6 Different Picking Styles To Wrangle More Sounds From Your Guitar

Beginning guitar players will sometimes neglect their right hand to concentrate on all the action in the left.  But the right hand holds the keys to lots of different textures and styles.  This overview of different picking styles will help you discover some of those textures and incorporate them into your guitar playing.

This is the first one everyone learns.  With your pick you stroke down, towards the floor, and let it come to rest against the next string (called a "rest stroke").  Make sure that you don't pick out away from the guitar and into thin air.  Doing so creates a longer distance to get to your next note and there's a larger chance that you'll come back to the wrong string.  Using the rest stroke allows your pick to move in a finite space every single time, training your muscles to come back correctly for the next note.

Double Stroke
A double stroke is simply alternating downstrokes and upstrokes.  It's usually used for 8th notes and faster.  Though sometimes you'll use all downstrokes for 8th notes depending on how much aggression the song calls for.  As with the downstroke, you want your pick to come straight back up, not out into thin air.  To accomplish this, make sure your moving sideways at your wrist and not twisting your forearm at the elbow.  Make sure you're alternating: down - up - down - up.  There are picking styles that will sometimes repeat a down or up motion, but you want to master this even double picking first so you don't create bad habits.

Sweep Picking
This picking style is used for fast arpeggio runs.  It involves stringing together all downstrokes or all upstrokes on adjacent strings to sound a fast series of notes.  Picture it this way: Grab a barre chord and, rather than a regular strum, pick through each of the strings with a down stroke in one fluid motion towards the floor.  Then do the same with up strokes.  The difference comes in your left hand.  For a sweep picked line your left hand will not hold down all the notes at once, but one at a time, just like a regular single note line.  The big goal here is to get clean articulation between the notes and not let them ring together.  All while using that smooth single motion in your right hand.

This is not a technique that everyone needs, but it is an impressive tool for your guitar player toolbox.  It can also be used in a simpler manner, for just two or three notes instead of a huge flurry.

Artists to listen to: Yngwie Malmsteen, Herman Li (of Dragonforce), and Frank Gambale.

This technique involves putting your pick away entirely and only using your fingers.  It's prominent in classical music and different folk and world music styles, but can be used for just about anything you'd like.  In general, your thumb will handle the bottom two or three strings and your second, third, and fourth finger will handle the top three strings.  You can also experiment with a rest stroke, which is much like the picking idea above where your finger comes to rest against the next string.  Or you can use a free stroke in which your finger ends its movement hovering above the strings.  Free strokes are usually used for chord arpeggios where you want the notes to ring against each other.  Rest strokes are used for melodies where you want cleaner articulation between the notes.

Artists to listen to: Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits), Andres Segovia, Merle Travis, and Joao Gilberto

Hybrid Picking
This styles uses a pick, held as normal between your thumb and second finger, plus your other fingers used bare.  It's great for articulating crisp bass lines while playing chords or melodies on the upper strings with your fingers.  You can also use it in combination with regular picking styles whenever you need to hit notes on non-adjacent strings.

Artists to listen to: Buckethead, Brad Paisley, Albert Lee, Brian Setzer

Finger Picks and Thumb Picks
These are guitar picks that are attached to each finger (except the pinkie) and thumb by a plastic band.  The guidelines are essentially the same as those for fingerpicking.  The difference is that the picks give a crisper, louder sound than regular fingerpicking.  Some players will use just the thumb pick as a replacement for a standard pick.  Finger and thumb picks are most often used by banjo players, but also by slack key, Dobro, and slide players.

Artists to listen to: Nils Lofgren, Chet Atkins, Robert Johnson

Each of these picking styles have traditional uses in particular styles, but never be afraid to experiment with them in whatever style you're playing.  Every technique is just another tool for getting to the notes you hear in your head.