How to Use Rest Strokes to Improve Your Flatpicking Technique—and Your Guitar Sound
The rest stroke—similar to the fingerstyle approach used by classical guitarists—is a plectrum technique in which each downstroke lands on an adjacent string rather than passing over it. This action directs more energy into the sounding string, which can have notable improvements of volume and tone on an acoustic guitar.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.
I first encountered rest strokes in learning the music of the brilliant jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, but the technique can be used in virtually any style using a plectrum. In this lesson, you’ll progress from the basics to the more complex aspects of rest-stroke picking. Remember to practice slowly at first so that you notice the subtleties of the technique. Gradually increase the tempo, but never go faster than you can stay relaxed. Take your time and enjoy the fuller tone these exercises will extract from your guitar.
Week One: Air Picking and Slow Downstrokes
The basics of rest-stroke technique are as follows: For passages with quarter notes or larger subdivisions, use only downstrokes. For eighths or smaller subdivisions with two or more notes on the same string, start with a downstroke and alternate with an upstroke. Regardless of where the phrase occurs in the rhythm, begin with a downstroke whenever you strike a new string.
Start this week without your guitar. Hold your pick with an open fist and apply just enough pressure to hold it in place. Thinking of your elbow as a fulcrum and your forearm and hand as a lever, stand up and let your picking arm hang relaxed by your side. Lift that arm at the elbow until it is perpendicular to your body, then let it relax and fall back to your side.
Now refine this movement on the guitar. To play Example 1, set your metronome to around 60 bpm and place your pick on string 6 at around a 70-degree angle. On beat 1, let your pick fall through the string and land on the fifth string. Keep it resting there, then, without lifting, repeat the same motion through the rest of the strings. When you fall through the first string, let your picking hand relax and hang in the air. Try the exercise descending as well.
In Example 2, double each open string, again using only downstrokes. Feel the weight of your hand falling through the string and resting on the adjacent one. If you are repeating that string, wait until the last possible moment before lifting it to strike the string again. Pay attention to the subtle difference of movement whether you are lifting or falling. Next, add the fretting hand, as shown in Example 3. Remember to accurately practice all these exercises with a metronome while paying close attention to relaxation, weight, and gravity.
Beginners’ Tip #1
One way to get comfortable with holding a plectrum with an open fist is to place a small ball in your hand. This will remind you to keep your hand open.
That’s the end of week one. The complete lesson features four weeks of workouts (plus a bonus exercise.) There are two ways to access the full video and musical examples: Join our community at Patreon.com/acousticguitarplus OR Buy the March/April 2023 issue at store.AcousticGuitar.com
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.