From the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PAUL MEHLING
You’re dissatisfied with the tone and volume of your playing and want to get closer to what you hear from other players.
The development of tone begins with your pick hand and how the pick strikes the strings. Additionally, the pick-hand techniques offered here will yield an increase in speed and articulation, allowing you to play with more nuance—louder, quieter, faster, with more control and precision, and so on. Plus, you may find your guitar actually getting louder and sounding better from being overdriven by your powerful pick hand (scroll down to view music examples).
In Ex. 1, use only downstrokes (toward the floor) to play four quarter-notecF notes at 80 beats per minute. Releasing the fret-hand pressure on the F may be helpful to keep the quarter notes equal. When you can play this well, so that all of the notes sound uniform in tone and volume, increase the level of difficulty by either slightly bumping up the tempo—to, say, 84 bpm—or playing eight quarter notes in a row, as shown in Ex. 2.
The point of these exercises is to play loudly and evenly, while getting your pick-hand’s wrist to loosen up. The less tension in that wrist, the more velocity you can attain. Most guitars love to be played hard, and will open up, sonically, with this type of approach.
Increase the level of difficulty by playing eighth notes at 80 bpm (Advanced players: Try alternating between quarter notes and eighths and back again without stopping—one of the keys to picking mastery, as depicted in Ex. 3.) Also, remember to stay relaxed. Tension is your enemy; it will hold you back and possibly injure you.
After achieving success on the previous exercises at 80 bpm, gradually increase the speed of each one. Repeat the pattern on each string ten times, or until you reach your maximum capacity. (Word to the wise: There’s no sense in working on anything at less than about 90-percent perfection. You’re only practicing mistakes if you do so; you’ll actually spend less time practicing if you only practice near-perfection.) While it is true that you should push yourself into the faster tempos, as soon as you reach a failure zone, decrease the tempo to find your most accurate tempo, and jot it down in a practice log, which will help you track your progress.
When you have increased the speed of all downstrokes on one note on all six strings with quarter notes, eighth notes, and the combination of the two, go on to the next rhythmic variation: eighth-note triplets, which will also help with the swing feel if you’re a jazz or blues guitarist. Try triplets only before delving into Ex. 4, which goes back and forth between quarter notes and triplets. As above, begin at 80 bpm or slower, and gradually work your way up to 160 bpm or faster, with at least 90-percent accuracy. Remember to make those upstrokes sound equally powerful as the downstrokes.
Take a moment to notice that your pick hand has a certain weight and the movement of the wrist will allow the weight of the hand to do the actual work. Tension will not be needed; this will become clear. If it’s not clear, get a thermometer and point it towards your chest. Shake it with a very loose wrist as you try to get the mercury to the bottom. This is the movement you’re seeking to cultivate and apply to your picking.
Check out Paul Mehling’s lesson on how to the Gypsy jazz classic “Swing Gitan.”
Begin the series of exercises again, but this time use the more familiar alternate picking (down, up, down, up), as shown in Ex. 5. It won’t take as long for you to move from 80 bpm to 160 on each exercise, and you’ll begin to see positive results sooner.
Try reverse picking—alternate picking, but starting with an upstroke—like demonstrated in Ex. 6. This might be challenging at first, but with patience and persistence it will become easier if you continue to develop a loose wrist.
Begin the series a third time using all downstrokes at first, but with two adjacent notes, a half-step apart on the same string. Do this pattern, diagrammed on string 1 in Ex. 7, on all six strings, and with all the previous exercises.
If you’ve made it this far and are picking everything with near perfection, then you’ll be getting a new, big, sharp sound from your guitar, one you’ll want to hear on all your favorite licks and tunes. Congratulations, you’re in an exclusive club of guitarists who have worked hard and smart for their chops.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.