When we first take up the guitar, we devote much of our effort to developing the fretting hand. We learn to play notes, to form chords, to master techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs while relying on strumming or simple picking to keep us afloat. As we aspire to ever greater heights on the fretboard, we often trust the picking hand to magically fall in line. But it takes a dexterous hand to execute the notes of your dreams and take you where you want to go. The picking hand is the unsung hero of your guitar playing. The doer to the fretting hand's dreamer.
Nearly all of us have struggled at one time or another to locate the correct string when picking. But no matter how skilled your fretting hand is, if your notes aren't true and sure, you need to step back and evaluate the effectiveness of your picking hand. Like your fretting hand, it is always moving and has to be extremely precise. It will get you nowhere fast to fret one note and pick another.
To play the guitar with accuracy and confidence, your hands must work harmoniously together and independently of one another. Syncing your fretting and picking hands, like everything you’ve learned to do on the guitar, takes practice. Developing the picking hand’s ability to locate the right string at the right moment, and by feel, is key to keeping time, playing with a consistent tone, and doing so without your eyes continually bouncing back and forth between hands.
With so much recent focus on the fretting hand, it's time we give the picking hand its due. Keep in mind that what follows are guidelines, not rules. The style of guitar you play (i.e., classical, metal, country) will ultimately determine how you work your picking hand. With that said, let's begin with a review of the basics. How to Use Your Picking Arm
The guitar can be played in many positions, but some are clearly more efficient than others. First off, hold your guitar so that you are comfortable and in a way that feels natural. The instrument needs to be stable, your hands need to be able to move freely about the frets and strings, and you shouldn’t experience pain when playing. You want your picking hand and arm to remain as relaxed as possible. Just like a tense fretting hand will cause unnecessary strain and tire your arm, so too will a tense picking hand. Should you feel any discomfort, put the guitar down, shake out the arm, and make adjustments.
When picking notes and playing for speed, play from the wrist, not the forearm. You want economy of motion. You don't want your arm flapping around when the aim is precision. Use concise wrist motion when playing lead.
When strumming chords, you want to strike the strings with the pick or fingertip by using wrist and elbow motion. The more vigorous the strum, the more elbow you will put into the mix.
For a refresher on the proper way to hold the guitar and placement of the picking arm, check out How to Hold the Guitar
with Christopher Schlegel. Where You Play
Where you strum the guitar makes a big difference in the sound produced. You can get different tones from different areas of the guitar. Some like the clear, crisp, almost brittle sound that comes with picking or strumming right next to the bridge and choose to play there to emphasize certain notes. Still others prefer the warmer, sweeter, mellower tones that resonate from playing over the sound hole or near the neck of the guitar.
Where you choose to pick depends on the sound you're after. Most guitarists choose a point somewhere in between the neck and bridge, where the picking hand naturally falls. Experiment with the different sounds and vary your picking according to the music you want to make.The Pick
Picks (also called plectra) come in different shapes, sizes, and thicknesses and can be made from various materials such as metal, stone and most commonly, plastic. You can tell the gauge of a pick by its bendability. A soft pick will have the most flexibility, a hard pick, the least. It’s a good idea to visit your local music store and buy a variety of picks in different gauges and materials so that you can try them out and see what works best for you. (It's also good to keep a stash of picks on hand as they're easily lost.) As a general rule of thumb, a good medium pick will work well for most people and most styles of music.
Again, pick choice is a matter of preference and sometimes depends upon the style of music you play. You want to find a pick that suits you. Soft picks are too flimsy for my personal taste, and hard picks too rigid. When you hit on the pick that’s right for you, you’ll know it. It’ll feel just right.
Picks should be held between the pad of your index finger and the pad of your thumb, and act as an extension of your index finger. Only a small surface of the pick should be in direct contact with the strings. Don't grip the pick too tightly or so loosely that it falls out of your hand, and pick in an efficient motion using tiny, contained strokes. For more on the basics of picking, watch Christopher Schlegel's tutorial on the Picking Hand for Beginners. Pick vs. Fingers
Picking the strings of a guitar can be done with a plectrum; with natural or artificial fingernails, fingertips, or finger-mounted picks; or by a combination of pick and fingers, a technique called hybrid picking. (We’ll get into different picking styles in the next installment.) Playing with a pick, or with your fingernails or fingerpicks, gives you crisper tones while picking with your fingers produces a softer, warmer sound.
One of the advantages of using a pick is that it involves less multi-tasking, which makes it easier to do. You generally get more volume and clarity with a pick, and strokes are more even than those played with fingers, which are of different sizes and levels of strength. Alternate picking is far more effective as are tremolo effects (notes played in rapid succession).
Fingerpicking, on the other hand, makes it possible to play multiple non-adjacent strings at the exact same time. It is more suited to playing separate musical lines (melody, harmony, and bass), and there is no need for fretting hand damping when playing chords with the fingers since only the desired strings are plucked. Also, a greater variation in strokes is possible when playing with the fingers, which allows for more expressiveness in timbre. Anchoring vs. Floating
"Anchoring" is when a guitarist rests a part of the picking hand on the guitar, pressing down with some amount of force so that the hand stays fixed in the same spot while playing notes. Some guitarists rest their pinky (or more than one finger) on the guitar body or pickguard, while some let the side of the picking hand rest lightly near the bridge, keeping that contact point fixed in the same location at all times to help stabilize the picking hand for greater accuracy.
You might think of anchoring in terms of writing. When you hold a pen and write, the side of your hand rests lightly on the table top which gives you a feeling of stability and control over the pen. If the side of your hand is not resting on the table, it is more difficult to make the small, precise motions necessary to write legibly. The control of the pick is very similar to the control of the pen—many guitarists feel the need for the stability that the anchored hand position offers in order to pick with precision.
If you are having a difficult time locating the correct string when you pick, you might want to try anchoring for a more stable feel in your pick hand. It gives you a fixed point of orientation, which makes it easier to find the strings because of their relative distances to this anchoring point. Also, bracing your hand allows it to rest on the guitar, and can make it less tiring to play.
However, while anchoring is good for orientation and provides stability and support for your picking hand, it'll cost you in speed and freedom of movement. (This is not to say that anchoring makes it impossible to pick at blazing speeds. It doesn’t. It just makes it a bit more challenging.) Anchoring can impede certain maneuvers, like strumming chords, and most often requires that you release the picking hand to allow for uninhibited movement of both the wrist and the elbow.
To illustrate this point, try shaking your picking hand vigorously from the wrist as if you were trying to break all your guitar's strings by strumming real hard. That's the movement of a free wrist. Now, press down your pinky on your guitar, or even on your desk or keyboard, and try the same thing. Your wrist movement is impeded, no? Yes.
Finally, many consider anchoring bad form. It is often frowned upon by guitarists and considered a crutch that limits the potential that practicing with your whole arm offers.
Which brings us to "floating." Many guitarists prefer to let the picking hand "float," or hover over the strings unmoored, so as not to hinder mobility or limit range of motion. A floating hand is the opposite of an anchored hand: you release the guitar's body, or slightly touch it without pressing down. The fingers of the floating hand may either be relaxed (hanging down) or curled into a fist, whichever feels more comfortable to you.
While a floating hand may provide more flexibility and allow you to move freely, you lose the advantage that orientation provides. You may tend to hit the wrong strings more often until you master the technique. And you also sacrifice the support provided by the anchored hand, so your hand is now kept in place by the muscles of your arm. Floating can be a lot more tiring than playing anchored, but once you’ve mastered the technique and your arm muscles have adapted to the work required of them, this will no longer be a problem.
Whether to anchor or float the picking hand is again a matter of preference. In the end, your picking will only improve if you do what's comfortable for you. That's the reason why some guitarists—like Yngwie Malmsteen—anchor most of the time and others—like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani—don't. Whatever your preference, it would behoove you to learn both techniques. If you master anchoring and
floating, you can use the technique you feel most comfortable with in any given situation.
These are some of the basics of how to use your pick hand. Next time we'll take a look at some picking techniques for both beginners and more advanced guitarists.
_____________Picture from playing guitar with guitar pick by Babak Babali|Source=Playing guitar with guitar pick |Author=Babak Babali |Date=2010-4-7