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How many of you have had trouble developing a right-hand, or left-hand, picking technique that you are happy and comfortable with? I have rarely met a student or player that didn’t struggle with this issue at some point. This question seems to cross stylistic lines; if your play with a flat pick in rock, shred, jazz, blues, or pop, you have likely studied the problem and sought ways to develop whichever technique you have been using. Over our music history, the guitar has often lagged behind the piano when it comes to the study of technique-related matters. Much more has been written about correct piano technique, and much less scholarly work has been produced when it comes to the guitar, although this has begun to change in recent years. Many students, especially rock students, start out playing the guitar on their own, and by the time serious study takes place a right-hand picking method is pretty well fixed in place. If one considers that it takes years of repetition and a process involving muscle memory to ingrain a technique, it is no wonder that many students show up at their first lessons with impossibly bad right-hand techniques, making it quite a challenge for the student to reverse this. In jazz circles, there are five basic established picking techniques, which are generally connected with well-known performers:
1. The closed-fist floating right hand
This method has the hand tightly closed, pick grasped between thumb and forefinger, no anchor, and much of the motion coming from the wrist. Barney Kessel used this technique and preferred removal of the pickguard for its proper execution.
2. Right hand accordion method
In this approach, there is a loose anchor of the pinky to the pickguard. The fingers are curled in a very loose fist, but splay apart as needed in order for the pick to cross the strings. Joe Pass and many other modern bebop players used this method. Much of the picking is in a ‘glide’ fashion, where a note on an adjacent string is played by continuing the down motion of the pick rather than actually picking the note again. Pull-offs are often used rather than picking every single note. Little motion is used from the forearm or elbow.
3. Straight arm technique
Johnny Smith’s success with this method made it famous among technique hounds. Most of the motion comes from the forearm and elbow. There is no anchor although the hand glides over the pickguard, just touching it. Alternate picking is the norm, so most notes have a picked articulation.
4. George Benson style
Defying gravity and logic, George has made this technique famous in connection with his machine-gun rapid-fire execution of long lines, where every note is picked, in a strict up-down picking motion. Oddly, the pick is held by thumb and first two fingers and the hand held almost sideways against the pickguard. Forearm and wrist motions are pronounced.
5. Modern approach used in many programs
This technique blends some features of the other methods, but emphasizes natural body position, no anchor, and a relaxed approach; these are thought to be the key to getting the best tone, making this idea transferable to any style. If you were to stand straight and relaxed, letting your arm hang free, the natural position of the hand is what should appear when moved up over the pickguard, although in a loose fist with pick held between the thumb and first finger. The technique combines the natural motion of wrist, forearm and elbow. The most important feature is that everything is to be done in a relaxed motion, with no tension anywhere. With muscle memory processes in mind, any technical etudes – or actual songs – are practiced slowly and repetitively, in a relaxed fashion, and using a strict up and down, alternate picking technique. See Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery for more on the topic of relaxed practice. The strong part of any beat gets a down-stroke while the “and” of the beat usually gets an up-stroke. It is generally thought that the absence of a tight anchor, and the presence of relaxed and naturally employed muscles aid in the production of the best possible and most natural tone.
Whichever picking style you prefer, the most important element for the development of technique is relaxed, slow, and repetitive practice. The development of technique, a secondary process, should be done for the sole purpose of allowing you to express an inner musical flow – the primary process.
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast. An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar. (dealer: IslandFunhouse).