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When I was taking electric guitar lessons for a year I was told, by my former teacher, that the pick should be parallel to strings at all times and so he insisted on it.

The other thing he was very strict about was the "amount" of the pick crossing the strings. Only the very tip of the pick should be hitting the strings (only one point ideally). I am finding this task very hard if not impossible.

After a year of doing nothing but practicing right hand (without significant progress) I felt so discouraged that I stopped attending the lessons. Here I would like to turn to you, experienced guitarists, how much of a emphasis should be put on the subjects above. Are these requirements even right?

Thank you very much for your input. I am loving playing guitar, but I would rather spend my time practicing songs, scales, etc. than this.

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    I hope the lessons were free! – Tim Dec 3 '20 at 18:14
  • @Tim Unfortunately weren't. And since I was a student I worked hard to be able to afford them. – Pepa Zdepa Dec 3 '20 at 18:18
  • This all feels a bit… Victorian to me; like putting a really rough plank above a piano keyboard to "aid technique". – Tetsujin Dec 3 '20 at 18:39
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    So your teacher told you to only practice picking without playing any songs or anything for a year?? That’s kinda criminal. – Todd Wilcox Dec 3 '20 at 19:38
  • @ToddWilcox I did some basic scales, but I think there were considered just "picking patterns". – Pepa Zdepa Dec 3 '20 at 20:04
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Using as little of the pick as possible is very important but you should expect to take years developing your pick technique.

Being able to strum with the pick exactly parallel to the strings is also important, because there are situations where that is the way to get the best tone. Again, it took me several years to develop my strumming to this point. So for both of these goals, keep them in mind, but be patient with them.

That said, it is important to learn how to pick and strum as above, but there are many situations where one or both of those points is not appropriate. The thing is, picking and strumming parallel and with as little of the pick as possible is both pretty difficult and also should be sort of the default way that you pick. When you do it differently, it should be a choice. So over time it will give you the best tone and timing to try to make the picking technique automatic and natural. I think that’s what your teacher was going for and maybe wasn’t clear about it and perhaps imparted some unreasonable expectations.

It can get very frustrating learning an instrument. It sounds like to me your teacher was too strict. These techniques are best seen as goals and not requirements. There are plenty of famous musicians who play guitar in front of thousands who have terrible pick technique. But none that I can think of who are famous because of their guitar playing, more often their songwriting and/or singing. I can assure you most pro guitarists have mastery over fractions of a millimeter of positioning of their picks at all times. If you want to play fast, or even if you want to strum folk chords with excellent tone, if you want to develop ergonomics that will keep your hands and arms healthy for a lifetime of playing guitar, I suggest you keep technique in mind, but don’t feel ashamed or stressed about your technique not yet being where you or anyone else thinks it should be. It’s a journey, not a destination.

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  • Thank you very much for encouraging words. But how shouldn't I be stressed about my technique, when there is a chance of developing bad habits, which are generally very hard to break once embraced? – Pepa Zdepa Dec 3 '20 at 19:59
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    @PepaZdepa You’re gonna develop some bad habits and have to work to correct them. That’s ok because that’s what happens to every single guitarist ever. Hopefully you’re playing guitar because it’s fun. Don’t let anyone else make it not fun, and be on the look out for yourself making it not fun! Just do your best to learn it right the first time but nobody can learn it perfectly so you’ll have some setbacks. We all do. – Todd Wilcox Dec 3 '20 at 20:10
  • This is what I needed to hear. Thank you very much again! After a while I feel motivated. – Pepa Zdepa Dec 3 '20 at 20:12
  • Interesting thoughts. Never really given it a lot of consideration, but playing today, looking at what happens, I find that my pick has a variety of different positions - from tight in to halfway out when strumming. It appears it's on the move quite a lot. Wouldn't consider it a bad habit, or a terrible pick technique though. – Tim Dec 4 '20 at 13:55
  • It depends on what you're going for. I've choked up tightly with lots of thumb for false harmonica. I've hit with the tip and played fast. I've set the end against them pickguard and tried to strum without lifting. – Dave Jacoby Dec 4 '20 at 17:15
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Could I be bold enough to state there is no one 'proper right hand technique ' to playing guitar. If there was, everyone would use it. There are many right hand techniques, and good players will swap between them as they play.

Sorry to say, your teacher believed one technique would do for all - and he was sadly wrong. That's it.

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I would agree with your instructor to some degree. Only the very tip should be allowed to touch the strings, you don't need a lot. However the term "parallel" is ambiguous without a diagram. A lot of shredders will talk ad nauseam about the 45 deg angle, blah blah blah. This is kind of BS too. I hold the pick as close to "parallel as I can" and by that I mean that the plane of the pick is "parallel" to the string I am picking, perpendicular to some degree to the plane made by the strings. I find that I can achieve incredible speed, accuracy, and cleanliness with this. However I caveat: (1) The natural movement of the hand + wrist + arm will necessarily cause the pick to attack the string at a very slight angle, and (2) many picks (specifically the ones I use) are sculpted or taper down. This means that you CANNOT possibly attack the string dead on with the flat part of the pick if you tried.

I find the shredder mechanics total crap and the traditional method of picking quite superior when mastered. From the point of view of learning it is typically a better investment to work at the correct technique and posture as a beginner rather than develop bad habits that lead to crappy playing later that are hard to reverse. It is possible that your instructor was just trying to get you on the right path and train your body to adapt to correct posture. Guitar is a hard instrument to master and short cuts don't lead to mastery.

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Please note that the the technique affects not only speed and efficiency, but also the sound. For instance Devin Townsend mentions angling the pick to get more scratching attack sound which he finds appropriate in some situations. So, while your teacher might have a reason to suggest you parallel alignment, I wouldn't stick to it zealously.

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There's Troy Grady, who created Cracking the Code to determine the way fast players in many genres pick, so that all players can learn to play as fast as their music requires. He goes way in depth with details I cannot remember, so search him out.

Being said, I should add content. I generally angle the pick forward about 20°, in part for comfort, in part because the pick slides over the string more smoothly and in part to avoid pick noise. There's a higher-end slap when you hit squarely that displeases me. Or perhaps there was something else I noticed 30 years ago that I've forgotten. I've seen players who angle similarly but back, and their thumbs look weird to me, like hands should not bend like that, but it works for them.

There are mistakes in playing that can become ingrained, where they damage your body but are hard to unlearn, but to me, that's about keeping your hand loose, not tense. Even if picking square with the string was good technique, which I don't think it is, spending hours to perfect it before getting to the parts that make guitar fun to play is madness.

So, play. Be attentive to tension in the wrist and fingers; if they hurt or go numb over time, you're doing it wrong. Listen and find a picking angle that works for you and sounds good to you. Watch Troy Grady videos for further ideas. Playing scales and learning songs doubles as picking practice, so you can move forward with art as you develop craft.

And shun your former teacher.

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