Establishing a good picking technique is not only a crucial part of learning to play guitar, but it’s also a fun way to inject some personality and flair into your playing!
If you’re not familiar, there are multiple different picking styles:
- Alternate picking
- Economy picking
- Hybrid picking (also known as chicken picking)
- And even more!
Many people take picking technique lightly, but the fact is, if you don’t know how to strum with a pick…properly…you will hinder your own potential as a guitar player.
In this article, I’ll share some of my top tips for establishing a proper guitar-picking technique and some exercises to help you along the way.
So let’s get started!
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7 Essential Tips for Mastering Guitar Picking
Whether you’re gently strumming a ballad or shredding through a fun solo, mastering the art of guitar picking is key for developing a well-rounded technique. By following these essential tips, you’ll transform your picking skills in no time!
1. Consistent Playing
If you know me, you’ll already know by now where I stand with the frequency with which you should play guitar. Playing less often but consistently is way better than infrequent marathon sessions – 10 minutes every day, for example, will do more for your playing than 2 hours once a week.
Playing regularly will train your muscle memory, enhance your overall musicality, and hone your playing technique. Not to mention you’re guaranteed to have a great time every time you pick up your guitar!
2. Proper Pick Position
One of the most important things to check is that you’re holding the pick in the right way. You’d be amazed how many students I see with incorrect pick positioning!
Here are a couple of pointers to keep you on track:
- Hold the pick between your index finger and thumb or your index finger, middle finger, and thumb
- Make sure to hold the pick firmly, but not too tight
- Point the pick directly down toward the guitar at around a 45-degree angle
- Rest your picking arm gently on the guitar for stability
3. Start With Slow Picking
As with any new skill, it’s good to start off slow. I usually recommend starting off with one pick every 1-2 seconds. Focus on precision and technique rather than speed, ensuring each note is clear.
As you become more confident in your picking skills, you can gradually increase the speed.
4. Use a Metronome
One of the best ways to keep time when picking is with the help of a metronome. Following on from the previous point, start off slow and gradually increase the speed.
The metronome will help you stay on beat and train your picking hand to work in sync with your strumming hand.
5. Practice Basic Picking Patterns
Start off with some of the most basic picking patterns and slowly add more complex patterns to your arsenal.
Here’s a couple of the basic patterns to get you started:
- Downstroke: strike the pick downwards along the strings
- Upstroke: strike the pick upwards along the strings
- Alternate: alternate between upstroke and downstroke
6. Advance to Complex Patterns
Once you’ve mastered some of the basic patterns, it’s time to move on to more complex ones.
Here are a few to try out:
- Arpeggiating chords: Play the individual notes of a chord
- String skipping: Play consecutive notes on non-adjacent strings
- Sweep picking: Play single notes on consecutive strings with a ‘sweeping’ motion of the pick
7. Focus Solely on Picking
When getting to grips with picking, it’s often the case that your strumming hand can be distracting. Doing two different things with your hands can be tricky at first, but with a bit of practice, you’ll get used to it.
I always recommend starting off with just your picking hand, this way you can ignore melodies and chord transitions and focus solely on your picking.
The Best Picking Exercises for Guitar
Alright, we’ve covered the basic theory for getting better at picking, let’s take a look at a couple of exercises to help you put it into practice.
Exercise 1: The Annihilator
The Annihilator is, in my personal opinion, one of the best ways to build strength, speed, accuracy and dexterity in your picking hand. It’s also amazing for developing coordination between your picking and fretting hand!
Now the name might spook you slightly, but don’t be scared – the only thing that’s getting annihilated here are your guitar playing goals!
Take a look at the above tab to get started. But if you want to learn about this exercise in more detail and see the full sequence, I wrote an entire article (with an accompanying video) on this incredible guitar exercise here.
Exercise 2: Alternate Picking Drill
This exercise is great for improving your alternate picking technique. Here’s how to do it:
- Pick a single string up and down. Begin by picking a single string, for example, the low E string, with a downstroke. Then, immediately pick the same string with an upstroke. Repeat this motion slowly and steadily.
- Alternate between adjacent strings. Once you’re comfortable with a single string, practice alternating between adjacent strings. For example, a downstroke on the low E string and an upstroke on the A string.
- Increase your speed. As you gain confidence, begin to increase your speed. Focus on maintaining a consistent rhythm and clear, distinct notes. Use a metronome to keep time and challenge yourself by gradually increasing the tempo.
- Introduce variation. To add complexity, randomly select different strings while maintaining the alternate picking pattern – this variation helps improve your ability to switch strings smoothly.
- Incorporate string skipping. For an advanced version of this exercise, incorporate string skipping. Instead of picking adjacent strings, skip one or more strings and pick the next one. For example, skip from the low E string to the D string, then to the B string, and back to the A string.
Ready to Move Beyond Picking?
Improving your picking technique will take time, discipline, and patience. So embrace a regular practice routine and you’ll find yourself on the path to picking mastery in no time!
If you need some help in taking your practice to the next level, then take a look at my course, Tony’s Acoustic Challenge. It’ll not only help you get better at the guitar, but you’ll have so much fun in the process.
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