“Chicken Picking” is a phrase that gets thrown around with abandon, with no real consensus as to what the hell it really is.
Even Johnny Hiland—who is unquestionably a master of the technique—can’t seem to define it. Here’s him rambling for several minutes about hats, boots, confidence, gear… while only briefly hinting at things involving technique, sound, or style.
[I recommend skipping this video, though the rest of his course is solid.]
Right off the bat, here’s a few things that aren’t chicken picking, at least not in and of themselves:
- faux pedal steel bends
- double & triple stops
- B benders
- behind-the-nut bends
- open-string pull-offs
- banjo rolls
- “melodic” style runs
- compression pedals
- slapback delays
So what is chicken picking?
Chicken Picking is a percussive guitar technique.
It’s commonly used in (but not limited to) honky tonk & country music.
It is almost always played with hybrid picking.
The percussive nature can come from:
- snapping the strings against the frets
- staccato achieved by near-instant unfretting of a note
- staccato achieved with palm muting
- staccato achieved by muting with the pick or picking finger
- picking a muted string
Let’s look at each of those in turn.
Snapping The Strings
We achieve this sound by plucking the strings from underneath, causing them to snap into the frets.
If you imaging your fingernail as a pick, it’s like an upstroke using a severely angled Downward Pick Slanting—the fingernail is pretty much in line with the plane of the strings, and the stroke is perpendicular to that.
Contrast this with the sound of a more vertical stroke.
This is frequently combined with…
[the finger lifts just enough to stop the note from ringing]
If we release the pressure of our fretting hand fingertips immediately after playing it, we get this sound.
It works with notes played with a pick and with fingerpicked notes (especially those snapped strings we just looked at):
Palm Muted Staccato
[selective palm muting of just the bass strings]
I’m guessing you’re already familiar with palm muted notes.
What’s noteworthy about palm muting with chicken picking is that we often palm mute just the picked notes, leaving the fingerpicked notes to ring…
…or articulating with our snapping and unfretting.
Picking Hand Muting
[picking the string—muting with the fingertip
plucking with the nail—muting with the pick]
This one is a bit more counterintuitive.
We play a note with the pick, but immediately mute the string with the finger we’ll use to play the next note.
After we play the fingerpicked notes, we mute the string with our pick.
We’re effectively using a rest stroke to mute the string we just played—the fingertip or pick we use to mute is perfectly set up to play a new note on that same string.
(This can take some getting used to, especially as you move across the strings.)
Picking A Muted String
[fretting a note on one string while muting the adjacent string]
With this one, we’re either muting a string with the underside of our finger…
…or picking a string that’s muted with our fingertip, usually right after playing a regularly fretted note in that location:
Greater Than The Sum
Of course, these things get mixed together in ways that can be tricky to untangle.
Was that note played short by unfretting it, or was it muted with the pick hand? How much of that sound comes from snapping the strings and how much from unfretting?
Luckily for us, we can approach this in an easy way: learn each thing in isolation, work them up to a high standard on their own, and let our unconscious sort it out most of the time.
Will we sometimes need to pull back and put a lick under the microscope in order to work it up to speed? Of course.
But our goal is to make this something you have no need to think about 99% of the time.
As Scott Berkun says, “the hard way is the easy way.”