Posted by: worshipguitarguy | June 29, 2007

All Things Picking 1

While on a few message boards and instructional sites this week, I was surprised by how little info I could find on improving picking hand technique.  Of course, practice is the biggest way to make improvements, but there are a few things I’ll throw out there that I’ve learned along the way.

Holding Your Pick:
Picks are like snowflakes… you’d be hard pressed to find two people who hold them the same.  Most players I know hold it between their index finger and thumb.  Some musicians hold it with three fingers.  I’ve heard stories that Eddie Van Halen holds his pick between his thumb and middle finger, (so his first finger is available for tapping.)  Also, I’ve heard that the Edge holds his pick sideways, using one of the rounded edges instead of the point.

With all that said, it’s important to hold your pick in a way that won’t slow your progress while learning.  When I began playing, I held my pick with my thumb, index, and middle finger.  (At the time, I thought it gave me a better grip, since I dropped picks alot.)  Unfortunately, this technique stifled my improvement as a player.  As I talked to more experienced guitarists, many of them noticed how stiff my strumming wrist was, which I quickly discovered was because of using my three finger technique…  holding it that way tensed up the muscles and tendons of three fingers in my wrist, and kept me from strumming loosely.  Soon after, I took the time to break that habit and started holding my pick with two fingers.  After that, I saw a considerable jump in my development.

If holding a pick a certain way works for you, then go for it!  But while you do, pay careful attention to whether it affects your playing.  Do you feel like your wrist or hand muscles are very stiff?  Do you find yourself missing notes alot when trying to pick them individually?  Or do you notice that your strumming seems rough and choppy?  If the answer is yes to any of these things, ask a more experienced player to look at your grip.  (The pic below shows me holding my pick.)  Generally the side of my thumb runs the width of the pick and the middle of my index finger is centered on the point.  I usually have less than a quarter of the length of the pick exposed when playing.  (That changes on the fly though depending on what I’m doing.  If I’m playing lead lines, or single to two note patters, I usually have less exposed.  If I’m strumming openly, like on an acoustic I’ll expose more of my pick.) 

(A look at me holding a pick)

Avoid “Digging In” When Strumming
Building off my last comment, I learned that lesson the hard way.  One of my biggest problems early on was to leave too much of my pick exposed, which meant I’d beat my strings instead of lightly touching them.  Besides problems with broken strings, I also struggled with tiredness in my hand, (from the added resistance,) out of tune chords, strings buzzing because I’d hit them too hard, and a generally sloppy tone.  That digging in was also the reason so many picks would fly out of my hand.

One exercise I do now to work on my contact amount is to grab a pick and practice my picking hand motion without a guitar.  (I don’t recommend doing this in a public place, you might get some funny looks.)  A good technique I use is to brush on the outside of my leg like it was the strings on my guitar.  I’ll pay careful attention to how my motion is… is it strong and choppy, or smooth and fluid?  Do I feel constant pressure as my hand moves up and down, or does it bounce around alot?  When I first make contact does the pick really hit hard, or is it smooth and light?  Ideally, you want your initial contact to be fairly light, and your motion throughout to be smooth and fluid, both when your strumming aggressively and also when you’re gently picking. 

When I first started doing this, I noticed that my strumming hand flopped all over the place.  It made perfect sense then why I struggled with missing notes on arpeggios and lead lines..  My initial contact tended to “dig in”, so then my pick would get stuck a bit as I traveled across the strings.  Noticing this, I worked on making my initial contact a little lighter, and carrying my motion throughout the strum.  It really cleaned up my sound and how smooth my chords blended together.

(The next article will discuss controlling the movement of your hand, and your angle of attack.)



  1. WGG-
    While I was on vacation I had to use a pick, I broke off my finger nail putting away the fishing boat. OOUCH! Anyway my wife hates it when I grow out my nail, she thinks it looks gross. I’m going to keep trying to pick. My Martin is so deep and mellow I have a problem getting any volume out of it with my finger nails.

  2. I’ve been using the rounded edge of my pick since the 90’s. It delivers a mellower tone and I feel as if I have better control.

    One of the best exercises I ever learned for rhythm guitar is “the train”: where you deaden the strings with your fretting hand and strum steadily (alternating up and down strokes, of course), gradually increasing speed and accenting the first beat, like this:


    Once I got that down, I strummed along with the drummer on different recordings trying to mimic the sound of their drum kit. When they hit their cymbals, I only strummed on the high strings. Kick drum: low strings. And so on. . .

  3. I also found that the best way to get rid of the tendency to dig in too much or strum too hard is to switch to thin picks. After I destroyed a few of them (very quickly, I might add), I got more control of my picking hand.

  4. One way to make your picking techniques smooth and graceful is to first play with a paper pick.

    To make one, take a piece of paper and cut some picks our of it. (The glossy cover of a magazine works best for this.) A paper pick wont last very long so cut out 10 or 20 picks at a time, and don’t worry about precision, just cut a good picking angle.

    Try playing with the paper pick, and then switch to a real pick.

  5. I’ve found that because of playing drums, my wrist muscles are well developed enough to hold the pick in most fashions, the downside of this is that i have weak fingers, so generally end up using the thumb, index, middle technique.

  6. For you Edge fans (U2’s guitarist).. He uses Herdim picks and will turn them around and strike the string with the dimpled part of the pick. I haven’t found a place in the states to buy them, but I did buy them from a shop in the UK called Music Corner. It took about a month for them to get to me. Are they better than Dunlop nylon standards? I don’t know, but I feel more special knowing I play the same pick as The Edge!

    Herdim picks at Music Corner

  7. Way to go snagging some Herdim’s Chris…

    I’ve been playing around with that technique in practice, i.e. turning my pick sideways for percussive rhythm parts. With Dunlop Nylons you can get a bit of that “grating” sound… The picks I mentioned in part 2 of this, the Brain picks really give you that grating sound, so they’re a cool alternative to try if you’re waiting the 6-8 weeks for your Herdims to ship from Timbuktu… 😉

    I believe you can find Brain’s now at many of the Guitar Center’s across the U.S.

  8. Great Stuff man.. I face the same prob u described.. thanks for the tip off

  9. I was recommended this web site by my cousin. I’m not sure whether this post is
    written by him as no one else know such detailed about my trouble.
    You are wonderful! Thanks!

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