The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter I: 5 Technique - Right Hand Techniques

author: ZeGuitarist date: 11/17/2008 category: the guide to
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UPDATED 21.11.2008

Part I - Chapter 5

Technique: Basic Right Hand Techniques

Hi all! Welcome back to the second article on technique for beginners... Last week, we discussed left hand expression techniques. This week, we are going to look into some technical aspects of the right hand. The techniques for the right hand that we are going to learn, are not necessarily expression techniques though!

What are we going to learn then? First of all, we are going to look into a very important technique that you will absolutely need FOREVER if you use a pick. Then, I'm going to learn you a specific expression technique that requires the use of your right hand only. Finally, we are going to look into a phenomenon called "anchoring".

So, a little overview of today's menu:

01. Alternate picking: for those using a pick, this is the most important technique you are going to learn today, and possibly ever!
02. Palm muting: this one is, in fact, a right hand expression technique
03. Anchoring: some people think it's good, others think it's bad...

So, let's get started with the first of these 3 techniques: alternate picking!

Alternate Picking

In the previous article, I told you that the article on right hand techniques would be much shorter than the one on left hand techniques, but equally important. Well, this is the technique that makes this article as important as all the techniques in the previous article together: alternate picking! The most vital right hand skill you need when you use a pick...

Alternate picking is a technique for playing strings fast and fluently, with the least possible effort. Basically, the technique comes down to alternating between down- and upstrokes with your pick. I will explain more in detail. (You know the drill...)

A. How it's done

A downstroke is when you pluck the string by moving your pick downward (towards the floor), an upstroke is when you pluck the string by moving your pick upward (towards the ceiling). Logical, isn't it?

Now, some of you who use a pick may be using downstrokes to pick every note. A lot of beginning guitar players do... Consider this for a moment. You pick a note, moving your pick from above the string to under it, and then move your pick back over and above the string to do another downstroke... You could use that upward movement to pick the string again, couldn't you? You are actually wasting energy, to move your pick back up and over the string, instead of using that upward movement to pluck the string...

Well, that's exactly what alternate picking is! If you used every upward movement of your pick to actually pluck the string, every downstroke would automatically be followed by an upstroke. You would be alternating between down- and upstrokes instead of doing only one-directional strokes!

B. Alternate picking in lead guitar

Now, why is this alternation necessary? Well, like I said, alternate picking serves the purpose of playing notes fast and fluently, with the least possible effort. If you go from only downstrokes to alternating down- and upstrokes, you are actually dividing the work for your picking hand by 2! Why would you want to do double the work, when there's a perfect easy way to do it with half the effort?

I will give you an example: try to pick the following phrase as fast as you can, only using downstrokes.

   d  d  d  d  d  etc.
E|-0--0--2--2--3--3--5--5--3--3--2--2--3--3--0--0-| d=downstroke

Now, try the same phrase using alternate picking, and see if you can do it faster!

   d  u  d  u  d  etc.
E|-0--0--2--2--3--3--5--5--3--3--2--2--3--3--0--0-| d=downstroke
B|------------------------------------------------| u=upstroke

That's a lot easier, isn't it? You can see that alternate picking is really a vital technique for your right hand. In fact, you are going to use alternate picking for everything from now on... Practicing and getting better at it should be one of your top priorities right now! That's why I will provide you with some easy exercises, and some tips on how to improve your alternate picking.

C. Exercises

You should practice alternate picking so often, you can do it easily with your eyes closed and standing on your head, so to speak... It should come natural to you. That's why I will give you these easy exercises.

Exercise set 1:
   d u d u d u d u etc.
E|-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4-| d=downstroke
B|---------------------------------1-2-3-4---------| u=upstroke

   d u d u d u d u etc.
E|-4-3-2-1-----------------------------------------| d=downstroke
B|---------4-3-2-1---------------------------------| u=upstroke

This is an exercise to help you keep to the down-up-down-up pattern, even when changing strings. Keep practicing this, until this comes natural to you! Also, if you use your index for the notes at fret 1, your middle finger for the 2nd fret, your ring finger for the 3rd fret and your pinky for the 4th fret, this exercise should help you stretch and strengthen your fingers.

Exercise 2:
   d u d u d u etc.
E|---------------------5-8-5---------------------| d=downstroke
B|-----------------5-8-------8-5-----------------| u=upstroke

Like the other exercises, this exercise will help you stay in the down-up pattern when changing strings. Also, notice that this is the A Minor Pentatonic scale run up and back down! This exercise will therefore also help you remember the A Minor Pentatonic scale...

A third exercise, which I think is the most important of all, is practicing alternate picking while improvising! Use the backing tracks I gave you, improvise in A Minor Pentatonic, and use alternate picking at all times! This is a fun way of training your alternate picking skills, while you're still able to play what you want (instead of boring exercises!)

OK, we have alternate picking covered... Now for the other right hand techniques! We can't forget those, although alternate picking is the most important of all...

Note: for more information on alternate picking and more exercises, I recommend you to read this article written by UG Team: Alternate Picking Technique

Palm Muting

OK! When you have alternate picking down, we can move on to a right hand expression technique, used for expression like the left hand techniques we learned last week... Palm muting!

What is palm muting? Well, the name says it all... You are going to mute the strings with the palm of your right hand. Not completely though, just partially, to create a chunky effect when you strum a chord! So how do you partially mute the strings? Well, we are going to use the right hand's side and palm for that... Hence palm muting!

A. How it's done

Palm muting is very easy to do, and also to explain! To palm mute, you place the side of your hand (and part of the palm) on the bridge of the guitar, touching the strings slightly. You are now muting the strings, but not completely, so you can still use your right hand to strum the strings. Notice the fat, chunky sound of the muted strings? This is the specific sound of palm muted strings.

I included a picture (from Google) to show you better where exactly to place your hand.

Notice how the side and palm of the hand are not resting completely on the strings, but partially on the strings and partially on the bridge...

B. Palm muting in rhythm and lead guitar

Palm muting is used in both rhythm and lead guitar. In rhythm guitar, palm muting is often used in combination with power chords to create chunky rock rhythms. To practice palm muting in rhythm guitar, just try and play a single power chord, first with open strings and then with palm muted strings. Try and switch between open and muted without pause!

Palm muting can also be used in lead guitar. I have made you an example to illustrate this.

I wrote this short solo based on an improvisation by Steve Vai on a seven string guitar. You can see the abbreviation P.M. over some notes in the tab, followed by a dotted line over the notes that should be palm muted. I included an audio sample to let you guys hear what this should sound like:

Palm muting: audio sample

In this example, palm muting is used merely for expression! You can try this to, play with it a little bit, combine it with other expression techniques to make your solos sound really interesting!

Note: palm muting mutes strings only partially. To mute strings completely, you use your left hand. By placing your left hand over all strings, just touching them but not pressing down onto the fretboard, you mute the strings completely. If you strum the muted strings, you get an interesting percussive effect! This is often used when playing chord progressions, to make the progression sound more interesting. This is especially easy when the progression includes barre chords: if you just lift your fingers off the fretboard but keep touching the strings, you are muting the strings for a percussive strum!


And finally, the last of all the techniques in the technique articles! Well, this one isn't really a "technique"... Because whether you do it or you don't, it doesn't affect how your playing sounds. However, it does affect how your playing feels! Playing with anchoring or without it makes a huge difference in the technique of your right hand, so we will look into the advantages and disadvantages of it. First, I'll explain what "anchoring" is. Then, I'll give the (dis)advantages of an anchored right hand technique, followed by the (dis)advantages of an unanchored right hand. Lastly, I'll give you my personal opinion.

A. What is anchoring?

"Anchoring" is touching the body of your guitar with your right hand while playing. Some people, while playing, rest their right pinky finger on the guitar's body, others touch their guitar's body with their upper arm... and very importantly, they keep that contact point fixed in the same location at all times.

Because of this last important part of the definition, touching the guitar is NOT the same as anchoring. I've read a lot of comments from readers who apparently had an incorrect view on what anchoring really is... So instead of asking "what is anchoring?", I should ask "what ISN'T anchoring?"... Here's an explanation.

  • Resting your forearm on the guitar isn't really a big issue. A lot of players do it, and so do I, and it doesn't really make a lot of difference in your playing style. Resting your forearm on the guitar is NOT anchoring.
  • Touching your guitar with your right pinky finger (or more than one finger) may or may not be anchoring. It depends on the strength of the touch, and whether the contact point is fixed! As long as you don't press down on the guitar, and the finger is still free to move (if it slides lightly over the guitar's wood), it's NOT anchoring.
  • However, when you either DO press your right ring/pinky finger down on the guitar with some considerable force, and/or when the fingers touching the guitar don't move but stay fixed in the same spot, this is anchoring.
B. The anchored hand: advantages and disadvantages

You may be asking yourself: why do some people anchor and others not? Well, both the anchored and the unanchored position of the right hand have their own advantages and disadvantages. For both positions, I will now sum up some of the pros and cons...

The pros

Players who anchor claim that the contact point or "anchoring point" serves as a fixed point of orientation while picking. If you touch the guitar's body at a certain location, it is easier to find the strings because of their relative distances to this fixed "anchoring point"... It helps making less mistakes while picking, so that you don't pick the wrong string so often!

Also, resting your hand on the guitar is less tiring, it provides a fixed support point. The opposite of an anchored hand is a hand floating over the guitar's body, and this may require some more strength from your arm's muscles. Also, your elbow joint is put to work, so overall the anchored position may require less effort from your arms!

Thirdly, while anchoring becomes a disadvantage in speedy and sweeping passages, it can be helpful in other situations. For example, in slow passages anchoring isn't that much of a disadvantage and the advantages of better support and orientation may prove helpful. Also, in some "pedal point" or string skipping passages, the orientation provided by anchoring can help too.

The cons

While anchoring is good for orientation and support for your right hand, this comes at the cost of overall speed and fluency of your picking. If you anchor, you'll be having more trouble with speedy passages of songs than if you didn't anchor...

Why? Well, normally the picking motion should come from the wrist. When unanchored, a (small) part of the motion may come from the elbow, like I mentioned above. When you anchor, all of the motion comes from the wrist... However, the movement of your wrist joint is made more difficult by the fact that you have a finger (or more) pressed down on the guitar!

Try this: shake your hand around vigorously (only through the wrist!), as if you were trying to break all your guitar's strings by strumming very hard! That's the movement your "free wrist" does. Now, press down your pinky on your desk/table/etc. and try the same... Your wrist movement is limited a lot, isn't it?

So, anchoring limits the movement of your picking hand: it blocks elbow movement to a large extent so that picking almost entirely depends on the wrist, and at the same time it makes the wrist movement more difficult so that more force is needed for the same movement in the wrist!

This is actually the only disadvantage of anchoring, but it has important consequences. Speedy playing may not be as easy, because your wrist needs to overcome the friction and tension created by the fixated finger. Also, sweeps will become VERY difficult, because you'll need an elbow motion for that, which anchoring impedes!

C. The floating hand: advantages and disadvantages

A floating hand is the opposite of an anchored hand: you release the guitar's body so that your hand "floats" over the guitar (or slightly touches it: this ISN'T anchoring, see above!). The fingers of the right hand may either be relaxed (hanging down) or curled into a fist; whatever feels more comfortable to you! I'll now sum up the pros and cons...

The pros

Like stated above, speedy picking and sweeps may be impeded by the fact that your hand is fixed to the guitar in a certain spot. In these situations, releasing the guitar and letting your hand "float" over the guitar's body may be the solution. This allows for uninhibited movement of both the wrist and the elbow, giving your right hand as much freedom to move as possible! Especially in sweeping situations this can be advantageous.

This may be the only advantage of a floating hand, the importance is remarkable! Like I said, the friction and tension created by the fixation of the hand while anchoring, may not be a big disadvantage when playing slow passages. However, in speedy songs the tension in your hand may become a burden to your speed, and letting your hand float can make things much easier!

Note: this doesn't mean that fast picking is made impossible by anchoring! I've had numerous comments from readers saying: "Yes, but Yngwie/Petrucci/MAB/etc. anchors in this or that video and still plays very fast!". I know, but did I ever say that anchoring makes fast playing impossible? It makes fast playing more difficult, but these are the guys that play 12 hours a day, the guys that have developed such skills that NOTHING is "too difficult" for them... Therefore, anchoring doesn't really make a lot of difference to them, they just do what is most comfortable! Besides, saying "Yngwie anchors" isn't really a great argument to advocate for anchoring anyway.

The cons

Floating your hand may provide your hand with more flexibility and freedom to move, it comes at the cost of stability and support in your hand. Basically, you lose the two advantages anchoring provides! First, you can no longer "orientate" as to where the strings are positioned, so you may tend to hit the wrong strings more often if you haven't got the floating position mastered!

Second, the support provided by the anchored hand is gone, so your hand is now kept in place by the muscles of your arm. This can be a lot more tiring than playing anchored! This will, of course, no longer be a disadvantage once you master the floating position, when your arm muscles are trained and adapted to the work that is put onto them...

D. My opinion on anchoring

As you can see from the above paragraphs, both the anchored and floating positions have their own advantages and disadvantages, especially in different situations. Some people, however, claim they anchor all the time and feel no discomfort at all. Others claim that unanchored picking is the way to go and that anchoring is a bad habit that should be avoided at all times! (I, myself, wrongly did so it the previous version of this article...)

Well, these are all opinions, and you can't sell opinion for truth. That's why I dedicate a special "opinion" paragraph to anchoring, so that I can give you my point of view. I personally refrain from anchoring in most situations, except those situations where it can really prove advantageous. Why do I do that? The answer is simple: I feel more comfortable doing it. I used to anchor, but decided to try how it feels when I let go of that anchoring point, and after a short period of adaptation my hand felt more relaxed, and picking was more comfortable.

But of course, this goes for me personally, and for me only! In the previous version of this paragraph, I wrongly declared my point of view as fact (not entirely intentional, but still...). Just remember that you should be doing what you are most comfortable with. If you are nothing like me and feel more relaxed when you can support your hand on the guitar, that's fine! Your picking will only improve if you do what's comfortable to you... That's the reason why some of the "celeb" guitarists (Malmsteen, MAB) anchor most of the time and others (Vai, Satch) don't.

But, whatever your preference may be, I do believe it is advantageous if you learn to use both techniques. If you master both anchoring and floating, you can use the technique you feel most comfortable with in most situations, but still be able to switch to the other technique in situations where this is really advantageous! So, remember people, do what's comfortable to you, but try to master both techniques anyway, for the situations where you really need them!


OK! We've done all the left hand and right hand techniques that are important to you right now... You should practice all the techniques in this and the previous article very often, they are like the building blocks for a good solo! And once you have them all well in your fingers, you can stop calling yourself a beginner and move on to the next part of my Ultimate Guide to Guitar: the Novice part! (Sounds a lot better already, doesn't it?)

See you next time!

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