Don’t be like me.
My hope for you is that you will zoom along in the fast lane of guitar-learning for as long and as far as you want to take this road.
But me? While I’ve seen the taillights of some fast-laners recede into the distance, I’ve been limping along the shoulder on four flat tires.
Through a combination of dumb luck and stubborn persistence, I’ve still managed to make a decade-long career out of playing guitar—bus tours, TV appearances, sharing stages with some astoundingly talented people, more gig opportunities than I have time to play, etc, etc.
But this whole time, I’ve been squeaking by on what I’ll call Minimum Viable Technique—being just good enough for what the gig requires, and feeling like a fucking impostor the whole time.
What You Missed
This article is the second half of a two-part series.
Part one was about discovering Tuck Andress’s epic article about picking techniques, and adopting George Benson’s picking style.
Benson Picking was life-altering for me—the single biggest improvement to my technique up until that point.
But since then, I’ve discovered something new, something that completely trumps the Benson grip in terms of giant cartoon lightbulbs illuminating over my head.
Let me be the first to say: I didn’t invent this. I stumbled into it. Like Columbus landing in a hemisphere inhabited by millions, I only “discovered” it in the sense that it’s new to me.
In fact, it’s still new to me—I’ve had the epiphany, but I’m still working my way through its implications.
In this article, I want to show you that epiphany first, to illuminate the cartoon lightbulb above your own head.
Then I want to give you all the tools you need to work through it yourself, completely rebuilding your picking technique along the way.
(And oh-by-the-way: it works with the standard picking style too—no need to adopt Benson Picking if you don’t want to abandon your current technique.)
The Miracle Cure
In Tuck’s astounding beast of a treatise on the mechanics of picking, he calls pick angle “the miracle cure.”
His article was posted way back in 1999, long before it was dead-simple to add clear photos and videos to a blog post. Shit, I’m not sure they were even called blog posts yet when he wrote it.
So while Tuck’s article is full of insanely valuable insights, it requires a close read (or six) to shake them loose.
Even with a subheading like “Picking Angle: The Miracle Cure,” I still didn’t understand quite what he was getting at and how important it is to playing well.
At first I thought he meant the angle of the pick relative to the line of the string:
While that certainly plays a role, it’s something intuitive enough that most of us adopt it naturally.
It wasn’t until I was a few reads in that I realized what Tuck was referring to—how far the pick tilts toward the floor:
On first read, it seems like Tuck is saying this tilt of the pick is primarily to give your playing a little extra snap and “assertiveness.”
Then almost as an afterthought, he adds an additional “secret benefit of angled picking.”
Aim becomes easy, unlocking the elusive key to great feel. Fully relaxing for the first time, the musician confidently and gracefully responds instinctively to all future circumstances with equanimity and poise, like a martial arts expert.”
I only found this to be true… some of the time. Playing with a greater downward angle of the pick improved some of the things I played, oftentimes dramatically.
But it didn’t magically allow me to “respond instinctively to all future circumstances.”
That would require another epiphany…
The Code Cracker Suite
After I geeked out so thoroughly over the Andress article, the friend who hipped me to it asked if I’d seen the Cracking The Code series on YouTube.
I hadn’t yet, and I tore through it. I dig it. I’m a fan.
It resonates with me for a barrelful of reasons:
- For starters, Troy from Cracking The Code doesn’t make any grandiose claim at being a guru whose feet you should be kissing—he’s a fellow traveller who’s happy to share some killer insights he’s gleaned, and to be honest about his mishaps on the way up.
- Although it’s done almost exclusively with video, he successfully avoids all the usual pitfalls that make most YouTube lessons unwatchable for me.
- In other words, he doesn’t umm and uhh, even when speaking off the cuff. He’s clearly thought about it deeply enough that he’s not bullshitting his way through. He doesn’t parrot unexamined half-truths. He doesn’t talk in circles.
- That said, he also doesn’t rush right to the takeaway—he uses narrative storytelling. Even though disgruntled internet commenters loudly tell us that they want only the boiled-down cliffs notes version of everything, stories are usually the best way to get humans to teach themselves something.
- Psychology & Pedagogy—the state of most guitar instruction is woefully behind the times on this one, so I was stoked to see that Troy & co are up to speed on things like chunking.
- Science Over Mythology—there are twin contradictory myths that pervade our current understanding of guitar learning. Namely, that 1) more practice will automatically make you better, and 2) that some people are just born more talented. Of course, both of these things are partially true, which is why they’re so intuitive and pervasive. But they ignore the most interesting questions: are things like good time & feel, stage presence, technical prowess, creativity, speed of thought, and musical intuition learnable? Very few people are trying to answer these questions. So when I see a kindred spirit like Troy running experiments instead of blindly accepting the standard guitar mythos, I’m a happy man.
- One of the most notable of those experiments: if famous guitarist x does it this way, does that mean it’s what you should do too?
…but you’re in a unique position to either confirm or disconfirm.
- Ignore what people say—watch what they do instead. People who are super skilled at guitar are generally not super skilled at explaining, so you can safely ignore most of what they’re SAYING and focus instead on what they’re DOING. For me, the best part of Cracking The Code is that rather than ask badass guitarists what they’re doing technique-wise, they’re simply filming them with high-speed video and then dissecting their technique in slow motion. Applying this to my own playing has produced several epiphanies for me, taking some things-I’m-good-at-but-I-can’t-explain-why and making them knowable, replicable, & more widely applicable.
Although it’s primarily geared towards the conspicuous guitar-heroics crowd that I have no interest in emulating, there are more than a few concessions towards bluegrass, country, & the occasional jazz picker.
I hope they’ll get a Benson picker in there: George himself, Sheryl Bailey, or Isaiah Sharkey would be amazing.
At any rate, I’ve signed up for their ongoing Masters in Mechanics series. (Nope, not an affiliate link.)
I know many of you are of the mindset that you should never pay for lessons on the internet, no matter how potentially valuable they might be to you. I disagree with you, but I won’t try to talk sense into you here other than to say:
If you can’t shake $20 worth of value out of this each month, then you’re not really serious about improving, and frankly, you suck at being cheap.
Enough Of My Pissy Lecturing
Setting aside all the I’m-not-so-much-angry-as-I-am-disappointed talk, there’s gobs of great, actionable, and yes— free—information you can scrape from the Cracking The Code series.
Here’s what I learned:
- Tuck was spot on—the angle of the pick is hugely important, because it makes aiming the pick an order of magnitude easier…
- …and contrary to popular wisdom, playing fast is not about making tiny movements.
- Using rest strokes (where the motion of your pick & hand are stopped by the next string)…
- …saves huge amounts of energy, allowing you to play faster with less tension. As Tuck says in his article, “Because the next string is stopping the motion rather than the muscles, the hand is much more relaxed. Single lines feel like rhythm parts. Playing like this can actually melt away years of stifled frustration.”
- Downstrokes “trap” you in the strings…
- …which isn’t a problem if your next move is to play the same string again…
- …or to move towards the floor and hit the next string.
- An upstroke breaks your pick free from the plane of the strings…
- …allowing you to move to the next string.
- That’s true no matter if you’re moving toward the ceiling…
- …or toward the floor.
- My initial takeaway from the whole tilt-the-pick/downstrokes-trap/upstrokes-free insight is that you should only play patterns that switch strings upward after an upstroke. This was a deal-breaker for me, because I want to be able to play & improvise without artificial constraints, and the repeated patterns of shred guitar sound icky to me.
- BUT—that’s not what Troy was saying at all.
- You can include a pull-off to make the last picked note before switching strings an upstroke…
- …and you can train your hands to use these pull-offs without your conscious intervention.
- We’ve always known that pull-offs & hammer-ons are somewhat useful on their own, but when used strategically, they significantly increase the ease with which you play. Or the speed. Or both.
What follows is my attempt to clarify the path further, both for myself and others.
Guide To Rebuilding Your Technique
Our goal here is to develop automaticity in correct technique—you shouldn’t be focused on picking directions & such when you’re on stage or laying down a solo for your new album.
Getting to this place while playing requires that you go slowly enough while practicing to make conscious, deliberate decisions about your technique.
Many things that you can play slowly WILL NOT scale up to speed.
Let me say that again, because it’s easy to overlook its importance:
The correct technique for playing fast usually isn’t a sped-up version of what you can play slow.
There are many more ways to pick something at a slow tempo than at a fast one.
To really drive this point home, let’s take a gander at another epic early-internet tome on technique, Fundamentals Of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang. Although not written specifically for guitarists, there’s a ton of great shit in here that we can press into service for our own purposes. Here’s Chuan:
When you start, there is no way of knowing whether the slow play motion you are using is right or wrong. The probability of playing incorrectly is nearly 100%, because there is almost an infinity of ways to play incorrectly but only one best way.
When this wrong motion is speeded up, the student will hit a speed wall. Assuming that this student succeeded in overcoming the speed wall by finding a new way to play, s/he will then need to unlearn the old way and relearn this new play, and keep repeating these cycles for each incremental increase in speed until s/he reaches the final speed. Thus the method of slowly ramping up the speed can waste a lot of time.
Ramping up slow play is like making a horse run as fast as a gallop by simply speeding up the walk—it just can’t be done because as the speed increases, the momenta of the legs, body, etc., change, requiring the different gaits. Therefore, if the music requires a “gallop”, the student ends up having to learn all the intervening “gaits” if you ramp up the speed.
Forcing a horse to walk as fast as a gallop would erect speed walls, produce stress, and cause injury.
If you know how to play fast, it is safe to play slowly, but if you don’t know how to play fast, you must be careful not to learn the wrong slow playing habits or to end up wasting tremendous amounts of time.
Unless they video tape their playing and watch carefully for strange body motions, most pianists are unaware of all the motions they make. These can cause unpredictable mistakes at unpredictable times, creating psychological problems with insecurity and nervousness. These difficulties arise because the pianists are not aware of the motions; thus cultivating an awareness of body motions can eliminate this problem.
In our search for optimal picking motions, we’re going to need to test out several different solutions for any given passage.
This presents us with two problems:
- If we’re going slowly enough to pay attention to the details, how will we know if it works at speed?
- How do we avoid wasting massive amounts of time bringing “wrong” solutions up to tempo, then having to unlearn them?
The solution here is twofold:
- Start from general principles before making edge-case adjustments.
- You’ll need to get deeply comfortable with some fairly high-level metronome skills.
Let’s take a look at our principles & metronome routine, and apply them to a basic scale pattern.
Principles Of Picking: The 101
[Want these principles as a PDF with illustrations? Click Here.]
- Angle the pick towards the floor. We’ll make exceptions, but this is our default.
- Use rest strokes as necessary. Rest strokes seem like more work because of the extra distance, but from our muscles’ perspective, they save effort.
- Use alternate picking, but only for as long as it makes sense to. Because downstrokes trap us in the strings, we switch to directional picking for ascending with three notes per string. Down–up-down, down-up-down.
- Use upstrokes to change strings in either direction. With the appropriate pick angle, the end point of our upstroke motion leaves us poised to strike a new string.
- Use hammers & pulls strategically. Because we’re using upstrokes to change strings, we want to use hammers & pulls to artificially make the last picked note before changing strings an upstroke.
- Never practice technique without a metronome. All of these things have a tendency to “fall down the stairs”—that is, get faster as you go.
How To Avoid Wasting Your Time: The Metronome Prescription
Choosing the right tempo is more art than math, but try:
- (goal tempo x 0.8) ÷ 2 = metronome tempo
- Treat the click as quarter notes to ingrain the motions.
- Treat the click as half notes to test it close to speed.
- The 80/20 principle applies—zero in & focus your efforts on the exact moments that are giving you the most trouble, and you’ll accomplish more in less time.
- Try to move back & forth between the half time & full speed without stopping.
- Once you’ve established a good working tempo, don’t bump up the metronome until you’re sure you’ve found the best picking solution.
- Only then should you increase your 80% tempo up to speed. 5 or 10 bpm increments tend to work best, but use your judgement.
101-Level Principles In Action
So let’s put this into play, using a standard major scale shape.
9th position A major
Using our picking principles, we can make quick work of most of this.
Our pick is angled toward the floor.
We’re using alternate picking as long as it makes sense to. Down-up-down on the 6th string leaves us trapped below the plane of the strings, so we use directional picking to move us onto the next string.
We can use (or not use) rest strokes after either downstroke.
This continues onto the next two strings.
When we get to the 3rd string, we use down-up, using the upstroke to break the pick free from the plane of the strings and set us up for the downstroke on the 2nd string.
The other two strings continue our earlier down-up-down.
On the way back down the scale, things really start to get interesting. We get to make much more extensive use of our “use hammers & pulls to artificially make the last picked note before changing strings an upstroke” principle.
When we play down-up-pull, we have oodles of time to get into position for the next string. It almost feels like cheating.
We rock the same move on the second string:
On the third string, we play down-up, which—as far as your picking hand is concerned—is the same motion we used for the others, and sets us up nicely to continue our earlier down-up-pull pattern from before.
We use our same down-up-pull pattern for the other strings.
If we want to play this up & down in a continuous loop, we only need to make the tiniest adjustment: replace the pull off to that 6th string C# with a downstroke et voilà—all is right in our world.
Metronome Routine In Action
We’ve seen all of our 101-level principles in action, except one. The last principle of major importance to keep in mind is:
Never practice technique without a metronome.
As we mentioned before, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and directional picking all have a tendency to fall down the stairs, so practicing them without an impartial referee is probably doing you more harm than good.
[If you haven’t yet fallen madly in love the click, sign up for our free Metronome Boot Camp. It’s chock-full of all the best shit I’ve ever seen on using (& enjoying) the metronome, including the exact exercises I used to fix my once-schlocky time & feel.]
For most thorny licks that you’re seeking a picking solution for, you’ll have an explicit tempo in mind: When Doves Cry is about 125 BPM, when people call Blackberry Blossom at a jam, it’s usually around 250 BPM.
You of course will have your own examples.
For this scale we’re using as an example, we don’t have such a concrete tempo in mind. Let’s just say we’d like to play it as eighth notes at 200 bpm. If that’s too fast for you right now, no problem: we’re looking at frameworks, not explicit prescriptions.
Again, choosing the right tempo is more art than math, but we’ll try
(goal tempo x 0.8) ÷ 2 = metronome tempo
200 bpm x 0.8 = 160 bpm. 160 bpm ÷ 2 = 80 bpm.
We’re going to treat the click as quarter notes to ingrain the motions, but treat it as half notes to test it close to speed.
Or put another way, it feels like this when we’re examining our technique…
…with two notes to the click. And it feels like this when we’re testing it close to speed:
…with four notes per click.
We want to move between the two without stopping:
You’ll notice in the video that I’m not playing the entire scale—I’m playing only the tiny subsection that’s hardest (for me). This 80/20 principle applied to guitar is the essence of how pros practice—they zero in & focus their efforts on the exact moments that are giving them the most trouble, and consequently they accomplish more than amateurs do, in far less time.
Once you’ve established a good working tempo, don’t bump up the metronome until you’re sure you’ve found the best picking solution.
Line cooks dial in their mise en place before the dinner rush.
Wealthy people quip that the best way to get rich is to not go broke.
When you watch a building being built, there are months with no visible progress, but that apparent inactivity is actually the essential work of laying the foundation.
The best way to get better at guitar faster is to not be in such a hurry.
Only after you’ve sussed out the best picking solution should you increase your 80% tempo up to speed. That’ll usually be in 5 or 10 bpm increments, but use your judgement.
Stick with alternating half-speed/full-speed reps, and you’ll keep your time & feel solid, and you’ll avoid ingraining bad technique.
Be on the lookout for the point of diminishing returns—beyond a certain point, playing a scale up & down just a bit faster isn’t much help.
But playing that same scale in musical ways you might actually use in your playing (and figuring out picking solutions for those) is a big help.
You might try:
- going up & down the scale in three-note coils,
- four note coils,
- descending in thirds,
- playing bursts of triplets or sixteenths,
- skipping over strings,
- descending through the scale against a repeated pedal tone,
- …or whatever your imagination cooks up.
Take your time and get the picking motions dialed in until they’re automatic.
And once you have these basic scale motions down, you should apply these principles to whatever music you’re working on. Every new thing you learn is a chance to further refine your picking mechanics.
Transcribe a solo you like, work your way through the Charlie Parker Omnibook, buy one of David Hamburger’s blues courses, move your favorite licks into different positions, octaves, and/or keys. Then figure out the best picking solution, write it down, and refine it with the metronome. Use your phone to take slowmo video of yourself to see where you’re going off the rails (or to figure out how you’re succesfully doing something you can’t explain).
Principles of Picking: The 201
The principles outlined in the 101 section will carry you far. After years of studying the shit out of Yngwie’s playing, Troy says that that system is what Yngwie uses just about 100% of the time.
But that’s not to say there aren’t other concerns, other situations that are better addressed in other ways, using other sophisticated picking solutions. If you’ve worked your way through the initial set of principles (and have them programmed into your hands), here are some next-level principles:
- Use directional picking to move from one string to the next in the direction of the pick angle. This is pretty common advice, but less straightforward than you might first assume.
- Angle the pick towards the ceiling to play consecutive upstrokes on adjacent strings. If you’re sweeping over multiple strings heading toward the ceiling, it’s more efficient to change the angle of your pick.
- Everything that’s true of angling your pick towards the floor is also true of angling your pick towards the ceiling, only in reverse. With the pick angled up, upstrokes are what trap us in the strings, downstrokes are what break us free of the plane, and we can change strings in either direction by using a downstroke.
- We can adopt this upward pick angle in three ways:
- Switch our default. Everything we’ve discussed holds true, only in reverse.
- Switch over at the “coasts.” This is a more sophisticated version of the 3NPS prescription—play down-up-down with a downward pick angle as you move toward the floor, then switch to an upward pick angle at the highest note and play up-down-up on the way back.
- Switch dynamically. This isn’t even directional picking—it’s fluidly adopting a new pick angle to accomplish a specific task.
- This dynamic pick angle allows for true alternate picking.
[Want these principles as a PDF with illustrations? Click Here.]
201-Level Principles In Action
“Use directional picking to move from one string to the next in the direction of the pick angle” is exactly what we we’re already doing as a subset of our “use alternate picking, but only as long as it makes sense to” principle:
Strict alternate picking doesn’t make sense here because with our downward pick angle, our pick is trapped after a downstroke, making that string switch too difficult and error-prone. So we pick down-up-down, down-up-down, and the angle of our pick lets us glide across the strings.
But what about the other direction?
Here’s where the “in the direction of the pick angle” part of our principle comes into play.
Acolytes of the 3-notes-per-string shapes-plus-directional-picking camp prescribe an up-down-up, up-down-up as we move across the strings towards the ceiling. This works OK… but not with our downward pick angle, where two consecutive upstrokes are slow and strange-feeling—the upstroke puts us above the plane of the strings, poised for a downstroke, not another upstroke.
Angle the pick towards the ceiling to play consecutive upstrokes on adjacent strings.
Because everything that’s true of angling your pick towards the floor is also true of angling your pick towards the ceiling, only in reverse.
With an upward pick angle, it’s upstrokes that trap us in the strings, and allow us to sweep or directional pick towards the ceiling. With an upward pick angle, it’s downstrokes that break us free of the plane of the strings, allowing us to skip strings in either direction.
Some folks adopt the upward pick angle as their default.
It confers all the same benefits as the downward pick angle, only in reverse. It also has the same limitations (but again, in reverse).
If you’re squarely in the 3NPS camp, you might find success by switching pick angle at the “coasts.”
Use a downward angle when moving across the strings towards the floor, switch to an upward pick angle when you get to the highest note, and use that to move across the strings towards the ceiling.
This kind of assumes that most of what you’re doing is going up and down scales in a uniform way—pretty boring, no matter how fast you do it.
That’s what’s so exciting about the third way: switching your pick angle dynamically.
The idea here is to always use the picking angle that’s best suited to the task at hand, regardless of your default angle.
I won’t even attempt to catalog the many, many permutations of this idea, but I want to point out two examples.
The first dynamic pick angle switch is the “angle the pick towards the ceiling to play consecutive upstrokes on adjacent strings” sort of thing we see in upward rakes:
This first one almost doesn’t need mentioning, because most of us do this intuitively—it feels an awful lot like an upward strum.
The second dynamic switch to our pick angle is where we first catch a glimpse of how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.
Imagine a pattern where you play three notes on each string, switching strings in either direction, using strict alternate picking, with no legato, at blazing speeds.
How? By changing our pick angle as we pick the third note on each string.
Down, Up, Down-while-switching-to-upward-pick-angle.
Up, Down, Up-while-switching-to-downward-picking-angle.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not.
Here’s me playing that example at 240 bpm:
And here’s Troy from Cracking The Code demonstrating a similarly structured (but very different sounding) lick at even crazier speeds, complete with slow motion.
Working through all of these increasingly arcane picking motions can be painstaking, tedious work.
But the payoff in picking freedom is tremendous.
Or as David Cain says:
A small amount of difficulty often serves as the gatekeeper to a large amount of ease.”
The Wrap Up (& A Parting Gift)
Towards the end of his massive article on picking, Tuck recalls his path through the subject matter:
- When he was first starting off, he played mostly downstrokes, then learned alternate picking & slurring, but deployed them randomly.
- Inspired by his rhythm playing, he began to play single note lines in the same way that he strummed—downstrokes on downbeats, upstrokes on offbeats—which he called “rhythmic picking.”
- Next he “realized that it was also possible to pick two or more strings in the same direction if they each had an odd number of notes”—what we now call directional or sweep picking.
- Inspired by Kenny Burrell, he then combined those directional and swept patterns with his earlier rhythmic picking style, using consecutive downstroke or upstroke sweeps as the music called for, but then using slurs or rests to get back to rhythmic picking.
- Then he saw George Benson play, who “seemed to do either rhythmic or [swept/directional] picking at very high speed, just depending on whim.” So Tuck went back and taught himself to play things with whichever method was less intuitive for the situation—sort of like Inigo Montoya choosing to fence someone lefty, just for the practice.
- As he continued to study Benson, he noticed that George was somewhat unpredictable about preferring downstrokes on downbeats. “He seemed able to invert that pattern or play randomly at will. Everything seemed equally easy to him.” So back to the woodshed Tuck went, working on developing that level of flexibility.
- Around the same time, Tuck saw that Jose Feliciano consistently (and successfully) used rhythmic picking that was 180° inverted from his own—upstrokes on downbeats and downstrokes on offbeats.
This lead Tuck to the belief that a good approach for learning to pick is to go “from random picking driven by ignorance and technical deficiency, to a variety of systematic approaches driven by the need to understand, to systematically weird approaches driven by the need to be complete, then finally back to randomness supported by technical mastery, driven by phrasing considerations or whim.”
This is where I find myself—systematically exploring approaches both intuitive & strange so I can get out of my own way and make the music that’s in my head.
I am heavily indebted to the scholarship and generosity of Tuck & Troy, without whom I’d still be wallowing in “ignorance and technical deficiency.” I’m still very much a work in progress, and I wrote these posts as much to help myself as I did to help you. Though I’m a ways off from “technical mastery,” I’m glad to lay down the mantle of picking and get back to writing about theory, about the things being a working guitarist has taught me, and about Guitar As A Real Instrument.
See You Out There,
ps. Want the Principles Of Picking all nicely laid out, in slick printable poster form? Get the PDF for free right here.