Home : Basics : Picking Technique
"Picks" are small plectrum devices, usually made of plastic, nylon or metal, which are used to strum and pluck the strings of the guitar.  Picks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the most common being teardrop and rounded triangle shapes approximately one inch long.


Although awkward to use at first, picks allow you to produce louder, clearer sounding notes.  The impact of the pick against the string produces a stronger, more percusive tone than that produced by fingers, so it is preferred in many popular styles of music.  You should begin to learn how to hold and use a pick from the earliest stages of playing.  The pick is most commonly held between thumb and index fingers, in a position similar to that used when snapping the fingers against the thumb. Alternately, some players choose to hold the pick between the thumb and middle fingers, but this can cause additional difficulties with certain techniques, and is not suggested. You should get a solid grip on the pick by choking up on it as much as possible.  Try to keep as much of the pick between the flesh of your fingers, with the body of the pick protruding slightly on the palm side (inside) of the two fingers.  Try not grab the outside edge of the pick - this typically allows the pick to slip out of your fingers and/or shift position while playing).


In contacting the string, the pick should point straight down into the face of the guitar.  Try to avoid letting the pick point up toward the headstock - the pick cannot get a good grip on the string if the point is not digging down into the string.  Also, try to avoid holding the pick flat against the length of the string. Most players turn the pick slightly along its axis, so that only the leading edge of the pick contacts the string (rather than the flat surface).  This eliminates friction and allows you to play more smoothly.  Picks will often get "stuck" on the string when the flat surface of the pick contacts the strings.  Avoid this by turning it slightly.


There are only two basic directional movements used to pluck or strum with a pick:
  • Downstroke - a plucking/strumming motion toward the ground (from the thickest to the thinnest string), indicated in written music by this symbol:
  • Upstroke - a plucking/strumming motion toward the ceiling (from the thinnest to the thickest string), indicated in written music by this symbol:
The downstroke is the more natural and powerful of the two strokes.  It is typically used to emphasize notes, and to bring out loud melody lines. Use it whenever more strength, control, and articulation are needed.

"Alternation" with a pick is defined as the alternate use of down and up strokes.  By using each directional movement, one after the other, an efficient and quick picking technique is produced.  You can play more quickly using the pick in both directions than you can with repeated down strokes.  Alternation, or "alternate picking", is typically used by guitarists to play streams of quick notes.  Developing the technical skill required to strum, play down and up strokes, and alternate with speed and control using a pick is a large part of the technique required to become a proficient guitarist.  In order to make the development of these techniques as simple and painless as possible, it is very important to develop alternate picking from the earliest stages of playing.  Below are a variety of simple tunes that can be practiced to help develop alternate picking technique:


Cross String Picking:

One of the most common and effective musical techniques on the guitar involves holding  chord shapes and picking out the individual strings, one by one in succession.  This technique is often called "cross string picking", and the technical term for the notes of a chord is called an "arpeggio".  Playing the notes of a chord individually is called "arpeggiating" the chord.  The technical approach to this type of picking requires a bit more practice and thought - alternate picking does not typically lend itself well to notes on non-adjacent strings.

To understand the concept of cross string picking, try playing the following example with both suggested picking patterns:


It is much easier to jump back and forth between the 6th and 1st strings using a down-up movement, rather than with an up-down movement. In the first example, the down stroke on the 6th string moves you toward the 1st string.  The upstroke on the 1st string moves you back toward the 6th string.  This is called "inside" picking, because the pick moves primarily in between the strings that you are playing on.  In the second example, the pick not only has to change direction after hitting each string, it also has to skip over the string it just hit to clear its path and move towards the next string.  By playing the examples above, you will instantly recognize that this type of "outside" picking is much more uncomfortable, awkward, and error prone.

Based on the example above, it is easy to understand the fundamental guideline used in string skipping technique:

Always use a pick stroke motion that moves the pick toward the next string you are about to hit.

This guideline will always produce a more efficient "inside" picking motion.  It is not, however, the easiest pattern to put to use in the beginning.

The examples below will help you to develop a feel for inside picking and the application of the guideline above.  The whole purpose of these examples is to follow the pick stroke guidelines provided.  Flipping the pick up and down is not always the most natural motion for beginners - it typically feels more comfortable to simply keep the pick going in the direction it is already moving.  Avoid that urge, practice these examples carefully, and you will develop a "feel" for playing cross string arpeggios in the most efficient way.  If you practice these examples as indicated, the pick will begin to move habitually with effective and comfortable inside motion. This is one of the most fundamental and effective techniques in every style of guitar playing. Arpeggiating chords is one of the things that the guitar does very well, and learning this technique is a basic requirement which you will use at every level.  Remember, when playing any type of arpeggio pattern, always move the pick towards the next string.


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