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Guitar Picking Techniques: Playing Single Notes and Melodies

Case Study: Bach’s Second Violin Partita, Allemanda

Part 1

In writing this post, I actually got a bit excited and wrote too much, so I’ll split it into two! If you’re just a beginner, we got a post dedicated to picking techniques for beginners.

We’ll be looking at a piece of music that I’ve been learning and living with for a few years, the first movement (the allemanda) of Bach’s second violin partita, in D minor. You might know this partita for its enormous ciaconna, which a lot of people think is the greatest piece of music ever written. But we won’t be tackling this monster here! The allemanda is a masterpiece in its own right, and well worth years of careful attention and love.

Now, Bach might not be your bag—but don’t think that this blog post, therefore, doesn’t apply to you! I’m going to talk about a piece that I love, and that I have thought about a lot; but the techniques I’ll discuss are important to every guitarist who plays melodies, regardless of whether they play heavy metal or punk!

But wait—a violin partita? On guitar? Yes, we need to transcribe the music to the guitar. There’s nothing odd about this, though: Bach’s music has been arranged for all sorts of ensembles (the weirdest arrangement I know is for Hatsune Miku but it’s a tight field)

In any case, the violin and the guitar are not such different instruments. In fact, in one respect, the electric guitar is very close to the violin indeed: with careful tone control, its sound can be as rich, dynamic and expressive as the violins. There’re not many instruments that can say that—but to take advantage of it, you have to be an extremely sensitive and honest musician. And part of this, of course, is attending seriously to how you pick it.

So with that, let’s get stuck in. In this first part, we’ll consider what pick to use, and look at how to pick in a way that sounds legato. In the second part, we’ll consider soft and sharp tones (how to differentiate them and why they matter), and look at the deceptively tricky puzzle of incorporating soft chords into a solo line.

Basics

First, we have to ask what guitar we’re going to play the allemanda on! Well, as I said, the electric guitar can have a rich ‘violin-like’ tone, and I’m curious about this, so that’s the guitar I’m going to use. Beyond this, I won’t specify. I like the rich tone you get from hollow-bodies such as Rickenbackers, and the meaty tone of a Les Paul. But if you want a thin Tele tone, then more power to you. I won’t look much at effects, either, as they’ll be specific to each setup. I like a dash of reverb and overdrive, though, so that I get a bit of the ‘grit’ of the violin.

Next—what notes are going to play? The guitar and violin are very different instruments, and some things are harder on one than the other. For instance, it’s hard to play chords on a violin, and impossible to play more than two-note chords. On the guitar, this is easy. So will we ‘add’ some notes, to create a richer sound? If you want a thin tone, then I’d suggest you consider doing so, but I want to put all my effort into playing the melody here.

Pick Choice

If we’re going to put all our energy into the melody, though, then we need a pick that can make it sing!

If you read our guide on how to choose the best guitar pick, then you’ll know that some picks are right out. Playing Bach’s rich dynamics, from whispered pianissimi to a roaring fortissimi, just isn’t possible with a thin pick. We need a heavy-gauge pick. The flexibility of a light gauge means that when we play hard, much of the force will be absorbed by the pick instead of carrying through to the strings, making them sound more loudly. This limits how loudly we can play, and so limits our overall dynamic range. (Light picks allow for slightly quieter playing, and we’ll consider this in another post, but the difference isn’t as great; heavy picks allow for a greater dynamic range.) Depending on our material, we need a gauge of at least 1 mm. I personally prefer a 1.2 mm gauge.

We should also choose a versatile pick shape: Bach’s emotional range is endless, and our pick needs to be able to play softly as well as quietly, aggressively as well as loudly. Again, this is personal, but I find that I can play a bit more softly with a round pick-tip than with a pointed tip, while still being able to play brightly if I need to. However, if you find yourself more at home with a pointed tip, then go for it!

Next, material. This is very personal, but I just love the sound of tortoiseshell mimics such as Ultem, Tortex and Delrin acetal for Bach. To me, Ultem and Delrin acetal feel like mahogany: it gives every note a sonorous tone and weight that’s just perfect for the exposed and proud melody of this piece.

This might suggest a jazz pick, and that’s an excellent choice to be sure—but I actually prefer a large triangle shape for this particular piece, for really interesting reasons that we’ll come back to at the end! (Clue: it’s to do with chords.)

So: we have a thick Delrin pick with a rounded tip. Now, what do we do with it?

Picking Legato

The next question is one of the most difficult questions in the arrangement: how do we interpret the legato indications? The violin is played with a bow, which means that you can play legato passages across strings by not changing the direction of the bow when you change note. That is, you can slur a run from the lowest string right up to the highest. On the guitar, legato is a very different creature. In particular, slurring across strings is much more difficult. Hammering-on and pulling-off within a string is easy, but to do it across strings (and to do it while keeping an even tone) is anything but—not least because you can only slur down (not up) to open strings. So what are we supposed to do with, for instance, bar 2?:

Here’s one obvious way to play this. Here, all the legato indications are realized as hammer-ons or pull-offs. This is perhaps the interpretation that’s closest to the violin original.

Individually, a lot of these slurs are pretty easy. Some require four-fret stretches, and some of them require slurring across strings, but nothing here is prohibitively difficult. However, putting them all together is harder—and the slurring in this bar isn’t even very difficult, as Bach goes!

Fortunately, we have another option open to us: picking notes that ‘should’ be slurred:

The problem this route poses is that Bach’s slurs aren’t capricious. He wrote them deliberately, and we ought to listen to him—even if we disagree with him. (And sometimes even the original manuscripts have different slurring indications!) For instance, take the Bb-D-F-G progression of beat 2 in the above example.

The low Bb is an important note, and we need to play it strongly. It announces a new chord, a new beat, a new direction (up to the G). The D just ‘follows on’ from it. If we played the D too sharply—for instance, if we played it the way we played the Bb—then it would seem more important than it is. Not such a big deal in itself, but if your interpretation makes lots of notes seem more important than they are, then the overall shape of the piece will be harder for the listener to discern.

So, if we choose not to literally slur Bach’s legato, we need to ‘make it up to him.’ How might we do this?

The fretting hand and the picking hand can work in tandem here. The fretting hand can keep the first note fretted, thus allowing the first note to ring on for a fraction of a note longer. (This is how pianists play legato.)

The picking hand can help by picking more quietly, more ‘roundly,’ and with a quicker release. If you read our guide to choosing picks the best pick, you’ll have some idea of what this means, but let’s go into greater depth.

Picking Angle

One way to create a sense of a slur between the Bb and the D is simply to play the D more quietly than the Bb, and a heavy-gauge pick gives you the dynamic control to do this. But this isn’t enough: if all we do is play more quietly, it’ll just sound like someone turned the volume down! We also need to play more softly, and we can do this by slightly changing our picking angle. It doesn’t need to be drastic: just a few degrees. But it makes a huge difference!

What’s your ‘picking angle’? Well, imagine looking at your guitar from the front (as if you were playing lap-pedal style). Now imagine picking such that your pick is parallel to the strings. This is a flat pick angle. Now imagine that you rotate the pick by 90°, such that it strikes the strings with its edge. The angle between the pick and the strings is your picking angle.

Guitar Picking Angle

If your pick is totally flat against the strings, then you will get a very bright, almost brittle tone. If you pick at 90° to the strings, then you’ll get a much softer sound. How soft this depends on your pick shape, but if you use a pick with a very rounded tip then it can be almost feathery. And of course you can use every degree in between, and play with subtly shading sounds into each other.

The pick angle is a very important part of your pick technique for all sorts of reasons. (We’ll discuss another important use below.) But here, it’s important because if you play the D with a larger picking angle than the Bb (say 40° to 30°), it will give the D a softness that allows it to ‘disappear’ into the shadow of the more important Bb. (It’s hard to switch your picking angle this quickly, even with a round-tipped pick; but with a bit of practice it’ll become second nature!)

Pick Release

The other way your picking hand can give you a convincing legato sound is by releasing the pick more quickly.

But what does this mean? What is pick release? Basically, when you pick a note, first of all you have to put your pick on the string. It may be only a millisecond, but at some point your pick is going to touch the string. When it’s there, the string isn’t sounding—how can it, there’s a piece of plastic on it! But there is some sound being made, namely, the sound of the pick sliding across the string. If we were to notate it, it would look a bit like this:

(Okay, the pick-sound is exaggerated, but you get the point! Play and listen if you’re not sure what I mean.) This all happens so fast that we normally only hear a ‘click.’ But ‘fast’ doesn’t mean ‘instantaneous,’ and pick release matters! Compare, for instance, a ‘pick’ with a very slow pick release: our fingers. Listen to any fingerstyle guitarist—even the virtuoso Jeff Beck!—and you’ll hear tiny gaps between the notes, and you’ll see why classical guitarists all have long fingernails on their right hands! You might love the sound of pick release (after all, it’s what gives Jeff Beck his wonderful sound), but you don’t want gaps and scratches in legato passages. So it’s important to know how to minimize them!

Simply put, your pick release is quickest if your pick is only momentarily in contact with the string. You control this by controlling your attack height, which is the height of your pick relative to your strings, by the sharpness of your pick tip, and by the slickness of your pick material. Let’s look at attack height first.

Hight and Low Attack Height

If you want to play legato, your attack height should be as high as possible without it being so high that you don’t pick the strings at all. That way, only the very tip of the pick will pass over the string before the string sounds; this both minimizes the gap between the notes and the scratch of the pick rubbing against the string.

The other factors are in the pick rather than the technique. The first is pick sharpness. The principle here is the same. If you have a very blunt pick—say the soft side of a sharkfin pick—then unless you’re superhumanly accurate, a lot of that pick surface is going to cross the string before the string sounds. That’s a lot of time! By contrast, with a very sharp pick, you don’t need to be nearly as accurate to still get a quick release. I think Style 551 is a good balance here.

The final factor is slickness. A slick pick—such as our Delrin—will speed your pick release because it is so happy to slide off the string.

To ‘zoom out’ from these details, what this means is that what you hear in a run of notes played with a quick pick release (if your fretting is up to scratch!) is almost only the notes themselves: a smooth run of music, round pearls. Perfect for legato, and we don’t need to feel bad about ignoring the letter of Bach’s instructions!

By the way: you may have noticed that there’s a bit of a compromise to be faced here: a sharper tip allows you a quicker pick release than a rounder tip (good for legato), but it also gives a sharper tone (bad for legato). What to do? Well, that’s for you to experiment…!

Part 2

Previously,  we took the allemanda of Bach’s second violin partita, in D minor. We asked how we could play it on the electric guitar. In particular, we asked: what picking problems does it raise? what picking techniques and ideas (not to mention picks) do we need to have in our repertoire if we are to do it justice?

We looked at a few different specific questions. First, we asked what pick we should use to play it, and I plumped for a 1.2 mm Delrin slightly-round-tip pick (although this is a personal preference). We then looked at a number of ways we can make our picking sound legato, even when we’re not literally playing legato (that is, slurring: hammer-ons and pull-offs). We saw that we can mimic legato by being mindful of our picking angle, and of how quick our pick release is.

Now, we’re going to look at some other puzzles this movement raises. Now, you may not want to learn this exact piece of music, but it might be worth your time reading this post anyway, whether you’re a jazz hat or worship at the House of Gilmour. The techniques we’re covering are relevant to any guitarist who cares about their picking!

Soft and Sharp Tone

I briefly mentioned that the emotional range of Bach requires us not just to play loudly and quietly, but with different attacks. We need to be able to find all sorts of emotions in our picking style: softness, politeness, aggression; gentleness, harshness, even querulousness!

This tonal variation is not just ‘colour.’ Bach’s allemanda is divided into two sections (A and B), and it is important to demarcate these sections as clearly as possible. For instance, I play the A section with a bright but somewhat round tone. I aim for a stately opening to the piece. In the B section, I go for a sharper tone to match the way that that section is melodically and harmonically ‘spikier.’ (I reserve the warmest tone for the later ‘sarabanda.’)

Almost all this tonal variation is achieved by the picking hand!

First of all, it is essential that you have the freedom to change between sul pont (near the bridge) and sul tasto (near the neck); relatedly, you should learn to incorporate the pick-up selector switch into your repertoire. These two things alone can expand your vocabulary immensely.

What may be the most important factor, though, is your pick angle. I mentioned this last week in connection with creating a smooth legato, but the angle at which you strike the strings is always important.

In my interpretation of the Bach allemanda, my ‘home’ for the A section is an angle of about 10°-20°, but for some soft passages I will play at about 35°, and for some big bass notes I will flatten to 0°! I open the B section with a punch: 0°-5°, before quickly softening the angle by a few degrees. This section is more dynamic than the A section and I switch the pick angle a lot, but I finish by softening quite a bit, and play the last chord at around 30-40°.

I’m not nearly as systematic as I let on, though—and I allow myself plenty of liberty to change the angle if the mood takes me! This isn’t because I’m a lazy guitarist: it’s very important that you are able to be free to ‘play to the room,’ to respond to the energy our audience and our own emotions is giving us. After all, we never tell the same story in exactly the same way twice. Neither should we tell our musical story in the same way twice!

The important thing is to create a good tonal contrast—so long as you’ve got the contrast, you’ve got a lot of freedom to extemporize the subtleties.

Chords

From the point of view of picking techniques, we have now thought about most of the puzzles thrown up by Bach’s allemanda. One puzzle remains: the final chord of the A section.

A general picking rule of thumb is that light-gauge picks are good for chords, heavy-gauge picks are good for single notes. But what do we do when the music we want to play features both single notes and chords?

There isn’t a general answer to this question. Every piece of music is unique and will require different sacrifices. In our allemanda, we can note some pertinent points, though.

First, that big A major is really the only big chord in this piece. Because there’s only the one chord, we shouldn’t let it dominate our thoughts. At the same time, because it’s in a structurally very important place, we shouldn’t ignore it, either!

Second, the chord is at something of a climax, and so there should be a bit of emphasis on it; at the same time, it is a continuation, even a part of, the melody preceding it: so it shouldn’t be much louder than the rest of the piece.

Third, it seems to me that it wants to be played softly. It’s a major chord that rests for a whole beat and a half, and follows on a busy and even relentless passage; and it immediately follows on from that low D that to me sounds like an intake of breath before the ‘sigh’ of the A major (I’m reminding of sitting down on a soft couch after a long walk—ahh!). However, it can’t be too much softer: again, it’s a continuation of the previous melody, and shouldn’t sound like we’re in a different register altogether.

Grip Strength

So how do we do justice to all these musical demands with our current pick set-up?

We can get a lot of the way there simply by applying some of the techniques we’ve already considered. We can alter the pick angle to create a rounder tone and move slightly sul pont (remember: close to the bridge).

We can also pick more quietly. However, this option isn’t cost-free! To pick more quietly with a heavy pick is basically just to pick more slowly. This doesn’t affect anything if we’re only playing a single note, but if we’re playing a chord, it means that the whole chord is played more slowly, simply because it takes longer to cross all the strings if the speed at which the pick passes each individual string is slower. This presents a problem if we want to play the chord quickly! It looks as if a quickly-played chord has to be a loud chord, when we’re using a heavy pick. This is a big limit on our playing.

Well, not quite. We can also play with how firmly we grip the pick. If we lighten our grip, then we can strum more quickly, without playing more loudly: there’s less force behind the strike. Lightening your grip not only reduces the volume, but it also makes the tone lighter. This is because the pick ‘bends back’ and so strikes the strings at a smaller angle, somewhat similar to the effect of a rounder pick. (It’s not quite the same, though: the angle is smaller, but the pick surface is flat, not rounded; as such, the tone is a bit brighter.)

Lightening your pick grip is a dangerous game: you have less control over your playing (and in particular over your timing), and you increase the odds of the pick falling out of your hand altogether! (One more reason to choose a textured pick.) But in this case, it’s safe: there’s only one chord, our timing of the notes within the chord doesn’t need to be precise, and we don’t have to lighten our grip very much because this A major chord should probably be arpeggiated pretty slowly anyway.

This said (and here I make good a promise I made back at the start of the post), it is because I switch between chords and single notes a lot that I often use the ‘large triangle’ pick shape for this piece (in particular, style 346 or its mini variant). Its large surface means that you can lighten your grip without worrying so much about it slipping out of your fingers. This said, I find it hard to abandon my beloved jazz pick (style 551), even though it’s a bit small for these chords. If a pick has a good grip on it, though, then you should be fine.

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot of material in this post. We’ve looked at the shape, gauge and material of what picks are best suited to this very particular piece of music, Bach’s allemanda from his D minor violin partita. We’ve then looked at some specific troublesome passages, and looked at various facets of picking technique: pick angle, attack height, and grip strength.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind tour through these elements of picking, and perhaps it’s a lot to take in at once. It might be worth returning to these posts now and then if you find yourself at a musical impasse. Sometimes hearing someone say something you already know can be just what you need.

Perhaps you learned a lot from this post, or perhaps you realized you had been using all these techniques all along! (I know I used them well before I realized I was using them!) Either way, I hope that this post will prove helpful in allowing you to forge your own musical voice.

If you still have questions regarding picking, we have a post decided to the most commonly asked questions regarding guitar picks. A must-read.

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