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Why Can't I Pick Fast?

ndemattheis

Member
Messages
208
I have been playing for a long time (over 30 years) and have had consistent problems with alternate picking. I pick with my pinky anchored and can play 16th notes smoothly at 112 bpm. My max speed is around 130 bpm and when I play at that speed, my forearm usually tightens up and my grip on the pick tightens causing pain at the base of my thumb. I have tried picking without my pinky anchored and while it feels more comfortable, it is extremely awkward and sloppy, especially when moving between strings.

It also seems like I spend an inordinate amount of time building up picking speed, which does not necessarily translate to better improvisational skills. If I am focused on my picking too much, my solos sound like exercises and my phrasing stinks. But if I stop working on picking my ability seems to drop off very quickly and it takes a long while to build back up to my mediocore speed levels.

I like players like Al DiMeloa, Steve Morse and John Pettrucci, and realize that they must have spent long hours developing their chops. I am currently working on picking exercises for about 2 hours, 3 days per week. The rest on my practice time is for repertiore for my cover band and improvisation (playing to jam tracks).

I know there are many different opinions on whether picking speed should even be a focus of playing. I have often wondered whether the commitment to developing fast alternate picking skills is worth the time that could be spent in other areas of playing. Fast picking is not an end to itself, it is just another skill I would like to add to my aresenal. I am just wondering if there is some fundamental flaw in my technique, or is it just a question of putting in more hours working on picking teschnique.
 

dead of night

Member
Messages
2,698
Off topic: reminds me of Pete Townshend. He realized he never would be a blazingly fast lead guitar player so he capitalized on his strengths and became one of the best, slashing and leaping rhythm guitarists.
 
Messages
3,895
Do you practice standing in front of a mirror? It can often help improve your technique, as you can observe your picking style better than looking down at your hand the way you'd normally do. You could also try recording a video, because it'd be far easier to help you out once we see how you play, in case there are some flaws with your picking technique.

I spent many years getting my picking up to speed, and I'm still not happy with it. The speed is fine, my problem is stamina and picking cleanly from string to string. I don't know if I'll ever be able to play Paul Gilbert solos, but I find that it's worth trying, because that dedication will help with my overall playing.
 

RLD

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
8,187
Alternate picking is not for everybody.
John Scofield has said he is not good at alternate picking.
Tom Quayle as well...of course, their "bad" alternate picking is still pretty good, but the point is they were not happy with it so they incorporate legato style in their playing.
If you are one of those people, try some legato.
You may find it easier, you may find it sounds more fluid and vocal like, but the main thing you may find is it frees you up and allows you to play without thinking so much.
Plus you can actually play faster.
 

ivers

Member
Messages
4,281
I am currently working on picking exercises for about 2 hours, 3 days per week.
What kinds of excercises?

You have trouble moving from string to string, which is probably the most common problem. How do you approach this flaw?

I had the same problem, and have a limitation there still compared to
playing one string only, but got great progress from just playing stuff
that emphasised crossing strings. Some of the Bach stuff that's pretty
arpeggiated is very good if you want a musical exercise, and Tumeni
Notes by Steve Morse was also a favorite for me when dealing with
this problem.
 
Messages
44
A few years ago I was having the same problem and someone gave me some advice that got me past it. Alot of time when people try to increase their alternate picking speed, they tense up the arm muscles and hit the strings harder. Your picking hand should remain loose and relaxed regardless speed, if you are tensing up your arm that is working against you.

Just my 2 cents, it helped me alot.
 

Honk

Member
Messages
310
I have been playing for a long time (over 30 years) and have had consistent problems with alternate picking. I pick with my pinky anchored and can play 16th notes smoothly at 112 bpm. My max speed is around 130 bpm and when I play at that speed, my forearm usually tightens up and my grip on the pick tightens causing pain at the base of my thumb.
After several years of plateau in this area, I was able to move forward once again by following some advice I found here.

The right search string brought up several posts from different players at different times who were however in consensus: the more you relax, the faster and cleaner you can play. It's counter-intuitive, because faster picking sounds furious and difficult; your instinct is to try harder, really force it! But even if this did result in fast, accurate playing, you'd of course burn out in seconds, while Gilbert or Malmsteen can go on indefinitely. Watch them, too. Relaxed. They're not pursing their lips and going at it like sandpaper for short, exhausting bursts.

For too long I focused on economy of movement, which is what you always hear about, rather than economy of effort. Eradicating tension.

One guy I remember likened it to strumming. Along the lines of: do you get tired when strumming? No. Your muscles are relaxed, tension is gone, and you could strum all night. The idea is to make fast alternate picking like lots of tiny strums. This sounds like a license to be sloppy, but it's not, it's a way to gauge how relaxed you should be.

It's still new to me, but it opened a door.
 

Seraphine

Member
Messages
3,600
After several years of plateau in this area, I was able to move forward once again by following some advice I found here.

The right search string brought up several posts from different players at different times who were however in consensus: the more you relax, the faster and cleaner you can play. It's counter-intuitive, because faster picking sounds furious and difficult; your instinct is to try harder, really force it! But even if this did result in fast, accurate playing, you'd of course burn out in seconds, while Gilbert or Malmsteen can go on indefinitely. Watch them, too. Relaxed. They're not pursing their lips and going at it like sandpaper for short, exhausting bursts.

For too long I focused on economy of movement, which is what you always hear about, rather than economy of effort. Eradicating tension.

One guy I remember likened it to strumming. Along the lines of: do you get tired when strumming? No. Your muscles are relaxed, tension is gone, and you could strum all night. The idea is to make fast alternate picking like lots of tiny strums. This sounds like a license to be sloppy, but it's not, it's a way to gauge how relaxed you should be.

It's still new to me, but it opened a door.
yeppers... and this case seems to be precisely the matter... NO CONFLICT!

or as Rush sings... 'generating more heat than light'....

eliminating conflict, wasted energy and tension levels will align technique.. mind, body and soul.

We live on a Mountain top here... When driving down the hill... the energy is practically created by gravity.. practically free and effortless... and brakes and downshifted gears a moderator.

When driving UP HILL and climbing the Mountain... one gear in particular illustrates this point. 3rd gear. When you have it in 3rd gear and pushing up the hill.. you can let off on the pedal and find you are still climbing at the same speed... This is because the physics basically can only do so much with car/gravity/energy... Finally the car begins to slow down as you reach a "level" with the pedal.. This is the point where the energy created and the energy optimized and actually working is balanced... in a sense.

Many people just push that pedal thinking the car is going up hill.. and they are burning a whole lot more fuel then they need.. wasting it. Such driving will eventually cost a lot of wear and tear and money, one way or another.

This happens with tension in gtr playing... or can happen. The balance and energy level is not optimized. A matter of touch. Malmsteen plays scalloped frets.. If he pushed to hard on the strings it'll go sharp... He plays with a very refined no conflict touch.
 

buddyboy69

Member
Messages
5,055
I had the same problem with not being able to get more speed and accuracy. Ends up i had to force a new way of holding the pick. Watched a paul gilbert video on pick holding and it worked for me. I dropped the pinky anchor and have my hand almost in a fist while holding the pick.
 
Messages
7,039
I would seek out two or three of the best picking guitarist/teachers you can find and observe them closely (maybe video tape them) and test out their advice, of course. Most the details of alternate picking could be covered in an hour lesson.

For a quick fix, consider using the "Benson picking" grip and try something other than pinky-resting—such as resting the pisiform bone area just above the low E saddle, similar to what you might do for a palm mute.
 

guitarjazz

Gold Supporting Member
Messages
23,124
One thing to pay attention to when you are looking at your picking hand in the mirror is the amount of the tip of the pick that is hitting the string. If you are 'inserting' too much pick between the strings you are increasing the odds of the pick 'hanging up'.
That being said I can think of a dozen more musical things to work on than playing fast.
 

buddastrat

Member
Messages
14,689
Take some lessons from someone that's skilled in that area. You'll get to see in person and helpful feedback. Speed, does NOT take years and hours of agonizing practice. If you look at the guys who have been mentioned, it came to them quickly. Some guys end up going down the wrong path using bad technique or tension and you over practice and get nowhere. I did that. Changed up a few things and then bam, you get it almost immediately. It's like your brain makes the connection to the correct muscles or movements. Hours of repeating exercises is usesless, imo.

There's so many ways to pick and certain ways facilitate certain licks or styles. Your hand position, grip, wrist, elbow all effects this stuff. A good teacher is best and you can get there in days, or weeks, not years.
 
Messages
5,123
I agree that taking a few lessons from someone specifically catering to the style of music in which you're interested can be a very good plateau breaker. Just be very clear about what you want to achieve when you talk to the instructor. You'll need to be sure to practice as they instruct.

As questions about what you should expect to achieve over the course of, say, three lessons with practice 20 min X 5 times a week. For instance, start with a phrase you can play at 130 bpm. If you can't increase speed comfortably by 10 bpm each week, then maybe they are not delivering, or maybe your practice routine is off. In any case, agreeing on specific goals keeps you both on the same track.
 

cubistguitar

Member
Messages
6,069
I play faster when studying other players lines. Especially horn and piano lines. I can figure out how to make those sounds sometimes easier than playing guitar lines. I think i overthink and overplay when it seems like guitar music.
 






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