Good News and Bad News
First, the good news: You can develop fast picking speed on guitar, if you have fully functioning limbs and a desire to succeed. More great news: you do not have to practice eight hours a day to develop this skill. However, improving your guitar technique very often requires you to work on refining some seemingly “simple” (fundamental) parts of your playing. For many this may seem like “bad news”, because practicing such basics doesn’t seem “fun” (no matter how effective it may be), and so those who ignore such advice often continue to struggle without knowing the reason why.
If you have been practicing your picking technique for awhile but haven’t yet seen the results you were hoping for, then this article will help you with improving four very important areas of picking that most guitarists struggle with. This is not a complete list of possible challenging elements of guitar picking technique (I will address more of them in a future article), but you will improve your picking speed on guitar by following the advice from this article.
I will describe below several very common problems that many guitarists have (and that I have had also in the past) with their picking speed. I will also show you how you can apply the advice I give in this article to your playing.
If you want me to show you on video how to correctly practice and apply the ideas in this article to improve your guitar picking speed, watch a (totally free) guitar picking speed video lesson at my website that is available to my free newsletter subscribers. Otherwise, I will do my best to explain these technical points to you using text alone.
Using a Thin Pick
All great guitar players prefer different picks in terms of size, shape and material (this is largely a matter of preference). However all of the fastest guitarists use very thick picks (at least 1mm thick, and in some cases 2 mm or more is used). Picks that are thinner than 1mm can be fine for strumming chords and other types of playing, but they won’t work for playing fast. They simply aren’t strong enough to handle very fast playing. Because the pick bends when you play a note, it takes an extra fraction of a second for it to come back to its natural point of “rest” and these accumulated delays (from each pick stroke) add up and make it impossible to play really fast.
So if you are analyzing the type of pick you are using, remember that the most important dimension of your pick is its thickness, rather than its size, shape, tip, or the material it is made out of. Of course, these other things are also important, but they make a much smaller impact on your overall progress in building guitar picking speed than thickness does.
Angling the Pick in an Non-efficient Way for Speed Picking
Although there is clearly more than one correct way to angle the pick for playing on the guitar, when it comes to building speed, some ways are “more right” than others. If your pick isn’t angled correctly towards the headstock of the guitar, then you end up using much more picking motion than is necessary to play (which of course limits your maximum guitar speed). The angle of the pick to the strings determines how easy it will be for your pick to slice through the strings and how much extra movement will result from each pick stroke. Many guitarists hold the pick too close to perpendicular on the strings and make the playing more difficult for themselves than it needs to be.
For maximum speed, the appropriate pick angle needs to be about 45 degrees towards the head of the guitar, but almost no angle at all up and down (in relation to the strings). Angling the pick too far up or down will make one type of pick stroke (upstroke or downstroke) easier to play and the other more difficult to play. This works fine for sweep picking or rhythm guitar playing, but for regular picking through scales, the angle needs to be more neutral (since both upstrokes and downstrokes occur with much greater frequency).
Of course there are many variations for the ways you can angle the pick which work great for specific musical contexts, and of course there are some really fast players who hold the pick differently from what I wrote above (Shawn Lane being one very famous exception, among several others). However, the vast majority of the fastest players do follow the approach above, and if you are still struggling with your own picking technique, I recommend highly applying it to your playing, because it is one of the methods that has been proven to work for a lot of really great players.
If you are not 100% clear on what I wrote above about angling your pick, watch this free guitar picking video lesson and my explanations there will help you to see clearly what proper picking angles should look like for fast picking.
Not Holding the Pick Firmly Enough or Holding It Too Tightly
Many guitar players mistakenly think that they need to hold the pick very lightly in order to pick fast. The reality is that if you do this, your pick will likely fall out of your hand as you speed up. On the other extreme, if you attempt to grip it too tightly, your entire arm will become so tense that you will not be able to play well (or play fast). Rather than thinking about how much pressure to apply to the pick, find a position where the pick does not move at all in your hand, while at the same time you don’t have to apply a lot of pressure to hold it in place.
One of the ways of doing this is to overlap your thumb over the pick as you are holding it. This will keep the pick very secure in your hand and won’t require a lot of pressure to hold it in place.
Also, I have found that using a large pick helps with finding the ideal way to hold it without applying a lot of extra force to do so and I recommend trying this out yourself.
Not Playing with Good Articulation
This problem comes from the belief that you must play with “as little tension as possible all the time” in order to play fast. As a result, many guitarists develop the habit of picking everything with a very light touch and when they try to play faster, they are able to apply even less power to each note. This means that the faster you play, the less your playing is heard. Eventually you will reach a speed where your pick doesn’t even make contact with the string.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem is rather simple. You need to begin putting greater focus in to this area of your playing even when you practice slowly, and you will see great results. Remember also that the goal isn’t just to “pick the strings harder”, but you also need to avoid accumulating tension in your picking hand as you play. This is possible to do by consciously relaxing before and after playing each note. If you want to learn more about this idea, watch this video about building guitar speed.
Most of the truly great virtuoso players have the ability to playing fast and articulate at the same time…here is a short list of a few names. Listen to their playing and compare the sound of their pick attack to yours:
- Paul Gilbert
- Yngwie Malmsteen
- Rusty Cooley
- Shawn Lane
- Al DiMeola
It doesn’t matter if you like their style of playing or not (since the topic here is strictly about guitar picking technique). Listen to how strong their pick attack is, even when they play fast. If you can detect a noticeable difference between their articulation and yours, then you have identified a very important source of your frustrations with your picking speed.
Think carefully about the points in this article and apply them to your playing. You will see great results when you do!
If you are unclear about any part of what I explained above and want to see me do it on video, watch this free guitar picking video lesson on my website that I send to all my newsletter subscribers.