You want to improve your abilities by learning hybrid picking—the simultaneous use of a flatpick and fingers. This versatile technique is used across genres—guitarists from Jimmy Page to Jorma Kaukonen have made it an essential part of their acoustic work.
Work through a series of graduated exercises, starting with a basic hybrid-picking pattern, and highlighting some of the best applications for this technique: smooth arpeggios, piano-like chords with wide spacing, and singing lead lines.
Start with Arpeggios
Begin by holding your pick between your thumb and first finger. If you tend to hold your pick with two fingers and your thumb, this will require adjusting your normal grip. Start with alternating between downstrokes of your pick and notes played by your middle (m) and ring fingers (a). Exs. 1a through h are based around an open D chord. Hold down the chord, and let the notes ring through.
In Ex. 1a, the picked bass tones are played in quarter notes, positioned between eighth notes played by the fingers. Use this as an opportunity to hear the bass notes ring out against the two upper voices. Move to all eighth notes in Ex. 1b. Note that the pattern is a grouping of 3-3-2. This gives some rhythmic interest as the bass notes fall on different places within the measure: downbeat, upbeat, downbeat.
Exs. 1c and d reverse the patterns of the first two examples, while Exs. 1e and f alternate between picked bass notes and notes played with the fingers. The pattern is transferred across strings in Ex. 1g, with the bass note moving from D to A, and the top voices moving from A and D to D and FG, respectively.
Ex. 1h introduces simultaneous bass and treble notes, played by the pick and the ring finger. Take your time to get used to the movement on these first easier exercises, as it will save you a lot of time learning the more complex ones. As always, use your ears and aim to get a good tone, balancing notes played by pick and fingers.
Push Some Pedals
Ex. 2 illustrates a basic example of moving bass notes against pedal points (constant notes) in the upper voices. You can take this concept much further and make it vastly more complex, but starting with something simple will help you develop a sense of separation between voices. Try to bring out the bass line—play it and hear it as the melody. The natural difference in tone between pick and fingers will assist in accentuating that.
Think Like a Pianist
Hybrid picking allows for the simultaneous—or, more accurately, the specific—sounding of notes. As with classical fingerstyle or fingerpicking, in acoustic rock, each note is struck individually. You can choose to have the notes sound at the same time, or add separation by rolling the chords from lowest note to highest.
Ex. 3 is a progression in E minor that has the treble and bass voices widely spaced and moving at different times. Play all of the bass notes with your pick and all of the upper voices with your fingers. Make sure you hold all the notes for their full values—letting the bass notes ring out against the higher voices in the first two measures, and ensuring that the treble voices sustain as the bass moves in the second two measures.
A staple of the blues vocabulary—moving sixths—pairs perfectly with hybrid picking. Ex. 4 shows a typical use of descending sixths followed by a lead line, also hybrid-picked. In the first measure, hold down both notes and let them ring out against each other. Adding some vibrato will help it sound both more bluesy and more in-tune, as thirds and sixths are inherently a tiny bit out of tune with equal temperament (the tuning system favored by most Western music).
Take the Leads
Ex. 5a is a bluegrass-flavored use of hybrid picking. The character of this implies a faster tempo, but start slowly, and experiment with the different types of accenting. Try giving the pull-offs from the second-fret A to the open G string a more solid attack, for example. Ex. 5b uses hybrid picking to demystify a line that could be tricky. The first measure emphasizes groups of five; the second bar, groups of three. I recommend dividing this into two sections to get the different rhythmic patterns feeling fluid. Connect the sections only when you’re comfortable with each one on its own.
These few examples barely scratch the surface of the wide and varied uses for hybrid picking, but they are a good foundation for improving your picking skills. The more you practice hybrid picking, the more you’ll see opportunities to use it. With study of its various applications, hybrid picking can become an automatic part of your musical vocabulary. And it may open up creative possibilities and get you thinking in new ways, which is the most important benefit of learning a new technique.
With any new musical concept or technique, as soon as you get the basics down, write with it. It can be a lick, a line, an entire song. The scope is less important than the integration. By coming up with something of your own, you ensure that the concept is becoming part of who you are as a musician.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!