“Universal Truths In Picking Technique” (Part two in a series….)
August 31, 2011

Written by Doug Perkins

(Part 2 in a series)

That worked pretty well for a few years, although I never quite got to the Mahavishnu buzz saw that I would have wanted to have. Then I went to Musician’s Institute (then GIT) and I knew right away I was in the deep end of the pool and it was adult swim. One of the first people I got to know in my class was a guy named Gilles Renne from France, and he had the effortless buzz saw right hand of doom. After a couple of months of being around him, both myself and instructor Ron Eschete decided to switch our right hands based on a couple of sessions with him trying to figure out how he did what he did. What we got out of this is that Gilles used what I call a Rotary Wrist Action (that I will call “RWA” from now on), which I believe to be one of the few UNIVERSAL things that work for all people in right hand picking technique, simply because it takes advantage of how all our bodies are constructed and as such is natural & easy when mastered.

The RWA is easily demonstrated to yourself by something you already know how to do: take a salt shaker and spill a bunch of salt on a table, and then try to whisk it away from your body into an imaginary dust bin in front of you – you are now doing the RWA. Your wrist bone on the lower side of your right hand should be naturally rotating back and forth in an easy quick back and forth motion, and almost as a side effect, turning your right hand back and forth which would easily make a guitar pick into a blur in your grip if it was there.

You can be sure that you’re using a RWA if you see that wrist bone twisting when you are picking – it may be a really small motion, but that’s good, that brings us to the other of our three UNIVERSAL attributes of right hand technique: Economy of Motion (EOM). EOM is just a very logical concept that says that the shorter the distance you have to travel, the faster you can make the trip. Here’s what that looks like in terms of playing the guitar: you want to train your right hand to A) not travel more than a couple pick’s thickness back and forth then you are playing an up-down picking motion on one string, and B) the distance you travel when skipping strings should also be kept to a minimum.

This is of course easier said than done, but the absolute BEST way to make sure that this is happening is to practice slowly enough so you can control your motions to the point that you can repeat accurately these small precise movements until they are second nature, or habits. To make something into a habit, it needs to be repeated the same way many times. OK, there is a certain number but I forget what it is, it could be like 128 times with out a mistake but the point is to NOT PRACTICE MISTAKES because your brain that is recording all of this practice actually DOESN’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISTAKES AND CORRECT ACTIONS. Yes, believe it or not, your brain assumes everything it is asked to do is what you “meant to do”, so don’t ever fall for telling yourself say “I know this isn’t really how to play it, I’m just doing this for now” – you’ll just have to undo it later. But the really good part is that if you can relax that “need to be good right now” that we all have yelling at us all of the time and slow down and get all of this stuff together, you can’t help but get to be fast along the way. Which brings me to another of my little sayings I have made up as I found them to be true: “Speed is the natural byproduct of accuracy”. I was going to say “waste product”, but thought that wouldn’t somehow be as sexy as the other saying 😉

9 responses to ““Universal Truths In Picking Technique” (Part two in a series….)”

  1. ScotGormley says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight on this, Doug. I’ve studied and worked on picking techniques over the years, too, and from age 13 – 19, I exclusively used the George-Benson style technique (even though I didn’t know I was doing that at the time). It had a lot of advantages for playing archtop and acoustic and allowed for me to take advantage of the weight of the pick hand to play economy style (continuous downstrokes when moving from low strings to high). The RWA comes into play in this technique, for sure. Over the years, I’ve worked on a variation of the technique that works well for rock/fusion/blues. It involves damping unused strings–sort of like what Adam Rogers does. I find that I generally go back to a more traditional right hand position for most rock playing, though, and when I really get into sweep picking (both up and down sweeping, like Frank Gambale), I definitely use a more traditional hand position with the thumb bend pretty far forward (opposite of Benson technique). I think it’s very possible/practical to cultivate and develop several techniques; I try to keep a really open mind about this.

    • Doug Perkins says:

      I think if someone can use different picking grips, etc. and have it not create confusion / hesitation etc and the flow from idea to execution is never effected, then I think that’s great. I used to see a guy named Charles Icarus Johnson play with George Duke in the 70s/80s, and he used to have a completely different grip and technique that he would use depending on the tempo he was trying to play, etc. He was a great player in terms of what he played, but that always seemed awkward to me and that he really needed to just fond something that worked no matter what and stay with that, which is what’s been motivating me over the years. I still need to do some more shedding to get the sweep picking to happen with the locked thumb thing, but I guess if need be I could use a different technique for sweeping, but Id really rather just keep slogging it out with the locked thumb for that before I made the decision to use two techniques. But like I said, it you are getting the results you want from having multiple techniques, the by all means use them all 😉

  2. Doug Perkins says:

    Speaking of people who go against the norm in right hand technique, here’s this new guy Mike Moreno, who it looks like holds his pick with his thumb and second finger – must be easy to get harmonics 😉 It “shows to go ya” that it’s not about the technique you use, it’s about the inner music, which will find a way to come out no matter what if it’s great – check it out (but you STILL see the RWA happening here):


    • ScotGormley says:

      Mike Moreno is a recent discovery for me. Love his sound and conception. I’ve always really like the ambient delay/reverb sounds of Frisell/Metheny/Goodrick, and Mike uses that very well.

      Have you checked out Tom Guarna, by any chance? He has a fantastic balance of Holdsworth legato and straight-ahead playing.

      • Doug Perkins says:

        Hi Scot, I will definitely check out Tom, I like the same ambient sort of Frisell etc. stuff and so am a Moreno fan as well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some videos from him show up here some day either 😉

  3. scott says:

    This is better than sliced bread. Thanks much for your very specific and well created context-based instruction. Armed with the awareness of harmony and diatonic theory, it becomes increasingly easy to deduce and to perceive how each example given can be used and applied in/against many chord and scale/mode applications. You have brought together the right instructors who are more than capable of showing the audible pictures necessary to create expressions in music using the many pieces of the musical puzzle so many leave out or fail to present in all of the proper and well thought out musical contexts. Thanks for bringing it on these levels of education.

  4. Doug Perkins says:

    Hey Scott, We really appreciate this comment, as this is pretty much exactly what we are trying to do – I’m going to send your comment out in an email to all of the teachers, it will mean a lot to them 😉

  5. Kalyan says:

    Quoting your words again-“to practice slowly enough so you can control your motions to the point that you can repeat accurately these small precise movements until they are second nature, or habits.” I can say it with utmost confidence, that this is what every player needs to focus on, apart from the dynamics of picking and proper right hand position!:)

    • Doug Perkins says:

      I apologize on the late response to this, this is the post that we get a lot of spam on – you are completely correct, for me as a left handed person playing right handed, I really have to focus a lot on this part of playing 😉 Doug

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