It’s very common for many fans of guitar playing (and music in general) to look at their favourite guitar players and see how fast their fingers are moving across the fretboard. To many, it looks like pure magic to see human fingers move about with such agility, precision and speed, and because of that the fretting hand tends to steal the spotlight for music fans worldwide. This is also why it’s quite often that people either underestimate or full-on neglect how much work is required by the picking hand to play guitar at a high level.
The truth is, the picking hand is equally as important, and has just as much work to do as the fretting hand if you expect to do anything beyond strumming a few chords on guitar. Many guitar players overlook this though, and never reach their full potential simply because they don’t realize that they aren’t giving enough attention to a crucial part of their playing. To stop this from happening to you, let’s take a look at 7 bad habits to avoid so that you can develop good picking technique that makes it easier for you to play guitar the way you’ve always wanted to:
1. Picking Out Instead Of Up/Down
A common bad habit is for guitar players to move their picks out and away from the guitar every time they pick a string. This causes a lot of unnecessary motion that makes it harder for you to play fast and tires out your picking hand much faster. Instead, pick straight down or up, so that the pick is on its way to hitting the next string right away.
2. Holding The Pick With More Than 2 Fingers
It’s very often that I see beginner guitar players hold their pick with their thumb and 2 fingers. This makes your pick attack and strumming sound very harsh and abrasive, will wear out and break your strings more frequently due to plucking them way too hard, and also make it harder for you to move your picking hand in ways that can make cleaner and smoother guitar playing a possibility. Instead, hold the pick between just your index finger and thumb, gripping just tight enough so that you don’t drop it while playing.
3. Letting The Thumb Overhang The Pick
Many guitar players let the thumb of their picking hand overhang the pick itself in an attempt to gain a better grip on it. The problem is that this makes it hard to develop dexterity and precision in your picking hand, and can also cause you to accidentally mute the strings you’re trying to play. Instead, hold the pick so that your thumb is around the center of the pick, with part of the pick actually extending past the thumb.
4. Picking Flat Against The Strings
A finer detail to point out, playing with the pick flat against the strings will cause your pick attack to be very harsh and abrasive, and will cause the pick to get hung up between the strings, making string changes much harder to do. Instead, hold your pick at approximately a 45-degree angle towards the headstock, so that the edge of the pick “slices” through the strings. This is a key factor to being able to easily change strings while playing, and to achieve an aggressive pick attack that still sounds smooth and in tune.
5. Moving The Pick With Your Fingers Instead Of Your Wrist
This makes it harder to achieve pick attacks that contribute to clean and controlled lead guitar playing. When you move the pick with a pivot of the wrist, not only will your pick attack sound consistent, but the motions will be congruent with all of the types of lead guitar playing you would want to do.
6. Using Downstrokes For Everything
While focusing on downstrokes can result in very tight and aggressive rhythm guitar playing, using downstrokes for everything results in a lot of excessive motion in your picking hand that can make many things in your guitar playing unnecessarily difficult. Practice using your upstrokes along with your down strokes, and take the shortest route to the next string when playing lead guitar.
7. Changing Strings With Your Wrist Instead Of Your Elbow
Using your wrist to change strings isn’t a big deal if the change is only a small distance, but using your wrist for every string change will eventually put your wrist in a really awkward position that will make it hard to attack the strings cleanly. To keep your picking hand relaxed, hit notes on the same string by moving your wrist, and change strings with your elbow.
If you’ve realized that you’re suffering from one or more of these habits, my advice would be to make a list of the bad habits in your picking hand and focus on correcting and eliminating them one at a time. Replacing them might take some extra work, but the results in your guitar playing will be worth all of the time and effort you invest into proper technique.
Ryan Mueller is a professional musician active in Toronto’s heavy metal community. He’s also a dedicated music school owner, giving the best guitar lessons in Etobicoke.