Posted by: worshipguitarguy | January 12, 2007

Making the Most of Practice: Wrists and Mirrors

536500_guitar.jpgThis is the first in a series of posts to help guitarists make the most of our practice time. 

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The first five years of my playing were a real struggle.  To start, I began playing an electric…  which would have been fine… but I was more concerned with learning those famous guitar riffs instead of rhythm, chords, and strumming.  In the process I really never learned how to really strum rhythms like I should have.

Everything came to a head a couple years in when I was trying to strum an acoustic around a fire at church camp.  I couldn’t keep rhythm, because my strumming was rough and choppy.  Fortunately another guitarist took one look and told me what my problem was… and it’s something I see alot of beginners struggle with too.

So what was it? 

Well, simply, I was locking the wrist on my strumming hand and strumming with my arm.  Besides making things sound choppy, it was slowing down the speed of my strumming and fatiguing my arm.  Unfortunately, the bad habits I’d developed had followed me for years, so it took a while to break them. 

After looking back at myself, I identified the stuff that led to this problem, and ways to work on it in your playing if you notice the same problems.  (Even intermediate to advanced guitarists struggle with this.  I see guitarists in my home church who’ve played for 20-30 years still dealing with this problem.)

First, if your an electric player, spend a good amount of time in practice with an acoustic. (Or playing your electric like an acoustic player if you don’t have one.)  If you stay away from woking on your rhythms, you may notice that you get rusty with your strumming and flexibility.

Second, pay attention to how you hold your pick.  When I began playing, I held my pick with three fingers, (my thumb, first, and middle finger.)  I did this because my pick always seemed to slip out of my hand when playing.  The problem with this is to hold a pick, you tense the muscles in your wrists, and the more fingers you have gripping, the greater the tension you’ll be fighting in your wrists.  Once I forced myself to go to a two finger hold, it helped release a ton of tension in my wrist.  If like me, you have problems holding your pick, look for one with texture on the surfaces.  Dunlop Nylon pics are great for this.  Also work on keeping the amount of  contact you make with the strings fairly light as you strum.  If you “dig in” or hammer the strings hard, you’ll notice that you struggle more with keeping a hold on your pick, as well as getting good tone.

Third, if your a beginner learning to strum, practice your strumming motion with your strumming hand, (while holding a pick, but not necessarily with a guitar.)  I don’t recommend this, but I’d often do this in the car when I’d be driving down the road.  Over time, I began to program my wrist to loosen up and understand how to strum from my wrist instead of my elbow.

Fourth, watch videos of good players as they strum.  Notice how effortless their arm movement seems to be?  (If you don’t have instructional DVD’s, check out YouTube.  There are some great and free instructional videos there!)  Now find a full length, or rather large mirror and sit in front of it while playing your acoustic.  Pay careful attention to how your strumming hand looks in the mirror.  If it seems stiff and rigid, slow down your strumming and practice loosening up your wrist.  Good strumming shouldn’t fatigue the muscles in your forearm very quickly if you strum with a fluid motion.  Watch your hand and work on making your strumming look more like what you see from good players.

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 holding-pick.jpg

As an addition, Tim asked about holding a pick.  There are a couple different approaches to it, and after you asked Tim, I did an informal poll of guys I play with.  Whats funny is we all hold our picks slightly different.  Here’s a shot of how I hold my pick.  I do change my grip slightly between strumming and picking arpeggios or basic leads.  If I’m strumming, I’ll turn the tip of my index finger slightly away from the pick’s point.  When picking notes I usually rotate my index tip towards the tip slightly.

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Responses

  1. Great article. Dunlop “Gator” picks are also great. They have a rough texture and they are very “tacky”.

  2. I’ve also simply used a pocket knife and sliced a few grooves into a regular pick to add texture.

    Now I use Star Picks with a star shaped hole punched in the center. That pick doesn’t move around at all. YMMV.

    Great article. Can you post a little video showing good form and bad form??

  3. ^ +1

    a video would be really helpful.

  4. Let me see what we can do guys…

  5. You’re an idiot!!! Three fingers?
    Just kidding

    AH! I did two fingers starting.

  6. Wow i never knew this was a problem, i mean not for me, but i’ve seen so many people do that, i always though “oh thats their own way of strumming”. People have said that when i strum, it looks like my wrists are like rubber, so i guess thats a good thing

  7. One thing that surprisingly helped me with my strumming, was playing scales. The intricate up-and-down movements made my wrist very flexible. I think warming up with scales in general is a great way to limber up before playing a show or playing for an extended period of time. As far as pick placement and hand positions are concerned, I’ve found it’s mostly about finding what’s comfortable and effective for you. Some people, while holding a pick with the thumb and index finger, curl their remaining three fingers into their palm. Others extend their three fingers. And some people do a mix of both. A great example of this is John Petrucci. Check out the link below and notice how his picking hand is in a “claw” formation, and also how his forearm barely moves:

    Also, stretching your wrists before playing and/or practicing does wonders for limbering up. Not to beat a dead horse, but Petrucci has some wonderful techniques for warming up before even touching the guitar:

    These are all little techniques that have worked for me, but might not necessarily work for others. Gerry, I remember when you used to be Stiffly Sifflerson while playing guitar, and I’m glad to say that you’ve jumped light-years ahead when it comes to that stuff.

  8. Aww, thanks E… if you remember, you and DC were at that campfire incident with me…

  9. I do remember that. That was the first of many long guitar-esq conversations. Let’s get lunch soon and have another…

  10. Hey. I’ve been reading your posts, and they’ve been really helpful. I started out with electric but moved toward acoustic because I don’t know how to really progress with electric.

    I never knew that this would be a problem, but I’m going to check myself out. I have a question about holding the pick. I hold it with two fingers between the tips of my thumb and index, but my teacher also mentioned that holding the pick between the thumb tip and the side of the index finger would give more control.
    What do you do?

  11. I don’t play acoustic nearly as much as electric, but I do try to keep picking it up.

    One thing I’ve noticed with my playing, though, is that I can afford to be a bit more open in strumming the acoustic than I can with the electric – since the acoustic generally has no gain and no effects, I can strum a bit more freely without worry about too much noise.

    Sometimes I forget this when I play the electric, and it starts to get noisy. Seems like the muting (palm and otherwise) is more important w/ the gain and delay delay delay delay on.

  12. Tim, check your answer above, I added it to the article… 🙂

    Tony, you’re right on, when strumming electric with overdrive I’m often just hitting two or three strings and muting quite a bit. At some point we need to post an article about palm muting up here…


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