Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 4)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 4)

The parts of a strum can be seen separately, but it is always better to think of it as a whole. Your arm and body position, and how you move your arm were the first two parts I have briefly mentioned.

When it comes to “Painting the Strum,” holding your pick is one of the most important parts, which is what this tip is about – holding the pick.

TortexRedFor the guitar artist, we call his brush a “pick.”

So where does this term come from? We should define our terms, right?

We use the word “pick,” but this is (somehow) short for “plectrum.” It comes from a Greek verb that means “to strike.” The verb has a related noun that means “something with which to strike.” The noun is transliterated “plektron” (or, because I’m a Greek nerd, πλεκτρον).

Naturally, therefore, a pick is something with which to strike the strings of the guitar. But this kind of strike is a very controlled strike, like the kind Michelangelo might have used for his stone sculptures. His “plektron” would have been a chisel.

Though they are definitely not my favorite, even modern artists like Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock hold their instruments in particular ways to create their kind of work.

Pretty cool, right? Guitar is no different.

Okay, so there are several ways to hold the pick, but I’ll tell you what matters most right off the bat.

What matters most is how tightly you hold your pick.

Here’s the tip: Hold your pick about as tightly as you might hold your fork.

That’s about as close of an analogy as I can come up with now. I did not mention a pencil or a pen as an example because I’ve seen many people hold a pen really tightly…white knuckle tight. I’ve also seen people hold pens very loosely, to the point where you can barely see what they’re writing.

With this in mind, here are a few ways that even famous guitarists have held their picks.

1. Index tip & thumb only

pick3The first way is probably the most common way to hold the pick, though I don’t hold it this way. The first (index) finger and thumb hold the pick near the tip of the index finger.

Because this is the most common way, most would say this is the “right” way, but I challenge them to explain why.

2. Index side & thumb only

pick1This is another very common way to hold a pick. I happen to hate this way, truth be told, but others would say the same about my way. 🙂

Like number 1, the reason I do not prefer this is because I have not learned to hold the pick this way. That’s the honest truth.

Though this method might keep one from losing the pick during the strum very well, my hand feels big. In other words, with this method, I feel my hand is very much in the way of painting the strum well.

3. Index, middle & thumb


This is the way I hold my pick. It is the way I instruct my students.

Because the most important thing is how tightly you hold the pick, here are the reasons I like this way.

First, I can control it. I like the pressure it puts on both fingers (index & middle).

Second, I feel my fingers are out of the way. Maybe its because my hands are already a little bigger, but when my middle is in use, it’s out of the way.

Third, I can add stronger texture to the strings if I hold my pick this way. I can actually squeeze it tighter with three fingers (more on this in a minute), which essentially causes the pick to strike harder, making a louder sound.

So there are thee ways to hold a pick. Keep in mind that the tip is not about one of these three ways. I encourage the last one, but the most important thing is about how tight you hold it.

Why the tip is important

Okay, so maybe you weren’t expecting the tip to be about how tightly you hold the pick. So why am I telling you that this is the most important thing?

Well, lets use the painting analogy again. Some brushes have very fine bristles. Some have very thick ones, which are naturally stiffer than the fine bristles. Picks are like that. Some are thinner, and bend more easily; some are thicker and really don’t bend at all. In fact, these are like the brushes you leave out after painting. Depending on the type of paint, that thing will become an un-cleanable stone, and you have to throw it away because it will not bend at all.

Yes, there is actually a purpose to picks that do not bend at all, but acoustic guitar players have little use for them.

Picks are sized by the millimeter (mm), and range from about .38mm to about 1.2mm. I use a .5mm Tortex pick like the one shown at the beginning of the post. They are made with different materials, ranging from nylon to metal. The Tortex pick is a synthetic material that simulates a natural tortoise shell.

Crazy, huh?

So the tip is important because there are at least three things going on with your pick:

  1. What finger position you use to hold the pick (options above)
  2. How stiff your pick is (gauge, material, etc.)
  3. How tightly you hold the pick

All of these work together, believe it or not, and it depends on what kind of artwork you want to make.

Yes! Like a tiny brush with very fine bristles, the very thin pick is not going to make a very dark or heavy stroke no matter what finger position you choose.

Likewise, like a paint hardened brush, the very thick pick has no “give” and will tend to sound harsh and uncontrolled when used for strumming.

I have chosen a gauge that falls in the middle, and have chosen to use two fingers in the back as I hold it.

Busted – I haven’t answered your question yet. Why is the tip important?

Here’s what I would say with all this in mind (who knew this much was involved in holding a pick?): How tight you hold the pick tends to be inversely proportional to the thickness of the pick.


In other words, if you want to strum with a light gauge pick and actually get some volume out of it, you will need to hold it tighter. If you want to strum with a heavier gauge pick and keep it from being too harsh or louder than desired, you must hold it a little looser (without dropping it).

I have decided that with a middle-of-the-road gauge, there is a good balance in how tightly I must hold it, versus how tightly I want to hold it.

I can hold the pick a little looser and get a softer sound, or hold it a little tighter and get a louder sound. I am more free to be the artist I want to be with my acoustic guitar.

In fact, since all strumming is merely brushing the strings up and down without stopping, I can change to any number of strumming patterns by tightening or loosening my pick at different times during the swings.

Accents in strumming are simply created by squeezing the pick as you swing.

In addition, changing the angle of the pick as I swing has a variety of effects.

The finger position, the angle, the pick type and gauge, and the grip are all important, but the most important thing is the grip – how tightly you hold the pick.

That’s why the tip is important.

I hope that helps. I welcome your thoughts!


Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 3)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 3)

The previous post was about the first part of a good strum, keeping your right elbow in the right spot.

Remember that in all these tips – the anatomy of a good strum – the whole is what is most important. As I said, my intention is not to make this more complicated than it should be. I just want to break it down a bit to help you observe well.

To use the painting analogy, you should watch yourself paint. There are a few questions in the first post that might help with this.

Here’s the next part of a clean and efficient strum: A smooth swing.

To reiterate, all these “pieces” work together. So, a good arm swing is contingent on good elbow position.

The Tip

For this tip, the focus is on swinging: Have both a down stroke and an upstroke.

That might seem a little funny, but a lot of beginner strummers use all down strokes, or choppy moves, with a few upstrokes. Let your arm pivot on your elbow and swing up and down. It should not be very “jerky.”

The key is that ALL strumming is like this: down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up… etc.

Notice there are as many “ups” as there are “downs.”

There are other things to notice as you watch yourself “paint the strum.” The goal is to have smooth strokes.

In addition, you should have a good balance between arm and wrist motion. You should NOT strum by twisting your wrist and not moving your arm. Likewise, you should NOT strum by locking your wrist and moving only your arm.

An efficient strum will move from the elbow and include a small twist as the arm moves.

The twist will only be slight.

As for the arm swing, it should cover all the strings – paint the whole canvas – but not be so big that you could virtually paint 5 canvases. Make the swing efficient by swinging only as much as you need to.

Note that this doesn’t mean you strike all the strings. I’m only talking about the swing of the arm.

I’ll say more about that later, but I’m simply referring to the fact that different chords call for different notes to be played. In other words, when trying to paint yellow (let’s say), it’s easy to accidentally mix in another color with your brush.

For now, the main thing to know is that ALL strumming is both up and down. When you paint the strum, you need both a down stroke and an up stroke.

Let me try to show you briefly:



The next tip will be about how to hold the paint brush…I mean pick.

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 2)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 2)

I hope the previous post was helpful to begin describing what it means to paint the strum. The purpose of this series is to dissect the strum and describe for you what I would say are the parts of a good strum.

I suppose the word “good” is a bit relative, but I trust you know the difference. To be clear, I’m not talking about “professional” or “expert” strumming here. It is more like “clean and efficient.” That’s what I hope this series will help explain: The anatomy of a clean and efficient strum.

In this post, I will be covering the first part: Right Elbow Position.

Posture is naturally part of this, so I will include my thoughts about good posture and some tips to avoid bad posture.

The Tip

First, related to the series, here’s today’s tip: Keep your right elbow up on the guitar.

In other words, don’t let it come off really far forward where it’s more like your bicep resting on the top edge. Also, don’t let it go so far back that you can’t even swing your arm.

If your guitar is a little too small, your arm will naturally fall too far forward. If your guitar is a little too big, your arm will naturally, well…not reach.

As you can tell, there are a couple of things to be watching for already. My tip assumes that your guitar is about the right size for you. (Most people will be playing on a full-sized acoustic guitar by the time they are 12 or so.)

Different brands make different sizes as well, so if you’re in the market for one, pay attention to how well it fits the body that will be playing it.

As you are playing your guitar, just make sure that you are strumming with your right elbow up on the top front edge of the body of the guitar.


All this is related to how you are sitting (or standing). If you are sitting down and playing the guitar, there are some things to mention here.

  1. Sit up straight:
    • Don’t lean forward really far to try to see your left hand (it can push your right elbow forward and off the guitar)
    • Don’t slouch or lean back (it pulls your elbow too far back)
    • (Please) don’t put your left elbow on your leg or anywhere else. This curves and twists your spine. Bad.
  2. Keep your feet down:
    • This is just like it sounds. Keep your feet on the ground.
  3. Try and raise your right leg a bit
    • Okay, this one is a little tougher, but I’ll tell you why it’s important. It raises the guitar up closer to your head. It actually makes you a more efficient player because your right arm moves less and your left hand doesn’t strain and reach near as much. You can either get a small step to put your foot on, or get a book, a box, or a little sister under your foot to lift it up a bit. 🙂

Your right elbow is like a pivot point. If it is in the correct position, you can relax your body (because relaxing is extremely important) and let it swing.

This is the first part of a clean and efficient strum.

The next will have to do with how you swing your arm.


Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 1)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 1)

Strumming. It sounds easy. But is it?

Well, actually, yes!

…and no.

There are several factors that can lead to good strumming, so this series will be all about the anatomy of a good strum.

That said, I should point out that my intention is not to make this more complicated than it should be. I just want to break it down a bit to help you observe well. All the pieces in this series should work together fluidly, but if, when you play, you notice your strum just doesn’t sound quite right, my hope is that you might observe that you could work on one or more of these parts for the benefit of the whole strum (since the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, after all).

In addition, as I consider this subject, I realize chances are good you do not think of strumming first when you think of guitar playing. With electric guitars dominating the musical landscape, most people think of the left hand – the one that seems to play all those amazing leads by itself. It seems to move the most after all, and t.v. cameras tend to focus attention on how it travels the neck, slides, bends, hammers, and wavers around like a well-controlled dancer.

What this means is that you may not see its importance immediately. Though it might be pretty obvious to say that both hands must work together for guitar playing, how should your right hand function for the benefit of the whole?

That’s what I hope to address in these posts. It will not be exhaustive – only the “first things.” That’s what I tell my kids – “First things first.” This is the prolegomena of strumming.

Here’s a summary of the parts – the “anatomy,” as I see it:

  1. Right Elbow Position (and related: Posture)
  2. Smooth Arm Swinging
  3. Pick holding
  4. Technique: ways to paint

The last two will really bring out what I mean by “Painting the Strum.” I tell my students all the time to “paint the strings,” because this has been a helpful analogy for the motions involved.

As a acoustical guitarist, you are like an artist with a paint brush in hand. With the color of the left hand work, the artist paints on the canvas of the strings. While the left hand chooses the color, the right hand adds depth of field, soft or rough edges, and “thickness,” so to speak. It creates motion and range, adding tone and volume to the overall picture.

Yes, its crucial a painter should know how to choose his or her color well. However, many don’t realize until they have the paint on their brush that it matters how you apply it as well.

That’s what this series will be about. It’s about the factors that lead to applying your color well.

Beyond introducing the series, this post is to say: pay attention to what your right hand is doing.

Here are seven questions to help you observe:

  1. Do you tend to be stiff, or relaxed?
  2. Do you tend to paint the whole canvas, or just part (i.e. do you strum all the strings?)
  3. Do you tend to twist your wrist or swing your arm?
  4. Does your volume tend to be loud or soft?
  5. Where, in relation to the sound hole, do you tend to paint?
  6. Do you tend to have a “jerky” swing, smooth, or a little of both?
  7. How are you holding your pick?

In all of these, I am not setting up a test. I’m just saying, “Pay attention to what your right hand is doing.”

I’ll summarize with the following tip: Watch yourself paint.

Next time, I’ll cover the first part: Right Elbow Position.