Pick-Hand Flight School

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!

Pinkie Posting–Bad!

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).

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…

Comments 15

  1. Hey thanks for blogg’n on my page. Haha, i’m one of those self-taught ones so I don’t really know the technicals. i used to play piano for 8 or 9 years. Ummm Brushing, is that like Palm Muting while grounding your fingers on the pick guard? So what sorta guitar you got? I got an epi. SJ 15 NA .. my acoustic, and an Epi Les Paul electric with a not so good fender 15G, but its worth the money. Anyways awesome site, keep up that guitaring!


  2. Hey Rob-
    Just got into work and saw your post. I haven’t had a chance to read through your site much yet – but I will (providing I don’t fling myself off a bridge out of sheer dating disgust…)


  3. Hey Guys,

    Thanks for stopping by! Alistair, my favorite guitar right now is a Gretsch Anniversary model I bought from a guy whose ex-wife bought it for him as a gift. I like to think it plays the blues better with all those tear-streaks splashed across the finish. I’ve also got a Custom Shop Historic ’57 Les Paul and an American Fender Tele. Oh, and a Martin J-18M and my beloved beach guitar, a ’78 Alvarez. I swear I play ’em all regularly, I swear I swear!

    MadRussellTerrier, you’ve probably noticed half of what I teach is ripped right from those books Bruce Emery writes. He’s my teaching idol.

    Thanks again for dropping a note!

  4. Great tips. I agree that the picking hand is definitely the most difficult to develop.

    You mentioned pinky posting. I used to never do it, but now I like to when (attempting) shredding or anything tech rock, which isn’t really my bag, but can be fun. When I taught guitar for a short period of time, I used to tell my students to never pinky post, but now look at me… doing it myself.

  5. haha. its really well written. i think if you play enough, or the song enough, then it becomes easier to just play it blind. i used to have to play in my garage with no lighting (no electricity) at night as to not wake up my mum. it really helps, despite how much it pissed me off.
    but if you play enough, then you should be able to play upside down, under water, in the dark, running from a polar bear.
    a little extravagent maybe.


  6. Not sure what you mean by brushing across the pick gaurd. Do you mean, I know where my pick is at by where my fingers are on the pick gaurd? Hope you can elaborate. Thanks!!

  7. so that is what you call this technique, brushing.
    this is how i’ve played for years all the time thinking i was doing it wrong, when i wasn’t. i’ve tried to play with closed fist but to keep the proper distance from the strings and know exactly where you’re at is difficult. basically the nail of my pinky glides across the pickguard. on my les paul i’ve removed the pick guard so i make sure only the flesh of my finger contacts the guitar so i don’t scratch it up.
    my hand moves free and nothing is ever planted stiff. stay loose, keep cool.

  8. Hi Rob! I’ve been reading your blog and it’s really nice, lots of good advice for every kind of guitar players. One question though, you’re saying people shouldn’t use the pinky-planting at all? Because that’s what I was taught and I find it a great way of keeping a point of reference for your picking hand. However I have noticed guitar players like SRV just strumming single strings incredibly accurately without this technique…

    1. It’s OK to have your pinky touching the guitar, but you shouldn’t be pressing hard. It shouldn’t be stiff. If it is, your hand will be tense as you pick, and you want it to feel loose, just like Lew said.

      Glad you’re digging the blog, Jorge!

  9. Are there lessons on this site about incorporating arpeggios with modes and scales, or like using the dorian or other mode for improvisation? Those would be good lessons.

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