Questions About Picking
Tuck Andress
2/24/01 - updated 2/24/01
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1/4/00 (posted 2/24/01) Tuck,

Your treatise on picking technique piqued the interest of several "flatpickers", myself included, over on flatpick-l. I am experimenting with your "Benson Style" method. It is very fast and smooth, but the tone is muted. How do you achieve clarity with this style? Do you have an info on your web site about left hand technique?

You can control how muted it is by how far off the axis of the string the pick is rotated; the smaller the angle between the line of the string and the plane of the pick, the sharper the attack. It only takes a few degrees off axis to lessen the resistance, with minimal sacrifice in tone. Of course, playing electric, I could always compensate with EQ anyway. If you're playing acoustically, you'll have to do it with pick orientation.

Sorry, no info yet on left hand technique except the general notes about staccato. I find it more complicated to break down and a little harder to specifically describe, even to myself.

Best wishes!

Tuck

1/31/00 (posted 2/24/01) i honestly found your article on right hand technique to be the most informative piece of instructional guitar literature that i have ever had the privelege of reading. i enjoyed it a great deal. i never realized that the style of picking that i just naturally employed was that of mr. benson, and was the one that you considered superior. i also never realized that the translational method was limiting me speedwise.

i have a few questions regarding oscillation and rotational picking styles. the main trouble that i encounter with them is making a small enough stroke to alternate pick at high speeds without tensing up a great deal in my forearm. additionally, the methods feel so unbelievably foreign for anything but strumming (which is what, i discovered, i normally used these techniques for). when trying to alternate pick fast on a single string, i ultimately end up reverting to translational when the tension becomes too great, result of me not being able to make a small enough stroke comfortably. any advice or help suggestions here?

for the record, i'm a 15 year old guitarist whose dream is to oneday be able to make a career in music.

Hi! I will necessarily shoot in the dark a little here, and hope to hit something. My four suggestions would be:

(1) Find videos of Carlos Santana, who uses the same technique, which might be easier to find than Benson, and see what insights studying him might bring. (2) Experiment with the angled picking plane, which potentially solves many problems at once. (3) In many cases I find that working on the opposite of the problem solves the problem. In this case that means making exaggerated, unnecessarily big strokes (in practice) and working them up to speed comfortably. In the process the smaller strokes may solve themselves. (4) Keep your eyes open for a time when we are playing nearby where you could come, and let me know in advance. I'll arrange for you to come backstage, and see if I can help more by actually watching you pick. Otherwise there is just too much guesswork on my part. I'll be glad to do this if you can come sometime; just let me know.

Looking at it another way, I have seen players (including Benson at times) play unbelievably fast with translation. Nonetheless, I believe they do this by willing themselves to overcome the deficiencies of translation, rather than by taking advantage of the way the hand and arm are constructed. The point: All other things being equal, your body will probably support you better using oscillation/rotation, and you will probably be able to do more with it in the long run. Note that I hedge my bets by saying "probably." There surely could be exceptions to this generalization. At your age, and given how serious you obviously are, it would be worth exploring and coming close to mastering several approaches, as I did, just to discover for yourself as well as to become very flexible. I remember spraining my right wrist at one point, and the cast absolutely ruled out rotation and oscillation. It was good that I was flexible!

Thanks for the nice words about the article. I admire how articulate your writing is. Good luck; I hope your dream comes true manyfold.

5/30/00 (posted 2/24/01) I read Tuck's treatise on right hand technique, and Aaaarrghh! He nailed some of the things I've been struggling with for longer than I care to admit. I got to thinking about George Bensons approach as described there, went home at lunch, and tried it out. Result, the mechanics of wrist and arm motion are much easier and more natural, but the pick spins around like a top between my fingers--sort of like when I first started playing (longer ago than I care to admit).

Thanks, I think.

Hi! That was the same problem I had. It was pretty embarrassing. I found the answer was to drastically, unnaturally exaggerate the pressure on the pick by the thumb and finger. Push it to its extreme short of cramping your hand. Make yourself learn to relax the rest of your hand and body, which will all want to tense up but don't have to, while maintaining this tremendous tension in thumb and finger, and force yourself to play some music that way. Pretend that your thumb, finger and pick were carved out of a single piece of very hard, completely inflexible material and grafted onto the rest of your hand, and now you're stuck wanting to play the guitar. You'll really have to make the rest of your hand and body relax in order to get a decent feel and not sound brutal. Then, when you back off to a more reasonable grip, but still more secure and consistent than what you're doing now, it will be easy (easier) to stay relaxed yet always control the pick. The primary benefit is pick control. The collateral benefits will be greater hand strength, more relaxed feel, more flexibility and opportunity to focus on upper body relaxation. Another approach is to use your middle finger on the pick as well, like Carlos Santana, but I think it is better to get total control from index finger alone, then you can choose to add the middle finger as a matter of taste or even whim, rather than out of necessity. Good luck; let me know if this helps.

Best wishes,

Tuck

6/2/00 (posted 2/24/01) (The same person as above) I wrote a couple of days ago about George Benson's pick technique. You were kind enough to answer and give me some useful advice. I just thought I'd give you an update, since you seem to be interested in how people adapt to this approach.

I mentioned before that when I first tried this approach the pick spun around in my fingers. I tried your suggestion, and it worked so well that now, only two days later, I hardly even think about it any more. Occasionally, if the pick shifts or catches on a string I focus for a couple of minutes on stiffening my thumb, tightening my grip, relaxing my wrist and upper body, and paying attention to the angle at which the pick is striking the strings.

Every now and then I switch back to the old way of doing things for comparison's sake. Here's what I've found so far.

For the past 3 year I've been playing almost exclusively on a acoustic steel-string flat top. Over the past couple of days I've found that George Benson's approach gives me more control over the sound. I can really dig in and get much better volume; I can influence the attack and emphasize different frequency ranges by adjusting angle at which the pick crosses the string. This has become very easy to do, and I can foresee that within a few weeks the adjustment will become fairly automatic depending on what kind of sound I want. Switching back to the old grip I get much less volume and very little control of timbre and dynamic range.

Cross picking using GB's grip is much easier and more natural. That was the first big improvement I noticed in terms of ease and fluidity. Occasionally I'll run into a phrase that at first feels more awkward using the GB grip, but if I slow down and pay attention to what my body is doing I soon am able to smooth it out and bring it up to speed.

Overall, it seems that using George Benson's way of holding the pick, with a little more practice the right hand will no longer be an impediment to playing musically and with fluidity at any tempo. The body mechanics feel much more natural. I could kick myself for not trying this before.

I'm sending you this glowing testimonial, partly because I was very skeptical that this would make any difference in my playing without months of retraining through patient, careful practice. I tried it out of curiosity and a funny sense that it might feel better. I fully expected to come to the conclusion that while it is an interesting approach I wouldn't be willing to go through the pain of making the change. Contrary to that expectation, the change is proving not too difficult, fairly natural even.

So I just wanted to thank you for posting the information. I've been a fan of George Benson's guitar work for years, but I've never heard him live or seen enough footage of him playing to notice how he does what he does.

Thanks again. I owe you one.

Hi! Congratulations! I'm so glad it's working so quickly. I've heard that George claims he developed the technique because it was the only way he could play in the back seat of Jack McDuff's car when they were on the road. We should all be grateful for his inconvenience. Thanks also for the detailed feedback.

Best wishes,

Tuck

6/13/00 (posted 2/24/01) From your description the pick is held at the tip of the thumb and the tip of the index finger pad. With the tip of the pick (traditional fender) pointing towards the neck of guitar. Correct? Is the fingernail side of the index finger concave or convex? I guess what I mean is the index finger curled in towards the palm? Looking at George Benson in the July 2000 issue on pg 49 his index finger is pretty much straight, definitly not curled.

Hi! I play with a pick on the video a little bit, but the technique is not demonstrated in detail; I just pick up a pick and play to demonstrate grooving with a pick versus fingerstyle. I actually don't remember how well you can see the picking grip (although what I played was pretty cool, if I do say so myself!). Check out Carlos Santana (should be pretty easy to find right now); he does the same thing, but adds his middle finger. Yes, the index finger is curled in somewhat, with the angle at the first joint after the finger tip being perhaps 135 degrees (midway between straight and right angle). This sounds like the key in your case, because by doing this you will make the pick point more or less into the guitar, which is what you want. Nothing about George Benson ever surprises me; what I describe is a sort of idealized version of what I saw him do over several years of watching him a time or two each year, and taking into account the fact that his thumb bends back much farther at the first joint than most people's.

Good luck,

Tuck

6/21/00 (posted 2/24/01) Hi tuck:

your section on picking is incredible. I'm wondering if you have heard Jimmy Bruno play at all? He uses Economy picking on ascending and descending passages. He has this down to a science. Your thoughts on this technique...............

Hi! Jimmy is great! I spent years working on the technique you describe, inspired by Kenny Burrell. It is great fun. I think it should be learned upon a foundation of very good alternate picking, though, or it can lead to musical choices being based partly on picking convenience or the corollary, which is undemocratic technique where some things sound easy and some hard.

Best wishes,

Tuck

7/12/00 (posted 2/24/01) Dear Tuck,

I am trying to solve what I believe to be a picking technique problem and I'm afraid drastic measures may have to be taken. Yuck. The problem concerns the orientation of my index finger to the strings.

I have played with a pick all my guitar years (about 20 or so). I have played mainly for my own pleasure. Eight months ago I began playing guitar in my church's band and this is placing playing demands on me. I feel I am making monstrous strides and am enjoying the experience immensely.

A year, maybe a year and a half ago, I began to learn fingerstyle technique so that I could play music for people that wouldn't chase them out of the house (I learned to play rock and metal as a teen). So I began to let my picking fingernails grow and I shape them weekly. I am right handed.

For the first six months of playing in church I used my acoustic and had no difficulty with my nails. About two months ago I began using one of my electrics. I began to notice that the nail on my index finger, about 1/3 of the way from the tip on the side towards my middle finger, began to get hacked away. I initially thought it was from fingerpicking but since that was the first evidence of it and I had been playing fingerstyle for at least a year, that was not the problem.

One evening while practicing, I looked at the orientation of my fingers to the strings, especially my index finger. This is so hard to describe without a drawing or a picture.

If I understand your George Benson technique description it's almost as if you are describing a person making the "ok" sign with his thumb and index finger and then flattening them together so that the tips of the two fingers end in about the same place.

I seem to have my thumb directly over the first knuckle of my index finger so that a little of the index finger actually shows below the thumb. So I think my index finger is actually leading into the attack on the strings. Using the Benson technique, how does one mute strings? It seems that your right hand, due to the extension of the thumb and index finger as you flatten them together puts the right hand in a higher position.

Additionally, this appears to be a rhythm playing type problem. I seem to hold my pick at a 30 degree angle (angle opening out towards the high E string) although the angle does appear to steepen from the low E string to the high E string. It is here I think I am hacking away the nail. If I am playing single note lines, the pick becomes more perpendicular to the strings.

Anyways, I hope I haven't given you a brain cramp and I will appreciate any thoughts or tips you may have.

Hi! I believe you are right; there is a tendency to wear the nail out as you describe. I cut my nails off so long ago that I had forgotten about this when I wrote about the Benson technique. I am guessing that the logical solution would be to make the pick hang a little farther over in the direction either of the tip of the index finger or in the direction of the side of the index finger closest to the middle finger. But I'm not sure whether you will lose so much control that it will not be worth it; I just can't bring back my own experience. Maybe another possibility would be a larger pick, which would have the same effect of getting your finger farther away from the strings. It unfortunately all gets worse if you angle the picking plane as I was suggesting. This is more acknowledgement and non-help than anything useful, I'm afraid.

I have never found any application or supplement that makes nails harder. If you ever do, let me know. Nor have I had success with application of artificial nails; I went through a rather extensive experiment over a few months with a great manicurist at one point which included cloth nail wraps, various extra layers, plastic nails, human toenails, etc. Nothing worked better than my own nails.

Concerning muting, I'm going to quote my response below to somebody else who asked a similar question; I hope it helps somewhat. Good luck!

[Quoted exchange referred to above:] 1/1/00 That's a great dissertation on picking styles, Tuck. I am always fascinated with the many ways people acheive their sound by pick technique. I am used to playing and muting all strings but the one{s} I am playing, using both hands to mute. I don't see how this is possible using the Benson technique. My guitar intstructor always played with the Benson style and it sounds incredible when playing clean, but his strings would ring together a lot and it did not sound good with overdrive/distortion sounds. I have worked at more finger movement and less arm movement to avoid any noise {Eric Johnson style} but it is frustrating, and I find myself getting very tense. Sometimes to the point of a stiff neck for days! High gain tones is where my heart is, and I'm trying to figure out a good pick technique to allow me to excel. It's frustrating. Anyway thanks for the great info.

I can relate! At the time that I learned the Benson technique I was playing screaming guitar in bands and wrestled with the same problem. Three things I found in addition to doing all the left hand muting possible (a super long thumb would solve the whole problem!):

(1) It is possible to mute the two higher strings (in pitch) than the one you're picking with the second segment of the right hand pinky, curled up into the hand. Of course, these are the easiest to mute with the left hand as well, so it doesn't buy you much except some extra security.

(2) In a band some of the things that you are most bothered by can be masked by the band, while expressive details are not. Maybe some of the ringing strings are not as important as they seem if feel improves substantially. I remember consciously deciding this after watching some players who played so loosely and with so much abandon that I did not care about the sloppiness at all, even though it went against my fastidious grain somewhat.

(3) An extreme case of the Benson technique involves resting the upper forearm, near the elbow, on the bridge, muting the two or three lowest strings, with a relatively extreme wrist angle bringing the hand back up to the strings from below. This can work pretty well and feels good, but there is a limit to how close your pick can get to the bridge. Another thing you could try, but I never did, would be a device I saw Herb Ellis use at the nut, which muted the strings just past the nut but could be released easily if you wanted to use open strings. This would solve the problem until the moment when you wanted that open string or harmonic, but I could imagine making a selective one to mute just the 5th and 4th strings, which are most of the problem.

As a last note, if you want to go off the technological deep end, you could get a hex pickup and feed each string to its own gate/expander before combining them. I believe this would probably work very well and is less unreasonable than it sounds. As a further elaboration, have six overdrive units and make distorted chords sound like double-tracked single lines. I've heard this done successfully. Good luck!

P.P.S. Also watch Carlos Santana; he uses this technique; I've never noticed what he does about muting.

2/9/01 (posted 2/24/01) I've been reading your pick thoughts and its lifted a weight off my mind because that is the way i use a pick, if i understand correctly. I've been trying other ways to hold the pick "properly". My thunb is straight and the pick is like a continuation of the index finger Which is bent on both joints. With your knowledge and insight i have a question. My index finger is rolled slightly to allow the middlle finger's corner to rest on the edge of the pick to stop the pick turning. Is this acceptable?

Hi! If I understand you correctly, this is the way Carlos Santana holds a pick, as best I've been able to determine from watching him on tv. I would swear that I mentioned this in my article, but I just scanned it and didn't notice any mention of it. I should have. It seems perfectly good to me. I practiced it a lot but finally decided that I tended to use my middle finger to compensate for lack of sufficient control between pick and index finger, and convinced myself that I should learn to do without the middle on general principles. That is purely theoretical, though, and not based on any reality. I probably use both approaches. My "official position" would be that the two approaches are equally good, but at the same time I have a suspicion that in the long run the hand might be more relaxed when strumming if only two fingers are glued together rather than three. I hope this helps.

2/17/01 (posted 2/24/01) Hi Tuck,

I think you've done a great dissection and analysation of picking in its entity. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and applying your methods and concepts to my playing.

I just have one major concern. My pick cannot stay in the same position!! It's continuosly moving especially when my fingers are sweaty. See, I don't want to apply too much pressure because as you write this definetly interferes with feel. I just hate picking with too much pressure it feels awful. I really don't know what to do? I havn't tried the Benson approach yet but this is because my thumb is totally straight, it doesn't bend back at all. So I figured that it would be no use?

I'd really appreciate any suggestions you have. Thanks for spending time helping me.

Hi! A non-bending thumb should be no problem for the Benson technique. Mine almost doesn't bend at all, either, and it works fine. It just means the tip of the thumb points straight into the face of the pick, which is fine. I think George Benson's thumb may be the exception, not the rule. The technique is pretty adaptable, although you will have to deal with thumbnail more than if your thumb bent more.

The slippery pick problem you describe is one I wrestled with as well. While it is completely feasible (if a little weird at first) to grip ridiculously tightly with thumb and finger yet maintain relaxation in the rest of the hand while using the Benson technique, I always found it much less feasible using standard technique. I believe it is just the nature of the hand that makes this true. Realistically though, a lot of people play very well that way, so they must have wrestled with it successfully enough to hide the problem from the rest of us, but in my experience the Benson technique makes it so much easier to accomplish this that I think it is worth a pretty serious try. My opinion is that a lot of people play well despite less than optimal technique, but it probably burns up unnecessary time and energy.

Things I never tried that might help with the standard technique are ways to increase the friction between the pick and the thumb pad/finger side. I would be tempted to experiment with everything from textured picks to portions of rubber gloves to double-stick tape wrapped around the finger to velcro rings around the finger to mate with velcro on the pick. These all sound pretty wacky to me, but might lead to something else that is more realistic.

Good luck!

Tuck © 2001 Tuck Andress


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