Your Picking Hand Position: Implications for Tone & Playability
As guitarists, we spend a lot of time thinking about our fretting hands. We always want to talk about bending, trills and vibrato, but we pay a lot less attention to our picking hands.
Your picking hand plays a huge role in how fast you can play, as well as the precision of your playing. Beyond that, and as discussed in my last article on technique; the way you strike the strings has a big impact on your tone.
This article is a continuation of that idea. Picking hand position isn’t the most glamorous topic out there. But in the quest for beautiful blues tones, most guitarists overemphasise the importance of expensive gear, and overlook the importance of technique.
We all love expensive guitars, amps and pedals. And there are lots of articles on that topic here. But there’s no point rushing out to buy a new guitar if you don’t know how to get the best sounds from it. Blues guitar playing is all about nuance and small changes in your technique all add up and will make a big difference to your playing.
So here we’re going to be looking at your picking hand position, how you can use it to alter your tone and some of the implications this has on playability.
Picking Hand Position & Tone
If you play electric guitar, then you are most likely aware of the different tones you can produce by switching between your guitar’s pickups. The neck pickup produces a warmer and darker sound, and each note is less defined. The bridge pickup produces a brighter, sharper sound and each note is crisp and clear. If you have a guitar with a middle pickup (like a Fender Strat) then as might be expected, this produces a tone somewhere between the two.
These differences are fairly obvious and won’t be news to many of you. What you might not be aware though, is that altering your picking hand position produces the same effect. When your picking hand position is towards the bridge, your tone will be sharp and crisp. When it’s nearer the neck, it will be thicker and warmer.
Try this at home to test it out for yourself:
- Take an unplugged electric guitar
- Pluck the strings as close to the bridge as possible. Note the sound your guitar makes.
- Shift your picking hand right down towards the base of the neck. Pluck the strings again and observe the shift in your tone.
I recommend doing this unplugged at first, as the difference will be more apparent. But if you try it with a clean amp on the same settings you should notice a similar tonal shift. If you exaggerate this and shift your picking hand right down to the bridge, then your guitar will sound very thin and sharp, almost like a banjo.
Being aware of this difference is a start. But it isn’t just a matter of tone; there are practical implications to your picking hand position worth considering. I’ve noted these below.
Which Picking Hand Position Is Right For You?
The default picking hand position for most guitarists is one in which they rest their palm against or just above the bridge. Although the exact position of your hand will vary between different instruments, in this position your picking hand will be resting against some part of your guitar.
When you rest your picking hand on the bridge, it’s close to both your tone and volume controls. This is important, as these controls play a huge part in your tone. Having your picking hand within touching distance of these controls is an obvious practical benefit and increases the likelihood you’ll utilise them properly.
Resting your picking hand on the bridge also allows you to strike your strings with fairly minor movements of your wrist. This is good for playing at speed. If your picking hand is making only small movements, you will be able to move it quicker and play faster.
Finally – playing in this position is comfortable. With your hand resting on the guitar, you use less energy. If you play fast a lot, practice for many hours a day or play live, then this is a worthy consideration.
The drawback of this picking hand position, is the impact it has on your pick attack. If your hand is resting on your guitar, then you will struggle to play with a heavy pick attack. This requires a forceful motion and it is difficult to generate that much force by just using your wrist to strike the strings.
Using a heavy pick attack isn’t always necessary, but it is important to be able to adjust your pick attack when needed. So becoming too reliant on always resting your hand on the bridge could somewhat limit your dynamic range.
The second limitation of this picking hand position, is that your tones will be slightly brighter and sharper. This isn’t strictly a negative, but it is a consideration. Too much treble will make your guitar sound thin and tinny. There are also certain guitars – like Fender Strats – which are naturally bright sounding anyway. So adding more treble to your sound is probably a bad idea.
Tone vs. Playability
The alternative option, is the picking hand position that I generally favour. This is where your hand floats above the strings and you place it closer up towards the neck of your guitar.
If you bring your hand away from the side of the guitar, it is suddenly freed up. This allows you to strike each string with more force. If you want a heavy string attack and more bite to your tone, then this hand placement will help. Just watch this clip of Stevie Ray Vaughan. When he gets into the flow of the intro solo, he moves his picking hand up towards the neck and away from the body of the guitar.
Vaughan got his signature tones by striking his guitar strings hard. With his hand freed up he can generate force using his whole arm. It’s difficult to do that when you just hinge from your wrist.
Playing closer towards the neck pick up is also a way to instantly make your tone sound beefier. When you play in this position, your tone will be darker and sound thicker. You can see that at the beginning of this clip of Jimi Hendrix playing Red House. Hendrix shifts his picking hand right up to the neck to get that sound. It’s unlikely that you’ll want that sound all of the time. But for a thick and heavy blues tone, it’s a good place to start.
Overall, the cons of this picking hand position are the reverse of the benefits you get when resting your hand on the bridge.
It is a more physically taxing playing position. Your hand isn’t resting on anything and you can’t control your pick attack with your wrist. You have to involve your forearm and elbow to strike the strings.
It’s also more difficult to play at speed. As mentioned above, you can’t rely on small movements of the wrist to strike the strings. Bigger movements of your forearm and elbow are more cumbersome, so playing quicker is more of a challenge.
Finally, when your hand is close to the neck, it’s further away from the tone and volume controls. This poses a challenge if you want to adopt this picking hand position and also adjust your volume and tone controls. It isn’t an insurmountable, but will require practice to move quickly between the two positions.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Ultimately, your picking hand position is a matter of personal preference. What’s important, is that you recognise that your choice has implications for both your tone and the playability of your guitar. Naturally, I feel more comfortable with my picking hand close to the neck of my guitar. But I’ll alter this if I’m playing a particularly fast song or if I want to make a subtle change to my tone.
Appreciating these nuances is key to being a competent blues guitarist. Your picking hand position may seem fairly insignificant. But it is in fact very useful to have an awareness of how altering this changes both your tone and the way you interact with your guitar.