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.
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.