Guitar Picking Techniques
An overview of different methods of picking a guitar
Last Updated: May 2023 | Article Details: 3478 words (18 – 20 minute read)
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If you’re a beginner guitar player then you probably know a couple of different guitar picking techniques.
But you’ve probably only scratched the surface.
There are so many different ways to pick a guitar that it can become overwhelming.
But if you take it one step at a time, you can learn them all and master your favorite ones.
In this post we’ll go over as many different picking skills we can think of. The best way to master the skills you’ll read on this page is by taking some structured online guitar lessons.
Let’s get right into it.
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Basic Guitar Picking Skills
If you’re already familiar with basic picking then you can skip this section, but we’ll go over them first before getting to the more advanced stuff. In our last lesson, we showed you how to play guitar chords.
Picking is best practiced on guitar scales, but you can also practice picking with chords (called an arpeggio.) Normally, however, chords are played by strumming the guitar. Please note, we won’t be going over strumming techniques here.
If you’re a complete beginner to learning how to play guitar then you’ll want to really master these before moving on to other stuff.
Upstrokes / Downstrokes
Your basic upstroke and downstroke is the bread-and-butter of guitar playing. These are done just like they sound – an upstroke is when the pick plucks a string in an upwards motion, from the bottom of the string you’re playing. A downstroke is the opposite. You start above the string you want to play, and pluck it in a downward motion.
Beginners usually find it easier to focus on a single type of stroke and play their exercises using that one stroke – whether up or down – until they get the hang of it.
Alternate picking is a technique that uses both upstrokes and downstrokes, in an alternating pattern. You play one note with an upstroke, for example, and on the next note you’d use a downstroke. It allows for much more fluid motion when playing the guitar.
Picking in this way balances the distribution of your movement and energy, minimizing any unnecessary motion while optimizing your control.
It’s a widely used technique across many different genres. Alternate picking enhances both speed and accuracy when playing melodies, solos or any intricate pattern on any type of stringed instrument, not just electric or acoustic guitar. Beyond that, it can contribute to better clarity and articulation since the motion helps to separate notes, avoiding a muddy or blended sound.
Once beginners get used to using upstrokes or downstrokes by themselves, they’ll often add alternate picking to their repertoire. It’s important to really get great at both upstrokes and downstrokes individually first. Once you add alternate picking, you open up more possibilities by increasing your versatility.
It may seem like a “basic” guitar picking technique, but it’s not. It’s the “bread-and-butter” of great playing, evidenced by how many great players use this technique so often.
Sweep picking on a guitar is where a player will use a continuous sweeping motion across the stings to create a cascading effect. It’s easy to confuse this technique with basic strumming, but that’s not exactly what’s happening here. Strumming is used often to play rhythmic chordal progressions on guitar.
Sweep picking, on the other hand, is often used on lead guitar parts and can be heard often in styles like jazz fusion or metal. You’re not playing a guitar chord in a traditional way. You’re playing individual notes in a lead part, but use a sweeping motion with your pick hand to add a cool effect.
You’ve likely heard a tremolo performed so many times in various pieces of music you’ve listened to and not even realized it. A tremolo is basically where a single note (or series of notes) is played or sung in a rapid rhythm.
In guitar playing, tremolo picking is where you use the pick to repeatedly and rapidly strike/pluck a single note (or series) over and over again so it creates a sustained, machine-gun-like, “rapid fire” sound. This adds a lot of intensity and speed to a guitar part or overall song. You hear it most in styles like rock, metal and flamenco music.
Finger Picking (Fingerstyle)
Finger picking is exactly like it sounds – using your individual fingers, instead of a pick, to pluck the strings. Usually guitarists will use any combination of their various fingers to play, including the thumb.
You can pluck the string with either your finger tip or even your finger nail.
Because you’ve got 5 fingers instead of a single pick, this technique allows you to play some really intricate patterns. For instance you can often play a bass note along with a melody or even a harmonic (chord-based) accompaniment.
You’ll see this style of guitar picking in styles like acoustic, folk and classical but it can be used in any genre.
Sometimes guitarists will use what’s called the floating thumb technique where you gently rest your thumb on the low E string of your guitar to allow for quick and efficient finger picking with your other fingers.
Not sure what type of picking to use? Here’s an interesting article on that.
String skipping is exactly what it implies. It’s not so much a technique of picking itself, but more a technique of how you pick the strings. You basically skip over one or more adjacent strings while picking notes. You hear it a lot in rock and progressive genres.
Even though you may think not skipping strings would be easier when picking notes, the idea behind skipping strings is to be able to play interesting intervals or wide, spread out melodic patterns. An interval is essentially the space (in pitch) between two notes. For example, going from a C to a G is known as a perfect fifth interval.
There are two types of picking or striking of strings you can do. On one hand, you could strike a string and let it ring out. On the other hand you could strike the string and try to emphasize the short, abrupt “attack” portion of the note. The attack of a sound is the initial “transient” of a sound that provides the “hard” beginning part of a sound.
You do this by intentionally lifting the pick off the string immediately after striking it. You hear this sound a lot in reggae, jazz and funk styles. It produces a punctuated and articulated sound without a lot of “ring” or resonance.
Fan picking is like regular picking with one big difference. In regular picking you hold the pick between your thumb and index finger, while the rest of your fingers are curled in toward your palm.
In fan picking you still hold the pick like regular (between your thumb and index finger) but the rest of your fingers are “fanned out” away from your palm and away from the guitar. This allows you to have much more precise control over your picking and is great for fast or intricate patterns.
Normally when you hold a pick you’ll grasp it firmly between your thumb and index finger. But you can also use the “floating pick” method where you grip it more loosely.
This way the pick is able to pivot as you’re playing. It can be a useful way of picking when you need more flexibility and have to be adaptable for more difficult pieces of music.
Circular motion picking involved normal picking technique, but the motion of your picking hand moves in a circle around the strings as you pick. This way you’re able to achieve a fluid and smooth motion that’s continuous when picking. Think of the same motion you’d use when rubbing your stomach to indicate you’re hungry or full.
Intermediate & Advanced Techniques
These are some skills that can take your guitar playing to another level. They are a bit more complex than the picking styles we described above, but with some work they can definitely be mastered.
It’s highly recommended you get good enough at basic guitar picking before moving on to these other types of techniques.
Related Content – A Guide to Guitar Pick Thickness
String bouncing is a picking technique that can be used to make fast patterns and solos easier to play by using momentum. You literally let the pick bounce off the string naturally after you strike it. The momentum of the “bounce” can be used to efficiently hit other strings.When you get good at this you can get very fast with an articulated sound.
Tapping is less of a “picking” skill or technique and more of a way of just playing notes in a unique way. It’s essentially where you use the tip of your finger to “tap” on the strings against the fretboard. So really, you’re not actually picking a string at all.
However it can be used in combination with other picking techniques to come up with really interesting guitar parts. You hear a lot of tapping in really fast/intricate guitar parts in rock, metal and fusion music.
Ghost Note Picking
Ghost notes are often played in R&B/Soul and Jazz drumming, but the technique can also be applied to guitar playing. Ghost notes are notes that are played softly/lightly (more muted than normal notes) to add syncopation and complexity to the rhythm of a played part.
You do this by lightly plucking a string with either the pick or your finger, so they’re significantly quieter than the main notes you’re playing. You’re also not letting them ring out fully like normal notes. You’ll sometimes mute the notes with your fingers.
Cross String Picking
Players can use techniques like hammer-ons and hammer-offs to play notes in quick succession.
But you can also use the pick to play a single note on one string and then immediately switch to another string without having to use those other techniques. You’ll often see this used to achieve fluid legato style runs.
Rake Picking is also known as “palm-blocked” picking. It’s similar to the guitar skill of palm muting but is distinct from it.
Raking is where a player will lightly sweep or “rake” the pick across strings to create a more rhythmic or percussive sound, while gently muting or dampening the strings with their palm.
Of course, you don’t have to rest your palm on the strings. You’ll still get a rhythmic sound just by gently raking the strings. But adding the palm will result in a much more muted or dampened sound, if that’s what you’re after.
A double stop isn’t a particularly difficult style of picking to get, but it can be difficult incorporating it into your wider playing if you’re just starting out.
Essentially to do a double stop you simply use the pick to strike two adjacent strings at the same time, playing two different notes at once, instead of just one. You hear it a lot in blues, rock and country to create interesting harmonies or to add texture. It can also mimic two different instruments playing at the same time.
Some may consider this picking style a more basic/beginner style, but we thought we’d put it in our intermediate section. That’s because if you don’t have good basic pick control, it can be hard to effectively hit two strings at once.
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This picking technique involves plucking a string with your pick like normal but then almost immediately using the flesh part of your thumb or picking hand to touch the string.
This technique produces a very high pitched sound that, like it’s name suggests, is very rich in “harmonics.” Harmonics are the additional frequencies that every musical note has within it that is different/distinct from it’s “main” pitch.
These are also called “squealies” since they sort of sound like a squeal. You can hear it done a lot in rock and metal music.
Percussive picking is a way to add some rhythmic complexity to your playing. It involves striking a string very forcefully with your pick in order to create a sound that is more akin to a drum beat, than a string ringing out.
This kind of picking is often employed in acoustic music to help add more rhythm when needed or just to add some more interest to the part being played.
Pick sliding is exactly what it sounds like – you’re using the side edge of your pick to slide across a string to create a unique sound. You’ll often hear this technique used in experimental genres or styles like rock or blues.
This technique can create a cool ambient/atmospheric effect or can be used to provide a unique transition between notes.
If you’re familiar with scratching in a Hip-Hop context, then you can probably guess what this technique does. It produces a scratching sound like a DJ “scratching” vinyl records back and forth rhythmically. You essentially just use your pick across strings to create more of a sound effect than an actual note or chord. Try “scratching” the strings with your picks side/edge.
This picking technique is seen a lot in folk and acoustic music because it’s often done on a banjo. What you do is you use your finger to strike a guitar string in a downward motion. You immediately follow this up with a partial strike with the nail on the back of the finger.
This is usually done with the thumb and produces a percussive and rhythmic sound.
Obviously from it’s name you can tell you’ll hear this technique in a lot of Flamenco music. This picking technique involves using the thumb to rapidly play alternating upstrokes on the thicker bass strings of a guitar. It helps to create a driving rhythm. It can be used in solos and accompaniment.
Compound Guitar Picking Techniques
These next few skills are what we like to call “compound” skills. They are essentially combinations of different picking techniques to add even more intricacy and character to your guitar playing.
Try to master each individual picking technique before trying to master any of these “combo” skills.
Hybrid picking is a combination of traditional picking (with a plastic pick) and finger picking (plucking with your finger tip/nail). This is a great technique to learn when you’re first delving into additional picking skills because it adds some really great dynamics to your playing.
You get a different tone when you use a plastic pick vs. a fingertip or nail. So being able to play both types of tones on your guitar at the same time can come in pretty handy to add something special to a lick or riff.
Guitar players most often use a pick (gripped by the thumb and index finger) in combination with their middle and ring fingers. But if you’ve got a lot of pinky strength, you can add it in as well.
Economy picking is a method of alternate picking combined with sweep picking. The idea here is that you want to “economize” the hand movement of your picking hand across strings. In other words, you don’t want to move farther than necessary to hit the note you’re trying to play.
In practical terms this usually means that you’ll use regular alternate picking but incorporate the sweeping motion above with your picking hand when you’re moving to another string that’s in the same direction of the stroke you just used.
This technique can be hard to learn at first, but allows you to play much more intricate or fast pieces of music.
With crosspicking, what you’re doing is using a flat pick to play a repeating musical pattern across multiple strings.
But while striking the strings you’re using a combination of alternate picking and string skipping, instead of just one of those methods.
This way you can play efficiently and fast while still getting really interesting intervals in your playing.
This can create a “rolling” or flowing type of sound that adds a feeling of speed and complexity to the riff/lick.
The string skipping helps to add more melodic/harmonic complexity to the piece, as well. You hear this technique of a lot in bluegrass and folk music.
Chicken picking is a combo skill that involves many different guitar picking skills in one. It’s a hybrid picking style – so you’re using both finger picking and a plastic pick at the same time. You strike the strings in a very staccato manner.
It differs from “traditional” hybrid picking in one very unique way. Along with the hybrid picking you’re doing, you’re striking the strings using a combination of both open strings and palm muting. This can create some VERY interesting melodies and licks/riffs on the guitar.
Chicken picking is mostly associated with country music and it’s related styles.
Rake Upstrokes / Rhythmic Raking
This technique is a combination of “raking” your strings using a downward sweep, while using an upstroke afterwards to emphasize a particular note or produce an accented sound. You don’t have to only use an upstroke on a single string. It can be done on multiple strings to add that emphasis.
You can hear rake upstrokes in a lot of blues and rock music.
Rhythmic Chord Picking
This technique is a combination of both strumming and picking techniques. You essentially strum a chord while also picking individual notes within the chord. This allows you to create really interesting harmonic patterns with rhythmic variation. It adds texture, dynamics and syncopation to any chord progression.
You don’t have to pick every single string or note. But by selectively picking notes within the chord when also strumming the chord, you can come up with some really cool stuff.
Tapped harmonics picking involves the two techniques of tapping and pinched harmonics. It’s done by lightly tapping a string at a specific node while you also pick the string. These two things are done at the same time and can create interesting “harmonic overtones” while playing.
It’s a “virtuosic” skill that is really meant to show off a guitarists abilities and produces an ethereal sound (but can also produce bell like sounds).
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Frequently Asked Questions
No, a guitar pick isn’t necessary to play the guitar. You can use your fingers to both strum and pick strings on a guitar. But if you want the specific sound/tone that comes from having a hard piece of plastic pluck a string, you will need to use a guitar pick for that.
No one technique for picking or strumming a guitar is “better” than another. Both finger picking and using a plastic pick have their place in guitar playing. They both have their own distinct uses, and they both produce different types of sounds on the guitar. Any great guitarist will be able to play with both a pick and fingers alone.
A guitar pick’s size can impact a few things. It can affect the tone produced by plucking a string, and it can also affect how you play since you’ll hold picks of different sizes slightly differently. When choosing a pick, use one that you feel totally comfortable with in terms of size and feel.
The type or size/thickness of the guitar pick you use really depends on you as a player and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s often a good idea to buy several different sizes and thicknesses of guitar picks and testing them all out while playing. The picks you feel most comfortable with and produce the sound you’re after are the ones you should keep.
The thickness of your guitar pick can make a difference in both how you play and the tone generated from the guitar. You want to choose a thickness that is comfortable for you to handle while still giving you a desired tone. The pick should also make it easy to play the techniques you want to. For example, a thinner pick may be preferable if you’re using a “floating” pick technique.
Obviously there is a lot to playing guitar, and a lot to the different ways you can pick and pluck your strings.
But with this overview of the various ways you can pick a guitar, you now have a good grasp of the major ways to pick a guitar.
Pick a skill or two that you think seems cool and work on it until you’re fairly comfortable. Don’t try to learn or practice too much all at once.
Over time, you’ll be able to master all of these guitar picking techniques and skills.
Next up, we recommend you learn about guitar strumming.
If you really want to become a better guitar player fast, I highly recommend you check out Guitar Tricks (14 Day Free Trial) – they’ve got a TON of in-depth video lessons on everything you could possibly want to learn.
Thanks for reading!
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