Finger Lickin’ Good: Utilizing Hybrid Picking for Lead Playing

Everyone from Chet Atkins, Billy Gibbons, and Warren Haynes, to Eric Johnson and Buckethead has used hybrid picking. Learn it for yourself here!
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Guitarist Eric Johnson and drummer Anton Fig perform on stage at The Canyon Club on January 25, 2015 in Agoura Hills, California.

Guitarist Eric Johnson and drummer Anton Fig perform on stage at The Canyon Club on January 25, 2015 in Agoura Hills, California.

Hybrid picking - using a pick in conjunction with your available pick-hand fingers to pluck the strings - is an interesting and often highly useful alternative to traditional plectrum-based guitar playing, one that can facilitate the performance of licks and phrases that would be more difficult, if not impossible, to play using the pick alone. This lesson explores a specific application of hybrid picking, for lead work, with a survey of techniques and stylistically diverse approaches that can be found in the playing of countless guitar legends- everyone from Chet Atkins, Billy Gibbons, and Warren Haynes, to Eric Johnson and Buckethead.

As you begin to notice various applications of hybrid picking in the music of these and other artists and the sounds, melodies, and textures it can be used to create, you’ll discover that different players will typically adopt their own personalized approach to the technique. For those who are new to hybrid picking, it involves clasping your pick between your thumb and index finger, as you would ordinarily do for picking single notes or strumming, and picking downstrokes while alternately or simultaneously plucking higher strings with your available bare fingers, most often the middle finger, with the ring finger sometimes brought into play for double-stops, and the pinky occasionally employed to pluck chords.

Many blues, rock, and metal guitarists who employ hybrid picking commonly use only one finger, typically the middle, but you’ll find plenty of country and bluegrass players blazing hybrid-picked licks using various combinations of pick-hand fingers. The unique combination of plectrum-picked lower strings and fingerpicked higher strings creates an interesting tonal contrast between your pick and fingers, and these varying articulations can create plenty of variations in the volume and dynamic attack of what you’re playing, which can sound exciting, lively and very musical. You can also produce strong note accents by pulling a string away from the fretboard as you pluck it with a bare finger and allowing it to snap back as you let go of it. In contrast, you could also brush the strings gently with your fingers, helping to create a wide, pronounced variance in your volume range.

To get started hybrid picking, play through Examples 1a and 1b, with Ex. 1a presenting a basic single-note E minor pentatonic-based phrase played in 12th position using hybrid picking, and Ex. 1b fusing the same lick with a pair of double-stops, plucked with the middle and ring fingers together.

EX. 1A

EX. 1B

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Our next two examples reveal a common hybrid-picked E7 lick idea, with a basic primer exercise shown in Ex. 2a, and its development into a standard blues turnaround phrase depicted in Ex. 2b. Notice how the use of hybrid picking here makes all the string skipping so much easier to do than if you were to try and flatpick all the notes!

EX. 2A

EX. 2B

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Examples 3a and 3b demonstrate how to perform another common blues turnaround, this time covering two different fretboard positions and quickly shifting to another location on the neck. Ex.3a features a very common E7 turnaround in open position, while Ex.3b relocates this idea an octave higher, creating a slinky turnaround phrase that would sound at home in blues music, but could also be used in rock, country, jazz, and a variety of other styles. Notice the exceptionally wide intervals created by pulling off to the open high E string from so high up on the neck. There are plenty of guitarists that have incorporated this technique into their playing style and vocabulary, and you can find licks like these in the music of such greats as Albert Lee, Robben Ford, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and country legend Willie Nelson.

EX. 3A

EX. 3B

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Ex. 4 presents a stock hybrid-picked lead phrase that brings to mind an abundance of licks that you’ll hear coming from blues-rock masters like Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Slash, Warren Haynes, and countless others. Experiment with “snapping” the hybrid picked notes as this lick unfolds, giving the phrase an aggressive, heavily accented sound.

You can apply hybrid picking to just about any style of music, and the abundance of licks, phrases and ideas that you’ll discover and invent while researching and experimenting with this technique is a worthwhile study that should be eagerly explored.

EX. 4

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To move things into more of a rock/shred direction, Ex. 5 features an interesting way of performing an E minor arpeggio, utilizing hybrid picking to facilitate an intervallic arpeggio idea that incorporates frequent string crosses and changes in melodic direction, with only one of two notes played on each string before switching to another one. This example is demonstrative of licks and phrases coming from hard-rocking shred virtuosos Greg Howe, Guthrie Govan, Zakk Wylde and the masked guitar wizard, Buckethead. As you play through this example, be sure to alternate between your pick and middle finer as each two-note string-group moves along the strings.

EX. 5

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Examples 6a and 6b offer insight into the origin and execution of a famous and very cool hybrid-picked lick, one performed by Eric Johnson during the intro to his classic instrumental, “Cliffs of Dover,” which is based on a classical-style pedal-point phrase borrowed from the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Ex. 6a reveals how to perform an ascending E major scale-based run using hybrid picking to greatly facilitate the alternation between climbing notes on the fourth, third and second strings and a recurring high E root note on the first string. Ex. 6b reveals a descending variation on this pedal-point idea, similar to Johnson’s lick. These two runs are challenging to execute cleanly, so be sure to take your time moving through the notes of each phrase until the string skipping and hybrid-picking techniques are blended together seamlessly.

EX. 6A

EX. 6B

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Our final offering, Ex. 7, presents an advanced hybrid-picked string-skipping run that’s inspired by the playing of shred masters Steve Morse and John Petrucci, as well as country-shred monsters Brent Mason and Johnny Hiland. Take your time learning and playing through this wicked run, and experiment with snapping the higher accented notes, plucked with the middle finger. Strive for a balance between the burry, chromatic legato lines and the accented plucking as this busy, challenging lick unfolds.

EX. 7

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In your quest to expand your musical and guitar playing horizons, try to incorporate some of the ideas and sounds presented in this lesson into your own playing, and be sure to spend plenty of time experimenting with hybrid picking and its numerous uses. The dynamic and tonal variations that can be achieved between the pick and fingers can be harnessed to craft very expressive, interesting licks and phrases, so spend plenty of time practicing the technique and its various applications in the creation of your own licks.