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Twang 101: Why You Should Care About Hybrid Picking

What in the heck is “hybrid picking” and why should you care? Learn how to unleash some picking-hand tricks, create open-string phrases and pedal-steel licks.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to incorporate your middle and ring fingers into your picking attack.
• Create flowing, open-string phrases full of harp-like dissonance.
• Develop pedal steel-style licks with oblique bends.

Click here to download MP3s and a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

What in the heck is “hybrid picking” and why should you care? Hybrid picking is a technique that involves holding your pick as you normally would with your thumb and index finger, but also using your middle and ring fingers (and sometimes even your pinky) to attack the strings.

So what’s the payoff? There’s a different sound you can get from your fingers that you can’t get from a pick. The attack lets you get very sensitive, bluesy tones (think Robben Ford, Mark Knopfler, and Jeff Beck). Robben Ford tends to use a pick for rhythm and switches to bare fingers when he’s getting more aggressive, but playing at lower volumes. He moves to a different texture to highlight big changes in dynamic levels.

Also, when you’re using your fingers you’ll phrase differently because it is harder to play fast—it almost forces you to play more melodically. Check out Figs. 1 and 2. Play them first with your pick, and then try playing them with the hybrid technique.

For these examples, we are using the classical p–i–m–a system for right-hand notation, where m indicates your middle finger and a indicates your ring finger. All notes played with a pick will be marked with a downstroke symbol.

Hybrid picking is also great for playing arpeggios. Many times in slower songs the intro and verse have more arpeggiated sections and the choruses get big—you’ll need to strum and rock out a little more on those. After some practice, you’ll be able to hold your pick just like you always do and go back and forth between pick and hybrid techniques without thinking about it. It just becomes part of the fingerpicking process. In Figs. 3 and 4, you can see how we could apply this technique to a chord progression to not only create space, but also some interesting harmonies with ringing notes.

If you want to cop some of that straight-up chicken pickin’ madness on a Tele, hybrid picking is essential. Snapping the notes with your fingers is a big part of the sound—something that can’t be achieved with a pick. Figs. 5 and 6 are some double-stop chicken pickin’ licks that use the pick along with middle and ring fingers to snap the double-stops.

Also, the attack is instantaneous when you pick two notes at the same time, as opposed to a pick scraping against two notes one at a time. Even though the pick attack is quick, it still sounds different. Figs. 7 and 8 are some steel guitar licks that really jump out when you use a hybrid technique, as opposed to just the pick.

Cascading open-string licks are really effective for reaching a completely different place when you’re soloing, especially playing quick “train beat” country rhythms. The notes ring out against each other and flow more easily when you use the hybrid technique. If you were to just use a pick, it wouldn’t give you the same sound (or speed) as hybrid picking. The effect is like playing a scale on a piano and holding down the sustain pedal.

When creating these types of runs, look for ways to lay out phrases on the fretboard so you can get at least two or three notes ringing together at any given time. That means you want to be scouting for diatonic notes on adjacent or nearby strings. Fig. 9 is a G Major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) that incorporates open strings.

The next step is to create licks with these cascading patterns. I like the Mixolydian mode—used for Fig. 10—with some chromatic passing tones like the b3 and b5. When I get the opportunity, I’ll combine the rub of the b3-to-3 move with the b7 to emphasize important chord tones in a phrase. Try the cascading lick in Fig. 11 that starts on the b7, weaves from 5 to b5, and has the b3-to-3 move.

Now, let's try a couple of repeating patterns. These can make great warm-up exercises, and they’re also good for breaking up a line or building intensity in a solo. Fig. 12 uses hybrid picking for the double-stops, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs for the other part of the lick. Practice these slowly at first with the metronome and gradually build up speed as you feel comfortable playing each tempo.

You can also work these licks through a I–IV–V progression by changing only a few notes while staying in the same position. Check out Fig. 13. These licks are great for smokin’ fast tempos because they are very percussive and really outline the chords as they fly past.

Try changing where the double-stops and pull-offs fall rhythmically to keep things interesting—especially if you decide to keep this lick going for a while. Fig. 14 shows how you can go back and forth from one rhythmic lick to the next. This helps hold the attention of your audience and keeps you on your toes.

Erik Halbig
Erik Halbig is currently touring with Thompson Square and has previously performed with Sara Evans, Blackhawk, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna, and many more. Halbig graduated from USC with a degree in Studio/Jazz Guitar and has taught clinics and seminars all over the country. He has had several books published by Alfred and Hal Leonard, and currently resides in Nashville.