“Universal Truths In Picking Technique” (Pt1 in a series)
August 21, 2011

Written by Doug Perkins

“Universal Truths In Picking Technique” (Part one in a series….)
I got a call this morning from a Musician’s Institute alumni who I had been talking to on Face Book and had remembered from when I was teaching there years ago. He had seen me writing on FaceBook (yes, I’m there probably too often) about a right hand picking technique change over that I was in the final conversion to, and being frustrated with his own right hand technique problems, he wanted some advice. At the end of about 45 minutes, he felt that he was given a lot of insight into a problem that had plagued him for many years, and suggested that I blog about it, so I decided that maybe my own years of struggle in the same area could help some others so decided to do it.

He had told me that while at MI he had tried to learn the fabled “circle picking” that Howard Roberts used to give him his speed, which is a technique where the joints in the right thumb twist the pick in a rotating circular motion, first hitting the string with the front left, then the back right, the front right, then the back left sides of the pick to give four fast stokes – it’s complicated to describe for sure, and I had certainly never been able to do it for the few frustrating times I had tried. I’ve always paid close attention to how guitarists physically do what they do, and so I had figured out why I couldn’t do it as well, as I told him this morning: “Howard Roberts was double jointed in his thumb, that’s why he could do that and you can’t.”

Howard’s circle picking was something that he and a small amount of people could do due to how their bodies were unique to the human race, it was not something that you could teach to someone who’s body wasn’t made to work in that way. This was sort of a revelation to him, which led us to one of the few worthwhile things to talk about in the mystical topic of right hand technique, that being the few UNIVERSAL things that are true to work for every player – because for every unique way that I have seen a guitar player find to squeeze music out of his instrument, only a few things are universal and will work for everyone.

You should all know that I am a left handed person that tried playing guitar both ways and decided to play “right handed” – I put that in quotes because it really doesn’t matter that much in that one hand or another is going to be hard, and it’s for that reason that you never hear about a “left handed piano player” (OK, I know Joe Zawinul reversed the keyboard on one of his synthesizers to make it easier to play some of the two handed parts he played live, but you know what I mean). To me, the left hand was where the actual notes were, and so I just resolved myself to do the best I could with my other hand. Unfortunately, I could see right-handed guitarists starting to be able to do some things that I couldn’t do, so I looked for ways for the left hand to take up the slack for the right hand.

So through the years of playing the guitar, I have been through four big right hand picking change-overs. I started out holding the pick with my thumb and two fingers, (very much like Pat Metheny, but playing with the tip and not the rounded end) but I know for a fact that what I whatever I was doing was creating a strain in the muscles of my right hand and fore arm. I definitely had speed walls that I could not get through, and when in the summer before I went to Berklee I cut the nerve below my left little finger in an accident with a beer glass (never mind), I decided to take advantage of the month my left hand was in a cast after the (successful) nerve graft operation by switching over my right hand technique to one finger and the thumb with less strain. When the cast came off I could play pretty much right away better than before, as I had done lots of string skipping work outs and tremolos of every kind I could imagine all month.
(To be continued….)

2 responses to ““Universal Truths In Picking Technique” (Pt1 in a series)”

  1. Bill Kennedy says:

    Hi Doug,

    I think you might be mistaken regarding Howard Roberts’ picking technique. I attended several of his seminars, and the “circle picking” technique he demonstrated was not as you describe. It’s also described in his “Howard Roberts Guitar Book” (with the red cover)on pages 14 and 16. I can send you a scan, if you like. He didn’t appear to have a double-jointed thumb, either. See the video:

  2. Doug Perkins says:

    Thanks Bill – but I look at this video and at 0:03 I see his bone that goes from the wrist to the first joint in the thumb jump up as he is playing, that’s the part that he is double jointed in. I have that book and will look it over, but I’ve only seen a few people be able to do this, and they’ve all done it with some kind of thumb motion that I know my hand won’t do. I have things that I can do effortlessly as well, and I know they are just the way my body is made, I’ve never been able to teach them to other people. I think that’s the real point here, to go with your strengths. I know Howard’s son Jay pretty well, and I don’t think he can do this picking either 😉 I just got off a Skype call with a guy that will be doing a right hand technique masterclass for us soon based on a new book he is doing, this will be great so watch for it 😉

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