This article is about some slightly heretical notions:
- Is the default picking method most of us use hindering our ability to play well?
- Are the people who attain badassery while picking this way badasses in spite of- and not because of- this technique?
- Is there a better method?
- If so, can people who’ve spent years getting mediocre results from the usual methods make the switch to this new way?
My answer to all of these?
Running On Empty
After some gentle nudging from my wife to take better care of my health, I began running.
It was hard. I sucked at it. I remember needing to do actual training in order to prepare for The Turkey Trot––an 8k, Thanksgiving-morning run.
After that race, I plateaued––5 miles was the farthest I could run.
The standard approach here is best summed up by four words:
Try harder. Do more.
From marathon training to CrossFit WODs to succeeding in business to getting better at guitar––the standard wisdom is that you simply need to apply more input to get increased output.
But trying harder and doing more didn’t get me un-plateaued.
Like a true guitarist, I addressed my inadequate performance by… researching & buying gear.
Except in this case it wasn’t a boutique distortion pedal or a hundred-dollar cable.
It was new shoes. Or rather, a new type of shoes.
I switched from the usual cushy running shoes to “minimalist” shoes designed to mimic running barefoot, the way our bodies evolved to.
Within a week, my running technique had completely transformed.
Within two weeks, I had more than doubled the distance I could run.
A couple years later, on a whim, I ran a marathon… with minimal training.
Our standard approach to improving guitar technique is to work harder and do more:
- Play these exercises.
- Bump the metronome up.
- An hour a day isn’t doing it?
- Do two.
- Still not there?
- Try three hours, or fuck it––do eight.
This idea, that our output is wholly dependent on our input, is wrong.
Not because the two are completely unrelated, but because the idea misses the most important aspect:
How efficiently is our input being translated into output?
Don’t misunderstand––if you’re trying to run a marathon or get badass at guitar, you still have to show up and do the work.
But by getting the hell out of your own way––by taking advantage of your natural body mechanics––you can make that journey so much easier.
The marathon training plan my friends all followed had them running five days each week. I ran once per week, and logged half as many miles as they did. And I ran a perfectly respectable marathon. With no pain. No injury. I wasn’t even sore the next day.
This is the power of getting the mechanics right––working with your body instead of against it.
I Have A Secret
Be wary of a naked man who offers you a shirt.” -African Proverb
Despite my constant yammering about being a pro and playing like a badass, my technique is… just ok.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t suck.
My just-ok technique doesn’t prevent me from making a great living playing music that I love. It didn’t prevent me from getting the call to join a successful touring band, or being on TV, or any of the other things we associate with success.
as seen on tv
But if I’m making an honest assessment of what specific improvement would move the needle the most for me, better technique pretty much tops the list.
On Top Of All That
There’s a truism by Yogi Bhajan that says:
If you want to learn something, read.
If you want to understand something, write.
If you want to master something, teach.”
There’s another by truism by Yogi Berra that says:
Slump? I ain’t in no slump… I just ain’t hitting.”
Both of these ring true for me. I spent the last 18 months writing a badass music theory course for guitarists. While my understanding of theory was certainly deepened, the thing I didn’t expect was how much of my daily practice time would be completely consumed by writing & researching, and how quickly my technique would degrade as a result.
If anything, my just-ok technique has gotten worse in the last year or so.
The Encyclopedia of Picking
And then a month ago, Eric Justen sent me this insanely detailed and long article by Tuck Andress.
Detailed, long, and… completely devoid of any photos, videos, or illustrations.
But I read it. All of it.
And then I reread it.
And then I re-reread it.
And re-re-reread it.
It is full of absolute fucking gold.
But it’s not for the faint of heart.
Tuck has some insanely great insights into the mechanics of picking, and his writing is impressively clear.
But with no photos, videos, or illustrations, those nuggets of picking gold can be difficult to extract.
And if you include the appendix, Tuck’s article also clocks in at a daunting fourteen thousand words.
Let’s boil that down a bit, and add some visuals.
Overview of Tuck’s Article
For the most part, I’m sticking with Tuck’s verbiage so as to minimize any “translating” when jumping back and forth between his article and this one.
The Standard Style is to hold the pick like this:
This is the method most of us use, but it’s not without its drawbacks:
There are several variations on the Standard Style. Variation 1 is the Suspended Fist, a la “Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and many older players who at some point probably had to play hard in order to get volume out of their guitars”…
Variation 2 is the Palm On Bridge variation, frequently used by players fighting unwanted feedback…
And Variation 3 is the Half Palm On Bridge variation, which allows for better freedom of motion in the wrist…
Each of these has its own strengths & weaknesses:
For all of the permutations of the Standard Style, the pick moves through the strings like this:
It’s this perpendicular plane business that causes most of our issues with the pick catching on the strings. It causes us to apply more tension to our grip, and––because of how our hands are built––that fucks up the feel of the music.
Or as Tuck puts it, “if you squeeze hard enough to control the pick, the tension interferes with feel, spreading into the wrist and arm.”
But there’s a way around all this…
The way I hold the pick is a bit strange, I guess. I don’t hold it in the standard way, but more like you hold a pencil. I think Howard Roberts describes it as the scalpel technique. The motion is basically generated from the thumb and first finger rather than, say, the wrist or elbow.” -Jerry Garcia
Another variation, used by Jerry Garcia, Howard Roberts, and Kenny Burrell is Circle picking:
The pick is still held between the thumb and the side of the index finger, but with a key difference: the pick is now moving in its own plane:
Sound-wise, a pick moving in its own plane has a sound that’s more note and less attack:
Technique-wise, a pick moving in its own plane takes advantage of the shape of the pick, with its point gliding smoothly across the string without catching on it. As a result, there’s less deflection of the pick.
But as with the Standard Style variants, Circle Picking has its drawbacks:
Can we get the benefits of Circle Picking without the drawbacks? We can. Read on.
When I finally got to see George Benson play live in the mid-70s, I was advanced enough myself to instantly realize that he had solved the picking problem. ” -Tuck Andress
Solved the picking problem? Damn, them’s some strong words. But I’ve been rebuilding my technique using this picking style, and I have to say that I agree: there is essentially nothing that hasn’t been improved by this, often dramatically and near-instantly.
[Benson] had somehow resolved the inherent conflict between accuracy and feel, regardless of speed. Unlike every other player I had seen (or have seen since), his technique fully supported him. I observed and dissected his technique very carefully, then applied it to normal humans:
For a normal human, the pick is held between the tip of the thumb and the flat, or pad, of the index finger; the middle finger can also rest next to the index finger. The first joint of the thumb must be locked in fully open position, and the first and second joints of the index finger must be arched and locked. (George’s thumb bends back so much at his first joint that he can grip between the flat of his thumb and the flat of his index finger, but this is rare. The exact point where the pick makes contact in the range between the tip and the pad of the thumb varies from hand to hand.) This causes the pick to be rotated about 90 degrees counterclockwise from the standard style.”
Of course, Benson picking has its disadvantages too, but they’re inconsequential compared to the advantages.
Benson Picking Advantages
1. The pick moves in its own plane rather than perpendicularly to its own plane. This results in a solid, trumpet-like attack yet a more gentle impact of pick against string. It sounds better and the pick does not get caught on the string as much.
2. It is not necessary to give up the strumming feel in order to accomplish this, nor is there any gear change as in Circle Picking.
3. It is possible to apply a very firm pressure on the pick with essentially zero tension. By locking the pick and the thumb and finger holding it, all the motion of the pick is generated from the arm and wrist, resulting in better feel.
4. Comfortably locking the pick up for the first time allows one to explore the shoulder, elbow and wrist as sources of motion. By isolating and exploring them in that order (from grossest to most subtle), feel and accuracy both improve dramatically. The body becomes less tense as the physical blockages between head and pick get broken down. The player looks more relaxed and communicates greater openness and confidence.
Benson Picking Disadvantages
1. It can take some relearning. During the transition period your original technique will fall apart. There is no gentle transition. The middle ground, where the thumb joint begins to arch or the first joint of the first finger begins to straighten out, is terrible, so it must be avoided through continual vigilance.
2. The way in which the collision of the pick and the string tends to dislodge the pick is different, and disconcerting; the force of the string opposing the pick is in the same plane as the pick, so it tends to make the pick rotate around the axis of grasping between thumb and index finger.
The solution for both of these problems is to relentlessly lock up the pick using exaggerated pressure from the beginning, concentrating on three principles:
2a. Keep the thumb joint locked.
2b. Keep the first joint of the index finger arched enough that the tip pushes against the pick, rather than just touching it. (The thumb can move closer to or farther away from the point of the pick.) Avoid the tendency to relax this joint and find yourself gripping between the thumb and a point near the first joint, because you will lose control of the pick. The test is to try to dislodge the pick with the other hand and see how much give there is. There should be almost none.
2c. Isolate the tension to just the thumb and index finger. Relax the rest of the hand, wrist, arm and body. Later relaxing the grip slightly will be easy and will decrease tension without losing control of the pick.
3. The kind of tone associated with a loosely held pick is impossible to achieve (to me this is an advantage), although the tightness of the grip is still a variable that you can profitably explore after you get good at locking it up.
Tuck also listed as a disadvantage some difficulty with incorporating pick & fingers techniques with this, but I think that’s only true in certain specific instances. More on this later.
Another disadvantage is that for certain types of pick materials, you might find that you’re getting a bit of string noise akin to pick scrapes. At the intersection of pick & string there’s probably 2-3 winding’s worth of area, and some picks sound scrape-y here.
(To be clear, this sound is also present when using the Standard Style, it’s just masked by that style’s much-louder pick attack noise.)
It wasn’t a problem with the Dunlop Nylon 1.0s I’ve been using for years, but the thin, brightly-colored picks I used in these GIFs (for better visibility) were noisy. If you’re rabidly attached to the idea of using your current pick forever, this may be a deal-breaker for you.
But for me, this is actually a huge unexpected benefit: the ability to use a much stiffer pick.
Music is endless––you’ll never run out of things to learn. But picks? You can stop searching when you get to the Jazz III––that’s as far as that road goes.” -Fareed Haque
I’ll elaborate more below, but being able to funk & tremolo with a thick jazz pick has been a game-changer for me.
But Wait There’s More… So Much More
Tuck also throws down on some other important picking topics.
He goes deep on wrist motion as it applies to picking, breaking it into:
Translation, in Tuck’s terminology, is a side-to-side motion with your wrist as the center of an arc. Think of casting a fishing line. This seems to be the most common technique I’ve seen.
Rotation is the motion we use to turn a door knob––the two bones of our forearm are circling each other like those guys knife fighting during Eddie Van Halen’s solo in the Beat It video.
Fittingly, rotation is the picking motion EVH uses for his tremolo (at the end of the Beat It solo and elsewhere). It’s also what I defaulted to when adopting Benson Picking.
Oscillation is the motion we use to knock on a door.
You might well ask yourself how this motion could possibly be useful in picking a guitar. I know I did.
Tuck mentions that “The first time I saw George Benson, his wrist was resting below the strings the whole night, with his hand reaching back up towards the strings. Only his thumb and index finger appeared to move over the strings.”
This sounded like something limited to anatomical outliers, because for the life of me I couldn’t imagine how one might comfortably rest their wrist below the strings.
Ouch. Thanks but no thanks.
And in looking at footage of both George Benson and Carlos Santana (the two highest-profile practitioners of this technique), it was clear that neither of them spent much time with wrist below the strings.
So I thought: “I’ll keep this new pick grip, but this whole wrist-below-the-strings-knocking-on-a-door motion is BS.”
It wasn’t until I saw bebop badass Sheryl Bailey play that I found the missing piece of the puzzle.
I find wearing my guitar down low to be horribly limiting––hell, even Slash and Steve Stevens put their foot up on the monitor when it comes time to play the tricky bits––so I’ve never worn the guitar like the cool kids.
But Sheryl’s guitar barely touches her leg, even when she’s sitting!
That’s a whole new level of wearing a guitar up high!
Here’s my old normal compared to the new Bailey-inspired height:
At this height, the wrist-below-the-strings-knocking-on-a-door motion becomes comfortable and intuitive. With the picking hand coming in more from the side than from above, that ungainly, awkward, & uncomfortable bend of the wrist is gone.
Suddenly this passage from Tuck’s article became clear to me (and with the addition of these photos, hopefully clear to you too):
Oscillation becomes a possibility as the wrist rolls down, making contact with the pickguard or bridge on the side of the wrist, as in the scribbling example above. It applies almost exclusively to the Benson technique, so many players have never experienced it. With the standard technique the pick tends to roll away from the strings and no longer make contact. But with the Benson technique, the hand instead comfortably adjusts to keep the pick in a position to hit the strings, even up to a 90 degree offset in wrist orientation.”
All that is needed is to rotate the pick counterclockwise (as viewed by the thumb) as much as 45 degrees from the direction of the fingertip.”
At a 90 degree wrist offset you will have to use pure oscillation to make a picking motion, whereas with no offset you will have to use pure rotation. Points in between can use either one or a combination of both.”
Benson Picking + Rotation, 0° wrist offset:
Benson Picking + Oscillation, 90° wrist offset:
It is easy and instinctive to shift the mixture of oscillation and rotation anywhere between the two extremes continuously with no experience of transition. This means that the entire range of expression between rotation, with its range of tones and attacks, and oscillation, with its evenness and incredible speed, is available all the time. It also means that a constantly shifting, fluid right hand approach is more possible. This makes playing more like dancing. The second time I saw George Benson, his right wrist ranged from suspended over the bridge, like the standard stance, to below the strings with 90 degree offset, as before, often shifting smoothly several times in a measure.”
There were several things that I simply couldn’t do with the Standard Style that I was able to work my way up to with Benson Picking using Rotation. But these same things were positively easy with Benson Picking using Translation.
Mind = Blown
Update: After she read this article, Sheryl shared some further insight into her technique. She told me that she began picking this way because it “puts your pick at the same angle as your fingers would be if you played classical guitar,” and that she uses Fender Mediums for the same reason––because they’re “roughly the same texture and thickness as a fingernail.”
And although she adopted this technique “for tonal pursuit, speed came out of it.”
The Not-So-Fine Print
And what about the unintended side effects of wearing the guitar so high?
As with switching to a new pick, if your devotion to your current setup is greater than your interest in playing better, this probably isn’t for you.
Even without any true loyalty to my previous setup, I was worried that wearing a guitar so high would make me an outcast––too strange-looking to be hirable.
I wondered if I’d be met with the same sort of extreme suspicion you’d have toward the gal playing an Ovation on a bluegrass gig, or the guy backing a singer-songwriter with a pointy heavy metal guitar. Even when their playing is spot-on, it somehow seems wrong, like that dude at the concert who you’re immediately certain is an undercover cop even though you can’t articulate why.
But that’s not what happened at all.
The Life-Changing Magic Of Wearing The Guitar Absurdly High
Cranking my guitar up high has improved my technique, sure, but also my entire posture. Far from making me look uncool, it makes me look vastly more fit than I am.
It’s been observed that if Bob Dylan were getting his start today, the record labels would insist on getting him a stylist and a personal trainer.
For better or worse, our modern ideal of what a stage performer ought to look like is more protein-shake muscular than heroin skinny; more likely to have a six pack than to drink a six pack.
With nothing more than a strap adjustment, I find myself playing guitar with the same confident, shoulders-back posture usually reserved for fitness models.
Ok sure, it looks better, but there’s something else here worth considering: the effect posture has on everything else.
iPosture & The iHunch
Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes our outcomes.” -Amy Cuddy
The way we feel and the way we hold our bodies is a two-way street.
The mere act of smiling will make you happier. But your grandmother could’ve told you that.
In her famous TED talk, Amy Cuddy shares some surprising findings: adopting “high-power poses” (raising your arms overhead in a V, putting your hands on your hips, or reclining with your hands behind your head) affects your body on a chemical level. Just two minutes in a high-power pose can significantly raise your testosterone and lower your cortisol.
Conversely, adopting low-power poses (crossing your arms in front of you, rubbing your neck, hunching your shoulders forward) has the opposite effect.
In a recent NYT article, she goes one further, arguing that all the time we spend hunched over our phones is not only destroying our posture, but also making us feel depressed, scared, and powerless.
The average head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. When we bend our necks forward 60 degrees, as we do to use our phones, the effective stress on our neck increases to 60 pounds.”
Smartphones are ruining our posture. And bad posture doesn’t just mean a stiff neck. It can hurt us in insidious psychological ways.
If you replace “use our phones” with “play our guitars,” and “smartphones” with “guitars,” and it’s not hard to see how badly we’re treating ourselves.
If iPosture can make us feel sad and powerless, then guitarPosture can too.
It sounds like hyperbole, but wearing the guitar absurdly high has changed my life.
Hanging a guitar on my frame––instead of hunching myself over a guitar––lets me see where I’m at without leaning my head forward. Peripheral vision is enough for big position shifts, and when I really want to examine something more closely, I can simply look down with my eyes instead of tilting my head forward––it’s all right there.
I find myself practicing two and three times as much as I did before, not just because I’ve eliminated a source of discomfort, but from the sheer joy of it.
When I’m onstage, I now spend most of my time with my head up, looking at the audience. Projecting.
That confident posture is making me more confident, and that absolutely shows in my playing.
- The idea that our output is wholly dependent on our input is wrong.
- Not because the two are completely unrelated, but because the idea misses the most important aspect: how efficiently is our input being translated into output?
- By taking advantage of your natural body mechanics, you can get the hell out of your way.
- Standard Style Picking––holding the pick between thumb and the side of the first finger––might be holding you back.
- This is because the pick moves perpendicular to its own plane, causing:
- extra pick attack noise
- excess pick deflection
- unnecessary tension from trying to counteract that pick deflection, which in turn causes
- degradation of feel & accuracy.
- Circle Picking solves the problem of the pick moving perpendicular to its own plane, but at a cost:
- feel suffers because the pendulum motion of the arm is gone
- “gear change” when moving from strumming to single notes negatively impacts both near the transition point
- inefficient at high speeds
- Benson Picking––holding the pick between thumb and first fingertip, rotated 90° from standard––resolves all of these issues, allowing:
- efficient motions
- less tension
- great feel
- less pick attack noise
- seamless transition between picking & strumming
- Benson Picking probably isn’t for you if:
- you’re already 100% happy with your current picking style and it supports what you’re trying to do
- you’re 100% married to using a cheap thin pick
- you absolutely have to wear your guitar way down low
- in short: if your devotion to your current setup is greater than your interest in playing better, this probably isn’t for you.
- Wrist motions:
- Translation––side-to-side motion, like casting a fishing line
- Rotation––the motion you use to turn a door knob
- Oscillation––the motion you use to knock on a door
- Oscillation is really only possible when using Benson Picking, with the guitar worn fairly high and the wrist level with or below the strings.
- When doing that, there’s a seamless transition between Rotation & Oscillation, and it’s hugely empowering.
- I thought wearing the guitar up high would look uncool, but instead it makes me look fit & confident.
- That confident posture has changed my relationship with the guitar––I can play longer without discomfort, with greater joy, and when I perform I’m projecting way more.
- Not to be overly dramatic, but wearing my guitar way up high has been life-changing.
If you’re at all dissatisfied with your current picking technique, you should absolutely give Benson Picking a try.
In part two of this article, we’ll look at how to organize a complete picking rebuild:
- what to leave in,
- what to leave out,
- the best order to tackle things in, and
- how to structure your practice time.
- We’ll look at what Tuck calls “the miracle cure,” and send you off with
- a cheat sheet, framework, & template for your own picking rebuild.
See you out there,