Having the best guitar technique is all about making playing easier.
It’s the practice of building good habits that give you the freedom to play anything you want in the long run.
Whether you’re strumming chords, picking notes or flipping a pancake, your technique plays a role. In this post, I’ll answer the question, What is a great guitar technique and how do I get it?.
There is often much confusion surrounding what a good guitar technique really is. “Uhh… how do I hold the pick?”, “Uhh… where should I put my picking hand?”, “Uhh.. the guitar just snapped in half, am I doing something wrong?”.
I hear these all the time.
Everyone seems to play differently so no one knows what’s right.
And this is especially bewildering for beginners.
Key Points of a Great Technique
So what actually makes a good guitar technique? I hear y’all shout.
*Expert tip: If you actually have snapped your guitar in half by accident, you may wish to reconsider your technique…
Anyway, a good guitar technique that allows you to play as fast, be expressive and have total guitar freedom should be:
- Comfortable – playing should come as naturally as making bassist jokes
- Clean – undesired strings ringing out = bleh
- Efficient – doesn’t limit you from going into hyper-speed
And it took me a helluva lot of experimentation to find a technique that ticks all three.
Sometimes I would learn a new technique and try to pick up speed just to realise that I couldn’t.
Luckily for you, I’m giving you the proven best technique for playing guitar to save you this trouble so that you can spend less time smashing your guitar up in frustration and more time playing!
You can thank me later…
The components of a great technique
There are several moving parts to a great technique, and they all make a difference. If all the parts are correct, it’ll work subconsciously like a well oiled machine.
Most people just need to make small changes to experience some nice improvements.
And you never know, you may even be doing some things right already.
Enforce good habits in how you:
- Hold and move the pick
- Place and shape the picking hand
- Move your fretting hand in a way that conserves energy
And you’ll progress way faster than your guitar buddy next door.
Oh yeah, I should just clarify… I’m not saying that this is the only way to play. If something is working for you then by all means stick with it.
I just want to give you a clear cut answer as to what technique will get you results. Especially if you haven’t found one yet and don’t want to waste time experimenting.
This is purely based off my own personal experience with the aim to hopefully make things easier for you in the long run.
With that being said, let’s look at the foundation of a great guitar technique…
1. How to hold the pick
Yup, you guessed it. Perhaps the most widely debated topic of all time…
Every guitarist seems to, annoyingly, do something different and, annoying, is also right.
All your favourite guitar players will hold the pick in really weird and wonderful ways but when it comes down to it, which gives the best results to most people the fastest?
Normally, I have two slightly different grips for riff/solo playing and chord playing.
When playing licks and riffs, I hold the pick like this:
For playing intricate solos and technical riffs, I need accuracy.
I want it to feel like an extension of my index finger.
However, I also really really really don’t want the pick to slip out of my hand. Especially whilst playing those solos and riffs on stage.
I do not want to use a fingernail as a temporary back up whilst I scramble to find another one. It hurts and does not sound good… You can trust me on that one…
I also think generally that it’s a good idea to get used to holding the pick with your index finger and thumb. That way, you aren’t limited with other guitar techniques like hybrid picking – which requires other fingers – later down the line.
And for chord strumming, I grip the pick like this:
Very similar, but I leave more of the bottom of the pick free and try to get more of my index finger on the pick for this one.
I want a cast iron grip but I also want the lower part of the pick to be a little more loose, you get me?
Accuracy is less important and flinging your arm up and down against tough strings makes the pick even more likely to fly out of your hand and off into someone else’s beer on the front row…
Kind of funny but also a bummer.
Like I said though, there is no right way to hold the pick. These are just two grips that have worked super well for me.
They just tick the comfort, clean and efficiency boxes nicely.
And although comfort may not come straight away, it’ll soon feel natural.
2. How to actually pick
Alrighty, so there are three main ways that you can make the picking motion across the strings as a mere mortal:
1. Using your thumb and index finger in a wriggly motion
2. Moving your wrist up and down, keeping your fingers still
3. Moving your elbow up and down like a window wiper, keeping your wrist and fingers still
Of these three, making the motion from your wrist in a side to side motion is the most comfortable.
Stop laughing you immature people, I’m trying to teach a lesson here…
It’s gonna do the job for most riffs and licks that you ever want to play nicely.
It feels natural. The pick rarely slips. It just works.
However, sometimes I just wanna burn the frickin’ house down!
And for that, making the side to side motion from the elbow is the winner by miles.
Using your wrist sort of works too but not as well. Put it this way, when I switched to using my elbow to pick, I unlocked a haven of speed that I never even knew existed for me.
More power. Less tension. And a sufficiently burnt house.
Not everyone wants to go that fast, but if you do then this is definitely the way. The likes of Zakk Wylde, Mick Thomson and James Hetfield all do this too for faster stuff because you can ramp up some really serious speed without much effort.
Get this engrained and your guitar technique will not hold you back.
It doesn’t feel very comfortable at low speeds though. That’s where picking from the wrist comes in handy.
Oh yeah, I also use my elbow to make the motion for chord strumming. It provides much more power and gives you greater control of dynamics and stuff.
It also allows me to really wack the hell out of those chords when I feel like it!
It helps you feel more in touch with the rhythm of the song you’re playing too. And this is very important when it comes to strumming.
Kind of like this:
3. Where to rest your hand
So many guitarists over look this one.
Where you place your picking hand can be the difference between sounding as smooth as a bald man’s head and sounding as rough as sandpaper.
Yes, it makes that much of a difference…
So if you want to keep your playing clean, here’s what you need to do:
- Find an easy note/phrase to play
- Place the karaté chop portion of your palm just in front of the bridge and play the note/phrase palm muted
- Now tilt your hand upwards a bit so that you can now play the note/phrase without muting but making sure that all the strings above the ones you are playing remain muted.
You can see here that I am only muting the E A D G strings, leaving the B E strings free to play.
You should practice sliding this hand position up and down with the riffs and licks as they move across the strings. This ensures that all the strings above any phrase you play remain muted.
For example, you may play a lick on the high E string.
Keep the EADGB strings all muted with the side of your palm to prevent excess noise. You then shift your playing to the B string in a descending lick and slide your hand upwards with it.
Now this means only the EADG strings are muted. Then you start playing the G string and so on…
This will soon become natural and you will realise that the excess string buzz which you may have never even noticed before almost ceases, resulting in squeaky clean playing.
If you are still slightly confused then here is a great video by Ben Eller on this concept. He explains it really well and I basically stole this idea entirely from him lol.
An added benefit to this is that it also gives you a comfortable base to pick using the wrist from. Picking then becomes even easier, which means you kill two birds with one stone, woohoo!
4. How to rest your hand
The OK, the Pincer, the Claw, the Hammett Middle Finger F U, the Snail…
All famed picking hand shapes used far and wide.
At the end of the day, you can lay out your picking hand fingers in any way you desire as long as it feels relaxed.
If you have to force the shape in any way then you create tension. This then ripples into your wrist and arm and leaves you in one big, bad habit hole to climb out of.
For some people, being relaxed and loose means doing “The OK”, but for me it means doing “The Snail” and letting my fingers curl up naturally. Similar to a snail shell or if I was holding a tennis racket.
If for you it means concocting some weird homemade hand shape and being the only person in the world to pick like that, then so be it.
All that matters is that all your fingers feel completely relaxed and that they don’t scrape the strings.
Scraping = not a nice noise.
5. The Fretting Hand
The last, and often neglected, component of a great technique.
I often see people playing solos and riffs and their fingers are flying all over the place like confetti.
It just makes everything seem and feel more difficult than it actually is.
Maybe you think this looks cool, but when you start to go into more articulate and faster playing, having an efficient fretting hand makes life bucket loads easier.
The idea is that you want each finger to move as little as possible between pressing a note and not pressing a note. The journey required for each finger to travel then becomes 500x smaller.
This spares a lot of energy and makes everything feel way easier.
Especially because your fingers don’t have to swing down clumsily onto the strings like metal hammers from a mile away.
And the best part is that it isn’t that hard to change.
All it takes is just 5-10 minutes a day of playing licks/riffs you have played before. You just need to make a keen effort to ensure that all 4 fingers stay hovering over the strings and don’t go flying off into space.
Particularly that bothersome pinkie.
You won’t get it straight away but after a week you will notice a substantial difference.
After 2-3 weeks you will have a great guitar technique for life.
If you still aren’t convinced, then watch this live Megadeth song playthrough. The two guitarists have polar opposite fretting hand techniques. Even if you aren’t a fan of their music, it’s useful to see the contrast of tidy vs messy technique.
Once you have this down, another great thing to do is to practice pressing the strings as lightly as possible without fret buzz for about 5-10 minutes a day too.
You will again see fast improvements and your fingers will be dancing about like dainty ballerinas in no time.
It halves the amount of effort that you put in to each note and spares your finger tips from digging into the strings too much.
Bending hurts like a bad hangover so you might as well prevent any other damage when you can.
Besides, who doesn’t want to see their fingers dancing like ballerinas, am I right?
At the end of the day, the key points to take away are that as long as you feel relaxed and your playing sounds clean then everything is good. Not everyone wants to go fast but everyone should want to sound clean.
I can confidently assure you that the technique laid out above will help you sound more clean and won’t hold back your speed.
I couldn’t find any definitive answers on what the most effective guitar technique was so I just had to experiment and figure it out. Hopefully this saves you a lot of excess time and prevents any more guitar snappage.
But there is no one way to play guitar, so feel free to adapt things to suit your needs.
Put it this way though, if I had to learn guitar all over again, then I would start with this.
Now go get shredding.