Unusual Ways to Improve Your Guitar Picking

Jim Josselyn

Have you reached a plateau in your guitar picking? Are you getting a bit frustrated with your technique and need a few outside the box ideas to get you to the next level? The following six ideas will help you see guitar picking in a new way. With a little good old-fashioned hard work, you will see results rather quickly.

Printable Examples

In the exercises that follow, some have examples you can find in the printable below. To print, click on the image. If you need help, consult LoveToknow's Guide for Adobe Printables.

1. Visualize

Visualization is a proven success technique for almost any endeavor. The guitar is simply a tool and a means to an end, in this case for creativity and artistic self expression. Chances are, you are probably already a bit obsessed - in a good way - with music. So when you are walking your dog, watching TV, or doing almost anything besides actually playing the guitar, you can improve your picking technique.

  1. To start, visualize the patterns in Example 1 of the printable.
  2. See yourself fretting them, see yourself picking them and perhaps most importantly, hear them. Hear and see yourself playing them faster, with more precision and more confidence. Don't worry if anyone sees you; actually do the finger motions on that dog walk or on the couch watching TV.
  3. The next time you are at the guitar perform them flawlessly, just as you saw and heard them in your mind. Incorporate these new ideas into your playing as soon as possible. Visualizing will help you improve your picking, the main mechanism by which you produce sound, by thinking and seeing the guitar everywhere.

2. Don't Play Guitar Music

It's true. Not playing guitar music is a way to improve your guitar picking. One reason instrumentalists can easily fall into a rut regarding their progress is they tend to play the same types of music, all created for their own instrument, over and over. Example 2 of the printable is an excerpt from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic masterpiece Flight Of The Bumble Bee.

  1. Play each note cleanly and improve speed gradually.
  2. Learn the entire piece.
  3. Then go on to master exercises for violin, flute, clarinet, piano, and more.
  4. Try music in different genres, such as the jazz saxophone solos of masters like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. When you can pick advanced musical phrases like that on the guitar cleanly, correctly, and at the tempo Coltrane and Parker played them, your guitar picking will improve a great deal.

3. Do All Down, All Up, and Alternate Picking

When you play that difficult passage from The Flight Of The Bumble Bee or that crazy jazz sax solo you just got into, try it three different ways:

  • Only using downstrokes
  • Only using upstrokes
  • Using alternate picking.

Notice the difference and difficulty presented by each. Push yourself and see if you can do the all up or all down exercises as quickly and correctly as the alternate picking. This will feel a bit unnatural and force you out of a picking comfort zone, therefore improving your picking.

4. Play Finger Style Guitar Music With a Pick

Play finger style guitar music "incorrectly," just don't tell your teacher or professor! Example 3 of the printable is a chord arpeggio pattern in a style often favored by folk, rock, or classical guitarists.

  1. Playing acoustic guitar
    Play this example with your pick.
  2. If you already have finger style "chops," play this and any other piece you play finger style with a pick.
  3. Experiment with use of up, down, and alternate picking.
  4. Increase your speed until you can play these pieces as well with a pick as you can with your fingers.

Changing your mindset on how you play finger style pieces and playing them only with a pick will improve your picking.

5. Use Heavier Strings and Heavier Picks

Guitar players often use light gauge strings, usually .09 or .10 for the high E string, for a variety of reasons. If they play in a rock or blues rock style, they might feel lighter strings are easier to bend. The vibrato and crying sound produced by bending the "blue notes" is a main element of those genres. Some guitarists might prefer the tone a lighter gauge string produces. For example, if you want and need to improve your picking, go to a higher gauge string and a much heavier pick. Experiment with string sets with .13 for the high E string and try a really large custom pick made from glass, for instance. These changes allow you to get more sound with less effort, which will greatly improve your playing. Your hands will be much stronger, and your technique and sound will be better than ever.

6. Displace Your Octaves

One of the reasons your picking speed, technique, and accuracy reach a wall is that guitarists not only play the same types of things, those same types of things you play all sit on the guitar in pretty much the same exact way. In other words you play a simple melody, scale, or arpeggio idea on adjacent strings. Once you have a basic picking level, these commonplace phrases are very easy to play. Example 4 of the printable is the chromatic scale with the octaves "displaced." Not only is this a really interesting sound, and something classical composers like Bach used (see the middle section of his Minuet in D Minor), it's hard to play, much less pick cleanly. Forcing yourself to play and pick cleanly "across" many strings will greatly improve your picking.

Putting It All Together

These six ideas will stimulate your mind and your ears and get your fingers moving is new directions. Listen to different guitarists and different styles of music. Compose a piece that challenges your picking to the max. Approach improving at guitar like anything else, in the "beginners mind," and you are already succeeding!

Unusual Ways to Improve Your Guitar Picking