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Online Akustik Travels

Guitar Picks & Strumming Techniques

by Claude Samard Polikar
Photo by jcomp for Freepik

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Even though it is commonly used, the guitar-pick can sometimes be a very difficult piece to master for a 'debutante' guitarist, and can even become his worst nightmare. Two major techniques are to be chosen from, the first being what western world guitarists believe to be the most «basic» consisting of alternate upstrokes with the wrist close to the bridge & the second being what I would call the «ethnic» style, greatly influenced by certain instruments such as the oud or the mandolin, that will have a wrist-breaking technique associated with what some might call “economy picking”. Let's go over these choices.

How should you choose to pick a string? With your fingers, a plectrum, why not even consider a bow? The bow was done away with a long time ago, as early as in the Renaissance period, even though Jimmy Page used it again to get an effect with Led Zep. Fingers or plectrum have since been the two main options. The occasionally controversed guitar-pick (Jeff Beck & Knopfler), remains a very useful accessory played worldwide with a variety of luths (of which the guitar).

It's substance and the way it is held may alter, which will invariably create a variety of styles and sounds. The sitar for instance is played with metal finger-picks, the oud with a long piece of soft plastic, the saz's plectrum is even softer and smaller. As for the Gypsies, they will generally use a turtoise shell pick or a thick piece of plastic, rounded & shaped by their somewhat 'heavy' strokes.

The modern guitarist's guitar-pick is that little plastic triangle which looks like it was designed to fit into that small pocket of your jeans, which one should always carry two types of, a soft one and a harder version in order to cover any ground. To each his own! Now that we've completed the inventory, we have to ask ourselves THE biggest question of all: how should I hold this thing and how will that decision affect my sound or my style? Are certain techniques inappropriate for ceratin styles or if I word this differently, can one apply for sure certain styles to certain wrist techniques?

In an attempt to provide you with an answer, I would like to give you some personal insight that many of you will certainly be familiar with. Being a self-taught guitarist, I soon realized that if I wanted to become a professional, I needed to learn to sight read and like many musicians I went through the Berklee grinder with its endless scales back and forth, wrist strapped to the bridge or to the sound board. The advantage of this method is definately rhythmic precision along with a visual & physical engrained knowledge: beats are downstrokes, and 2nd and 4th 16th notes of each beat are upstrokes...

A few years later..., here I am invited to play with some friends at a party with a couple of 'Django' specialists, so with my technique, I had it all wrong: not the right guitar-pick, not the right Django approved picking, therefore not the right groove, not the right sound, in fact no sound at all compared to these guys that were at it like crazy. And I realized something for the first but not the only time with these guitarists and with other kinds of 'strummers', whether they be Cubans on the tres, Tohuaregs with their ouds, or Gypsies on their Selmers and even my father on his banjo-mandolin: they all have the same way of hitting the strings according to the acoustic nature of their instrument. In order to get this effect they all have the same wrist position, at an angle over the strings and a kind of Gambale "sweeping" way of picking that eases the strain while insuring all the other percussive sound and style performance qualities. This position also gives you the possibility of throwing in as many 32 note tremolos as you like, ever so typical of certain styles of "world" musics. On page 2 we'll compare the effects of both techniques.

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