How to Improve Your Picking Technique

eric johnson downward pickslanting

An often overlooked area of the technical side of guitar playing is picking technique. A while ago I discovered that my picking technique was somewhat lacking… not crap, but it needed a revamp. I wanted to create and play more complex lines and this required greater dexterity. After taking a long, hard look at my picking hand I discovered it was lagging behind my fretting hand in terms of synchronization and became sloppy when I tried to play trickier stuff. The truth is I had gotten it to a level where I could comfortably play most things without too much trouble, and needed to be forced out of my comfort zone for a while. So what can you do if you want to improve your picking technique?

First of all let’s make a distinction between improving your picking and improving your picking technique:

If you want to improve your picking then this means you’ve already got a good picking technique and merely want to improve your speed, accuracy or chops. This is fine as long as you’re sure that you have a good picking technique to start with, which was my mistake. I thought my picking technique was good and therefore saw no need to improve it. This is where it’s handy to have a guitar teacher or good guitar-playing friend who can give you an honest opinion on your technique as they’ll see things you won’t see. So if you’ve gotten the all-clear on your picking technique, you can head out to the woodshed. If not, read on…

If you want to improve your picking technique then doing a bunch of technical exercises will be of no use at all as what you need to work on are the actual mechanics of picking: how you hold the pick, whether you use alternate picking, economy picking, which direction you have the pick pointing in, whether the force is coming from your wrist or your arm, even down to the placement of upstrokes and downstrokes.

My Original Picking Technique

I borrowed (stole) my original picking technique from the great Frank Gambale (steal from the best) and kind of adapted it for my own purposes. I was never a fan of alternate picking as I always found it clunky and inconsistent motion-wise. What Frank basically does is cross strings using a downstroke when going from the low to high strings and an upstroke when going from the high to low strings. If you’re a fan of alternate picking this will be somewhat of a headache at first but it has its rewards speed-wise as it encourages economy of movement, and you move across the strings using a kind of sweeping motion rather than the choppy up-down-up-down of alternate picking. Don’t get me wrong, Frank’s technique a great technique and you can build up a fair amount of speed in no time but I still felt there was something missing…

How to Improve Your Alternate Picking

If alternate picking is your thing and you’re not getting as much out of it as you could, there are a couple of things you can do. The main difference between great alternate picking and sloppy alternate picking is the mastery of inside and outside picking. Inside picking means doing an upstroke followed by a downstroke (or vice versa) on two adjacent stings i.e. you’re ‘inside’ the gap between the two strings; while outside picking means playing a downstroke on one string and then coming round to play an upstroke on the adjacent string. If you can master these two movements then your alternate picking will improve drastically. This article features some great exercises to treat this problem.

How to Improve Any Picking Technique

One feature that’s common to all picking techniques is economy of movement. Keep your fretting hand as close to the strings as possible and minimize the movement of your picking hand. This reduces the amount of energy required and in turn boosts picking speed tenfold. Check out the video in this article for a more in-depth look at economy of movement.

Which Hand Should I Work On?

This is a good question as most picking technique problems can be attributed more to one hand than the other. Take a good look at what both of your hands are doing while you’re playing. Are the fingers on your fretting hand flapping around? If so, you need to bring them closer to the fretboard. Are you picking cleanly? Is your picking hand comfortable? Are you feeling any tension in your arm? Which muscles are you using? If you’re picking using your elbow, and you’re not Dick Dale, you’ll need to start rotating your wrist and relaxing that elbow.

I digress…

So I went in search of inspiration to improve my picking technique and came across a lesson by Troy Grady. I had never heard of Downward Pickslanting but as Troy explains, this is the secret to Eric Johnson and Yngwie Malmsteen’s lighting fast picking techniques. Troy goes into incredible depth on the technique, and once you grasp the basic idea a plethora of light-bulbs come on. Check out the lesson here and let me know what you think in the comments.


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