As you become more comfortable with generating power in your picking, strumming and hammering, feel free to try shortening the distance you cover. Do your best to remember the feeling of the pick as it drives through a single note or glides across the strings during a strum. Remember the feeling of a strong and confident hammer-on. Then mimic those feelings from the shorter distance. Again, these things are often a matter of attitude, so don’t be shy. Physical and mental energy are required!
The tempo of the song you’re playing will definitely impact your approach, so it’s a great idea to learn how to deliver the goods over a shorter distance. Fast songs will simply not allow you to strum or pick in a wide path, or hammer from any distance you please – they require more efficiency in your movements (as noted above in the Let’s Cover Some Ground section).
An excellent example of this is Train’s hit, “Hey Soul Sister”. The strum is certainly not difficult by itself, but the tempo takes the difficulty level way up! It’s impossible to maintain that song’s quick groove without significantly shortening your strum path.
Takeaway point: Efficiency is built into our movements slowly and step by step. First we learn to generate power by covering ground; then we learn to maintain that power while decreasing our distance covered. End result = efficiency of movement, aka the one-inch punch!
Share This Lesson!
I hope you enjoyed these tips on movement efficiency, Bruce Lee and the famous “one-inch punch”! If you liked it and learned a few new tricks, please share it with others on Facebook or Twitter, or however you like!
If you would like to get email notifications of any new posts or lessons, just subscribe with your email address in the right sidebar. It’s quick and easy and you’ll only get an email if a new post has been published. Pinky swear!
Remember to cover some ground and generate some power, grasshopper, and THEN do the one-inch punch…and I’ll see you at your next guitar lesson!