When it comes to guitar picking techniques, everything can be boiled down to three distinct approaches. The first and most common is what’s known as flatpicking, which involves using a plectrum, or flat guitar pick, to strike the strings. The second approach is fingerpicking, also known as fingerstyle, which involves using your fingers - primarily your thumb and first three fingers, the index, middle and ring - to pluck each note.
Both of these techniques have their own distinct advantages: flatpicking is great for playing linear, single-note melodies and strumming chords, whereas fingerpicking is perfect for rolling arpeggios and sounding two or more strings at the same time.
If we combine these two approaches, however, we create a third and highly useful technique known as hybrid picking. Hybrid picking combines both flatpicking and fingerstyle in a way that exploits the advantages of both techniques, and, when mastered, it can make you a far more versatile guitarist than those who strictly flatpick or fingerpick exclusively.
Hybrid picking is a staple of nearly all styles of guitar playing. You can see it being utilized by jazz greats, heavy metal shredders and country “chicken pickers” alike. In this lesson, we’ll explore the possibilities that open up when you master using your pick and fingers together. Hybrid picking can be a challenging technique to wrap your head around at first, but by the end of this lesson you’ll be fully equipped to play like the masters. But first, let’s break it down…
While flatpickers have the option of clasping their pick between their thumb and index finger, thumb and middle finger or all three digits, hybrid picking requires you to hold the pick between your thumb and index finger so that you can use your middle and ring fingers, as well as your pinkie, to pluck the higher strings independently of the pick.
Once your pick is properly situated, drape your remaining pick-hand fingers just above the strings in a relaxed, hook-like arch, with the fingertips aimed down at the strings and ready to pluck them, just as you would do when fingerpicking. Now it’s time to tackle the biggest hurdle, which is simply getting used to using your pick and fingers at the same time and coordinating the movements. (Note: The pick-hand indications for each exercise are notated as follows, using the traditional Spanish abbreviations from classical guitar notation: m = middle finger, a = ring finger and c = pinkie).
Ex. 1 comprises a trio of repeating one-bar exercises designed to help you focus on the bare mechanics of alternating between your pick and fingers. For the sake of simplicity, each one-bar drill is based on a simple eighth-note rhythm (two evenly spaced notes per beat) and has you holding an open D chord shape with your fretting hand, so that you can focus exclusively on your picking technique.
You will start by alternately down-picking the open D string with the pick and plucking the fretted G string with your middle finger. (When hybrid picking, you will be flatpicking downstrokes pretty much exclusively with the plectrum, as the fingerpicked notes will serve as your “upstrokes.”)
Once you’ve mastered that simple pattern, move on to bar 2, where you will continue to down-pick the open D string on each downbeat, but now you will be alternately using your middle finger to pluck the G string and your ring finger to pluck the B string on the eighth-note upbeats, or the “and” counts between the beats. So the repeating four-note pick-hand pattern is “pick, middle, pick, ring.”
Bar 3 brings the pinkie into play to pluck the high E string. Here you will keep picking the D string on each downbeat with your pick, then alternate between picking the G, B and high E strings with your middle finger, ring finger and pinkie, respectively, on the eighth-note upbeats. We now have a repeating eight-note picking pattern that goes “pick, middle, pick, ring, pick, pinkie, pick, ring.”
Another common application of hybrid picking is to use your fingers to pluck chord tones on different strings at the same time, to achieve a piano-like simultaneous note attack. Continuing with our open D chord and eighth-note rhythm, Ex. 2 has you alternating between picking the open D string on the beats and plucking either two or three strings together on the upbeats.
We start with the middle and ring fingers plucking the G and B strings simultaneously, then, in bar 2, we shift those fingers over to the B and high E strings. Finally, in bar 3, you will pluck the G, B and high E strings together with your middle finger, ring finger and pinkie, in opposition to the down-picked open D notes.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how to hybrid pick, let’s tackle an exercise that combines all of the elements presented thus far and also has you picking strings with the pick and one or more fingers at the same time. Ex. 3 begins with your pick alternating between playing the open D and A strings while your middle and ring fingers alternate between playing triple-stops in tandem with your pick and plucking individual notes on the B and high E strings.
Be sure to practice all of these exercises slowly and with a metronome to ensure consistency and accuracy in your timing and articulation. As you get the hang of each exercise, gradually increase the tempo until you feel totally comfortable with the mechanics of hybrid picking. Once you have that down, it’s time to explore the many possibilities hybrid picking can offer.
Jazz and blues rhythm playing, or comping, is one of the most common uses for hybrid picking. Using hybrid picking for comping allows you to selectively choose which chord tones and chord tensions you want to include without having to make sure all of the notes sit on adjacent strings (so as to avoid any unwanted notes when barring). It also gives you the option to put a wide intervallic space between a chord’s low root note and notes on higher strings, or even play a moving, melodic bass line underneath a chord progression.
To get warmed up, Ex. 4a presents a jazz-style blues turnaround in the key of A. Playing in a “flat four” quarter-note rhythm, you will use your pick to play the bass note and root of every chord while your middle and ring fingers simultaneously pluck the 3rd and 7th, known as guide tones, on higher strings.
Ex. 4b elaborates on the previous exercise by separating the roots from the guide tones to create a more layered and syncopated feel. Notice the chromatic approaches to both the roots and guide tones that crop up throughout the exercise, each of which is performed with a legato finger slide. This is a great way to embellish simple chord progressions like this one.
Now it’s time to really kick things up a notch. In the tradition of jazz guitar giants like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, Ex. 4c adds a walking bass line and chord tensions to the progression. Your pick will focus on the bass line, played on the A and low E strings, and your middle finger, ring finger and pinkie will pluck the D, G and B strings in tandem to sound three-note chord voicings. You’ll want to pay close attention to the included chord frames and fingerings because there are many moving parts here, and you don’t want to get your fingers twisted in a knot.
Getting the Hybrid-Picking Blues
Hybrid picking is a cornerstone of modern blues, rock and country lead guitar, and the technique has been employed by such legends as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Eric Johnson, Danny Gatton, Albert Lee, Vince Gill and many others. Let’s look at some of the many ways in which hybrid picking can be used to bring out the best in licks inspired by these great players, starting with the most foundational of these genres: blues.
Since the first crop of these lead exercises revolve around the minor pentatonic scale, let’s get warmed up with Ex. 5, which has you ascending and descending two octaves of the A minor pentatonic scale (A, C, D, E, G) using a hybrid-picked version of alternate picking, alternating between downstrokes with your pick and plucking with your middle finger to replace picked upstrokes.
Now that you’re warmed up, let’s try Ex. 6, a familiar pentatonic blues lick in 12/8 meter with a hybrid-picking twist. Starting with your pick playing the initial bend on the G string, you will then pluck the subsequent notes on the B and high E strings with your middle and ring fingers, respectively. After returning to the B string with a pull-off, you will then shift your picking hand so that your pick will downstroke the B string and your middle finger will alternately pluck the high E through the end of bar 1. In bar 2, we repeat the initial five-note phrase, then downstroke the G and D strings to finish the phrase.
Inspired by Eric Johnson’s playing, Ex. 7 takes a descending, 16th-note A minor pentatonic phrase and sequences it up the neck through neighboring box patterns. Each four-note group begins with a note on the high E string that’s plucked by the ring finger. The second note, played on the B string, will be plucked by your middle finger, followed by a pull-off on the same string.
You then down-pick the fourth note on the G string with the pick. This pattern then repeats with different notes as you ascend the fretboard, until the last beat of bar 2, where you will continue moving across to the lower strings and perform two pull-offs on the D and A strings after picking them with your middle finger and pick, respectively.
Ex. 8 is a pentatonic string-skipping phrase and exercise reminiscent of Robben Ford’s angular blues phrasing. Here you will use your pick and middle finger to sound notes on adjacent strings and your pick and ring finger to play nonadjacent strings, starting with the initial jump from the low E string all the way over to the G string.
This exercise is designed to challenge your accuracy, so focus on making sure your pick and picking fingers are properly positioned to nail those string skips. Now let’s move on to two of the most challenging uses of hybrid picking…
Chicken Pickin' and Banjo Rolls
The country guitar style of hybrid picking known as chicken pickin’ is one of the most mystifying and misunderstood techniques in all of guitar. The term came into use a few decades ago to describe the “hen-clucking” sound that the technique often produces. Many players seem to believe it is simply “country hybrid picking,” but that is a bit of an oversimplification.
In reality, chicken pickin’ refers to a specific application of hybrid picking in which your fingers (or sometimes fingernails) dig in under the strings and snap them against the fretboard instead of simply plucking them. This string snapping achieves the heavily accented, percussive “cluck,” hence the technique’s descriptive name.
Ex. 9 has you ascending the A minor pentatonic scale once again, but the twist here is that we’re using a 16th-note triplet rhythm and the first note of each triplet is followed by two pitchless, percussive, fret-hand-muted notes. You will alternate between picked downstrokes and snapping the string with your pick-hand middle finger.
Each triplet will flip back and forth between the following two picking patterns: “pick, middle, pick” and “middle, pick, middle.” You should hear a distinct difference between the flatpicked note and the note snapped with the middle finger. If that note’s not a-cluckin’, you best keep a-pluckin’!
Ex. 10 is a bendy country-style chicken-pickin’ lick in the key of F major, for which all the fingerpicked notes are snapped against the fretboard. Based mainly on the F major pentatonic scale (F, G, A, C, D), the lick kicks off on the top two strings with repeating double-stop bends followed by descending 6th intervals (two tones that are six scale degrees apart) played on nonadjacent strings, for which the use of hybrid picking greatly facilitates the numerous string skips, which would be arduous to perform using only the plectrum.
Another common country hybrid picking technique is the banjo roll, which refers to a succession of repeating eighth-note arpeggio patterns that break up a 4/4 beat pattern by subdividing it into two- and three-note groupings. Ex. 11 shows one such pattern, modeled after the Earl Scruggs’ banjo classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
Everything in this example is played on the top three strings. The “Foggy Mountain roll,” when translated to hybrid picking for guitar, amounts to the following picking pattern: “pick, hammer-on, middle, pick, ring, middle, pick, middle.” You will alternate this pattern with a backward roll - “ring, middle, pick, ring, middle, pick, ring, middle” - every measure until the lead fill in the final two bars.
Banjo-roll licks aren’t only common in country music; shredders like Zakk Wylde and John Petrucci use them in many of their whiplash-inducing metal leads as well.
Whether you’re comping through an old standard, rolling like a banjo or dusting off old blues licks, you’ll be a far more well-rounded and versatile guitarist once you learn and fully implement these hybrid-picking techniques.