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Guitar picking

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Guitar picking

Guitar picking is a collection of techniques for setting a string into motion to produce an audible note; that is, plucking or strumming the strings on a guitar. Picking can be done:-

  • With a plectrum held in the hand.
  • With natural or artificial fingernails, fingertips or finger-mounted plectra known as fingerpicks. These techniques are collectively known as fingerstyle.
  • With a plectrum held between thumb and one finger, supplemented by the free fingers. This is called hybrid picking. The use of a single thumb pick with the bare fingers is similar. Another mixed technique is to play different passages with a plectrum or fingerstyle, "palming" the plectrum when it is not in use.

Comparison of plectrum and finger picking techniques

The pros of each guitar picking style are indirectly correlated to the cons of the other.

Advantages of fingerstyle

Fingerstyle guitar
  • Having a pick isn’t necessary
  • It is possible to play multiple non-adjacent strings at exactly the same time[1]
  • It is more suitable for playing polyphonically, with separate musical lines, or separate melody, harmony and bass, and therefore more suitable to unaccompanied soloing. Fingerstyle players have up to four (very rarely five) surfaces striking the string independently; however, that does not equate to four plectrums, since plectra can strike strings on both an up and a downstroke, which fingers generally cannot.[2]
  • It is easy to play arpeggios
  • No special technique is required to play notes on non-adjacent strings.
  • It is possible to play chords without any arpeggiation.
  • There is no need for fretting hand damping in playing chords, since only the strings that are required can be plucked. This is particularly useful in steel and slide guitar.
  • A greater variation in strokes is possible, allowing greater expressiveness in timbre.
  • A wide variety of strums and rasgueados are possible.
  • It can be applied to almost any genre. Even some rock guitarists use fingerstyle.

Advantages of plectrum picking

Various guitar picks.
  • Fingernails do not have to be maintained.
  • Involves less multi-tasking
  • Picking back and forth with a pick is much easier. Alternate picking is usually the most efficient technique (economy picking is arguably the most efficient technique too, but it is mostly just to personal preference).
  • Tremolo effects are easier to achieve.
  • If a player touches the string with a finger it will be muffled unless done just right and with a larger portion of the finger than would be required from a pick
  • More energy is generally imparted to strings, leading to greater volume when playing acoustically.
  • There is less loss of articulation or clarity when playing fast.
  • Playing on heavier gauge strings can damage nails: fingerstyle is more suited to nylon strings or lighter gauge steel strings (but this does not apply to fingerpicks).

Fingerstyle techniques

Plucking patterns

To achieve tremolo effects, varied arpeggios, and rapid, fluent scale passages, the player must practice alternation, that is, never plucking a string with the same finger twice. Using p to indicate the thumb, i the index finger, m the middle finger and a the ring finger, common alternation patterns include:

  • i-m-i-m Basic melody line on the treble strings. Has the appearance of "walking along the strings".
  • i-m-a-i-m-a Tremelo pattern with a triplet feel (i.e. the same note is repeated three times)
  • p-a-m-i-p-a-m-i A tremolo or apreggio pattern..
  • p-m-p-m A way of playing a melody line on the lower strings.

In some genres, such as folk or country, the player can "lock in" to a picking pattern for the whole song, or even the whole performance, since these forms of music are based on maintaining a steady rhythm.[3] However, in other genres, such as classical, flamenco or fingerstyle jazz it will become necessary to switch fluently between patterns.

Tone production

Particularly close attention is placed on tone production in classical guitar playing, although most of their techniques are applicable to other styles. Classical techniques include:

  • At what position along the string the finger plucks the string (This is actively changed by guitarists since it is an effective way of changing the sound(timbre) from "soft"(dolce) plucking the string near its middle, to "hard"(ponticelo) plucking the string near its end).
  • Use of nail or not. In early music, strings were plucked with the fingertips. However, today almost all concert guitarists use their fingernails (which must be smoothly filed and carefully shaped[4] ) to pluck the string since it produces a sharper clearer sound, and also a better-controlled loud sound. The "use of nail or not" is usually a fixed consistent decision of the player and not varied; the thumb is an exception and might actively be varied between nail [sharper clearer sound] and flesh. Playing parameters include
  • Which finger to use
  • What angle of attack to hold the wrist and fingers at with respect to the strings
  • Rest-stroke or apoyando; the finger that plucks a string rests on the next string—traditionally used in single melody lines—versus free-stroke or tirando, where the string is plucked "in passing".
  • If the string is hit with the top surface of the nail on an upstroke a kind of false harmonic effect is produced.


Some of the many possible fingerstyle strums include

  • A slow upstroke (bass to treble) sweep with the thumb. This is a sforzando or emphatic way of playing a chord.
  • Light "brushing" strokes with the fingers moving together at a near-perpendicular angle to the strings. This works equally in either direction and can be rapidly alternated for a chord tremolo effect.
  • Downstrokes with one finger make a change from the standard upstroke strum.
  • A "pinch" with the thumb and fingers moving towards each other gives a crisp effect. It is helpful to clearly articulate the topmost and bass note in the chord, as if plucking, before "following through".
  • Rasgueado: Strumming typically done by bunching all the plucking hand fingers into a fist and then flicking them out in quick succession to get four superimposed strums. The rasgueado or "rolling" strum is particularly characteristic of flamenco.
  • Turning p-a-m-i tremolo plucking into a series of downstrokes. This is a lighter version of the classic rasgueado, which uses upstrokes.

Varieties of fingerstyle

Plectrum techniques

The problem of playing notes on non adjacent string can be resolved by practicing the technique of string skipping.

In order to achieve speed, plectrum pickers must learn a method of mixing up- and down-strokes.



Flatpicking is a technique for playing a guitar using a guitar pick (also called a plectrum) held between two or three fingers to strike the strings. Although the term is used in other genres and with other instruments, it is probably best known in the context of playing an acoustic guitar with steel strings, particularly in bluegrass music and old-time country music. Probably starting around 1930, flatpicking was developed when guitarists began arranging old-time American fiddle tunes on the guitar, expanding the instrument's traditional role of rhythm guitar accompaniment with an occasional run on the bass strings.

The melodic style in bluegrass is often fast and dynamic, with slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, powerful strumming and rapid crosspicking. Bluegrass flatpickers usually prefer guitars with a flat top rather than an arch top, and steel strings rather than nylon. The archetypal flatpicking guitar is the 'Dreadnought' series made by C.F. Martin & Company.

Alternate picking

Alternate picking is a guitar playing technique that employs strictly alternating downward and upward picking strokes in a continuous run, and is the most common method of plectrum playing. If this technique is performed on a single note at a high speed, then it may also be referred to as tremolo picking.

Sweep picking

Sweep picking is a picking technique in which a 'sweeping' motion of the pick is combined with a matching fret hand technique in order to produce a specific series of notes which are fast and fluid in sound. Despite being commonly known as sweep picking, both hands essentially perform an integral motion in unison to achieve the desired effect.

Economy picking

Frank Gambale is noted for economy picking

A combination of sweep picking and alternate picking, economy picking involves using alternate picking except when changing strings. In this case the guitarist changes to sweep picking, picking in the direction of travel: an upstroke if changing to a lower (pitch) string, a downstroke if changing to a higher (pitch) string.

Gypsy picking

The picking technique of gypsy jazz has been described[5] as similar to economy picking, but performed with rest strokes. For instance, on switching from the G to the B string, the plectrum will move in the same direction and come to rest on the E string. This technique has become associated with Django Reinhardt in the 1930s, but was also employed by plectrum banjo players, mandolinists and many pre-electric jazz guitarists seeking a strong, projecting acoustic sound on their instruments.


La Pompe

La Pompe is the rhythmic pattern used in gypsy jazz. This form of percussive rhythm is similar to the "boom-chick" in bluegrass styles. The first beat is a staccato chord, produced by a down stroke; the fretting hand immediately afterward releases the strings slightly in order to deaden them. The next beat is a percussive strum, produced by a down stroke, while all strings are still deadened by the fretting fingers. The pattern then repeats, but before every first beat, an upstroke is performed very quickly (typically with the strings still deadened), giving the music its heavy swing feel.

Other techniques


Anchoring is a practice in both fingerstyle and plectrum where part of the picking hand, usually the little finger or "pinky" touches the guitar body. Although anchoring is common, many guitar teachers advise against it.[6] The contrary approach is known as "floating".

Hybrid picking

Hybrid picking is mixture of plectrum picking and finger picking. Normally the player holds the pick with thumb and index finger, picking the string, and utilizing the middle and ring finger to finger pick adjacent strings.

Hammer-on and pull-off

Hammer-on is a stringed instrument playing technique performed (especially on fretted string instruments such as guitar) by sharply bringing a fretting-hand finger down on the fingerboard behind a fret, causing a note to sound. This technique is the opposite of the pull-off. Traditionally, this technique is supplemental to conventional picking, being used to achieve legato and ornamentation effects. This is connected to the fact that hammering imparts less energy to a string, so that hammered notes are less audible. With electric instruments, it becomes possible to use these techniques much more extensively.



Tapping is a guitar playing technique, where a string is fretted and set into vibration as part of a single motion of being pushed onto the fretboard, as opposed to the standard technique being fretted with one hand and picked with the other. It is similar to the technique of hammer-ons and pull-offs, but used in an extended way compared to them: hammer-ons would be performed by only the fretting hand, and in conjunction with conventionally picked notes; whereas tapping passages involve both hands and consist of only tapped, hammered and pulled notes. Tapping is used exclusively by some players (such as Stanley Jordan) and on some instruments, such as the Chapman Stick.

See also

  • Ebow A device for activating strings without physical contact.

External links

Essential Picking Techniques

  • How to hold the plectrum
  • Technique: alternate picking
  • Technique: economy picking
  • Technique: tremolo picking


  1. ^ Travis Picking Deconstructed,
  2. ^ Daniel E. Smith, Dansm's Fingerpicking Songs, 5-24-99,
  3. ^ Traum, Happy (1974). Fingerpicking Styles For Guitar. Oak Publications.  
  4. ^ Tennant, Scott (1996). Pumping Nylon. Alfred pub. co.  
  5. ^ Gypsy PickingMichael Horowitz:
  6. ^ What is Anchoring and Why is it Bad.
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