Students in my recent workshop at Pick-Hand Flight School,
West Point Military Academy. I didn’t take any guff from those cocky flyboys.
What’s the hardest thing about playing guitar? Sore fingers? Sore neighbors?
I’d say the hardest part is hitting the correct string when playing single notes. Consider the rock star up there on stage. He’s singing into the mic, so he can’t peek at his guitar. Even if he could, his goldilocks are in his eyes, the lights are in his eyes, and the smoke machine has engulfed the whole stage in a whiteout. As the rock star finishes howling the chorus, his picking hand, a lost pilot in a storm cloud, cuts through the mist toward the B string for the first note of the guitar solo. It has no runway lights to guide it, no GPS, no control tower–only its arm which rests on the top of the guitar more than a foot away. How can the pick possibly connect with the B string, with room for error of just one centimeter, when its point of reference is so remote? Mayday! Mayday!
There’s no simple solution. Instead, there are all manners of shenanigans guitarists employ to keep their picking hand from getting lost. And as Chekov wrote, “If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.” So strap on your parachutes flyboys and flygirls!
This is when you plant the pinkie of your picking hand on the pick guard. Plenty of proficient fingerpickers pinkie post, but plectrum pickers should pass. Posting restricts the wrist, which will result in ragged (uneven) or retarded (slow) rhythm when wreaking rock riffs on your Rickenbacker.
You can see Kurt Cobain posting during the guitar solo in the MTV Unplugged video of “Come As You Are.” Don’t try this at home, kids. Kurt was a musical genius, but guitar technique was not shipped in his genius kit.
Planting Palm on Bridge–Better, but Still Bad!
This is when you dig your palm–right where the karate-chop part joins the wrist–into the top part of the bridge, where the 6th string connects. I used to do this all the time. It gave me security when I was on stage playing with The Lotus Eaters, a Grateful Dead cover band. I barely knew how to play a major scale–I think they let me play because I had long hair–so I needed all the security I could get.
The problem is, both your movement and tone is limited (picking that close to the bridge produces a bright, brassy sound).
Planting the Pick–Good!
This only applies at the start of a musical passage when you’re not playing something already, but it ensures you start on the right foot. Simply slip your pick in the space above the string you’re about to play. We have missile lock!
Jay Roberts, my most recent guitar teacher, has these bratwurst fingers that, as he picks, graze across the pickguard. This only works on the treble strings (unless you’re hand’s huge), but it’s a great way to stay oriented without restricting wrist movement. Plus, brushing is the only picking technique approved by the American Dental Association.
Other forms of brushing: Touching the bass strings with the palm while playing on the treble strings, and grazing the bridge with the palm (which brightens your tone but at least you can pick freely).
For Further Study
Here’s an excellent video by Eric Skye, a guitarist who I met on Acoustic Guitar Forum, demonstrating good picking technique. He shows you brushing techniques at 1:50.
A final note: Brushing is a great technique, and most good guitarists do some form of it, but it’s really hard to teach. My students wrinkle their nose and say it feels weird. I suspect that when you’re still trying to remember what the notes in a C major scale are, all this brushing voodoo is way too much to think about. But keep trying until it feels right.
After all, this is a WAR, people! One wrong note, and…