While sipping a frosty beverage with a friend in Brooklyn the other night, we ended up discussing the core of guitar tone. When guitar tone conversations arise, pick attack is rarely mentioned. Sometimes shape comes into the conversation but guitar piecing technique is often overlooked and is a major tonal ingredient. How tightly one holds a pick can act like an EQ. The tighter it is will increase bass response from the strings. You’ll be creating more vibration from the string and forcing more surface to touch it.
The lighter the touch, the less vibration from the string and less contact the pick makes with the string. If you want an airy tone you could lighten up on your attack and pick grip. To get a chunky sound, you can tighten your pick grip.
In a lot of instances when people come guitar lessons NYC seeking how to improve their tone, I often find guitar picking techniques to be a major issue. A lot of your tone comes from your pick’s relationship with the strings. Too much of an angle results in a scratchy sound which gets even more noticeable as pick thickness gets higher. There is nothing wrong with having a little angle to improve speed picking, but too much results in less than desirable results.
Lets look at Stevie Ray Vaughn as an example. There is a lot of talk about which amps pedals and guitars he used. But even if you choose the same gear, it’s not going to capture the essence as much as adjusting your guitar picking technique to match . One of the big elements in SRV’s playing was heavy pick attack (not a heavy guitar pick). He made a lot of contact with his strings. He practically ate those things!! If you try playing that stuff with a light pick attack, it isn’t going to sound right. Another example of a heavy right hand is Neil Young. He’s very aggressive with his pick attack and his tone showcases that.
On the other hand, Eddie Van Halen and Brian Setzer have a light touch. You wouldn’t exactly execute their guitar picking technique with a heavy right hand. Think of your pick attack as the vessel that carries notes. Great guitar players tone/EQ curve starts in their right hand.
Personally I like to grab the string as I play it. I have a pretty heavy attack, as I like that extra depth which results from the extra friction. If you could slow down a video of me playing a single note line, you would see that I’m placing the pick against the string and then sliding down/up as opposed to grazing the string. It’s almost like I hold my pick there a millisecond before I push it off. With my guitar picking technique, I use authority to make contact.
This also compresses the sound and evens out most of the notes. I never need to use a compressor to even out my playing. I’ll utilize one because I may like the tone it adds, but not because my playing is uneven.
Sometimes when I’m playing an acoustic rhythm, I like a very light pick attack reminiscent of Tom Petty. A big part of his “harpsichord-like” acoustic guitar sound is a light pick attack. There isn’t a lot of contact happening.
Because I’ve invested time in various guitar picking techniques, I’m able to find a balance for any style that is needed during a session. These are great tools to have. They really allow you to vary your tone. Arguably, more then any pedal can.
It’s not a matter of bigger strums but more actual contact with the string. You don’t have to be Pete Townsend doing windmills to get big tones. If you watched me play, you wouldn’t always be able to tell how much pressure I’m putting on the strings. It has a lot to do with the pressure that comes from my thumb and first finger not how wide a swoop my hand is making.
Try this guitar picking technique as an experiment:
Hold the pick lightly between your first finger and thumb and play a few chords. Now, hold the pick really tightly between your first finger and thumb, then strum. Make sure you’re not actually changing how high your hand is swinging to strum the guitar. Hear the difference?
One isn’t better than the other, just different. Understanding this difference allows you to make adjustments when something isn’t working. It’s not just a case of turning up the bass on the amp.
You can even experiment with changing guitar picking technique within the same song. Sometimes I adjust my pick technique for different effects within a song. I’ll opt to soften the bridge by using a slight pick grip, not only to reduce volume but to change the timbre of the instrument.
Listen to some of your favorite records and see if you can figure out how light or heavy a pick attack they are using. Try to recreate their sounds, not just their licks.