It can be a real chore to develop speed in the picking hand, and we all know this quite well, yet one of the biggest problems that most guitar players face, is that they are not paying any attention to the actual speed mechanics of the picking hand.
What is speed mechanics you might ask? simple – it is the mechanical functions of the picking hand. Whether you are playing slow or fast, these principles are always in play.
When it comes to speed mechanics for the picking hand, there are 4 movements that fall under this category.
1. Rotary or rotation
The rotary movement is the simple movement that most guitar players are familiar with. This kind of movement refers to the wrist rotation, which typically comes naturally with alternate picking. If you were to isolate this movement, it would be the simple rotation at the wrist which falls within a span of a little under a quarter circle turn. As a side note, for any beginning guitar player who wants to master speed mechanics on the guitar, this is the best place to start.
Oscillation happens when the picking hand does an outward turn, away from the guitar, after brushing through a string, whether with an upstroke or a down stroke.
If you are having trouble comprehending what this is, let’s do a little experiment. Hold an imaginary pick in your hand – go ahead and mimic how you like to hold a guitar pick. Take your hand and bring it close to your chest, with the inside of your hand facing you. Now, using your forearm muscles, twist your hand away from you. Now twist it back to you so that you can see the inside of your hand. If you focus on the imaginary pick, you will notice that the pick scoops out and away from the guitar string, whether with a down stroke or an up stroke.
3. Circular pick rotation
This is where there is no movement of the arm, and very little in the wrist. Circle pick rotation generally requires a guitar player to mainly set aside oscillation, and rotation.
Circle pick rotation is produced and controlled by the thumb. If you are pinching a pick between the index finger and the thumb, then its a simple matter of creating a small, circular movement. The best way to do this is to control the pick with the use of the thumb, by pulling the tip of your thumb back, and then pushing it forward, using the second joint.
As you may know, alternate picking is much more efficient for speed, because you are making two movements where you would normally be making one, by doubling your efforts, as opposed to just down strokes or up strokes.
With circular picking, its just a little bit better, because you can actually speed up the movements by moving the pick in a circle around the string, instead of just going down, up, down, up.
4. Arm control
It is often times taught that using the arm for speed picking is bad, but this isn’t completely true. Using the arm from the shoulder down to the elbow is not recommended, but using the forearm up to the wrist for stability can be very useful.
You don’t want to over-do-it, but using the arm as a stabilizer is the idea. The arm can actually help move the pick from string to string, as opposed to just using the wrist rotation, which is what a lot of guitar players try to do.
If you’ve ever worked with sweep picking, you know that the arm should be dead weight and guide the pick through the strings, well the reasoning behind this is very similar. Just remember not to force the arm, let it control the pick under its own, exact weight.
5. Finding the balance
The problem lies in the ratio. First off, most intermediate guitar players don’t understand that it can be best to use a combination of all of these principles of guitar speed mechanics.
Commonly guitar players will just use one exclusively, and its usually just wrist rotation.
I would encourage you to practice each of these separately, and then try combining them. After this, you’ll need to find your own “recipe”. Every guitar player does things completely different – there is no right or wrong way. Finding the right balance between the principles of speed mechanics can take some time. Also understand that you don’t have to use all of them. In fact some of these movements may be overkill to you.
Let me give you an example – here is my common ratio for these movements.
Circular picking: 0%
Arm control: 15%
You have to find your own magic formula for speed mechanics on the guitar, but also understand that it depends on what you are trying to accomplish. The above ratio works for me with simple ascending or descending runs, but when it comes to things like string skipping, legato, or odd patterns/combination of notes, I may modify the ratio a little bit. At times more oscillation is needed.
As I had mentioned before, taking the time to work on the movements of each of these speed mechanic principles will give you more options to work with, and then you will be able to discover which combination of the four works best with each approach to technique.