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Picking Technique

I’m exploring different picking techniques today.

I’ve put in a lot of time over the years on my picking (a lot – think 8-hour days when I was young enough to have that kind of time, and did not as yet have a girlfriend!) and I can do the standard things – the Yngwie/DiMeola/McLaughlin bag, I can do that stuff. But it costs, physically, and I don’t think that tension, stress & pain should be a part of music. So I’ve been analyzing my picking technique – which is pretty standard 70s/80s fusion/shred style – to see what could be improved.

As you probably know, I’m also a violinist and mandolinist (among many other instruments of course… musical ADD!). I think this is a big asset (as well as a big pain in the assets). It was because of reading Flesch’s book on violin technique that I started to think about how the wrist actually moves. Flesch maintained that a side-to-side motion of the wrist is unnatural and inefficient. Now given that I’ve put in a good 25+ years of hard work to get that side-to-side motion going, that’s not necessarily what I wanted to hear! But it made me think, and really analyze how my wrist works. I don’t think he’s wrong. 

Standard right hand position, on which I’ve devoted so much time over the years! Note the nice straight wrist. But does that motion make sense?

When I bow the fiddle, and I want a fast détaché, I use a combination of an up-down motion of my wrist and a push-pull motion of my fingers. This is very good in terms of flexibility, and consequently speed, as it’s the way the wrist and hand was evolved to move. In fact I remember wondering, about a year after I’d started to play violin, why my bowing was as fast as my picking ever was on guitar, despite not having played for very long. Turns out it’s because it’s just easier and better aligned with the way the hand works.

Approximation of oud plectrum hold – note arched wrist. Also note that I’m not using an eagle quill for a plectrum…

Watch an oud player, or a vina player. Their right-hand technique uses a rotating motion of the wrist and forearm, and the results speak for themselves – blinding speed, and astonishing precision. Some mandolinists use a similar technique (although most mandolinists use an incredibly stiff-armed technique that seems destined to cause problems later in life).

So I’m trying out a variety of things. Trying a new pick direction, with the pick at more like 45º to my thumb rather than 90º; a curved wrist to go with the oud/vina approach; and even thinking about ways to make the violin hold work for me (although I’m not even sure how I’ll hold my pick then!). This is my standard hand position when I’m picking tunes, whether jazz or Celtic:

My hybrid comping/soloing hand position, which I use when I’m not strumming aggressively – allows me to pick with my middle, ring and pinky fingers as well as the plectrum. Looks much more tense than it really is. I have big hands.

What are your thoughts? What crazy pick holds do you use? Do you pick with your thumb? (I’m learning that one). Classical style? Do you use a cordless drill with picks stuck to it like Paul Gilbert? Let me know!

7 responses on “Picking Technique

  1. Norah Kerr

    I was browsing though youtube last night and went past something by The Corries, and they were both sitting with their guitars in a far more upright position then is usual and I thought it looked more comfortable for wrist angle (if kinda goofy for stage presence) and I had intended to ask you about it.

  2. Michael Nixon

    I hold the pick sort of in between 45 and 90 degrees most of the time. I really do need to get myself picks that have some sort of rough surface on them. My grip isn’t what it used to be. I don’t really go for speed anymore, it’s hard enough to stay accurate. What I do tend to do is hook my pinkie over the high E string to anchor and only move it if I have to hit that string. I never could master that whole ‘floating’ picking thing. And I have never been able to do that hybrid picking thing which throws country stuff right out the window.

  3. Ben Deschamps

    Interestingly I find the rough-surfaced picks, and the Gator-Grip picks, much harder to hold onto than regular picks (whatever the hell they’re made of… they’ve discontinued my favourite Dunlop 500s apparently). I like the pick to hit the string dead-on parallel, because I’m not fond of the scratching sound when it hits at an angle, but of course that’s personal preference. As for different angles of holding the guitar – I know some people who hold their guitars at a very steep angle, and if you’re aiming for parallel pick-to-string angles, that’s a disaster; if you’re looking for 45º pick-to-string, you’re golden.

  4. Michael Nixon

    I like Dava picks for electric. they have a little bit of tip showing and the rest of the pick is rubber coated with some sort of hinge like thing in the middle so you can choke up on it and get the effect of a thicker pick or ease off for strumming. They sound horrible IMO on acoustic however. I pretty much use Fender Thins on acoustics.

  5. Eric Coleman

    I love my Dunlop Nylon picks. I use a .60 for most things now, with a .73 or a .80 when I need a bit more rebound from the strings. I have been working on getting my wrist looser, which has helped a lot with my endurance over a long show. I’m still too lazy of a player though.