How to Achieve Proper Economy of Motion in Your Guitar Technique

To master guitar technique, learn to streamline your playing motions while still being able to play guitar with power and conviction. This article explains how.

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You know that making your technique very efficient will help you play better (and faster), but most guitarists have no idea how to actually practice to develop this skill. As a result, most players either don't put any time into training to make their motions more efficient, or they practice this skill incorrectly - leading to more harm than good to their playing.

Here is what you really need to know about economy of motion for playing guitar:

1. Your 2 hands don't play everything in the same way - each hand needs different movements than the other. When you begin practicing something new, your first step is to decide how much each hand needs to move to play notes with the least amount of effort WITHOUT sacrificing expression and power (more below).

2. There is a huge distinction between using tiny motions in your guitar playing and optimizing your technique to play what you want to play. When you intentionally restrict yourself to playing guitar with the smallest motions possible, your 2 hand synchronization will become sloppy (at faster speeds), and your notes will lack power and conviction. Instead of doing this, focus on what sound you want to achieve in your playing FIRST, and only make your motions as small as you can get away with, while still playing the music sound the way you want.

Yes, the above point is very obvious (after you read it just now), but I see all the time that guitar players think too much into the idea of economy of motion and begin (incorrectly) training themselves to play everything with the smallest motions possible. This is wrong and inefficient (as described above) and actually makes your playing worse in multiple ways.

3. Economy of motion and tension control are NOT the same things. This distinction is important to understand, because you need to practice differently to master each of these 2 elements of your technique (I'll address tension control in another article). If you use these two terms interchangeably (as most players do), it means that you also likely lump them together in your practicing - achieving bad results in trying master either of them. Fact is, you can have efficient motions in your hands while playing with lots of tension (or vice versa). Your goal is to master both: playing with highly efficient motions and without excessive tension.

Now that you understand more about the concept of economy of motion, watch the video below to see a common problems guitarists have with inefficiency in their picking hand technique and how to easily solve it:

YouTube preview picture

In addition to the things I specifically point out in the video above, also notice the following:

1. My pick doesn't just brush the strings with the very tip - it sticks quite far into the strings to play each note. This helps me to play with very strong pick attack without using massive amounts of force (and big movements) to hit the strings for each note. So this is an additional way in which you can refine the technical motions without sacrificing the sound and articulation of the notes.

2. Although I do not use excessive amounts of force to play each note and my picking motions are very efficient, I still pick the notes with plenty of power in general (to produce the maximum articulation I can from the notes).

3. I pick through the scale using directional picking - which, as I explain in the video, allows for maximum efficiency in your picking technique, further improving your economy of motion.

How to Implement the Concepts of This Article Into Your Practicing:

Step 1: Start rotating your attention between each hand when you practice, refining the motions in one hand at a time. This will help you to optimize your motions to the highest degree possible.

Step 2: Use common sense and laws of physics to make your guitar technique as efficient as possible, WITHOUT "letting the tail wag the dog." This means: don't make the mistake of thinking that your objective is to minimize your guitar playing motions as much as possible - that is NOT the goal. The goal is to focus on the sound you want to achieve in your playing and using the most economical motions that allow you to produce THAT sound. These two mindsets are not the same at all. 

Step 3: Don't rush to master this skill in your technique immediately. True control of your guitar playing motions develops gradually over time and isn't something you can rush. The good news is that you definitely can and will achieve this result if you remain patient and consistently practice applying the ideas described in this article.

About the Author:
Mike Philippov is a guitar teacher, guitar instructional author and composer in progressive rock styles. Follow him on YouTube to see his videos about practicing guitar, improving your guitar technique and becoming a better guitar player faster.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good video. Wish I knew about this advice when I started playing.
    You and thousands out there (including me). People nowadays seem to be so focused on getting faster as quickly as they can that they skip simple things that give them a huge headache in the future.
    Sweep picking still gives me a headache and I've been working on it for 4 years... It does seem that at a certain point progression comes in years not days or weeks.
    I have been focusing very hard on this, and have developed an excellent picking technique for shred, something very unique. However, for most of the fast licks I use very little picking force, I love the fuzzy sound, and it allows me to dig in to emphasize certain notes. Your method sounds good, very articulate, but I focus a lot on dynamics.
    What Mike Philippov is saying in this video is completely false and he is incredibly misinformed. Let me explain why... Eric Johnson did a demonstration in one of his old DVDs where he explained how he doesn't always like picking straight up and down because it can sound stale. Instead, he does more of a plucking up and down motion on the strings, which is what Mike is saying is wrong.
    This way of picking might limit speed at times, but it's not "sloppy" or "inefficient" if the guitar player is practicing that sort of picking to enhance the tonal qualities of the note being played, therefore adding a certain nuanced expression to the note. It's like this video...
    Here, Devin Townsend is explaining a certain kind of way to pluck the string in order to change it's tonal quality, giving it a heavier sound. If you try picking in this slanted way, you will realize that it takes a tiny bit more push on the string to complete the pluck. Also, it has to travel a slightly longer distance up and down when picking to complete the pluck, simply because the surface area of the pick that is hitting the string is angled, thus making contact for a longer time. In theory, it's more efficient to simply have the pick be straight and parallel with the string, but is it worth the sacrifice in tonal quality just to be a slight bit more efficient in your picking motions? For extremely fast picking like tremolo picking and chugging (a la Death Metal), what Mike is saying is true to become faster. But when it comes to your overall picking approach, what Mike is saying is not true. This way of picking is not "sloppy" and "inefficient" if it's disciplined and controlled. Watch his picking motion...
    Now, how is that "sloppy?" This kind of picking will not necessarilly "improve your guitar playing" unless it's applied when appropriate. Also, it most definitely won't make you more "accurate," as is advertised at the end of the video. Mike, if you're going to be an online guitar teacher, then please don't spread disinformation about the craft. You're only hurting the community. This is a site that, presumably, has a lot of beginner guitar players looking at it. I think you might want to watch your inflammatory remarks about something that is completely opinion based and is directly related to the tonal quality of the pluck of the string. You might be giving a beginner the wrong impression and, when it comes to this video at least, you are spreading misguided information, Mike. Sorry if this comment comes off as arrogant or rude, but it's disinformation like what you're spreading in this video that poisons the well of knowledge on the internet that new players pull from to find out how to play well. With 11,315 subscribers, you should have better information and you should realize the kind of influence you have on other players when you try to talk confidently about a subject that you are actually completely misinformed about. To any beginner guitar player out there, be a skeptic and read/watch every guitar video you can, especially the ones with the professionals!
    This technique seems great until you need to skip strings. You still have to pull your pick out and over the strings... 'Course maybe I'm an idiot and missed that part! Any suggestions?
    Just restrict the height of your pick jumps when string skipping. Speed is all about economy of motion.
    I don't entirely agree with how Mike plays. I think he lacks serious control on that pick but the idea is definitely there. I also don't find it to be "false" as you claim. I find that if you are using the pick efficiently you can play and do anything anyone else can with any style using the pick. You claim that it is "not sloppy and inefficient" but you are wrong because it becomes clear once you begin to speed up. Those intentional plucks for a certain sound you are referring to are still very possible using more efficient techniques, all Mike is saying is that's its not proper to do ALL the time especially if you are aiming for high speeds with a clean sound. He isn't saying there is no use for it. Those guitarist will never be able to play at Godly levels by strictly playing with that style of picking. If you have no interest in playing at higher levels then you shouldn't even be watching his lessons. To put it simple, anyone who is playing or aiming to play efficiently could easily play the music you referenced while using a slightly modified version of their technique effortlessly , but those artists you referenced would be unable to play things that the efficient guitarist could. There are tons of videos out there that are useless garbage but its part of the cycle i guess. Mike probably has refined his technique since he made the video but understands it is probably still very helpful to some. Its all just a step in a particular direction. Instead of being skeptical of every video and every lesson, just stupid them all. You never know what someone might be able to teach you. I also find studying musicians who clearly have high levels of skill and efficiency really helps you to learn how to mimic their techniques.