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I've learned a lot of guitar stuff from YouTube videos. But this really irks me: some YouTubers insist that their technique is the only way you should play guitar, and that any other way is a "mistake". There are these incredible guitarists that outright contradict one another in their videos/articles.

Such is the case with pick angle - every video or article I've seen on this issue says that either perpendicular or downward angled picking is absolutely the way to go, without addressing the other one. Which gives me the feeling that they both have their benefits in certain playing situations.

Which brings me to question -

TL;DR: What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these picking techniques (perpendicular and angled), and when should they be used?

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When teaching an instrument there are approaches to developing the technique in the student. Often a teacher will insist on a rigid interpretation of a technique so that the student develops that technique first, allowing them to progress to more advanced technique after the basic is learned. Which techniques that should be learned first is often a matter of some debate.

When using a pick on stringed instruments, the attack angle of the pick will change depending on what style, form, volume and other variables you are trying to do. For example, I keep the pick solid and perpendicular to the string when I am doing a fast tremolo on mandolin or guitar. My pick angle is very angled when I am doing light arpeggio-like strums.

Where you hold the pick in your hand varies also. I generally keep the pick on my first finger knuckle with my thumb resting on the pick. One of my fellow teachers that teaches Heavy Metal keeps it pinched between his thumb and finger for faster picking.

  • Do you find it easy enough to switch between picking styles? Like - if you were to spend a few hours working a lick up to 120 bpm with angled picking, could you do the same lick with perpendicular picking without having to slow it down and work it up to speed again? – tequa Mar 6 '17 at 20:43
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    You'll find you don't just use one style. You'll get used to changing all the time. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 6 '17 at 21:01
  • As your picking gets more relaxed and automatic, switching angle and attack will become more automatic to adjust tone and play-ability of the phrases. Picking speed is not determined by which angle you use as the angle is more about resistance coming off the string. – Alphonso Balvenie Mar 7 '17 at 1:42
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There are many different kinds of angle or slant you can use with a pick. The two most commonly discussed are:

  • A "twist" to ensure one edge of the pick hits first. This can be anywhere from 0 degrees, which is typically used with thin picks, so the pick bends, up to 90 degrees, which is what a lot of speed guitarists use in conjunction with a very rigid pick.

  • A "slant" where rotation of the wrist allows movement through one string to avoid the pick hitting either the previous or next string. Technical guitarists use this a lot (see Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson etc.)

In reality everyone uses elements of these techniques, and as you progress in proficiency you will use them for speed, clarity and smoothness.

If you want to see what they look like, look at Troy Grady's YouTube channel - he goes through them in slow motion with a camera mounted close to his picking hand.

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    Started watching Troy's videos - great stuff, thanks man. – tequa Mar 6 '17 at 20:38
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    Good answer and good info. I found Troy's YouTube channel and watched the featured video on pick slanting. Very enlightening and useful info there. Can you add a link to the channel to your answer? – Rockin Cowboy Mar 8 '17 at 0:08
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    There you go @Rockin. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 8 '17 at 6:32
  • Perfect! Great answer even better. Wish I could upvote again. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 10 '17 at 4:29
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Picking is always angled in some sense, even if it looks like the player is holding the pick perpendicular to the string. This is because you need some angle to push the string down and out of the way of the pick. If there was no angle, the string would have no force pushing it out of the pick's path, and the pick would simply push harder and harder against the string until it stopped moving (or the string broke).

That said, there are a number of ways in which the angle can be created:

  • A thin, flexible pick might bend to create the angle when it hits the string (even if the guitarist feels that they're holding it vertically)
  • The player can hold the pick loosely, so that it twists to create the angle when it hits the string
  • the player can use the taper of the pick at the base to create the angle
  • The player can actually hold the pick at a consicious angle.

So players who don't angle the pick from one perspective are simply finding another way to angle it.

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Dr. Mayhem's answer describes the two most commonly used modifications of pick positions. I would like to add more details about their motivation and benefits.

  1. Twisting the pick, i.e., rotating it around the axis that goes straight through the body of your guitar (in parallel with the axes of your volume or tone pots) will reduce the resistance of the string when you hit it. So you can more easily move "through" the string, which will make your picking more efficient. Some players use this in an extreme way, twisting the pick by almost 90 degrees. Note that also the sound will change with the angle of rotation, so you need to find a compromise between what you consider an optimum sound and picking resistance. Twisting the pick usually helps to increase speed, no matter if you play on a single string or across several strings.
  2. Pick slanting, i.e., rotating the pick around the axis parallel to the strings, mainly helps to move the pick from one string to another. If you use downward pick slanting, the pick will move away from the strings when picking upwards. This means that moving to another string after an upstroke is relatively easy because the pick cannot get stuck between strings. Consequently, guitarists who use downward pick slanting will prefer to hit the first note on a new string with a downstroke. For upward pick slanting just replace "up" by "down" and everything said above remains true.

Most guitar players combine both techniques. The exact angles that are optimal for you need to be determined by experiment; they will also depend on the type of pick you use, and they will change over time because your technique is always in development.

One final note, the position of your pick will also have a great influence on how you actually move the pick. Downward pick slanting facilitates a slight turning movement with your wrist instead of an up-and-down movement. This turning wrist movement is experienced as more natural and more efficient by many players.

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A lot of guitarists also say that whatever works for you is best. Given your natural hand positioning on the guitar, you're most likely to be holding it at a slight angle towards the ground. The latter's extreme version would make upstrokes more difficult. Personally, I've never noticed any difference between parallel and slight angle in acoustic guitar playing; if anything, maybe the attack is different.

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