Picking/flatpicking is a common guitar playing technique which, in a broad sense, simply indicates one of many techniques in which a guitar is played using a pick held between the thumb and forefinger. The terms are actually somewhat interchangeable, with the latter most often used in terms of traditional bluegrass or country music.
One can also utilize picks that are worn on the thumb and forefinger. This is called, rightfully so, fingerstyle.
Needless to say, there are quite a few styles to explore.
What exact type of picker are you? Take a look at our glossary of picking methods and see where your chops fall.
This is the most common type of pick playing. Its up-and-down strokes enable fast-paced passages to be played fluidly - most scale runs and solos are accomplished with this method. You can find alternate picking in almost every style of music, including rock, jazz, bluegrass, country, R&B, heavy metal and thrash. It's also frequently used by bass players.
Bluegrass guitar and mandolin players commonly use this rolling syncopated style. It works across three strings, similar to the method used to play banjo rolls. The three pitches are usually played on three adjacent strings, one per string, with pick direction varying depending on desired emphasis or melody.
The Ramones would never have existed without downpicking. For that matter, hardly any punk or metal band would. It’s pretty self-explanatory - the pick is used primarily for downstrokes, resulting in an aggressive, tight and heavy sound. Downpicking isn’t usually as fast as alternate picking, and it can be murder on your picking hand and wrist. However, it’s easy to learn, and great for choppy staccato parts.
This sophisticated, fluid techinque - not for beginners - combines alternate picking with a switch to sweep picking (see below) when changing strings. Players use an upstroke when moving to a lower string, and a downstroke to a higher string.
While not a traditional flatpicking style, this technique can be accomplished without a pick by just playing with the fingers. But it can also work with finger picks attached to the thumb and index finger - as seen in the illustration at the top of the page. Typically, the thumb will handle the bass notes and the index (and sometimes the middle and ring) fingers take the treble notes.
This is the style famously known as “chicken picking" (although, honestly, we've never understood what chickens have to do with it). It’s a dexterous combination of flatpicking and fingerstyle - using a pick held in the traditional way, while also popping notes with the remaining fingers of the picking hand. When it's done well, you’d swear there was more than one person playing. The style is a staple in bluegrass, country and some types of jazz. Chet Atkins is the acknowledged master; rock guitarists Steve Howe and John 5 are well-known for it, too.
Most rock guitarists - with the notable high-profile exceptions of Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler and Lindsey Buckingham - tend to play their solos using a pick.
Had the Stratocaster guitar been around in 1800 or so, Niccolo Paganini would’ve been all over sweep picking. This advanced technique enables flurries of light-speed notes, and it’s used almost exclusively for playing large arpeggios quickly and fluidly. The notes are sounded with a sweeping motion of the pick--somewhat like strumming, only each note is articulated separately rather than together as a chord. It’s tough to master, but once you get the hang of it, it’s dazzlingly impressive. Just ask Yngwie Malmsteen.
This technique utilizes a single note played repeatedly and evenly in rapid-fire succession, adding sustenance to a melodic line in which the notes would otherwise decay quickly. Picked fast enough, the note sounds constant. Probably the most famous example of this is the Middle Eastern-inflected surf guitar in Dick Dale’s immortal “Miserlou." You can also hear it frequently in bluegrass mandolin, modern thrash metal and Turkish folk music.
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