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Guide to basic picking techniques

During your beginner years as a guitarist, it’s normal to be confused with all the different picking techniques. When you first realize that there is more to only using the pick or fingers many terms like hybrid picking, alternate picking, etc. start to show up.  Which one should you choose and what are the benefits of each is a common question.

In this article, I will explain the basics of different common picking techniques and help you decide on which one you should work on.

Why should you know different picking techniques?

Learning how to switch between different picking techniques is essential to be able to play different music styles and fully explore all the sonic possibilities of your guitar.

As Mark Knopfler famously quoted, “ The guitar pick is the most powerful amplifier.”  And truly so, once you switch from playing with your finger to a pick you can feel that the guitar is louder, sounds brighter, with more attack. The same thing applies when you play with different parts of your pick. The point of your pick will always sound different than the side of the pick, and pro players know that!

Apart from the different sounds, you can get, certain styles of music require that you master a specific technique. Bluegrass musicians, for example, invented a new alternate picking technique called ‘Flatpicking” to be able to play fast enough to match the fast BPM of the genre.

Overall it’s important to know the basics of each picking technique, or at least the ones that relate to your style. In time, even without proper training, you can develop a style of your own based on the technique.

What are all the most common picking techniques?

The most common picking techniques are the following

  • Alternate picking

Alternate picking is the first technique many guitarists encounter as it implies the basic up and down movement of the pick.

Alternate picking is the basis of all other techniques that use a pick and is common in any genre of music. The most common picking technique is also the most challenging one to master due to the mechanics of the up and down movement that gets harder and harder the faster you go.

My advice is that at whatever stage of playing you are you should work with your alternate picking at least for some minutes every day.  Playing fast, or tremolo picking as some players call it is very engaging physically and is the first thing you can get sloppy with if you don’t play for a while. Becoming a good alternate picker will then help you master other techniques derived from it like cross-picking, sweep picking, etc. as you become a better player.

  • Down picking

Down picking as the name implies is a technique when you only down pick on strings. Depending on how much you mute the string and the tone you are using, down picking creates a percussive effect and a “staccato” feel.

Many people relate down picking to heavy music where the guitarist palm mute with the right hand and down pick guitar riffs.  A pro tip on down picking, whether on acoustic or electric, is being very aware of your timing and consistency.
While alternate picking you can get away with some inconsistencies or playing slightly out of time. While down picking however it’s important to be as consistent and on time as you can, as you contribute to both rhythm and melody, and timing issues are noticeable.

  • Hybrid picking

Hybrid picking involves using both the pick and fingers at the same time. It is a technique that can be used in every genre and one that is usually naturally developed by players.

Hybrid picking creates a very interesting sound, as the bass strings are played by the pick and have a snappy attack while the other strings with your fingers sound warmer and rounded. Hybrid picking helps a lot while playing fast licks on different strings where the pick would naturally have to move all around the place.

There is no set methodology on how to learn hybrid picking, however, there are some tips that can help you. First is you should find a “hiding spot” for your pick when you use your fingers. Most players hold the pick inside their palm or in between the index thumb and index finger while using their fingers. This way you can right away switch to the pick, fingers, or both.

The second tip is to be aware of how hard you play with the pick and fingers and try to match both. You don’t have to match the playing strength exactly, but at least so that there is not much volume difference between the strings that are being played with a pick and the ones you are fingering.

  • Fingerpicking

Fingerpicking is the standard for classical guitar and many styles of acoustic guitar. Detailing fingerpicking is a very wide topic in which many sub-genres like Flamenco and modern fingerstyle guitar are involved.

The tone while playing with your fingers is generally warmer. To make the tone louder and brighter fingerstyle guitarists usually tend to their fingernails and grow them to a certain length
Starting with fingerpicking personally helped me become a better player when I played with a pick as I could right away tell the difference in tone and switch between playing with my fingers or a pick.

Final thoughts on basic picking techniques

At a certain point in our playing, we are challenged with new styles of music that require different picking techniques. At those moments it’s sometimes up to you to decide whether to hone on one technique or blend several ones to achieve the same result.

Don’t be afraid to break some rules and fingerpick what usually is played with a pick or vice versa. This way you can end up developing your own technique like many guitarists in the past and get a different sound out of the same lick or riff.

Our music drills will be your best companion to practice scales for your picking techniques.

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