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Mailbag: Picking / Smoothing It Out

Introduction and first question


Alrighty, it seems that even though I wrote like 4 articles about alternate picking, there still seem to be a few things I should mention.

Yes, I DID say that "Break It All Down" was the last one about picking, but hey, first of all, some things about picking have been discussed in the forums since that one was published, and 2.) if Ozzy can play SEVERAL "final" tours, I can write at least one more "final" article about picking, can't I?

And well, after we discuss these other points, why don't we take a look at what's next?!? Because, once we have the picking-thing working out, we can just as well take the next step and try to combine fast picking stuff with legato-parts... (refer to Good morning, left hand!)

But before we get to the fun part, let's do some work and discuss those other things about alternate picking. There are some details I might not have mentioned yet, or at least not emphasized as much as they might need to be emphasized.

Question 1: How to pick? Wrist or Elbow?

Well, this has been discussed in the forum. I also got a bunch of Email about it, so let's talk about it.

First of all, just like I said in the forum, I don't think that there is only one RIGHT way to do it. There are several ways to pick, either from the elbow, the wrist, or, utilizing movement from the thumb and index finger, there's "circular picking" (not to be confused with "circular breathing"... this is not Yoga!)

Now, to make this clear once again, I do use a picking motion mainly from the wrist. I was taught that way back at the GIT, and even before I used it, since it felt most comfortable for me. Also, I had seen many of my favorite players do it that way ( i.e. Paul Gilbert ). Let's take about those three possibilities...

1. Picking motion from the elbow

This is not really seen a whole lot (at least I think so), but I saw Vinnie Moore play that way, and he sure is playing fast!

The wrist is kept pretty stiff, while the whole forearm plus the hand is moved from the elbow.

I don't use this, but I of course won't keep you from using it or even trying it. But be careful. I once tried this for a while, and I got severe problems with my elbows, muscles and sinews (I guess some kind of a tendonitis). I just consider this to be not the most economical way of picking.

2. "Circular Picking"

This is another approach. I got the name "Circular Picking" from a book by Dave Celentano which I bought years ago. I heard of several players using this way of picking. This is how it works:

Both your elbow and your wrist are pretty much held stiff, while you "pivot" the pick by moving your thumb and index finger. This seems to be the most economical way of picking. I always had hard times adjusting to it, though, and I also felt as if it was pretty difficult to do fast picking on two adjacent strings at the same time (playing fast doublestops i.e.)

Some people tend to use a combination of wrist-movement and circular picking. It's up to you to try this and find out for yourself whether it works for you.

3. Moving from the wrist

As I mentioned several times before, this is the way guys like Paul Gilbert are doing it. I really feel most comfortable with this way of picking, and I really recommend it to you.

A part of my forearm is kinda resting on the upper part of the guitar, above the bridge. The hand is floating (more on that later), and I move loosely and relaxed from the wrist. The pick is slanted (which IMHO improves tone and helps to gain speed)

How to pick the best way to pick for yourself?

Well, that's left up to you. If you already decided and feel comfortable with any one of them, there ya go. You might wanna check out one of the other methods, but I usually think "If it works, don't fix it!"

One thing though... I remember that I once really hit a plateau... my picking worked well, but I was kinda stuck speed-wise. I was able to play sixtuplets at about 90 bpm, but I wasn't able to increase speed beyond that. It seemed that my right hand was "maxed out" at that speed. It was really frustrating.

I then looked at my right hand, experimenting with different angles, trying to figure out whether I was really picking in a way that would enable me to speed up.

Then I did an experiment. I picked only one note on the high E-string, and tried to pick it as fast as I could, not caring about accuracy etc. And guess what? Even though I really tried hard, I couldn't speed up a lot with the way I was holding my arm and hand.

So I kept picking and really picked hard and as fast as I could. I changed the way my arm was angled, I tried to relax the wrist.

Then I finally found the right way, and I was able to pick that one note REALLY fast. Now, what I had to do was
- memorize the exact way of picking, every detail (angle of the arm etc.)
- slow down again, starting from scratch, speeding up again slowly, now aiming for accuracy.

So, before you hit a rut with your picking, just try to pick as fast as possible to see whether you'll be able to speed up at all with the way you're currently playing. If you don't try my "pick the heck out of it"-method to find a better way, memorize it and use it in the future...

The floating hand

K... now, get ready for the "floating hand"...

Get ready for a tale of suspense... and horror...
See Eric Lugosi and Vincent Vandenberg in...
"The Floating Hand From Hell"....
(insert cheesy violin sounds and manic laughter)

Sorry, had to throw that one in.

Now, to cut to the chase, a lot of people actually are "anchoring". That means, they are resting their hand on the bridge of their guitar, or they press the fingertips of some of their r.h.-fingers onto the body of the guitar / pickguard, or they even anchor their r.h.-pinkie to the volume knob.

In my opinion, I think this might be fine for some players, but I actually recommend trying to "float the hand", meaning that the hand is OFF the guitar (you MIGHT slightly touch the bridge, but in general, try to avoid contact, and if you touch it with your palm, don't rest it there).

In the beginning, I did just that, resting my r.h. palm onto the bridge. I thought that it gave me more stability and control.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw PG play up-close, and he "floated his hand". So I tried it (I like to try stuff to see whether it works for me... if it doesn't I just leave it alone), and after a few days of getting used to it (it felt AWKWARD in the beginning), I noticed how much easier it made playing, i.e. the fast stuff.

I just relaxed my wrist and moved the hand from the wrist. All of a sudden I noticed an increase of speed as well as more... sound options. All of a sudden it was easy to really whack the strings, to get a tone out of it.

It just felt more loose, more relaxed, simply easier. Also, once I stopped touching the bridge I noticed that it was easier to "aim". Meaning that, even when playing the "PG-lick" at high-speed, I wasn't hitting the G-string accidentally anymore, which had driven me insane before.

With my hand floating it didn't happen anymore, and also, I increased speed and accuracy really fast.

I'd recommend to try this approach... it might work well for you. Give it some time to get used to it. If you think it doesn't work, just forget about it...

What to practice how and when

One thing I wanna emphasize more are some general things about practicing. Some people. especially beginners, tend to focus on the wrong things. Please remember that once you learn to play something the wrong way, it will take you way longer to "stop making the mistake" and learning the lick or exercise again without the mistake.

One essential thing: Use a metronome. I have mentioned that pretty often already, didn't I? Well, I know. But still, I see a lot of people practice without one.

I know exactly how stupid and boring it might be to get used to working with the metronome. You gotta slow down and constantly check your timing until you get used to it and don't even really pay attention to the metronome anymore.

But one of my rules is: A lick, regardless of how wild, impressive or fast it is, isn't worth a thing if it is not in time.

I mean, in your solospot on stage you might be able to play some stuff which is not in time without people noticing or really paying attention to. But once you play in the context of a song, or simply play over a straight beat, it becomes important that your timing is accurate (depending on what style you play... on the beat, slightly ahead or behind the beat... but that is a whole other topic)

Anyway, make this your rule, too: A cool lick ain't worth anything (I think it's not even cool) when it is not in time.

So start working with the metronome. Later it will be so much easier to control your improvement, to speed up accurately, to play with a jam track or other musicians... it's essential.

And once you get to record your songs or anything in a studio, you'll most likely will have to record with a click-track running... and you should be able to do so. If you have to learn it at the studio, it's way too late, believe me...

OK... those were the points I wanted to talk about before I kinda leave the topic "Alternate Picking" alone... I think I wrote down the most important stuff, and it's quite a lot of pages to read.

Anyway, let's go on and take the next step...

Combining Picking and Legato

Did you read my conversation with Thorsten ("Shred Talk!"), and did you check out the licks and soundfiles that belong to the article? If not, you might wanna do so.

Cuz the first few licks are the perfect examples for what I wanna talk about now. Thorsten played a four note per string-picking sequence, first with all alternate picking, then mixing up alternate picking with hammer on's and pull offs to get a smoother sound.

That is what we wanna look at now. I wrote a bunch of stuff about picking, and I wrote an article about legato (hammer ons, pull offs...) too, so we have already talked about the basics.

Now, let's see what we can do with this. This will be our next step. Combining those two techniques can really result in a smooth, flowing sound, maybe even enabling us to speed up a bit.

I mentioned Paul Gilbert a lot in my picking articles. He actually uses a lot of those picking / hammering / pulling-combinations, while also using only either one of them sometimes.

Before we start: make sure you are familiar with the techniques and feel comfortable with them. Those are our basic building blocks, and before we start getting into anything else, we wanna make sure we can do both without problems.

OK, let's take a look at our first exercise:

Those are three basic exercises demonstrating the approach I wanna show to you. As you see, you're using mainly pull offs on the high E-String, and strict alternate picking on the B-String.

The very first note on the high E-String is picked also, with an upstroke. That way, we start the picking on the B-string with a downstroke, which I guess is the most natural thing to do.

Pay attention:
Make sure all notes are exactly in time. Sometimes you might tend to rush on the pulled notes, in comparison dragging on the picked notes. Make sure the timing-s right. It might help to count those 6 notes as triplets instead, setting the metronome to twice the speed (if you i.e. play those sixtuplets at 60 bpm, see them as triplets and set your metronome to 120 bpm. Every beat will be at the beginning of each three note-sequence)

I think that, once you get used to this approach, you can here what I was talking about earlier. This sounds a bit different than it would if you'd pick each note. The combination of pulling-off and picking puts some kind of an emphasis on the picked notes. The pulled-off notes sound rather smooth, while the picked notes sound kinda agressive (Did I mention... PICK HARD!). This is something you'll hear guys like Paul Gilbert do a lot.

In the second sequence, we just skip to the B- and G-string. We also have to slightly change positions... get used to it, the licks at the end of this article will have some killer position-changes which will make the one in bar 2 look easy as pie.

Now before we go on to the next exercises... please make sure you can play those basic exercises accurately, in time and at a decent speed (it's up to you to decide which one is a decent speed for you... you know your limits and top-speeds better than I do, hopefully)

Don't betray yourself, be honest... make i.e. sure that you really pick and hear each note. Make sure you really do. You will have a hard time learning it right once you start to speed up the following licks...

Here we go...

Do you kinda see now what I meant when I mentioned the position changes in the upcoming licks. OK, what's happening here is: we're moving down the B- and E-string in the key of E-Minor. After each sixtuplet, we're changing the position and pattern.

That is why it is important that you work on the first three exercises a lot. It is necessary to become completely comfortable with the "pick the first note, pull off to the next two, pick all notes on the B-String"-part.

You shouldn't have to really think about it anymore. As long as you have to, stick with the basic exercises above. As soon as you don't have to anymore, you can work on the second exercise (also try it in different keys), where you'll have to really focus on your left hand. If you don't have to think about what you're doing with your right, it will be easier (D'UH !!!)

Here's the next one:

This is very similar to the one above, only we're starting on the C this time.
You'll most likely have to work on those kinda licks for a while, so that's why I am showing you several of them...

OK, now I just trust you and hope you are familiar with the technique and have been spending a lot of time practicing the licks above before you start reading this next part.

And I KNOW you are waiting for another killer-Paul Gilbert-lick, right? (Or is it just me?!?!)

Here it comes... I posted this one at the forum before. It is actually one of my all time favorite licks, cuz it really made me pay attention to both the stretch pentatonic and the picking / legato-combination.

It is the first solo-lick of the outro of "Rock N'Roll Over", from the first Mr. Big album (titled "Mr. Big"... D'Uh!).

This one definitely is a chopbuilder, so take your time. Start out very slowly. Get used to the patterns and position-switching. The key here actually is Gmin / Bb Major, and the lick's based on the pentatonic scale.

That means, we have wild stretches, huge interval leaps and we'll even need string-skipping. So, set your metronome to a really slow tempo and try to play through the whole thing a lot of times very slowly, making sure that each notes sounds good, memorizing the patterns.

It really took me a while to nail this one, and I can tell you: you have to start out slow and pay attention to the accuracy, cuz it will sound like crap if you just try to play it at high-speed immediately. Try to avoid sloppy notes and noise.

By the way, does this kinda remind you of the intro to "Colorado Bulldog"? Go figure...

Anyway, here is the ascending version (which does not occur in the song, but I made one up, cuz I like the sound of it and really spend a lot of time with this kinda stuff)

Just to give you some more stuff to work on, here's pretty much the same thing in E Minor:

Work on all this till you can play something similar in different keys. It might take a while till you can "see" the patterns, but once you get used to this way of Picking/hammering/pulling in combination with those wacky huge interval runs, you might find some cool things to add to your repertoire.

Turn da page !

More Picking/Legato exercises

OK, this is not supposed to be another article about the stretch-pentatonic. The idea was to work on your picking / legato-combinations. So lets take a look at some different licks using that technique!

Here are two sequences in A Minor. Listen to "Frenzy" for some licks in that area of the neck, also using a picking / legato-combination. Move this one around, and try it on different string-combinations. Be creative!

K, let's add some more string-skipping to break out of our sequences once more, incorporating some rather big interval-leaps... check this one out:

The key's A Minor for that one. Of course you'll immediately notice that this time, we're hammering and pulling on the lower (G-) string and alternate-picking on the higher string. Try to move this one up and down the neck (and make sure you don't hear the B-string at all!)

When I said "Move it up the neck", I meant something like this:

String-Skipping can sound really cool, and tone-wise, it can help you to break out of the same old licks a bit... And once you really work on your picking- , legato- and muting chops, it ain't that hard anymore to adjust to string-skipping.

Here's the decending version, still in the key of A Minor:

Here's the same thing with a slight difference:

Right, we are now "legato-ing" on the G-String and alternate-picking on the high E-string. Experiment with that. Decide for yourself which version sounds better. As I said, the picked notes stand out a bit more compared to the hammered / pulled off ones.

And here, once again, one of my favorite licks, the famous "Nuno / Gary Moore"-repeating lick. This one uses a nice combination of picked, hammered and pulled off notes, giving it a smoother sound and maybe making it a bit easier than it is when you pick each note...

Believe it or not, I am done, and I don't even have a long-winded boring conclusion as usual... go figure...

Happy picking!

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/72
Eric started playing the guitar at age 10. He attended GIT and studied with Scott Henderson, Brett Garsed, Dan Gilbert amo. Eric is involved in several bands and recording projects and his instrumental debut - Hidden Creek - plus his instructional book Talking Hands - A Guide To Contemporary Lead Guitar Techniques is available HERE
Visit his website at www.ericvandenberg.net

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