Experiments in Picking

I’ve been doing more experimenting than practicing the past few days. Then again, experimentation is also a form of practice, no?

In my last post I talked a bit about my issues manipulating a pick. I mentioned having tried a vast variety of types and sizes (variety packs are awesome for a beginner), but still being categorically bad at it. Once you put a pick in my hand, things get pretty tragic. I have a recurring issue with the pick getting caught on the strings on the upstroke. Moving to a smaller pick (like a jazz pick) just makes me even clumsier. A thin pick isn’t the solution either, because the sound of a thin pick on the strings sort of grates on my nerves, and there are a whole host of other rookie issues it doesn’t solve, anyway. Clearly, there’s a bigger problem than just using the wrong pick going on.

So, I’ve been spending time with and without the pick to try and sleuth out what the heck I’m even doing that bare-fingered, I can play my new tune (Hurricanes), but hand me a pick and I can’t get through the first verse without effing it up.

And, I’ve been spending some time without the pick, trying out some blatantly pick driven styles and techniques for pretty much the same reason, just to collect data and try to figure out what I’m doing differently both ways to create a difference so noticeable.

It does stand to reason I would be better without a pick than with one at this stage, really, since I play uke without a pick; I just have more experience without one than I do with one. On guitar, the gesture is bigger, but the basic hand movement is the same (at least insofar as we’re talking about the way I strum). And, that comparison actually brought my attention to my first issue.

When playing without a pick, I strum the same basic way I do on uke, with some minor adjustments made for scale and extra strings. When playing with a pick, I don’t. There are two differences here, one of them is easily rectified now that I know I’m doing it. The other is a bit more subtle.

1) Once you put a pick in my hand, I apparently forget that my wrist is not made of stone. When I strum with just my hand my arm makes a movement a bit like turning a doorknob. Fluid, but there’s definitely a slight twisting motion. But, put a pick in my hand and suddenly I’m doing something closer to chopping vegetables-my elbow is moving my arm up and down, but the rest of my hand is acting like it’s been dipped in concrete. Oops.

2) I’m actually hitting the strings with a different part of my hand, which may be messing with my strumming. I tend to strum with my hand curled into a relaxed half-fist. This is just my most neutral hand position, so it’s the one least prone to tension. The result of that, I’ve observed, is that people can’t actually tell what finger is doing the strumming when they stare at my hand unless I tell them, but I can tell you that my middle finger is doing most of the work. I just find it a comfortable, versatile position, which I’ve apparently translated pretty directly to the guitar. The thing here is, once you add a pick, the part of the hand I’m used to doing the most work, so to speak, has been benched. Now, it’s the thumb and index finger that are doing the work, and they have a little bit farther to go. I suspect this means I’m mucking up a lot because I need a slightly elongated hand motion when using a pick compared to the one I use when I don’t. It appears I’ve developed a wee bit of muscle memory for that middle finger strumming, and my hand doesn’t want to remember holding a pick means my stroke has to be approximately 1 fingertip longer. I wonder if this has something to do with why the pick tends to fumble on the upstroke (because the downstroke isn’t quite finished when I start to come back up). I’m going to have to study that a bit more closely to say that with any certainty.

Next problem is how firmly to hold the darn thing. Too loose, and it turns around in my fingers, compelling me to use my middle finger as well as my ring finger to keep it stable. But, too firm and it gets caught on the strings. I have not yet been able to find the balance between the two that makes the darn thing just behave itself and do its job. I have one pick – a wood one- with an indentation in it for the thumb which helps stop the thing from turning around on me, but again, that’s only a workaround for one of my various picking problems. I still get hung up on the strings.

From there, I moved on to trying some very rock-style stuff without the pick. The first thing that came to mind was power chords, so I decided to pop in Rocksmith and experiment a bit in the Castle Chordead game (basically, you play power chords to zap zombies). The first try wasn’t great. It was making my fingers hurt. You might say that’s why a pick is used, but my fingers are completely unbothered strumming on both uke and acoustic guitar, so there’s got to be a reason for the difference, and that reason is usually tension or a bad angle, so I decided to try again, focusing in trying to keep my hand in the same position (or at least a similar one) to the one I strum in. Coming down on the string with my nail was obviously causing discomfort, but I never do that when I strum, so why was I doing it here?

I suspected the game tones were at least part of the problem. The Castle Chordead game uses a very distorted, wobbly sort of tone (for effect, I suppose), which just isn’t as audible for purposes of seeing if you’re getting a chord right. As a result, I suspected I might be hitting the strings way harder than I needed to in order to get a good sound.

With that in mind, I got out of Rocksmith for a few minutes and grabbed my headphone amp to test power chords both ways (pick and no pick). As suspected, there was no need to hit the chords as hard as I was in the rocksmith game to get a good sound out; that’s the amp’s job. It just happens the power chord game in rocksmith’s guitarcade is not doing me any favors. Still, listening to the difference between pick and no pick on power chords through the headphone amp tells me it’s absolutely possible to play power chords effectively without a pick. Should you? Well, who knows? I imagine that’s very much up to personal preference, and I’m not adept enough yet to have any opinion on the matter, but I’m still glad I experimented a bit with the difference, and gave my ears some data to chew on.

From there, knowing that Rocksmith’s quiet and distorted amplification in that part of the program was playing tricks on me, I plugged back in and got back to it, accepting that, for the most part, I’d be playing deaf, relying on the acoustic sound coming from my electric guitar to tell me what the game wasn’t doing efficiently, and not forcing myself to strum too firmly to compensate for a lack of volume and clarity.

It went…okay. But, I won’t be writing to brag about it any time soon. I do want to experiment with this part of Rocksmith more, both with and without a pick, for comparative purposes, to really get a feel for both ways and figure out what feels better to me, but I don’t think I’ll be able to draw any conclusions either way until I’m better at power chords in general, which I’m not going to have down until my basic technique improves. Between my pick problems and a slightly rebellious thumb, that could be a while.

As far as that pick getting caught on the upstroke, part of it is that is likely slight angle we beginners tend to hold the guitar at to see what we’re doing. I’m trying to be more conscious to keep the guitar completely vertical, but I do catch myself holding it on a veerrry slight tilt often enough that I can’t rule out that as being part of the picking problem as well. Sometimes, I just need to look at the strings to figure out where I am, or my posture goes a little lax, causing a bit of trouble with consistency.

And, of course, with a pick, I’m still fairly heavy handed, which is a problem I only seem to have (at least to the extremity of talking about it) with a pick. I wonder if this calls back to my earlier statement about my stone-arm picking, or if it’s something else entirely. It may be a while before I can answer that question.

So, I went off to googling – for the umpteenth time – how to hold a pick. I was watching some subbed anime tonight, and noodling with different positions while working at it, and I realized almost any position was an improvement on the one that the internet taught me, so there had to be something about the lesson that wasn’t right. I looked at a lot of images and saw right away that most of them had a pick position sitting more around the first knuckle. Why then, when I was originally looking up this information were the lessons placing the pick closer to the 2nd knuckle? I don’t know (more secure? Doubtful, since I can’t keep it stable that way, and on top of it the hand sits more like a fist – not a very chill hand position if you ask me.) So the mad googling led me to this lesson (fast forward to about the 5 minute mark – up to that point he’s just showing off and yammering):


A lot of this is kind of redundant and pointless information when all you want to see is what the lesson is titled: ‘HOW TO HOLD AND USE A GUITAR PICK’. If that’s all you care about, as that’s all I cared about, you’re going to spend most of the video sighing and thinking ‘just get to the damn point’. That said, he eventually says something that clarifies a part of my problem (wohoo! 12 minutes of my life not wasted for nothing! About 15 seconds of it was what I was actually looking for).

I’m too lazy to figure out the exact time stamp for you, but at one point he mentions when holding the pick that your thumb should overlap. Overlap as in stick out past the end of the pick. Well, shit. I definitely have not been doing that. So, I tried it out. It does seem more stable and less wiggly, which does seem to prevent me from getting stuck on that up strum, at least so far (note: trial period was brief. Between gym, watching a short film/eating dinner, guitar, ukulele, and writing this post, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on it yet, so may very possibly change my mind about everything I’m saying once I get to experiment with it more. There’s really no telling what might happen as I continue to work through it.). I’m not sure I’m sold on is ‘a-ok’ hand gesture. I mean, I get the purpose of it. I understand why he’s teaching it that way. That hand gesture is almost guaranteed to keep your other fingers out of the way, but I don’t know that it seems strictly necessary, or that I feel that sticking them out is categorically better than curling them in. It just seems that’s got very little to do with technique and a heck of a lot to do with personal preference based on what’s most comfortable for a specific person’s hand. I don’t know, maybe I’ll change my mind as I continue to experiment with it. And, maybe I’m just a bit irritated at sitting through 11.5 minutes of video more than was needed to explain the concept. Whatever.

In any case, I’ve made some progress with my picking through experimentation and research, but it’ll probably be a long while before I strum with a pick half as well as I do with my bare fingers.

Until Next Time, my guitar practice is a bit more like science than music this week.

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