Twitter Facebook Google+ YouTube Instagram Search icon
Twitter Facebook Google+ YouTube Instagram Search icon

3 Secret Plectrum Techniques The Pros Use

How to develop your plectrum technique: Properly!

We spend so much time as students learning to develop a soft, consistent plectrum technique that we can forget about the incredible tonal variation and dynamics that we can create with it.Plectrum Technique is one of the most vital areas of study to generate varied and articulate tone production.

Put your fretting hand on your guitar. How many notes come out? Exactly zero, right? So it follows that the plectrum is responsible for 100% of the tone of the notes we play. Even legato playing at some point started off as a plectrum strike.

I tell a story to my students that if you go and watch a ‘proper’ orchestra, and look at the lead violinist who’s playing their $1million Stradivarius, The bow, just the stick and horse hair can cost upwards of $40,000. We use a $0.50c piece of plastic. We have some work to do!

Firstly, use a thicker pick. I recommend Jim Dunlop 1.5mm plectrums although it’s personal choice. These plectrums are hard, thick, shiny and have just a little give. This means you can dig in if you want to. Obviously I don’t want to start  a war, but if you use a really thin plectrum, try a thicker one for a while. It’ll take a bit of time to get used to so give it a chance.

Plectrum Technique 1: Attack the Strings!

Pick Harder When You Practice. Do It. You don’t pick hard enough, I can almost guarantee it. Picking hard sends more of your guitar signal to the amp. You hear more of your tone and less of the effects. It means you can dial back the distortion and get that cleaner, full distorted tone that you hear on the records. If you’re not picking hard you’re relying on your amp effects to compensate for your tone, not to embellish it.

Even if you ease off slightly when you play, having the extra headroom really makes a difference to your tone. i’d say about 80% of intermediate students who come to me need to pick harder.

This isn’t easy though, when I discovered this it meant I had to relearn my technique. Playing fast and hard is difficult at first but well worth it. Start slow, appreciate the tone and gradually dial up the metronome. Practice LICKS! Not scales. If you know your scales, why are you practicing them!? Use your practice time wisely.

Think like other instruments! – The Most Important Lesson:

Say out loud the word ‘huh’ say it slowly. Listen to your voice and realise it fades in. Listen to the decay of the word in your room. It fades out. Blues, Jazz and Rock has its roots in slaves singing in fields. We want to mimic that when we play with feeling.

Take this lick:

How to use the plectrum

If you want to hear it it’s audio example 3.4c from my book The CAGED System and 100 Licks for Blues Guitar. You can download it for free here:

Play the line with your normal plectrum technique. Probably with the pick about 30 degrees to the string.

Now, I want you to pinch your thumb and index finger (in that way you’re not supposed to!) so your pick angle is about 80 degrees to the string, almost a right angle.

This time, pick again and notice how you have to push hard to get through the strings. That microsecond longer it takes for the pick to slide through the strings should make you play in a pained, ‘screwupyaface’ bluesy kind of a way. You should hear the strings rattle slightly against the frets and you’ll generate much more tone and identity from your instrument.

Even the simplest pentatonic lines can be made to sound cool, unique and soulful in this really simple way.


Pick in different places on the guitar.

Move your picking spot around from the bridge to the neck of the guitar. Take a complete blues solo just focusing on digging in with your plectrum and hitting the guitar in different playing positions with your right hand.

At the very least your playing will become alive and full of tonal variation. If you actually practice this concept in some sort of soloing context it should quickly form an integral part of your playing, turning scales and lines into meaningful soulful expression.

Your plectrum affects every single note you play. Use it right and mix it up. It really is the difference between the pros and the cons.

By Joseph Alexander

Joseph Alexander, guitarist & guitar teacher - Fundamental Changes for guitar

Author - Joseph Alexander

Joseph Alexander has been a guitarist and expert music tutor for over 20 years. His tuition books are published in four languages and have sold over 200,000 copies to widespread critical acclaim. He is currently writing and publishing cutting edge-material that breaks down the barriers between learning and playing the guitar. As well as a…

Author profile

One response to “3 Secret Plectrum Techniques The Pros Use”

  1. Thanks for this interesting article. After 40 years of playing guitar on and off, I’m still struggling with my right hand. I have finally come to the conclusion that picking harder is the key to good tone, and this article only confirms it. You hear everywhere that you should have a light attack, but where’s the body in the tone supposed to come from with that approach? Older jazz guitarists like Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis are well known for their meaty tone, and they both attack the strings hard in order to achieve that. I have the Dunlop 1.5 mm here, among lots of other picks, and i really like the tone from it, although it is hard for me to get a snappy attack when I angle it. I suppose it‘s a matter of practice. Anyway, I have ordered Dunlop Delrin 1.14 mm, in the hope that it will give me the desired snap that I’m after. We’ll see 🙂 Thanks again for your nice article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I was amazed at how every page of each book offers something to learn. Even stuff I already knew is explained in a clearer way which makes it easier to use and memorize. Every guitarist / teacher will benefit from owning these great books and they won’t cost you a fortune

Amazon buyer