Pick or Pluck: Improve Your Skills and Performance with These 8 Techniques

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In this lesson, you get to pick—or pluck—your pleasure.

We’re going to teach you eight indispensable picking-hand styles, including Alternate Picking, Economy/Sweep Picking, Travis Picking, Hybrid Picking and more.

When we’re finished, you’ll have a full arsenal of new techniques to put to use in your playing. Let’s get started.

1. Pickstyle Strumming

Pickstyle strumming—using the pick in an upward or downward motion across a chord’s indicated strings—is the most fundamental of rhythm guitar approaches.

In strummed passages, the picking hand functions as a rhythmic timekeeper, grooving in sync with the pulse of the music. Whenever a chord falls on the down beat, a downward strum is used. Think of this downward strum as the equivalent of tapping your foot to the music’s beat. From this point, regardless of the manner in which a beat is divided, you’ll engage in strict alternation between down and up strums.

For instance, in a passage of quarter notes and eighth notes (FIGURE 1A), use downstrokes for each chord struck on downbeats and upstrokes for those occurring on the “and” portion of each beat.


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The same holds true in FIGURE 1B, a passage based on syncopated eighth notes requiring you to intentionally pass over the strings during the “missed” downstrum of beat 3, then catch the strings with an upstroke on the “and” of beat 3.


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Meanwhile, strummed rhythms involving syncopated 16th notes (FIGURE 2) place even more demands on your strumming hand.


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2. Alternate Picking

In the same manner, alternating picking strokes—or alternate picking as it’s called—can be used to tackle single-note lines.

For instance, when playing a two-octave C major scale (C D E F G A B) in ascending and descending notes (FIGURE 3), you’ll still restrict your downstrokes to downbeats, alternating between down- and upstrokes in relation to the subdivision used.


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Alternate picking is very useful when working out what down/up strokes should to use when playing certain syncopated single-note lines, like the rhythmically quirky C major pentatonic (C D E G A) lick in FIGURE 4A, for example.


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Likewise, in more technically involved lines where legato articulations (slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs) occur amid picked notes (FIGURE 4B), an awareness of alternate picking can help you negotiate your pick moves and make it easier to add complex phrases to your bag of chops.


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3. Economy/Sweep Picking

Economy, or sweep, picking occurs whenever a single pick stroke is used to articulate a succession of notes located across two or more adjacent strings. For example, in playing the open-position chord changes of FIGURE 5, a succession of downstrokes—or rather one continuous but controlled downstroke—is used to sound the first three notes of each chord. Meanwhile, each chord’s highest note is player with an upstroke, which facilitates a repeatable picking pattern.


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Economy picking is also useful in scalar passages. For instance, using alternate picking, a vast number of successive down/up strokes would be required to play through the ascending/descending three-notes-per-string shapes in FIGURE 6. Economy picking significantly reduces picking activity.


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This reduction become even greater in arpeggio-based licks. For examples, the ascending/descending C major arpeggio in FIGURE 7A requires minimal picking effort.


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Each time a single pick stroke is used from one string to the next, allow the pick to fall into the higher adjacent string so it rests up against it. Then push the pick through this higher string, continuing the motion until the pick has passed through each of the strings indicated, using one smooth “sweeping” motion. Reverse the process for descending phrases. This also works on pentatonic-based passages, as in FIGURE 7B.


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4. “Classical” Fingerstyle

Any time you pluck the strings of your electric of acoustic guitar with your pick hand’s fingers, you’re playing fingerstyle. Proper classical fingerstyle technique generally dictates that you use a specific combination of plucking-hand fingers to sound certain strings. These fingers are specified by certain symbols—an abbreviation of the Spanish names for fingers: p (pulgar, or thumb), i (indice, or index), m (medio, or middle) and a (anular, or ring). The symbols are placed between the notation and tab staves in modern transcriptions. In traditional classical guitar pieces or exercises, the thumb is typically assigned to play the bottom three strings (strings 4–6), while the remaining fingers—i, m and a— are used to pluck the 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings, respectively.

Keep all of the above in mind as you attempt FIGURES 8A–B.


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With your wrist cocked at a slight angle, place the outside edge of your plucking-hand thumb along the 5th string, doing the same with your index, middle and ring fingers on strings 3–1, contacting the strings where flesh and nail meet. Then while your fingers remain slightly arched, pluck the indicated strings, pushing your fingertips through the strings rather than pulling on them, bending from the first knuckle only.

In fingerstyle playing, it helps to have a little extra length in your fingernails. Using them in conjunction with the flesh on your fingertips helps produce a warm, projecting tone.


5. Travis Picking

Travis picking is a timeless fingerstyle approach. The technique involves playing alternating bass notes with the plucking hand thumb (or a thumb pick), while the remaining fingers pluck higher strings.

FIGURE 9A depicts a common open-position Travis-picking pattern in C.


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FIGURE 9B illustrates the technique in conjunction with a fully fretted G7 chord. All of the bass notes (written in down-stemmed fashion) are played using slight palm muting.


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6 & 7. Tremolo Picking and Rasgueado

Played using all five fingers of the plucking hand (c indicated the pinkie), flamenco is a Spanish guitar style that was originally used to accompany dancers—hence the powerful rhythmic accents. The most notable techniques in this style are tremolo and rasgueado.

Basic tremolo passages akin to FIGURE 10A serve as the basis for essential guitar pieces like “Malagueña” and “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Use your plucking hand’s thumb to sound all down-stemmed notes, allowing your middle and index fingers to rapidly reiterate (or tremolo pick) the high string.


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Rasgueado (meaning strummed) uses each plucking-hand finger to “explode” outwardly—one at a time—from a closed fist, using the outside of the fingernail to rapidly rake across the strings in a downward motion. An upstroke from the thumb is also frequently used, again raking the strings with the nail’s outer side (FIGURE 10B). When these five fingers are used in rapid succession, it creates an ultra-percussive strumming sound—multiple chord attacks that would be impossible to duplicate otherwise.


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8. Hybrid Picking

Hybrid picking combines elements of fingerstyle and pickstyle techniques. It is generally most at home in playing barn-burning double-stop licks (FIGURE 11A).


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In this style, each double-stop is plucked with the picking hand’s middle and ring fingers, and the single notes are played with a downward pick stroke. Plucking the double-stops in this manner produces an accented, snappy attack louder than the picked notes, due to the strings smacking back against the fretboard.Hybrid picking technique is not lost on rock guitar. FIGURE 11B illustrates a sample rock riff sculpted from this pick-and0fingers approach.


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