Improving Your Picking Hand

A problem solving approach to achieving a solid, accurate picking hand.

Ultimate Guitar
This is a companion lesson to the previously posted Improving Your Fretting Hand. As with the fretting hand, it is important at times to step back and consciously evaluate the effectiveness of your picking hand. It is also important to become comfortable, ensure accuracy and eliminate unnecessary tension before attempting to build speed. There are three main variables when it comes to the picking hand: 1. Grip There are many different recommendations I've seen from quality players on how to hold the pick. Lots of shredders wrap the thumb around the pick to ensure a strong grip. Yngwie Malmsteen, on the other hand, holds the pick at the very tips of his thumb and index finger. The important thing to keep in mind with your grip is that it should be firm enough so that the pick doesn't fall out of your hand, but loose enough to avoid a death grip that locks up the rest of the muscles in your hand and arm. 2. Arm placement Many guitarists let the cool factor determine how they will present their picking arm/hand to the instrument. This is backwards. Find an arm angle that works for you and then adjust your strap accordingly. Letting the guitar hang down around your knees is only cool if you can play well in that position. 3. Motion There are three sub-variables here: fingers, wrist and elbow. Any combination of the three can be used to pick. The important thing here is that no matter what motion feels comfortable to you that you don't allow any of the joints in your picking arm/hand to become rigid when picking. In order to get comfortable, I recommend four things: 1. Loosen your grip on the pick While this will not be the end state of your picking grip, it will help you to loosen up the other muscles in your hand and arm for analysis purposes. Once you achieve comfort and awareness of what's going on with your muscles you should be able to firm your grip without adversely affecting other muscles. 2. Use a motion that incorporates the fingers, wrist and elbow Once again, this may not end up being the motion that you ultimately settle on, but for the purposes of getting comfortable, using all of these joints will keep your muscles from locking up, allowing you to stay aware of any tension that might have existed previously. 3. Use large motions Economy of motion is necessary to build speed, but trying to economize motion and get comfortable at the same time will not work very well. Use large motions, once again to keep your muscles from locking up, and practice for awareness, accuracy and control (not speed). 4. Prepare your picking strokes this technique is borrowed from classical guitar. To prepare a picking stroke, simply place your pick against the string before you play the note. At first you should make this into two motions for each note one to place your pick against the string and another to actually pick the note. As you get better you can start to combine the picking motion of one note and the preparation of the next note into a single motion. This is not a performance technique since it will slow down your picking and produce a staccato effect, only a practice technique to help achieve comfort and accuracy. Some common picking hand problems are: Trying to build speed too soon The faster you play, the more accurate and precise your muscle movements must be. If you are tense and inaccurate at slow speeds, trying to play faster will only cause you to become frustrated. Your grip is too tight Holding the pick too tightly will cause tension in the rest of your hand and arm. This will lock up your muscles, make you less accurate, and in extreme cases may lead to injury. Trying to move in two opposite directions at once We went over flexors and extensors in the fretting hand lesson, and this bullet point is similar. You can only pick in one direction at a time. Make sure you stop picking in one direction before starting your picking stroke in the opposite direction. The result of not finishing one motion before starting another is similar to the claw that occurs when your fretting hand becomes rigid. Assuming that your fretting hand is not the problem A tense, inaccurate fretting hand can play havoc with your picking hand. You can take your fretting hand out of the equation by practicing picking patterns by themselves, then adding your fretting hand back in. If you can pick the pattern with no problems by itself, but have problems once you reintroduce your fretting hand, you likely have some work to do on your fretting hand. For video, please see lessons three and four at

6 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Assuming that your fretting hand is not the problem
    Am I correct in thinking this should be picking hand? Last paragraph doesn't make sense otherwise. Great lesson, these are some really good things to look out for, especially if you're trying to improve rhythm guitar, as repetitive downstrokes can start to make you tense up if you aren't careful.
    Am I correct in thinking this should be picking hand? Last paragraph doesn't make sense otherwise.
    No I think that's correct Nice lesson, some really good points which ill try out for myself
    chaos13 wrote: Assuming that your fretting hand is not the problem Am I correct in thinking this should be picking hand? Last paragraph doesn't make sense otherwise.
    That last bit was basically a section of "Don'ts,'"So it was like saying "Do not assume that your fretting hand is not the problem."
    Your lesson hase some good points to it...look forword to your next one.....thanks!!
    Sorry I took so long to respond. That is not a typo... my point was that an iffy fretting hand can cause problems with your picking hand, even if your picking hand is rock solid. My point about separating the hands is that you can better pinpoint where the problem is by examining each hand by itself. In many cases I have been surprised to find that what I thought was a picking hand problem was at least partially a fretting hand problem.