Pick attack refers to the way that you strike your guitar strings with your picking hand.
A heavy pick attack is one in which you strike the strings hard. On the other side of the spectrum, a soft pick attack is one in which you apply much less pressure with your picking hand.
Pick attack is a more nuanced element of playing and one which is often overlooked by guitarists. We tend to focus on our fretting hand. Provided we’re hitting the right strings and our fretting hand is keeping up, then we’re usually pretty happy.
More recently however, I’ve started to place more focus on my picking hand and my pick attack. There are two reasons for this:
The first is technical. If you improve control in your picking hand, you will become a more precise guitarist. If you play with precision and are in control of your guitar, then ultimately, your playing will sound impressive.
The second factor and the focus of this article is the implication that your picking hand has on your tone. You would not believe the difference that you can make to your sound and tone, just by adjusting your pick attack.
I became acutely aware of this a couple of weeks ago. A good friend invited me to try out his new amp – a Mesa Boogie Lonestar. I took my Strat round to his and we took turns playing it through the amp.
When he played, his tone was clean and delicate. The amp sounded fairly quiet. When I played, my tone was much crunchier and had more bite to it. The amp sounded much louder. We were using the same guitars, played through the same amp, on the same settings.
The only difference was the way that we picked the notes. I have a very heavy pick attack. By contrast, my friend played with a very soft touch. The difference that this caused in the tones we each produced was profound.
How To Assess Your Pick Attack
If you want to see this difference in action and see where your pick attack is on the spectrum then try the following exercise at home:
Take your guitar and amp, and crank the amp to the point where it is on the edge of breaking into distortion. Play as gently as you possibly can with your picking hand. Exaggerate this and really play as lightly as possible, so that you’re just brushing the strings. Note the sound and the tone of your guitar.
Then without making any changes to your amp or volume controls, dig in as hard as you can with your picking hand. You should notice a fairly dramatic shift in your tone. It will change from a clean sound to one that is grittier and more distorted.
Repeat this with your amp set at different volumes and with a different mix . Observe how adjusting your pick attack alters your tone when you change your amp settings.
Finally, take note of which portion of the exercise feels easier and more natural to you. I’m a very heavy handed player and so using a light pick attack takes a lot of conscious effort. For you it might be the other way around.
The Pros of a Heavy Pick Attack
Your pick attack makes a big difference to your tone and recognising this difference is important. But it isn’t that useful unless you are able to recognise the benefits of a heavy and light pick attack and adjust it appropriately during a solo or song. You need to know when to hold back and when to dig in, and the key benefits of these adjustments.
The biggest benefit of using a heavier pick attack is that you can change your tone without losing any clarity in your sound. If you add distortion by changing your amp settings or using a guitar pedal, your individual notes can lose definition. At the extreme end of this spectrum are Heavy Metal guitarists. When they add a lot of distortion to their sound, the notes begin to run into one another and the sound becomes blurry.
This isn’t the sound we want for the blues. In the blues, the clarity of each individual note is important. There are of course notable exceptions to this. Guitarists like Billy Gibbons and Gary Clark Jr use heavy distortion, along with guitarists playing heavy blues rock. But for the most part, blues guitarists are fairly sparing with overdrive.
So when you do add crunch to your tone, you want to make sure it isn’t at the expense of your overall tone.
Using a heavier pick attack can help here. If you dig in with your pick, your sound will distort and there will be added crunch to your tone. Crucially though, the notes remain well defined. Just listen to a player like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had a very heavy pick attack. His sound is slightly distorted but you can hear each note with perfect clarity. That comes from his pick attack, rather than from pedals or overdrive on his amp.
The Cons of a Heavy Pick Attack
One of the drawbacks of a very heavy pick attack, is that you can actually stifle the natural sound of your guitar. This is somewhat counter-intuitive. You would think that striking the strings harder would produce a more sustained sound. But overcooking this and applying too much pressure can in fact choke the guitar.
The point at which this happens will vary depending on your guitar and the type of guitar strings you’re using, amongst other factors. Stevie Ray Vaughan had a very heavy pick attack, but he also used very heavy guitar strings. So he was able to strike the strings hard without choking his sound.
If you want to check the point at which your sound becomes stifled, try this:
Voice a guitar chord in the open position. It can be any chord you like.
Lightly strike the strings with your picking hand once, so the chord sounds. Take note of how long the chord sustains.
Keep playing the chord, whilst increasing the pressure that you apply with your picking hand.
You will find that this will be very effective up to a point. Beyond that, instead of increasing sustain, adding more pressure will in fact start to throttle the sound of your instrument.
You need to find the sweet spot where adding pressure in your picking hand adds volume and bite, but doesn’t stifle your sound.
Altering Your Pick Attack
One mistake of which I’ve been guilty is adjusting my pick attack in a binary way. Either I’m playing with a soft touch, or I’m digging in and adding bite.
But mixing the two in your playing during lead parts or soloing is very effective. It adds light and shade to your playing and allows you to highlight certain phrases. You can also build a sense of tension and excitement by getting louder as your solo goes on.
A couple of brilliant blues guitar solos where this is showcased, are as follows:
Black Magic Woman – Fleetwood Mac
Little Wing – Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stop! – Joe Bonamassa
Alchemy – Philip Sayce
In each of these songs, the guitarists change the feel and tone of their playing just by altering their pick attack. They illustrate that these nuanced elements of playing make a big difference and are crucial if you want to be an accomplished blues guitarist.
Choosing The Right Picks
Guitarists pay very little attention to the picks they use, which is a mistake. Whilst guitar picks might seem insignificant; they are what connects you to your guitar. They are the implement that actually allows you to make sound, so they are not to be underestimated!
I’ve personally experimented with using a whole range of different picks. Earlier in the year I was using Dunlop Tortex Flex Jazz III picks. I thought they were great, but at 1.35mm, they were probably a bit too thick given my naturally heavy pick attack. I struggled to play with a softer touch using them and have switched things up more recently.
Now I’m using Dunlop Tortex Standard picks. These are both a bit thinner (at around 1.14mm) and also bigger. I personally find them easier to use and more versatile and I think my playing has improved since making the switch. Finding which picks will work best for you is pretty straight forward. Just go to a guitar store and buy one of every style of pick they have on offer. Experiment with them and find the thickness, shape and material that works best for you.
Having said that, if you want to alter your tone by adjusting your pick attack, I would recommend opting for a slightly thicker pick.
This allows you to dig in and apply pressure when needed. You can exert a heavy pick attack and add bite to your sound. Then if you want a softer sound, you just need to apply less pressure. In other words – with a heavier pick, you get the best of both worlds.
If you use a much lighter pick, playing softly will be no problem. But you will struggle to dig in and apply a heavy pick attack. So your dynamic range will be more limited.
Admittedly, playing at speed is easier with thin guitar picks. But as blues guitarists, speed isn’t our top concern, so sacrificing a bit of speed for superior tone is a small price to pay.
Some Closing Thoughts
Jimi Hendrix once said that the ‘blues is easy to play, but hard to feel’. It is not a structurally complex genre and we aren’t using exotic scales or chords, like jazz guitarists. This makes these nuanced elements of playing so much more relevant and important to the blues. Just look at a player like B.B. King.
Not a single one of B.B. King’s guitar solos is technically complex. But his touch and feel are so sophisticated and considered; he can play a pentatonic scale and convey a sense of emotion. In doing so, King illustrates that it is the quality of the notes you play that is important.
Your pick attack makes a significant difference to your tone and the emotion you convey through your playing. It may feel like a small thing; but these small things all add up and together will transform you as a guitarist.
Good luck, and let me know how you get on in the comments!