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Can anyone suggest how I might improve my "floating fist" style flatpicking? I'm trying to clean up my pick technique for the sake of accuracy, feel, speed, and general ease-of-playing. I use the "floating fist" hand position a lot (hand and wrist floating freely, as opposed to anchored on the face, strings, or bridge of the guitar), but I can't play beyond a certain speed without resorting to some amount of anchoring, because the rebounding force from pushing the pick back and forth through the string starts to make my hand bounce out of control. Talking about single-note stuff, not chords...

I've been trying to address this by focusing on keeping my pick-strokes in a flat plane and keeping my grip loose enough so that my fingers will absorb some of the bounce before it creeps up into the hand and beyond. I've also been focusing on generating some of the picking force in the elbow, as it has to at least counteract the force of the string pushing back against the pick. I've been practicing alternate-picking on a single string, and at slow speeds I can keep it together and it feels pretty good. But again, past a certain speed the bounce creeps in and my hand starts to bounce off the strings.

Maybe some amount of anchoring is just unavoidable for playing fast runs, but I'd like be able to reduce my dependence on it.

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Why don't you want to anchor? It works... – slim Nov 14 '12 at 11:47
How much of the pick is sticking out past your fingers? – snailplane Nov 15 '12 at 16:37
Usually about 3/8 to 1/2 inch of pick extending past my fingers. I might have to choke up some, as I keep seeing 1/4" suggested. I've been watching some clips of Chris Broderick's playing and I like his right hand approach. It looks like he anchors a little, letting the tips of his comfortably-curled fingers brush unplayed strings. That's kind of what I'd like to achieve, a best-of-both-worlds technique. – ivan Nov 15 '12 at 22:24
Oh, interesting. I prefer to keep it closer to 1/8", myself. – snailplane Nov 16 '12 at 0:26

Generally a floating hand can be either accurate or fast. For speed you will end up using the elbow and upper arm muscles, but that loses accuracy, so it isn't best suited to fast single note picking. For accuracy you want to have an anchor to give you precise feedback.

I would suggest using a floating hand for chords and for slower picking, and then anchoring just for those fast picking pieces. This is what I do, and what I see a number of my contemporaries doing.

You may also find the requirements differ depending on whether you have a floating bridge (which would require anchoring to be done onto a pickup, or the pickguard) or a fixed bridge, where you could anchor to a string, the bridge, anything really.

It's all about using what is best for the particular purpose.

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I've had luck loosening the grip on the pick, so I would suggest working more on that...the trick is making sure you're not sacrificing tone. However, I'm not sure if this is the most common solution. I think it's relatively rare (depending on style of course) to not anchor finger(s) or wrist. Finally, have you experimented with different picks?

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I am in the process of a thorough round of pick experimentation :) I like the sound of your suggestion— I'll try focusing on that. Articulation ;) – ivan Nov 16 '12 at 17:07

Well I can't say I have a magic solution, but I can say that my experience is similar to yours, and I will start by underscoring some other answers already given which I too have found both accurate and helpful. First, I too have experienced that this floating fist works better with the wrist doing most of the work at slower tempos, with more arm / elbow motion becoming more prevalent at higher tempos. There is almost a kind of gear shift involved that I've just come to accept. Interestingly for me, it is the middle tempos where I'm trying to get a strong swing feel that give me the most trouble, almost as if it is an awkward place where neither "gear" is perfect for the tempo, but I digress.

One compromise that seems to have helped me with the anchoring is one I'm not super happy with, because it makes me more dependent on the guitar setup, but it does work. My "anchoring" consists of keeping my fist mostly closed, but allowing some part of my closed pinky to rest on the pick guard. To make this ideal for me, I've had to first choose guitars that have pick guards (Les Paul is my favorite), AND... adjust the height of the pickguard, sometimes employing extra hardware and washers, so it is just a tad lower then the height of the first string. Just low enough that when you pick the high string, you don't hit the pick guard with your pick.

So the result is that at lower tempos, I can keep my hand completely floating if I want. But as I get to those upper middle tempos where I tend to get excessively bouncy, I can begin to rest by putting slight pressure on the last knuckle of my pinky against that pickguard. This helps in two ways... during practice, it helps me to better refine my movements, so the "bounce" needed to alternate pick without hitting strings you want to cross over, is minimal. And because I haven't really changed hand position, if I want to practice getting the cross string clearance with a little twisting motion of the wrist, I can simply lift the whole hand up, bend my wrist down slightly, and work that way. Then as I slowly increase the metronome speed during practice, I can use that slight pinky-knuckle anchor a little more, to help me feel out the best balance of moving the pick with my fingers, wrist, elbow, and even upper arm. The second way this anchoring helps is during performance. Even if I warm up before I go "on", I've found the two most important things I can to to be at my best is (1) get the pick properly situated in my hand, and (2) find that ideal picking height and motion that gets me reasonably fluid, without having to get half way through the first set to be that way. And for me, that slight resting on the pickguard, as I've described, seems to give me the best chance of quickly getting into a comfort zone. As others have pointed out, its all about feedback and reference.

Aside from the fact that this kind of anchoring requires a properly adjusted pick guard, the other initial disadvantage is that when you get down to the lowest strings, the tip of your pinky is now coming into contact with the high string. But trust me, that's just a temporary problem. In time you just naturally learn to let the pinky relax "out" a little more as you get to the lower strings, and it becomes more or less automatic.

I know there will be people that will chime in and dictate all the more "proper" ways to pick... some will say ONLY use the wrist... others NEVER twist, and alternately ALWAYS anchor, or NEVER anchor. Its always good to try what other guitarists have found works for them, to avoid missing an opportunity to learn. In fact, since your technique (and issues) sound similar to mine, I'd like to hear of other solutions you find. But bottom line, its most important to continually find creative new ways around your own problems. Lets face it... Jeff Healey didn't learn to play good slide guitar with his feet, by listening to players who's personal success turned them into dictators of "proper" technique.

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I haven't adjusted my pick-guard, but I know what you mean about resting a bit on the last knuckle of the pinky. I think that's been my goto solution as well. – ivan Nov 6 '13 at 15:51

This is a great question, because there are a lot of guitar players out there that use this technique. However, one man in particular really stands out to me, and that is the legendary Paul Gilbert (Racer X, Mr. Big).

Take a look at this video, and watch closely how Paul's hand is formed - it's more a "claw-type" position then a "fist", per-say. He keeps his hand relatively relaxed while he's generating his speed from the wrist and fingers.

A few other things to note :

  • Paul usually keeps his palm lightly pressed on the bridge - this an anchoring point for those really tough passages that require a lot of speed and accuracy, but are usually played on adjacent strings. You'll notice he lifts it off for the string-skipping passages, just to give his hand more range-of-motion.

  • Paul's pick angle doesn't change! Regardless of weather he's string skipping or playing scales, his picking angle stays the same. This is not only a technical choice, but it can also affect the tonal quality of your notes, as well. Everyone is different, so try to pick an angle that not only gives you a comfortable amount of picking surface area, but also sounds good to your ear. Personally I keep the pick somewhere between 40 and 45 degrees to the string.

Just keep in mind, tension is a hand killer - you ultimately want your picking hand to be relaxed, weather you're strumming a chord, or trying to tackle the licks in the video above.

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