Guitar Tutorial: How to Use a Pick
So I’ve used about 3 picking styles, and I’m about to share which ones work best.
Playing the guitar is hard. I really appreciate people who’ve stuck with it for many years as I have.
One thing I remember was difficult to learn was using a pick. It felt like picks were unnecessary pieces of plastic that made playing dreadful.
But I had to learn to use one, in the name of metal. I wanted to learn to pick fast, so I stuck with using a pick for months, and eventually got the hang of it.
Understanding how hard it was to use a pick at first, here are some tips for using a pick for efficiency and ease of use.
Different Picking Styles
When holding a pick, as a young dude, I got no tutorial. Here is the first picking style that I tried for years.
The Banana Hold: this picking style is good for dynamic play, but was terrible for longer songs, sets, and the chugga-chugga-type music.
The Banana Hold is a strange beast. Naturally, when some guitarists hold a pick, they stick out their index finger and thumb, and pinch the pick parallel to the thumb/index finger. The thumb curves in like a banana, hence the name.
Instead of picking flat, or front-side of the pick first, the Banana Hold encourages the player to curve the pick diagonally front-side up, back-side down. The hand’s palm is almost pointing to the ground.
Here’s a pic to show what it looks like.
When picking using this style, the dynamics become very fine and easy to control.
However, like I said, if you do any intensive/fast picking and strumming, this hold has a lot of flaws: the pick slides around everywhere, you have to constantly adjust it, and you’re forced to pick softly so it doesn’t fly out of your hand.
And it becomes painful after a while since your index finger is pushing the pick into the thumb. Just to keep the pick in place.
I stopped using this style after a number of years. Let me discuss another way of picking that I tried afterwards.
Thumb Hold: this picking style is much more stable, but requires your wrist to curve into the strings.
Basically, rest the pick on the first knuckle of your index finger (closest to the finger nail).
Then, pinch the pick with your thumb so the tip of the pick is parallel to your thumb.
The benefit of this picking style is you have better control of the pick. Fast riffs and alternate picking are much easier to do, which you can experiment with.
Instead of pinching your fingers at your thumb (like in the Banana Hold), you can rest the pick on the side of your index finger instead. It’s much more stable.
With this style, pick attack is easier. It enables you to pick louder or softer. It’ll take a lot of practice to do well. A good rule of thumb is to practice until the pick feels like an extension of your hand (as if you were picking with your finger).
The problem with this picking style is, due to the parallel thumb (for me, anyway), it feels awkward (but doable) to do pinch harmonics and it may be hard on your wrist in the long run.
Thus, I gravitate to the picking style below.
Shell (Knuckle-Parallel) Hold: this hold is by far the most economic for me. It’s easy on my wrist, gives me steady control of the pick, and with practice, I have access to all dynamic picking motions. And without difficulty.
You can experiment with how parallel you want the pick, too. It doesn’t have to point to where your knuckle points. This is what works best mechanically for me, and I believe can work for you too.
Here’s a picture of how it looks like. It’s basically the same as above, but instead, the pick is parallel to the direction your index finger’s knuckle is pointing.
Aside from my wrinkly thumb, the pick is nice and snug. It feels easy to hold and pick with practice.
And I have easy access to pinch harmonics, so I could do my best Zakk Wylde impression. I keep the pick tucked in pretty far, so I can graze the string with my thumb to get a harsh or softer pinch harmonic.
Need pick attack? Slant the pick a little. Need a flat picking sound? Pick parallel to the strings.
I don’t have to strain my wrist like in the Thumb-Parallel Hold, as the pick is naturally pointing at the strings as I put my hand near them.
I’ve seen guitarists use their pinky and other fingers to anchor around the pick guard so they have stability. I’ve also seen players ball up their hand into a fist, like in the photo. I use both, depending on what I’m playing.
Sweep picking and fast passages? I ball up into a fist.
Hanging around the same low/mid/high range? I anchor with my other fingers.
So naturally, this is the picking style I recommend new players. It will help you save some energy in holding the pick. It’ll also help you develop good habits in your picking mechanics.
Shoutout to BERNTH on YouTube. He’s got a great breakdown of this picking style.
Tips and Tricks
So with that said, I hope you follow my recommendation above. It may take a month or two to get used to the Shell Hold, but you’ll definitely thank me for it in 10 years if you’re a new player.
Here are some finer details and tips that I could share. This is for those of you who wish to practice the fine art of picking mastery:
- don’t squeeze the pick too hard: if you’re squeezing too hard, it will hurt and make it frustrating to play longer sets and sessions. It should feel snug and comfortable in your hand. Press just enough so the pick doesn’t move around in your hand while playing.
- stick to light and medium picks: heavy picks don’t respond too well to very fine, light dynamics and strumming. Also, it’s a little more difficult to feel the pick striking the strings. Light and medium picks bend and vibrate more when strings are struck. It gives you a finer sense of control over the pick and your playing. But hey, you do you. Everyone has a preference, and this one’s not that big a deal; just my two cents.
- you don’t have to pick flat: most skilled players prefer the sound of the pick scraping against the strings rather than a flat pick sound for lead play and quick riffs. Tilt your wrist down a bit, and use diagonal picking for faster riffs. For single strings, you get the “schick” pick attack rather than the “plop” of a flat pick.
- practice alternate picking: before getting to string skipping, try to master alternate picking on one or two strings. Paul Gilbert has some great exercises on the mechanics of alternate picking on YouTube.
- slant the pick according to the direction you’re strumming: it’s like Mister Miyagi teaching Daniel-san how to block by teaching him how to paint. As Daniel’s hand went up, the brush slanted down. As his hand painted down, his brush pointed up. Use that paintbrush analogy when strumming/sweeping up and down. But don’t exaggerate too much. Just a tiny bit of a painting motion. It’ll sound better over time, and it’s better for the picking sound as well.
- pick on a clean setting: listen to your picking on an acoustic or clean electric setting. This will help you identify a few things like unevenness between up and downward picking, pick scrape, volume, consistency on all strings, etc. If you sound good clean, it’ll sound even better on a dirty setting.
- record your picking: it’s strange how guitars (and human beings) work; we feel good about playing something, but when we listen to the playback, it sounds horrible. If that’s the case, listen carefully to where you may hear some slop, and try again improve that specific part. This process may take a few weeks, so be patient with yourself.
- mute the unpicked strings, if possible: I think this tip is very important. When picking the low strings, you can mute the higher strings with your fretting hand by resting them lightly against the strings. When picking higher strings, you can mute the low strings with the palm of your picking hand. This will help you kill some unwanted sound in your play. Again, this process may take a while, so be patient.
- practice picking until it feels natural: if you feel any mental or physical strain at all, practice until that strain doesn’t exist (ex. higher speeds or fast riffs). As mentioned, the pick should feel like a natural extension of your hand.
So step by step, try this:
- Hold the pick as comfortably as possible; I recommend the Shell Hold. You can experiment with what is most comfortable for you.
- Practice picking diagonally to get that pick attack (“schick” sound).
- Practice alternate picking on one or two strings, and strumming up and down.
- Record your play on a clean setting, and adjust accordingly.
- Mute the unpicked strings over time to clean up the sound.
- Practice until it feels natural and not strained.
I hope that helps. Keep playing, and I’ll see you in the next blog.
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