Picking Hand Techniques


wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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03/14/2013 1:10 am


When it comes to picking techniques, there are as many different styles as there are guitarists. Attempting to cover even a fraction of them here is simply impossible. Instead, we'll concentrate on a few standard techniques in various skill ranges that nearly every guitarist will utilize at some point in their playing. Let's begin with the most rudimentary of picking hand techniques and work our way up the skill ladder.

Flatpicking

Flatpicking is playing guitar with a pick versus using bare fingers, fingerpicks, or a thumbpick. The term originated in traditional country, early folk, and bluegrass music. The guitar was primarily a rhythm instrument back in the 1930s, but as more guitarists began to play lead breaks in the '40s and '50s, the term "flatpicking" was coined to distinguish between using a pick and playing fingerstyle.

What a pick is and how to use one was covered in our last installment, "Picking Hand Fundamentals." For more on flatpicking, check out Christopher Schlegel's Picking Technique for Beginners.

Strumming

Strumming the guitar is simply brushing the strings with a pick, thumb, or the back of your fingernails. A strum can be fast or slow, hard or gentle, or any point in between. Some players strum with their fingers when alternating between strumming and fingerpicking or when they want warmer tones, while others prefer the crisp, bright sound of strumming with a pick.

Strumming a song start to finish is typically the second hurdle most beginning guitarists face. The first thing to remember when learning to strum is to relax. You don't want, or need, to put too much muscle behind it. A stiff arm, shoulder, and strumming hand will sound stiff and often times amateurish.

To simulate good strumming technique, pretend you have some honey on your finger with a feather stuck to it. If you try shaking off the feather, that's pretty much the motion you want to replicate when strumming. The brunt of the energy comes from the wrist. Although the elbow helps out a bit too, you don't want the movement to originate from here or your arm will tire quickly. Practice strumming until it becomes automatic. You shouldn't need to think about what you're strumming while you're strumming.

For those who are brand new to the guitar, or for those struggling with technique, take a look at Lisa McCormick's Acoustic Strumming: Getting Started, Anders Mouridsen's Strumming Technique, and Caren Armstrong's Better Strumming.

Alternate Picking

Arguably one of the most used methods of picking, alternate picking is a technique for playing strings fast and fluently with the least possible effort. As the name implies, you pick one note with a downstroke and the next with an upstroke in a continuous run.

Many beginners start by using downstrokes to pick every note. Consider this. You play a note by moving your pick from above the string to under it, and then move your pick back over and above the string to play another downstroke. Why not use that upward movement to pick the string again. You're actually wasting energy by using all downstrokes instead of taking advantage of that upward movement to pluck the string. Going from downstrokes only to alternate picking divides the work of your picking hand in half while doubling the amount of notes you play in the same amount of time. This will help with speed and arm fatigue.

Practice alternate picking slowly to start. Take a few patterns and practice until you can play them with perfect technique for long periods of time. Get comfortable with alternate picking first before worrying about speed. Developing speed is all about ingrained movements.

For more on this technique, you might start with Benoit Nadeau's Absolute Beginner - Alternate Picking or Ben Lindholm's Alternate Picking - Level 1

Tremolo Picking

Tremolo picking is the technique of sustaining, or rearticulating, a note with fast, controlled alternate picks. It's a souped-up version of alternate picking that many metal guitarists use for its rather aggressive sound. The motion done with the wrist should be like drawing quick zig zags or Vs. You might also think of it as a buzzing.

To practice tremolo, it's probably best to start off by using a thin or medium pick which will flex over the string easily. Anything heavier might get caught up in the string. It's also a good idea to have just a small part of the pick protruding from your fingers for the very same reason. You'll need to anchor your hand once you begin to speed up.

A relaxed hand is an important aspect of tremolo picking. Hold your pick firmly but not too tightly as to put unnecessary strain on the arm. A death grip can cause the pick to dig into the string and get tangled up in it, which will slow you down and make for sloppy playing.

For more on tremolo, check out Hanspeter Kruesi's Metal - Tremolo Picking, and Christopher Schlegel's Tremolo for classical guitar, which is performed with the fingers instead of a pick.

Fingerpicking

Fingerpicking is playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or with picks attached to fingers. Using your fingers instead of a pick opens up a whole new world of sound by highlighting individual notes instead of the whole chord, allowing you to play melodies, not just accompaniments.

While there are many different styles of fingerpicking, a basic hand position will use your thumb to pluck the bass notes, while your index finger is assigned to the third string, your middle finger, the second, and your ring finger, the first. Sometimes your fingers may pluck other strings, but this should be your default fingering position. Keep the wrist stationary but not rigid. You want your hand as relaxed and as naturally positioned as possible.

Lisa McCormick's fingerpicking tutorial Getting Started: The Four-Step Pattern is a good jumping off point if you're new to fingerpicking. Lisa also offers lessons on fingerpicking variations, such as Travis Picking, which involves bouncing a steady bass note pattern with the thumb while playing rhythm with the fingers.

Hybrid Picking

Hybrid picking is using both a pick and fingers simultaneously. This versatile style basically combines flatpicking and fingerpicking, and was a technique utilized by some of the greats, including blues icon Buddy Guy.

For hybrid picking, the player normally holds the pick with the thumb and index finger, picking the string and then using the middle and ring finger to pluck adjacent strings. You can also use a thumbpick if you want to free up your index finger.

Andy Gurley will introduce you to this technique with his Hybrid Picking Primer.

Palm Muting

Palm muting is a technique used to muffle the strings slightly when picking. The concept is to slightly mute the notes you pick, yet not mute them so much that they can't be heard. You want to hear all the notes in a power chord, only hear them slightly muffled, which gives them that good chunky sound.

Palm muting involves resting the fleshy heel of your picking hand (the area from your wrist to your pinky) over the bridge of the guitar, anchoring it slightly, so that it stops the strings from ringing. The amount of applied pressure is crucial when using this technique. If you press too firmly, the strings end up being fully muffled. If you press too lightly, there will be no muting at all. The secret lies in finding the balance between the two.

No matter what style of music you play, palm muting is a must-know method. With a little effort on your part, you'll learn this technique very quickly.

Neal Walter's Introduction to Palm Muting will further explain this technique and its uses.

Slapping

Slapping is a percussive technique that can be used for rhythmic purposes or to add a unique dynamic to your playing. With a smack of the thumb on the strings, you can add a whole new sound to your strumming or fingerpicking.

The slap technique can only be done by hand picking. You can't use a pick when performing this technique because it requires you use your thumb. When you play slap guitar you should bounce the side of your thumb at the knuckle off the string. This is the hardest part of the thumb. The two lowest strings are the best to slap on. Once you get higher than the A string, you're better off using other fingers to pluck them. Typically the easiest string to slap on is the low E, but with practice, you can get the A string to sound good slapped as well. You will find some areas of the guitar string are easier to slap on, so you may want to experiment to find the hot spot on your guitar.

You can also slap with a finger or with your whole hand by curling your fingertips and thumb in towards your palm and slap down on the strings with the knuckles of your fingers and your nails. Your hand should be in a loose fist shape, similar to when you hold a pen. You can slap using different parts of the fingers to get different sounds out of the guitar. Experiment to find the part of your hand that gives you the sound you're after.

Hanspeter Kruesi demonstrates the slap technique in his tutorial Slap 1.

Sweep Picking

Sweep picking is considered by many to be a technique that separates average players from highly skilled ones. Guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, Synyster Gates, and John Petrucci create mind-boggling flurries of notes by sweeping. The technique is often talked about in the context of shredding, but jazz players from the 1950s, like Les Paul and Tal Farlow, used the approach in their improvisations. Country great Chet Atkins was also known to sweep pick from time to time, proving that the technique is not genre specific.

The basic idea of sweeping is to play arpeggios (notes of a chord picked in rapid succession instead of simultaneously), both ascending and descending, so the notes sound out individually instead of like a chord. You don't want to lift up your pick for each individual note. Instead, just let it glide (sweep) across the surface of the strings, sort of like you're strumming, but you will articulate each note rather than play all the notes together as one chord. You must synchronize your hands so that your pick and fretting fingers make contact with the string at the exact same moment.

You also will not want to hold all your fretting fingers down as if you were playing a chord. Fret and play a note, and then lift the finger off the string to stop it from ringing. Do this with every note you play.

Splitting apart the notes within a sweep, with both hands working in sync, is essential for preventing it from sounding like a strummed chord. Idle strings should be muted with your remaining fingers so notes on adjacent strings don't ring together.

Learning to sweep properly is challenging and requires patience. It demands perfect coordination and nimble fingers. But if it's speed and fluency you're after, it would be worth your while to invest the time in mastering this technique.

Check out Eric Barnett's Introduction to Sweep Picking to see how the technique is done.

Tap and Touch Techniques

By hammering the string against the fretboard with your finger, you can produce a note with one hand. You don't need to pluck because the impact of the string hitting the fret causes the string to vibrate. Either hand—or both simultaneously—can be on the fretboard, tapping independent parts, making the technique similar to playing piano.

Ideally, a guitar used for tap and touch techniques should be an electric with an accurate neck, frets in good condition, strong pickups, good sustain, and low action so that a very light tap is all that's required to give you a crisp tone.

Touch technique is a bit more complex. In addition to tapping individual notes, touch involves tapping chords as well. It allows you to play chords with the fretting hand while playing melody on the fretboard with the picking hand and vice versa.

If you've never explored tapping and touch, check out Ben Lindholm's Tapping: Level 1, and Hanspeter Kruesi's Touch Technique: Introduction 1, Touch Technique: Basics 1, and Touch Technique 2.

There's a world of techniques to add to your picking arsenal. I encourage you to peruse the GT site and learn as many as you can. The following are a few examples of talented guitarists using some of the various picking techniques outlined here.

Flat and Alternate Picking: Doc Watson, "Black Mountain Rag"
Tap Technique: Eddie Van Halen, "Eruption"
Slapping: Extreme, "More Than Words"
Fingerpicking: Led Zeppelin, "Going to California"
And for a little bit of everything, Kaki King: "Playing with Pink Noise"

Image above was originally posted to Flickr by Chris Hakkens at http://flickr.com/photos/39072523@N02/4634846419
# 1
Steve Barrow
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Steve Barrow
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03/14/2013 6:06 pm
Hey Wildwoman,
I think I've got the privilege of being the first to comment on your latest article - and like all the rest, it's excellent! There is so much great info hidden away on the GT site that it really helps to have a guide like this. Thanks for your encyclopaedic knowledge and constant encouragement to aspiring guitarists.
Yours, Steve
# 2
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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03/14/2013 6:35 pm
Hey, Steve! Yep, you're the first. ;) You nailed it when you say the GT site has a wealth of information, so do poke around. Thanks so much for all your kind words.
# 3
Snowshoe2005
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Snowshoe2005
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03/15/2013 1:08 am
Hello Wildwoman,thanks so much. This essay clarifies a lot for me.

As a visual learner your compositions add an much needed learning aid.

I really look forward to your words of wisdom.

Cheers,
Barb
# 4
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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03/15/2013 12:25 pm
Hello, Barb, and thanks for your comment. I'm happy to hear that the articles are helping you out in some small way. Cheers!
# 5
LIMEY1
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LIMEY1
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03/19/2013 2:03 am
I can only imagine the hard work you put in to produce these very informative articles, for someone who has been teaching themselves to play for the last several years your articles are a godsend, thank you for taking the time to teach us the simple techniques in such a clear manner.
# 6
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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03/19/2013 2:54 pm
Thank you for the encouraging words, LIMEY1. ;)
# 7
rtgray7
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rtgray7
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03/27/2013 12:26 am
Great thread! I will say though that you should've posted a video of Chet Atkins, Doyle Dykes, Tommy Emmanuel or the likes for the fingerpicking example...
# 8
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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03/27/2013 1:16 pm
Well, thank you, Rtgray7. You're so right. Atkins, Dykes, Emmanuel or any number of other fingerpickers would've made fine examples of the style. I just happened to be listening to Zeppelin when I was writing the piece. ;)
# 9

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