The thing I love to do most on a guitar is to play old-time fiddle tunes with a flatpick. It was not until after I had played guitar for about ten years that I took a few lessons Mick Martin, an incredibly fast and articulate flatpicker in Pittsburgh. Mick set me on the right path toward getting those fiddle tunes to flow and to really ring out crisply and cleanly on a guitar. These principles are applicable to not only bluegrass or fiddle tunes, but to all kinds of acoustic guitar music played with a flatpick.
Let's start with your picking hand. If you want to play fiddle tunes or do lead guitar breaks in a bluegrass band, the first thing you need to do is start with a pick that is thick enough! Use at least a medium pick-usually about .73-.81mm. This may seem difficult at first, but it is absolutely necessary, so that you'll get strong, snappy notes that really make a statement.
Next, be sure to grip the pick firmly so that your thumb and index finger cover most of the area of the pick. I use a standard Fender 351 Medium pick (or something comparable). Instead of holding it lengthwise, I hold the pick so that the top (that is, the shortest side) of the pick is lined up over the top of my thumbnail, so that the edge of the top of the pick is hitting the strings. This may or may not be best for you, but, in any case, choke up on that pick! You don't want to play little wimpy licks!
Last, but not least, DO NOT rest the palm or wrist of your picking hand on the bridge or on the top of your guitar. Your hand needs to float freely so that you can keep the edge of the pick at pretty much a 90 degree angle from the strings. Keep your pinky or ring finger (or both) stiff so that one of these fingers glides LOOSELY over the top as a reference. This will definitely seem awkward if you are not used to it, but it is a must if you're going to be a good acoustic guitar picker!
So, we have looked at some techniques for the picking hand (the right hand, assuming you are right-handed). Now let's consider the question: What should the left hand be doing?
As to good left-hand technique, here is the first rule (which should be obvious): Keep those fingernails trimmed well! You need to be able to press the strings down with the least amount of effort in order to be a good picker-and long fingernails throw a monkey wrench into the works.
Now, let's start at the very beginning-at the first position. The first position simply refers to musical pieces that are played, for the most part, using the first four frets. Thankfully, the kinds of picking I like to do (bluegrass licks and fiddle tunes) are often in the first position. This allows for lots of open strings to be hit often so that the tunes are "anchored" by the drone of the open strings. This gives the guitar a full sound even when you play all by yourself!
Now, when you pick out guitar lead parts in the first position, the index finger will cover the notes played at the first fret. The second finger will cover notes in the second fret. The third finger will finger the notes in the third fret. And, "Mr. Pinkie" will finger the notes played on the fourth fret.
Now, as with most things in life, there are exceptions. The above principle should be regarded primarily as a guideline. From time to time, you will find it necessary to break this rule. Many chords, for instance, simply cannot be played unless the "one finger per fret" rule is violated. Certain licks will be played more speedily and cleanly by straying from the principle. But as a general rule, it is best to discipline yourself to abide by the precept of "every finger has its fret and every fret has its finger." Make exceptions only when there is a definite purpose in doing so.
Disciplining yourself to play within these guidelines may seem awkward and difficult at first (especially in situations that require the use of "Mr. Pinkie"). But the long term results of speed and precision will make it all worthwhile!
If you are new to picking, get started out the right way. If you've been playing for years, but it doesn't seem to be happening for you, then "unlearn" your old ways and learn the way that works. You won't regret it!
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