Double picking, or cross picking on the guitar or bass, is simply playing with both up and down strokes of the guitar pick. I’ve got a certain method of both playing and thinking that’s worked for not only myself, but my many guitar students over the years.
First off, reach way back into your past – back before a time when you were even able to hold a guitar. If you were anything like me, you ruined at least a few books with a favorite toddler pastime: scribbling. We’re going to put that innate talent to use on the guitar, with the pick.
Lets first look at how we hold a pencil, crayon or pen. If you’re about to write (you might want to try it now) you’ll notice you’re holding the pencil way down close to the tip. When I write with a pencil the fingernails of my middle, ring finger and pinky are actually brushing against the paper. The side of my thumb rests against the paper. The greatest percentage of the length of the pencil is behind where I’m holding it. Holding the guitar pick the same way is a superior method of holding the pick for a few reasons. First of all, the more surface area of the fingers is against the pick the less pressure you have to exert, so you can hold the pick nice and relaxed. I’ve found I like using a heavier pick because the flesh of my forefinger and thumb can give instead of the pick bending, and I have a lot more control as a result, but that’s just my preference.
Secondly, playing this way brings the hand very close to the strings. Lets look once again at how a pencil’s held when writing on paper. The guitar strings can be thought of as a sheet of paper without anything behind it to keep the pencil from just poking through. When I use the pick my hand acts as a gauge to prevent the pick from poking through – in other words, from going too deeply between the strings. This keeps the guitar pick striking the strings with only the very tip.
Try the following exercise: fold a piece of paper in half. Slide the sheet over the strings with one of the folded sides above the strings, the other behind it – in a sort of guitar string sandwich. Then, try to write on it as you would normally. But remember to go soft so the pencil doesn’t poke a hole. Scribble with tiny motions up and down. A tiny motion with the guitar pick means it has less traveling to do before it hits the string again, which translates into more speed.
Next, remove the paper and see if you can scribble directly on one of the strings with the pencil. Just stay on the very tip. You’ll find out very quickly that if the pencil goes to far between the strings it’ll hook and break the rhythm.
Lastly, try using the guitar pick in the same way you did the pencil. Just scribble back and forth on the string. Be careful to stay on the very tip of the guitar pick. Squeeze tighter for louder picking, and relax the grip to play more softly.
Wax on, wax off
Ok who would have guessed I’d be quoting that here, right? But here’s another exercise to try. Take a cloth and buff the guitar. Notice how the hand and forearm move when you do. Notice which part of the hand applies the pressure against the cloth as you lightly buff. You’ll find it’s the first joint of the fingers (the joint closest to the fingertip). When you hold a guitar pick, see if you can adapt to having the point of the pick directly over that first joint of the index finger. Remember, only have a few millimeters of the pick extending beyond there. You want to hold the pick so only the tiniest bit is exposed.
Holding the Guitar for Better Picking
When you hold the guitar, put an angle on it. Have length the guitar neck pointing at about a 45º angle upward. Not straight up like a cello and not parallel to the ground, but halfway in between. This not only puts a lot less strain on the left hand and arm and improves one’s reach (a subject for a future article), but it will cause the right forearm to be at more of an angle to the strings. If you’re holding the guitar pick with its flat side parallel to the forearm you’ll find the pick hits the guitar strings on its edge instead of with its flat side. Less resistance equals more speed. Turning the pick slightly to hit with the flat gives a different sound, and again more control over tone is given to the guitarist.
One other great advantage of holding the guitar at this angle is that the back of the hand can rest on the strings the guitar pick isn’t playing at the time. The thumb can come into play, subtly brushing the strings with the strokes, which can control tone.
I’d like to hear any questions on the subject and clarify if necessary any of the suggestions I’ve made here. And here’s an important thing to remember: playing fast is really easy. Thinking as fast as you can play takes a lot more work.