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  1. UNLOCKING THE PICK HAND’S FULL POTENTIAL (Part 1): Picking Out Superior Guitar Tone
    by Scott Stedeford

    One of the crowning achievements every guitarist strives for is superior tone. Where is it found? How do you begin to find it? The answers to these daunting questions seem to elude us. We may explore jungles of technology, sampling different pickups and strings, exotic woods, vintage tubes, boutique amps, and expensive cables, only to be left contending with the fact that tone, as Eddie Van Halen has pointed out, is in the fingers. The truth is, it’s a combination of many factors. But great tone does begin with the fingers and how you approach your playing, and that is what we’ll focus on here.

    When Van Halen talks about the fingers, he’s talking about the fingers of the hand. But what about the fingers of the hand? Might they have an effect on tone?

    All flat pickers know how challenging it is to train the pick hand. We spend countless hours trying to hone our skill, concentrating exclusively on pick control and attack, and even experimenting with varieties of picks. (We’ll discuss the importance of picks last). The approach is always technique-driven. For this reason I became interested in the idea that there might be a Rosetta Stone, some fundamental key element to all techniques that would unlock the pick hand’s full potential. In the course of my research, I received a revelation about how the pick hand physically affects tone.

    After studying dozens of hours of live footage of guitar masters in many genres, I concluded that the ones with great tone (especially those known for their tone) all held their pick hand a certain way, while those with less than great tone (or who are noted as having poor tone) did the opposite. This was so significant, not only because it lacked coincidence but because I had [never] heard it discussed. It seems that guitarists learned this either by accident or by intuition through the course of experience. But there is a scientific basis for it, which makes it accessible at any time.

    In mechanical physics there is a principle which states that when more mass interacts with a vibrating string, more volume and more tone is produced. A fine way to test this is by exchanging the plastic bridge pins on an acoustic guitar for brass pins. Brass, being denser than plastic, adds mass to the bridge, which in turn transmits more vibrational energy to the body. The hand, although not dense like brass, is an object of mass that interacts with the strings. If you could add more mass to the hand you could get more tone, and this is possible depending on the position of your fingers.

    When the fingers are spread apart, we take advantage of the entire continuous mass of the hand. This probably has to do with vibrational energy dissipating through each finger, like the blades of a radiator dissipating heat from the main pipe. But bring the fingers together and you get closer to 100% of the hand’s potential mass, and this increases the build up of vibrational energy.

    In this way the fingers play a crucial role in shaping tone. Bring the fingers together and you beef up your tone. Spread your fingers apart and the tone thins out. Same applies to the hand as a whole: Make contact with the bridge and the tone thickens; move it away, and the tone thins. Tonal variety then is literally at your finger tips and right on hand. You can influence the overall tone by manipulating the position of your fingers and hand.

    As for those tone masters I mentioned earlier, they all keep their fingers together, that’s the common factor I noticed — though each one with their own approach. For example, watch Eric Johnson and you’ll see how he neatly stacks his fingers, while Steve Vai scrunches his fingers together. Yngwie Malmsteen, on the other hand, tends to tuck his fingers below his down-turned hand. Some players allow the full length of their fingers to touch each other, and other just the finger tips.(Note: The fingers are always relaxed). Examine some of the great players and see what they do, and experiment with different approaches until find what suits you.

    Finally, let’s discuss the pick. The pick is an instrument in its own right. It is the point of contact with the strings and your hand. Ideally, you want a pick that takes advantage of the mass principle, one that will transfer the most energy to the strings. If the pick is too small there is less mass interacting with the string; too large, and that potential is wasted. The type of material and gauge are also important factors. You should choose your pick carefully.

    My current preference is the Dunlop Big Stubby 3.0mm pick, made of the purple plastic. I was not a fan of this pick when I first tried it, mainly because of its feel. (I had been using the black Jazz III up to that point). But I couldn’t deny the improvement the Big Stubby made to my tone, as well as to my articulation and sound level. This has to do with its thickness, and the quality of its material. The pick itself has a pinging tone. Drop a Big Stubby flat on a table top and it will ping like a coin. There is no comparison to a standard pick. That pinging tone contributes to the overall tone.

    So what does your pick sound like? That sound is part of your tone.

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  2. UNLOCKING THE PICK HAND’S FULL POTENTIAL (Pt.2)
    Positioning For Success
    by Scott Stedeford

    I’ve been playing guitar almost three decades. The first fifteen of those years I’d describe as the “good” years. I played often, learning and creating songs, even doing some recording. I played in bands and could hold my own, and I enjoyed it. Then something happened. After fifteen years of “good,” I began to hunger for excellence. I spent the next six years pouring every ounce of my spare time an energy into intense shedding, unlearning bad habits, and training to play at a level I formerly reserved only for air guitar. I reached a point where I could play almost anything put in front of me, music I never dreamed I’d play. Those became the “really good” years. But, as the first fifteen had taught me, it’s easy to settle in on a plateau. I still had (and have) limitations, weaknesses to turn to strengths, and rough areas to refine. But my worst issue was picking, especially at high speed.

    Picking seems to be the area that dogs guitarists most. It’s understandable. Our hands learn by receiving sensory input from touch. (More nerve sensors enrich the hands than any other part of the body). But unlike the fret hand, which is in constant contact with the neck and strings, the pick hand is detached; it has to receive information though a piece of plastic. This loss of intimacy seriously hinders the pick hand’s ability to master nuances like the fret hand can. The consequence is unbalanced learning, and frustration. Your fret hand develops quickly but is held back, waiting for the pick hand to catch up.

    In my search for answers I consulted instructional videos. My favorite was “Rock Discipline” by John Petrucci, which contains comprehensive and inspiring picking lessons. Another major influence was Paul Gilbert, who has published excellent articles on picking. From their instructionals I radically improved my technique. But still something was missing. No matter how much time I put in, no matter how faithfully I practiced, my picking didn’t feel right, didn’t sound like these masters. It gnawed at me, until I decided something was missing from the lessons themselves — from all instructionals, in fact — an element either not discussed or maybe not yet realized. So I began to look for this Rosetta Stone of picking to uncover the solution.

    I reviewed many videos of world-class pickers. The first thing I noticed about great pickers, especially fast ones, is their economy of movement. Extremely fast players like Petrucci and Gilbert move minimally, though each relies predominantly on one of two ways to attack the strings. Petrucci tends to drive from his elbow using arm swing, whereas Gilbert uses momentum at his wrist. Most older jazz guitarists favored elbow-driven picking for it punchy attack, shunning the wrist approach as too weak. The basis for this seemed to stem from the lack of high-gain amplification in a time when the guitarist had to compete with loud brass and percussion sections. They needed every advantage possible, and probably gained some level increase by aggressively attacking the strings. But amplification is a non-issue today. The wrist approach seems to have co-evolved with high-gain amplification, as well as changes in popular song formats.

    So which approach is better? Let’s begin searching for the answer in the anatomy and mechanics of the hand and arms.

    In the forearm is a series of muscles that span two bones, the radius and the ulna. These muscles originate at the elbow joint, and attach to each finger and the thumb. Interestingly, all forearm muscles end before the wrist and become tendons. Tendons therefore, not muscles, operate your fingers. (The only muscles in your hand are between the fingers that allow them to flex apart). These muscles/tendons perform several functions: (1) they allow the fingers to curl into and stretch away from the palm, (2) they allow the wrist to bend up and down, and (3) they rotate the radius and ulna (the movement you use to turn a key in a lock).

    The biceps and triceps muscles of the upper arm also play important roles in picking and especially strumming. The biceps cover the front of the upper arm and attach to the ulna just past the elbow joint. It is responsible for pulling the forearm toward the shoulder; it also holds the forearm in its bent position when resting on the guitar. Triceps covers the back of the upper arm. It attaches to the back of the ulna, and swings the forearm away from the shoulder. These muscle groups originate at the shoulder, where many other muscles of the arm, shoulder, neck, and back also attach.

    Now let’s examine the two picking methods based on our anatomy lesson.

    When driving from the elbow, the wrist stiffens and the forearm swings up and down. The index finger and thumb squeeze harder to stabilize the pick, forcing more tension in the forearm muscles. The bulk of the movement is conducted by the biceps and triceps, as they work in tandem to pull the arm up and swing it down. At high speeds over long periods of time these muscles go into deeper contractions until exhaustion. Once exhausted, muscles in the shoulder, neck and back will take up the work. These muscles, however, aren’t designed for such work; and over time the elbow-driving guitarist will be prone to suffer neck, back and shoulder problems.

    The wrist approach involves almost no upper arm action. The wrist is loose, and the work is done almost exclusively by the forearm muscles. At higher speeds the radius and ulna begin to rotate and build a natural momentum. As this momentum builds the wrist begins to pronate (bend downward), and the hand (not the arm) swings up and down. There is little to no tension in the upper arm, even at high speeds, because the biceps and triceps are not involved.

    So which method is better?

    In every respect, wrist momentum exceeds. It makes the most of the forearm system, which is designed for this kind of work, and with far less muscle tension. Momentum at high speeds allows the forearms to work at minimal tension over long periods of time. This mechanical advantage allows for great speed and precise articulation free of charge, especially the more you rotate the palm downward, so that it faces up toward you and away from the strings. (This is what Yngwie Malmsteen does).

    You’ll also spare yourself needless tension and injury. Much less exertion is needed, as the muscle groups of the upper arm are taken out of the equation. This greatly reduces or even eliminates the possibility of shoulder, neck, or back injury. (On this point it is worth noting complaints made by professional players who rely on elbow drive at extreme speeds for long durations of time. Some examples are Petrucci, who has complained of arm ailments, and Kirk Hammet, who has written about nerve impingement in his shoulder he suffered on the …And Justice Tour. There are stories of extreme metal guitarists who lost ability in their pick arm altogether and had to end their careers. Yngwie, on the other hand, has spoken about an injury that almost ended his career, forcing him to revise his picking approach).

    But the wrist method takes practice than driving form the elbow. It requires more skill to control the rotational movement, particularly at high speed. Tone and level may be an issue, according to some guitarists, though it hasn’t been my experience. (The attack is even stronger than driving with the elbow). But if it is an issue, use a heavier pick, which will actually assist in accuracy and attack and allow you to relax more. Overall the pros far outweigh the cons.

    If you’re still frustrated with your picking but know that excellence awaits within you, the wrist approach will help take you there. Use it exclusively or in combination with other techniques. This Rosetta Stone of picking WILL unlock your potential for speed, accuracy, and tone.

    As for me, the weight of dissatisfaction has lifted, and I’ve been enjoying “gratifying years” on guitar. This discovery has opened me up to so many more creative opportunities and joy of playing.

    Position yourself for success and enjoy the rewards!

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  3. UNLOCKING THE PICK HAND’S FULL POTENTIAL (Pt.3):
    Holding It Together
    by Scott Stedeford

    One of the most discouraging aspects of picking is holding the pick. It will slip when you sweat, spin between your fingers while you play, and seems to want to leave your hand right at the moment when that big solo comes up. You try a special pick with a “no slip grip,” but it feels more awkward than a regular one. You squeeze harder, but the pick only spins more. No matter what you try, it seems like the fingers and pick want nothing to do with each other.

    If you look for advice on holding a pick, you’ll find very little if any at all. Most authorities focus only on aspects of picking movement (articulation, dynamics, speed). At the beginner level an instructor may say something like, “Just hold on real good and don’t let it fall.” After that it’s on you to figure it out. You might try observing other guitarists to gain insight, only to be vexed by the varieties of wildly different approaches — and more vexed to learn that most guitarists can’t explain their approach. It seems like everyone just somehow arrives at it.

    It’s strange that pick grip seems to be the least pondered issue by guitarists, especially considering that good tone and technique begin here. The silence on this subject led me to search for a standard, some method or methods that could be developed and explained. I discovered four important components: (1) tension, (2) position of the index finder, (3) angle of the thumb, and 4) depth of grip. These elements affect all aspects of technique, regardless of the pick’s weight, shape, or size.

    Tension refers to your firmness of grip, Intuitively, you’ll want to squeeze tightly to keep the pick under control. But, as mentioned above, this only worsens things. A tight squeeze constricts the wrist and tightens muscles in the hand and arm. Skin temperature rises in response to exertion (muscles produce heat in your body), inducing the release of sweat, which moistens fingers. As the muscles fatigue, your grip weakens. All of this conspires to make the pick prone to spin, slip, and fall.

    The solution comes in two parts. The first part involves right placement of your index finger. The second part involves loosening your grip, ideally so that someone could snatch the pick from your fingers without resistance. This sounds completely counterintuitive, but it works when you consider the principles of mechanical physics at play during a pick stroke.

    When you pluck, the string exerts force or backpressure against the pick. During a down stroke, for example, the string exerts force against the outside edge of the pick (the edge facing away from your hand), causing it to flex upward, opposite the direction of the stroke. The backpressure is received toward the inside edge (the edge facing toward your palm). When your index finger is too close to the outside edge, there is not enough force to absorb the back pressure, and the tip of the pick tends to spin away from the string toward your palm. What we have, in effect, is something like a see saw with only one person sitting on one end. To correct the imbalance, we need a cantilever, something to produce at least equal force on the opposite edge to absorb the backpressure. We can create a cantilever using the index finger.

    To get a good sense of how this works, first place your pick flat on a table and picture an imaginary line dividing it lengthwise from top to tip. You now have a left half, and a right half. Since pressure is always exerted by the string on the left half, your index finger should cover the right half. This creates the cantilever. Though it may feel awkward at first, this balances the competing forces and stabilizes the pick. Let’s now reexamine our pick stroke in light of these mechanics.

    Remember that in a down stroke, resistance from the string flexes the pick upward toward the left half, downward on the right half. With the index finger covering the right half, the downward force is cancelled by the opposing force of the index finger. As a result, the pick snaps back to is original position. (The opposite action happens with an upstroke. Here, the upward motion of the stroke is met with downward force by the string, forcing the right half of the pick against the thumb. Again the cantilever works, because the thumb absorbs and cancels the backpressure).

    When you hold the pick this way, you’ll notice that the pick wobbles — like the see saw, but now with a person at each end. Allow it to do so. You should , in fact, be holding the pick loosely enough to feel it wobbling at all times. Though the pick, in this sense, in moving, it will never spin or shift, no matter how energetically you pluck or strum.

    Thumb angle is the third element. Most of us tend to hyperextend our thumbs, keeping them bent backward at the first knuckle. But this creates negative pressure on the pick, and expends more muscle energy fro the forearm. We want to pronate the thumb — that is, bend it slightly toward the index finger (as you would when making the “OKAY” sign) to put positive pressure against the pick. This reinforces our cantilever system, while giving more bite to the stroke, and improving tone, stability, and speed. (SEE Eric Johnson, Total Electric Guitar Instructional DVD, Lesson Chapter 6, (2004), for more techniques using this thumb position).

    The last element is pick depth. This simply refers to amount of pick exposed below the thumb. When strumming use a shallow hold, leaving the majority of the pick exposed to the string. This improves strum tone by allowing the pick to flex and brush against the strings. For tight, close strokes and alternate picking, choke up on the pick and use a shallow tip — that is, just a small amount of the tip exposed to the string.

    With these techniques, you drop the intensity of muscle energy needed, thus the amount of moisture on your fingers from sweat. But even with moist fingers, these techniques reinforce grip so well that you’ll find yourself rarely if ever dropping your pick.

    If you don’t already employ these four components, take time to orient yourself to them. You’ll feel and hear the results immediately. Study the masters and see these elements at play in different combinations with different guitarists. They make all the difference. Get into position for success!

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