Why are guitar picks used?
There are a number of reasons why guitarists almost always play with guitar picks. Strings sound best when they’re plucked with something that has a nice, quick, clean release. Fleshy finger-pads don’t give this: the tone they give is not as resonant or clear. Classical guitarists don’t use guitar picks because they grow their fingernails long instead, and get a nice tone that way. However, the steel strings of acoustic and electric guitars are too sharp for fingernails, and they’ll cut your fingernails up if you play for too long. Picks are far more durable.
Some guitarists just play with their finger-pads—some techniques are easier this way, to be sure—but because finger-pads are so soft, it’s almost impossible to play very fast with them.
In short, guitar picks give a nicer sound than finger-pads, allow you to play faster than with your finger-pads, and are more durable than fingernails.
Should I use a thin guitar pick?
The benefits of using a thin pick comes down to the fact that thin picks are more flexible than thick picks, simply because there’s less of them. This means they’re more forgiving of mistakes, they’re great for playing full or fast chords, and it’s easy to keep your volume equal.
Thin guitar picks, then, are especially great for acoustic guitarists and beginner guitarists. But this is very personal; you might be a singer-songwriter but still, prefer a thick (or heavy) pick, and you might be a metalhead who finds that thin picks suit you better. That’s fine!
Am I holding my guitar pick correctly?
The only strict rule when it comes to holding your guitar pick is that it should be comfortable and that you should hold it in such a way that you can play for hours without cramping up or getting tired. So long as you’ve got that down, it’s just a matter of finding the way of holding it that suits you, so that you can play with as much control and speed as you need.
If you feel uncomfortable with your pick, try some of these:
- Only use your thumb and index finger to hold the pick.
- Don’t hold it too tight. Hold it as lightly as you can. (If you find it slips from your fingers, it might be time to change to a grippier pick.)
- Make sure you can still move your finger and thumb around a bit while holding the pick—this is to ensure that your muscles aren’t too stiff.
- Look to your wrist and elbow. In particular, make sure you have a strong anchor (normally your wrist on the bridge) so that your fingers aren’t doing any more work than necessary—they should be free to focus on picking precisely.
- Read our article on basic picking techniques for beginners.
What is ‘pick grip’? Why does it matter?
You can’t play effectively with a guitar pick if it keeps slipping out of your hands! This is why most high-quality picks will have something that allows you to grip them more easily. This is the pick grip. The grip can be an embossing on the surface where your finger and/or thumb grips the pick, or it can be just a high-friction material.
It is easy for picks to have good grips, but very important—don’t overlook it! If your pick isn’t grippy enough, then either it will keep slipping (out of the optimal playing position or even out of your fingers altogether), or you will have to hold it so tightly that you will give yourself cramp, and so not be able to play as long or as hard as you want.
Do you have to use a pick to play fast?
This depends. If you’re playing a classical, nylon-string guitar, then No. If you’re playing with a steel string, then generally Yes.
If you’re playing on nylon strings, then the technique with the fastest ‘upper limit’ with regard to speed is your nailed fingers; see, for example, Barrios’s Una Limosna por el amor de Dios (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8kAo7u7TBQ). You can play very quickly with a pick, too, and if you are used to playing with a pick it might not be worth learning a whole new technique to get a subtle increase in speed, but it’s definitely the fastest.
If you’re playing on steel strings, though, this isn’t an option. You can’t play with your fingernails because the steel strings will cut them to shreds, and you can’t play with your finger-pads because they’re too fleshy, and so don’t have as quick a release as fingernails or a pick. (Your pads will get ‘stuck’ on the strings for so long that the note won’t have time to sound before you play the next note!) And so, if you want to play really fast on steel strings, then picks are the way to go.
(Well—almost. If you’re playing a lot of arpeggios across strings, as for example Iron & Wine does (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xiLi1CoQ3I), then it’s easier to play finger-style. Then your fingers can each focus on just playing one or two strings (your thumb only plays the bass strings, for instance).)
How do you cross strings when alternate picking?
Suppose you’re playing two notes, one on the G string and another on the B string. If you want to down-pick the G string, should you then down-pick or up-pick the B string? There are two schools of thought here. One is ‘always alternate.’ The other is ‘save energy.’
Those in the ‘always alternate’ camp will say that it’s easier to not worry about string-skipping and which direction you’re supposed to be picking at any given time. It’s liable to confuse you, and there’s no good reason to worry about it. Indeed, having a constant up-down alternation ensures an even tone and precise timing. Those in the ‘save energy’ camp will say that when your pick is already moving down towards the B string, it’s a waste of energy to up-pick. Your pick has to pass beyond the string anyway, so why bother lifting it out of the way? When you’re shredding, every iota of energy counts!
Frankly, though, it just depends. If you’re playing long runs of sixteenth- or thirty-second-notes, without that much string-skipping, and having an even tone across the runs is important, or if you are in a rush to learn something, then ‘always alternate’ is a pretty good rule. If you’re playing in a more varied way, with arpeggios, string-skipping, a range of note values, and more expression, then it might make more sense to think about whether you can make certain passages or leaps easier by a little bit of sweep-picking.
What is the best way to increase picking speed on the guitar?
Practice. Sorry, but that’s about all there is to it! Well—practice; having a good, light, hold of the pick; and having a good, high pick height.
Having a good pick grip is important because if you grip the pick so hard that you give yourself cramp then you’re not going to be playing fast for very long, and also because if the muscles in your hand are using all their strength to grip the pick, then they’re not using that strength to move the pick across the strings!
Having a high pick height is important because picking is hard work: the guitar’s strings are basically extremely taut steel wires, and they don’t take kindly to some uppity piece of plastic bending them out of shape! When the pick strikes the string, they resist, and you need strength to force them out of the way. The lower your pick height, the more the strings have to be bent in order to allow the pick to pass, the longer it takes, and the more tiring it is for you.
You can get specialist practice picks to ensure that you only pick with the very tip of your pick, but you can also switch to a small ‘jazz’ pick that only has a small tip exposed to the strings beneath your fingers.
However, you can have a good pick height and you can grip the pick well, and still not be able to shred as fast as you want. The path then is just practice. You just need to strengthen your muscles, get a deep understanding of exactly how the pick and strings respond to your playing (and they’ll respond slightly different depending on where on the fretboard your left hand is, on which string you’re playing, and on whether you’re playing sul ponticello or sul tasto), and of course ensure that your left and right hands play in perfect synchronization!
Resist the urge to ‘fluff’ fast playing by changing the pick angle, playing over the neck, and/or forcing the pick across the strings with your stronger forearm! These are cadges, and you can’t build a proper, controlled shred on this sort of playing. Better to learn slowly and properly. It’s hard, yes—virtuosic, even!—but if it’s what you want, then there’s no shortcut.
How do you play ‘pinched’ (or ‘pick’) harmonics?
Pinched harmonics are perhaps the most mysterious and mercurial of guitar techniques. In a sense, every pinched harmonic is different, but here are some general guidelines to bear in mind in approaching them.
- They’re harmonics, and not totally unlike natural or artificial harmonics. That is, what you’re doing is playing a string with your pick, while putting some pressure on a ‘node’ of the string so that the string can’t vibrate along its whole length, but only along some fraction of that length. In the case of natural and artificial harmonics, this fraction is normally ½ (when you lightly place your finger an octave or 12 frets above the firmly fingered note), 1/3 (when you place your finger a fifth or an octave and a fifth (7 or 19 frets) higher), or ¼ (when you place your finger a fourth or two octaves (5 or 24 frets) higher). These harmonics sound an octave, an octave and a fifth, and two octaves, respectively, higher than the notes would sound played ‘naturally.’
- Pinched harmonics are the same: you play the note with the pick, and press on the node with your picking hand’s thumb. The main difference is that the fractions are often much smaller, and so the notes they produce are much higher.
- This means that they are harder to produce. The ‘margin of error’ in finding the node is smaller as the harmonic is higher, and for very high harmonics, it’s tiny. It’s so small, in fact, that it’s almost smaller than the width of your finger or thumb, and so unless you remove your finger from the node whip-snap fast, then you’ll kill the sound almost before you hear it!
- Playing the harmonic with the thumb of the same hand you play the note with helps ensure that you don’t touch the node for a millisecond longer than you need to. Move your thumb and your pick across the string at the same time, and move them across the string fast!
- When a guitar is fed through many distortion processes, the higher frequencies become more prominent, and so pinched harmonics become easier.
- Where on the string you pick matters. Move your pick sul pont and sul tasto until you find a node that’s the pitch you like, and memorise where that point is. Remember that it will be different for every fret!
How do you play fast repeated downstrokes in rhythm playing?
James Hetfield’s relentless down-picking (‘chugging’) in ‘Master of Puppets’ might sound doable, but it’s a piece of serious virtuosity. If you want to learn how to play like this, then you have to be sensible. The key here is endurance, and that can only be built up slowly, in short sessions—otherwise, you’ll just give yourself repetitive strain injury (the bane of musicians everywhere), and you won’t be able to play anything at all.
When you’re practicing chugging, play until you begin to feel the pain, and stop shortly after. A little bit of pain is inevitable—it’s the feeling of you going to the edge of what you can do, which you need to get to if you’re to go beyond what you can do—but don’t keep pushing, or you’ll injure yourself. Do this a few times—say three—every day. After a while, you’ll notice that you can play faster, and for longer. But have patience!
But what if you have a gig tomorrow! Can you alternate pick instead? Well yes—you can play however you like!—but if you are playing chords, then it will sound different to chugging. (If you’re playing single notes, though, it shouldn’t make a difference, because ideally your single-note up-pick and down-pick should sound the same. If they don’t, then work on that!) The reason alternate-picking chords sounds different to chugging them is basically that when you’re down-picking you’re playing the lower note(s) first, but when you’re up-picking you’re playing the higher note(s) first. If you’re very quickly playing a two-note power-chord, you might think that the ear can’t hear the difference when the two notes are so close together. Well, you’d be wrong! Our ears are more sensitive than you think!
I Keep Losing My Picks! Where Do They Get to?
They’re collected by pooka, who return them to the manufacturers to be resold. They don’t steal them! They keep track, and if they’ve collected enough of your picks, you can apply for a partial refund. To do this, arrange a meeting by leaving a candle burning in the hollow of an oak tree on a solstice that’s also a full moon. Return in the morning for the deposit and a receipt. It’s normally only about 10% of the original cost, though; if you think it’s not worth it, try sellotaping your picks to the back of your hand.
How Do I Improve My Picking Accuracy Across String?
There isn’t a magic bullet here: an awful lot of practice is needed. There are exercises you can use to work on your string-changing and string-skipping, and you should work on these every day (5-30 minutes, depending on how ambitious you are).
But practice intelligently—the key thing here is that you need to give yourself a firm anchor, so that you don’t ‘drift’ out of position and lose track of where the strings are. For instance, your wrist can be locked to the bridge, or your pinky can grip the high E string. You’ll probably have to change anchors at various points, but it’s important to always have one anchor or another. Practice changing strings with a few different anchors, and practice-changing anchor on the fly.
How can I improve my pick control?
A master guitarist is able to control the sounds they make on the guitar as much as they can control their own voice. It’s not just about speed: they’ll be able to make their instrument whisper and roar, babble and laugh. It’s because Steve Vai is so expressive like this that he’s one of the world’s greatest guitarists—not because he can play fast! Listen carefully to any of his great solos, such as this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw74sDWPH7U.
In order to improve your pick control, you should first have a small, thick pick. The thickness (start at 1.0 mm, and then adjust as per your preference) gives you more control by being less flexible when it strikes the strings, thus allowing you to control the strings without them controlling you. The smallness gives you more control by bringing your fingers closer to the strings. You have an innate knowledge of where your fingers are, so it’s good to keep them as close to the music as possible.
You can then work on exercises, such as quickly alternating between loud and soft picking or between sul tasto and sul ponticello picking, on playing as quietly and as loudly as possible to find the limits of your set-up, or on long, carefully controlled crescendos and diminuendos.
Perhaps most important, though, is to work on making your picking expressive. Think of short, melodic fragments of speech, and try to emulate them with your guitar, paying attention to little inflections, tonal variation, and of course dynamic changes.
Listen to this track by René Lussier, a fascinating Canadian composer who goes to an extreme of showing how the guitar (and other instruments) can have a ‘human’ voice:
What guitar pick should I use?
If you’re a beginning guitarist, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the variety of picks on offer, from big nylon triangles to tiny teardrops to every manner of strangeness in material and shape. How to sift through it all?
Here’s out in-depth dive on how to choose the best guitar pick.
1. Big and thin picks are more forgiving than small and thick picks, but they’re less precise.
2. Big and thin picks are better for acoustic playing; small and thick picks are better for precise jazz and metal playing.
3. Different materials give different sounds, but which sound works for you is mostly a matter of preference.
4. Picks are cheap! Stock up on a dozen or two picks of different shapes, sizes, brands and materials, and experiments. Make sure you get a few standard-shape picks of 0.73 or 0.88 mm, as they’re good picks to start on.
5. You don’t need to commit to a single pick. Many guitarists switch it up as per the demands of a particular song.
How much time should I spend on my picking?
You should definitely dedicate some time in every session to your picking: playing open strings and working on your speed, dynamics, string-skipping, and so on. (If you want to practice with stopped strings too—which you should because a stopped string responds differently to your pick—then make sure not to get distracted from your picking hand by playing scales or whatever.)
But what’s ‘some’? It depends on how technically ambitious you are, and on how much you can practice without doing yourself an injury. Virtuoso guitarists could spend half an hour per day on picking alone, but don’t aim to play for that long from day one! You need to build up your muscles and stamina. Ideally, increase your practice time by 5 minutes per day until you’ve reached your daily goal.
If you feel any pain, then don’t power through: listen to your body telling you to ease up! Rest and stretch for five minutes, go back to it, and when it happens again, give it a rest for a few hours or a day. It can be tempting to push through the pain, and to some extent, it’s necessary in order to expand your limits—but be careful! It won’t be worth it if you end up with RSI and can’t play for several months, or worse!
What’s the difference between flat picks and thumb picks?
Flat picks, as the name suggests, are flat (‘2-D’). You hold them between your thumb and index finger. Thumb picks look like little spirals: they wrap around the tip of your thumb, and a bit of the plastic sticks out to strike the string. This leaves all of your fingers free to fingerpick (occasionally you’ll find finger picks that wrap around your fingers like thumb picks wrap around your thumb).
Thumb picks are better for guitarists who play a lot of finger-style acoustic playing, whereas flat picks are hugely more popular among musicians who play rock, metal and jazz, because you can control the attack (tone, volume, etc.) more precisely.
How much are the most expensive guitar picks?
Good question! For a while it was plenty: $5,000 USD, and it’s easy to see why: these very special picks were made of the meteor! However, the company that sold them, Starpics, seems to have disappeared. Another candidate is perhaps the old picks made from turtle shell that still change hands as collectors’ items on the black market.
Normally, picks are more sensibly priced: you can get great picks for $1, and there’s rarely any need to spend more than $2 unless you’re after a real specialty item.