Proper picking technique is one of the most-discussed aspects of guitar playing. The overlooked truth is that there are as many picking techniques as there are guitar players. A quick look at some of the fastest pickers out there will reveal different nuances in each player’s style. (See videos of a few of my favorites: Steve Vai, Al Di Meola, Eddie Van Halen, Paul Gilbert, Joscho Stephan, John McLaughlin.)
While there’s no proper way to hold a guitar pick, I’ve come up with a technique that’s easy to grasp and has a number of advantages, which I’ll explain.
Start Without a Pick
The first step is to get your hand in a good position to hold a pick. I recommend the following manual pose, lining up the outer knuckles on all five fingers of the picking hand. As the picture demonstrates, turn your palm toward yourself, curl your fingers inward, and form a line (or shallow arc) between all five of those knuckles.
Now turn your hand over and place it on a flat surface. I use the back of my guitar. Those same knuckles should be the only parts of your fingers touching the surface. Take a moment to move all your fingers around and see what it takes to have only the heel of your palm and your outer knuckles touching the surface. Remember to keep them in line.
Now try moving your hand around. Try to keep the heel of your palm stationary. Swing your hand from the wrist, not from the elbow. It should look like this video:
Add the Pick
Now add the pick to the picture. If you imagine your outer knuckles pointing out from your palm, then your pick should point in the same direction. Hold your hand as if you’re about to press a Jeopardy buzzer, and place your pick on top of your index finger, like so:
Clamp your thumb down on top of it, restoring your five-knuckled lineup. Don’t clamp too hard, just enough to remind the pick where it belongs. As you look from thumb to pinky, the pick should only peek out a tiny bit. Experiment as you start playing. The less pick protrusion you can manage, the better.
Your hand and fingers should be in exactly the same position as before, only now with a pick between your thumb and index finger. Place your hand back down on a flat surface. You should now be touching the surface only with the heel of your palm and your pick, with your five outer knuckles floating an eighth to a quarter inch above. Swing your hand back and forth in the same manner, from the wrist, not the elbow.
It’s time for some real picking. Move your hand to the guitar strings.
When you play, use the same motion you did on the flat surface. You can rest the heel of your palm on the upper corner of the bridge or on the edge of the E and A strings. Whether you’re using downstrokes, upstrokes, or alternating, try to move from the wrist instead of the elbow.
Pay attention to your fingers. Any time your thumb or fingers touch strings when you only want your pick touching, make a mental note of the mistake. Unintended string touches will makes sounds you don’t want and/or dampen the sounds you do want.
When strumming, it’s useful to introduce more movement than the isolated wrist-pivot we’ve been working with. Two other types of movement exist. One is swinging the entire forearm from the elbow. The other is rotating from the elbow, as if turning a doorknob. A tasteful combination of these three movements yields an ideal, relaxed strumming technique:
The key is to avoid locking your wrist. Keep it loose but in control, like a spring.
In case I haven’t said it enough, keep everything relaxed. You’ll probably drop the pick a few times. Avoid the temptation to put it in a death grip. Live on the edge, see how loosely you can hold it, and your fingers will learn not to drop it.
My favorite advantage to this particular pick grip is the ease of controlling dynamics. Try squeezing the pick a little harder for louder notes. (You can still relax. Treat it like a firm handshake.) Use your lined-up knuckles for leverage; press your thumb against the force of all four fingers instead of just your index.
Watch videos of your favorite players. Analyze and mimic their techniques, see what works and what doesn’t. Everyone’s hands are shaped a little differently, so work with what you’ve got, and appreciate that it’s unique.
I’ve personally been through three multi-year phases of different picking techniques, and I made a conscious decision to switch my habits to this one in 2009. I wrote about it at From the Woodshed in the post, New Picking Technique. Also see Warming Up at Work, in which I used the same exercise outlined above to get my picking muscles going before I could get to a guitar.