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Guitar Picking Techniques

Guitar picking techniques vary in both application and difficulty and they can be very challenging..

This lesson is designed to help improve your confidence with several picking techniques, all of which you'll most likely use throughout your guitar playing life.

Firstly, make sure you equip yourself with a fairly soft plectrum (I use .88mm) that can flex over the strings with ease - a hard pick is likely to make this ten times more difficult than it should be.

Also, this is just a primer. A lot of what we'll look at here is covered in far more depth by the guys at JamPlay.

Economy picking warmup

This first section outlines the core basics of good picking practise for both acoustic and electric guitar.

Learn to pick with down AND up strokes. Many guitarists that wouldn't class themselves as beginners at all still only seem to want to pick down towards the floor.

One method is to use upstrokes when the sequence travels upwards towards the higher strings, and down strokes when the sequence travels towards the low E string. This is known as economy picking.

Listen to the audio below and then look at the diagram...

Click to hear example

guitar picking technique

You can do this with any chord or lick, but in this example we're picking the Am7 chord.

If you look at the diagram you'll notice we are down picking from the root note down to the skinny E string and then coming back up with, yep, upstrokes.

The general "rule" (it's more of a "make life easier for you" kind of rule when you're starting out) is that the direction of a stroke/pick is determined by where the next string being played in the sequence is. This is directly related to all the following guitar picking techniques.

Try and keep your action smooth - let your pick glide across the strings.

Onwards and upwards! Let's get to grips with some solid guitar picking techniques...

Basic flat picking technique

Flat picking is basically just plucking the strings of your guitar with a plectrum. The other method is finger picking.

Similar to the warm up, we're going to stick with one chord - A7 - but this time we're going to do some string skips. This means we'll start as though we're just picking down the chord, but 3 strings in we're going to jump to the top E string to begin our upstrokes.

Take a look and listen...

Click to hear example

As you can see (or hear), we strike the two lowest strings of the chord in sync with the rhythm we're playing - highlighted by the red down strokes.

If you count "1 and 2 and 1 and 2 etc..." your brain should almost naturally begin to separate those two bass notes like in the audio below...

Click to hear example

That's what it sounds like stripped down to just those key bass notes.

As long as you keep some sort of strict rhythmic control by identifying a couple of notes that have particular emphasis, you'll be able to wrap the rest of the chord around it using the appropriate up and down picks.

Notice how, like I said before, stroke direction is determined by the position of the next string you play in the sequence to make the travel of your hand smoother.

Same thing, but moving frets

So we'll start on that A7 chord like before, using that same picking pattern, but this time we'll make it into a progression by moving the shape up the neck.

The tab below shows you where to move up.

Click to hear example


It's difficult at first for many people to a) keep your picking accurate at the same time as b) fretting accurately with your other hand.

Again, I would rather you look at your fretting hand because at least the palm and most of your picking hand is stationary. You will find you can naturally be quite accurate anyway with your picking hand

It doesn't matter if you pick the notes in the wrong order - just make sure you downstroke and upstroke when you should be - if in doubt, stop, take a look at what the next string you play will be - if it's a fatter string, upstroke, if it's a skinnier string, downstroke.

Picking open string chords

This is a flat picking technique where you play a couple of notes fretted, and the rest open. The open strings should ring out to give some depth to the sequence.

Take a listen...

Click to hear example

With floating, select two or three of the bottom, fattest strings at frets 3, 5 and/or 7 and use these as bass notes.

Now, because these notes at those frets are in the key of E minor you can float them up and down the fretboard whilst picking the top skinniest strings. These top 3 strings make up the main part of the E minor chord and will complement the bass strings played at those frets.

Listen again to the audio - that's what I'm doing in this example.

Experiment with playing strings at different frets and picking some of, or all the other strings around them. You can discover all sorts of wonderful open string chords here.

Floating is about taking 1, 2 or 3 fretted strings and combining them with open strings.

Don't forget those upstroke, downstroke rules too! Well, not know what I mean.

String skipping picking technique

String skipping is yet another picking technique that is pretty self explanatory.

In a nutshell, string skipping involves jumping over, or "skipping" strings when moving vertically, from one string to another. It allows for wider interval movements, jumping from low to high tones, giving your chord playing more dynamic patterns.

Take a listen...

Click to hear example

We're picking the G Major and C Major chords here, detailed in the tab above.

You'll notice that the picking follows an alternate pattern, so in the first part I'll pick the bass/root string as usual followed by the E, D and G string, but in the next part I pick E, G and B. This alternate pattern is very common with all guitar picking techniques.

The cross picking part is obvious - the jump from the bass/root string right up to the top string before jumping back down to the D string. The same upstroke/downstroke "rules" apply here too!

Of course, this can be done with chord progressions as well so have a wander around the fretboard with this pattern. Changing chord position whilst you're making that "jump" with your picking can sound really effective if played right...

Picking through more defined chord changes

Floating chord changes as we saw earlier aren't actually big movements in the way of changing your finger formation.

The audio and tab diagram below lay out a picking pattern that weaves through a more obvious chord change.

Click to hear example

Dm7 changes to a modified G chord (used a lot in jazz). However, the important thing here is, you've kept that picking pattern and rhythm through the chord change (i.e. the chord change didn't break up your picking rhythm).

It's good practice for your accuracy and co-ordination to use this method often, especially when string skipping, because it involves both your picking hand and (more so) your fretting hand making significant movements together and not breaking up the rhythm or accuracy in the process.

Now without the up and down arrow help!

Try this final exercise without reference to the up or down strokes.

Click to hear example

Try hooking all these guitar picking techniques into a chord progression - use open strings through the first few bars and string skip through some defined chord changes for the chorus.

Mix it up.

Anyway, hope that's been of some use to you!

learn more about Jamplay


Alternate Picking

Tremolo Picking

Chord Picking

Other Lead Guitar Techniques

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