Picking Techniques Examined
I never felt particularly comfortable with my picking. I would watch guys picking really fast things and I couldn't work out why I couldn't do it or how they were doing it. But I'm good at gritting my teeth and getting on with it, so I practiced a lot and overcame many of the technical problems I encountered... Looking back on those days now I wish I had approached my technique differently, so I'm going to share with you the things I wish someone had told me back then and used brains over determination!
So how should I pick?
Well that there my firend is the million answer question! And the good news and the bad news is that there is not one answer for everyone - you have to find the way that works best for you, however I will give you some suggestions that I find work well for me.
It's also important to define what you want to do. Different styes require different types of techniques and if you want to play properly superfast blistering rock picking then you need to really give it careful study, thought and dedicate many hours of practice with the metronome! That was never really my goal personally and I don't feel the motivation to practice pure technique for countless hours to gain a few bpm (beats per minute).
I should give some credit to my friend Dario Cortese who has incredible technique and encouraged me to explore my own picking and also introduced me to many concepts that helped me a lot. He introduced me to Troy Grady's Cracking The Code which is a really great look at technical speed picking and helped me finding my own path - but more on that later!
I have been looking at how different players pick as research for myself and it's been well interesting to see how different people approach this, and how many great players just gave up on picking because it was 'too difficult' (Scott Henderson is a good example).
So what is the problem?
If only it were simple! There are lots of problems and lots of answers, and lots of people who say that their answer is the only answer! This makes it a very complex landscape for a beginner - who is to be believed when many 'experts' and some incredibe guitar players say that their way is the right way?
So the biggest hurdle to get over first is to realise that there is not a 'right way to pick' no matter who says it. Each different picking style has advantages and disadvantages and you are likely to change you mind at some point and try different things - and that is ok too, it's ok to use multiple styles of picking depending on the situation and it's ok to use just one style that becomes your own. The big deal is that IT's UP TO YOU - which also makes it hard because you might not feel like you know enough to decide!
What is your natural technique?
The biggest and most consistent difficulty with picking is crossing strings and picking on one string is relatively easy, so lets start with just one string and look at some of the questions and it presents right away. This little test will bring out a few important questions and observations!
Put your frettng hand Finger 1 on Fret 5 of String 3. Now play that one note over and over again, not super fast or anything, just a nice even comfortable speed. For 30 seconds or something, slow enough not to cause fatugue. Now keep it going and watch your picking hand - if you can set up a little camera then filming your picking hand can be very interesting.
So the first big question is, does your picking come from the elbow, wrist or fingers?
Watch the movement, there are three possible ways you are moving the pick to cross over the string, or a combination of them. You will have just found out which is the one that comes naturally to you (or that you've been told to practice in the past!) but I recommend you try all three and see what feels good to you as a starting point.
Personally I ws never a fan of this type of picking but there are some very successful pickers using this technique. In order to make the movement come from the elbow the wrist and fingers must be 'locked' which creates tension and which is probably why it's not for me, I like music to feel relaxed and chilled.
Example 1: Zakk Wylde - appears to use elbow movement, though there is some wrist action going on too.
This is the most common style for picking and the method I have been using for most of my life and still do for the most part (although I seem to make some small movements with my fingers too!).
Guthrie Govan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J503OvHWKko
Example 2: Andy James - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9ebbMpORTE 2:27
Johnny Smith - wrist - gypsy - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQHRPC81DDg
Finger Movement (Circle Picking)
I first heard about Cicle Picking in a magazine in the early 90's and I spent ages experimening with the idea. I think there are very few examples of players who only use this technique but most guitarists will use some finger movement because it helps if you are prodominantly a wrist picker!
Larry Carlton - he's talking here about using legato but watch his thumb closely and you'll see it bend a lot a few times while he's demoing the lines - I've seen it up close in person but this is the best example I found so far that shows it!
Lessons from great masters
So while exploring this topic I found a range of interviews with great players talking about picking. For the most part I didn't find them particularly helpful, but certainly interesting. Often the great players are not so great at explaining what it is they do - quote often how they think they're doing something is not actually what they actually do - which often ads to the confusion!
Gutherie on relaxing your picking hand - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zY85LH4yvo4
Paul Gilbert Lesson
Paul Gilbert is one of the top shelf players who is also an excellent teacher,