Friday, October 9, 2009

How to hold a pick

The plectrum. The little device we use to coax sounds out of strings can present quite a few problems to the aspiring picker. I know it presents several to me. Solving those problems is largely a matter of mindfulness of muscle tension (sound familiar), a good deal of time, and a careful approach to practice. Over the last 7 years I've spent many an hour just figuring out how to hold the thing and I'm sure I'll spend many more trying to further refine my technique. Here's what I've learned.

  • There's no right way

I've researched all the best players I could think of and they all hold the pick differently. Tony Rice, Eddie Van Halen, Chris Thile, Robben Ford. All a little different. For example, Eddie Van Halen holds the pick with his middle finger and thumb. Not many players do that. Les Paul would glue some kind of velcro to his pick to help with grip. Not many do that.

  • Strive for a relaxed grip

This could be the most important thing I can tell you. Chris Thile has described his grip on the pick as being so loose as almost to the point of dropping it. That's good advice when you consider what he can do with a mandolin. Watch him at work:

Now watch Tony Rice who has a totally different technique:

Each player is trying to achieve a different feel and sound and therefore has a little bit different way to hold the pick. Thile is going for a smooth Legato run of notes. Rice is going for an almost strumming kind of style and is very syncopated with his picking style. He uses his thumb in an unusual ways to grab those notes.

However, they both are relaxed.

  • Experiment with different picks
There's so many picks to choose from these days it can be overwhelming. In your search for good tone you'll need to try out a lot of different shapes and sizes. For years I played a dunlop .75. Then I switched and I went through a .5 phase. Then I started trying to play with big heavy mandolin picks. Now I'm playing custom made picks crafted by Gary Wagner in Seattle and they're perfect for me. As my technique has evolved so has my pick choice. Be open to experimenting and trying new picks.

  • Practice
Well yeah! But practice what? Really what's not to practice. Practice scales and really focus on a smooth right hand picking motion. Practice strumming and focus on a smooth even motion with the right hand. Just pick one string with no left hand and try to develop a fluid economical motion with your pick. Every time you pick up the instrument think about your picking style and refine it. Eventually it will become natural.

Hope it helps.

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