Stop Picking & Strumming Like This...

Common picking problems are an area that I work on repeatedly with my private students. In fact, there are three areas of picking hand technique that I need you to start paying a lot more attention to if you want to develop better; accuracy, picking comfort, as well as, faster picking ability. Mastering these areas will benefit picking single notes along with strumming since they work to produce more feel and a more accurate strumming style...

Nobody is born knowing how to properly pick and strum a guitar, it has to be learned. And, if it doesn't get developed properly, the chances are that you're going to develop bad habits.


When it comes to developing picking, there are 3 areas that need to be addressed, and I’m going to discuss them all for you in this post.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to break down each one of these areas in detail so that you'll have better results without the risk of poor performance and even injury that can often come when you play guitar for a long time with bad technical playing habits.

One of the worst of these bad habits, is holding the forearm at the wrong angle when picking. This creates poor relative motion between the body and the pick attack and it adds more tension throughout your hand movement.

Over time, improper forearm angle can cause repetitive motion injuries through the hand wrist and arm due to increased tension.

If you're doing this - then I want you to STOP doing it - seriously.

The picking arm’s angle over the guitar’s body controls the way that your guitar pick will sit at the guitar string when you’ll want to pick or strum.

I want to begin by getting you to take a look at some photos of just a few of the world’s best guitar pickers.

In each image, pay attention to four things, their; angle of their elbow, their forearm position across the guitar-body, as well as, their wrist in relation to their forearm, and any levels of tension.

Al Dimeola:
In this image you can see how his elbow is only bent slightly, his forearm is resting across the top back edge of the guitar’s body.

Notice how his wrist angle allows for a perfect coverage of the guitar strings @ primary picking area for the style of guitar he’s playing. You’ll notice that these areas will be very consistent among the players we analyze.

Steve Morse:
This super picker (as you can tell) shares many of the same trademarks we had noticed within Al Dimeola’s hand and arm posture.

Notice the slight curve of the elbow, the forearm resting on the top rear edge of the guitar’s body, and the slight wrist angle for an accurate pick placement over the strings.

Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen:
Next, let’s look at a side-by-side photo of two other super pickers, “Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen.” In this image, take a close look at the similarity for each of their hand wrist and arm angles.

It’s more of the same forearm posture elements that we’ve been noticing from player to player, (the slight curve of the elbow, the forearm resting on the top rear edge of the guitar’s body, and the slight wrist angle for an accurate pick placement over the strings).

Joe Satriani:
Lastly, I wanted to show a resting image of guitar great Joe Satriani. In this image, he's sitting down with a guitar in between playing examples during an interview.

Notice the same factors are all present again, even when a great player like him is not even performing anything.

The next area I want to get into is how guitarists hold the pick. This is an area of picking technique that often gets lost in the details, because for the pick to operate most effectively, (and you can double-check this against any of the world’s most respected players), we need to have the pick held between two fingers, the index and the thumb...

between the thumb and index finger

The most important element of holding the pick actually has to do with the pick’s angle at the guitar strings combined with the amount of force that you create when you’re gripping onto the pick. this produces the control over "dynamics."

pick angle and dynamic control are part of one process

The grip that a guitarist develops for picking a melody or a scale, is generally tighter. However, if you’re strumming chords, the grip will tend to be looser and more relaxed (between the fingers), so that the pick will actually be flexing between the fingers as you strum and help provide a smoother sounding strumming effect across the guitar string groups that you’re striking.

As far as the pick angle, you’ll want to focus on having the guitar pick at a slight angle into the strings, so that the edge of the pick is striking the strings from its side and not directly into the guitar body.

pick angle is generally 30 to 40 degrees

As you could imagine, this all takes a great deal of time to perfect. But, the key to success is awareness. If you want accurate smooth /fast picking and strumming you’ll need to focus on the grip on your pick, along with the angle of the pick into the guitar string to make this happen.

The final area I want to discuss is hand, wrist and arm tension. And, how important it is to keep tension low in your body as a musician. When tension levels are high it affects playing ability and this is why it is critical to have low tension for playing success.

What I’ve noticed over the years, is that for musicians: tension really likes to creep into the muscles of the hands, wrist and arm unconsciously. It's a stealth problem that we often catch far too late.

What’s even more interesting is where tension will start in the body. The body creates tension from the Central Nervous System (CNS).

When we’re stressed, we get chemicals in the form of Adrenalin and cortisol rushing through us through our CNS. It happens quickly and it starts revving up our blood and in turn tightening our muscles causing stress.

stress produces a rush of chemicals to the adrenal glands

An adrenal gland rush of cortisol may be fine in an emergency, but playing a scale as perfectly and as quickly as possible isn’t exactly a life-threatening emergency.

For the very best performance, we need to keep stress and tension down and we need to stay relaxed while playing guitar at all times.

When it comes down to staying relaxed while playing, you’re best bet is to focus on the music’s dynamics, and its timing.

Feel the Music - Become the Music:
As you perform your guitar parts, you’ll want to learn to pay maximum attention to how you breathe with the flow of the rhythm parts that are being played by the bass, drums, and rhythm guitarist.

The biggest cause of tension is when you start to listen only to the sound of your own guitar, and only to the musical ideas you want to hear come from it.

When / if you ignore the feel of the music’s flow (generated by the rhythm section), you separate yourself from the larger musical experience. This separation - in turn - adds tension because you're out of sync with the entire musical function.

Zoning in on the music is going to make a huge difference to how relaxed and balanced you are musically.

If you can manage to stay more relaxed through the whole song experience, not only will you play better, but you’ll play music that is more balanced.

This "balance" means you’ll be better able to tap into what you want to have come from your instrument since you’re more in-step with the entire musical flow.

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