I have often been asked how I, and other players, are able to play really
fast without playing sloppy. Playing sweep picked arpeggios cleanly while
using a lot of gain (distortion) can be a big challenge. Many players have
a hard time keeping all of the lower strings from ringing out while soloing
on the higher strings, causing a sloppy noise.
When I was first learning how to develop a fast picking speed, I was sloppy
and had no idea how to solve the problem. The guitar teachers I had at the
time were not virtuosos and really didn't know how to play both fast and
clean at the same time. Fortunately in 1993, I began studying virtuoso
guitar playing with George Bellas, who has flawless world class technique.
At my first lesson I asked George to show me how he developed his extremely
virtuosic playing so impeccably clean.
Unlike most players who try to mute the lower strings with the palm of
their picking hand, I use my right hand (picking hand) thumb. The thumb
rests on all of the lower strings lower than wherever the pick is. Here is
an example: If the pick is currently playing a note on the B string, then
the thumb would be muting (touching) the G, D, A and low E strings. The
high E string would be muted by one of the fingers on the fretting hand
(usually the first finger).
Practicing this thumb muting technique can be frustrating at times and may
feel unnatural at first. The most common problem that players / students
have is the new positioning of the picking hand. If you are used to muting
with the palm, then it may feel awkward to reposition your hand so that it
is more parallel with the strings. The solution is to stop trying to rest
the palm on or near the bridge of the guitar. It may feel awkward at first
because you are not used to holding your hand this way, but keep practicing
and at will begin to feel natural soon.
Another common problem is inadvertently muting the very string you are
attempting to pick. This is caused by the thumb getting in the way of the
picked string and unintentionally muting it. This usually happens when the
thumb is not centered on the pick and the tip of the thumb is hanging over
the pick near the string you are attempting to play. If this happens when
you are practicing this technique, reposition your thumb so it is holding
the pick more in the center and is not hanging over the edge of the pick.
Playing some fast virtuosic lines can really add fire and passion to the
music, but if those lines are not executed cleanly, you won't get the
desired effect. Getting my own picking hand disciplined to keep my playing
clean took a lot of work initially, but it has paid off greatly for me and
it can for you too if you keep working on it and don't give up. My original
goal was mainly to clean up my arpeggio playing, but I later discovered the
benefits of expanding the thumb muting technique to all types of lead
playing. Now I pick this way all the time. If you decide to implement this
technique in your own playing, try the ideas above. If you discover, after
practicing it for awhile, that you are still having difficulty perfecting
the technique you should consider seeking out a guitar teacher that can
competently teach this well. See my previous article on choosing a teacher,
in that article I talk about how you can find a good teacher who does not
necessarily need to live near you in order to teach you.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.