The truth about "elbow picking"



"Picking from the elbow", "elbow picking", and "arm picking" are some terms for what is considered by most lead guitar players to be taboo when it comes to picking technique.
So why do so many beginners automatically start picking from the elbow when they attempt to increase their picking speed? Simply put, the brain and body work together to find the easiest and quickest way to produce results. Usually this is fantastic! But unfortunately in this case, elbow picking turns out to be the quickest and fastest way for a beginner to start tremolo picking. They get results and the bad habit is reinforced. This article will explain why you should avoid locked wrist elbow picking, but then surprisingly it will explore how a combination of wrist and elbow is actually a very synergistic method.

The motions

On the left you can observe what I refer to as "side-to-side wrist" picking in my popular ebook PDF "Lead Guitar Practice Methodology", and on the right you can see how "elbow picking" works. When pivoting from the wrist, the side-to-side motion is very precise, efficient, and easy to do. Very little mass is being thrown about the fulcrum (wrist).
Compare this with pivoting from the elbow, where the entire mass of the forearm has to rapidly move about the fulcrum.



The case against strict elbow picking

Locking the wrist and pivoting purely from the elbow is a disaster for many reasons:

First, elbow picking genuinely risks tendon injury later in life.
One could assert "[insert guitarist here] picks from the elbow and he/she has never had an injury!"
In response one could argue that "[insert person here] drank and smoked all their life and lived to 100!"
Individual exceptions can and will occur, but on the whole, elbow pickers are putting themselves at risk.

Secondly, it breeds tension and is pure overkill. Why? Because firing large muscles in order to move an entire forelimb back and forth is wasted energy. It actually takes very little force to pick a note. Using the arm to pick is overkill, akin to attempting to sign your name on a document using a house painting brush.

Third of all, elbow picking lacks the precision of the wrist.
One could argue "[insert guitarst here] picks super fast and with complexity!"
I have seen these guitarists' picking hands up close in slow motion and I can tell you that they aren't as clean as you'd think. Strings are often sloppily clipped by the pick as it travels over during string crosses - something I make a huge effort to avoid for the sake of purity. The challenges of pickslanting are very troublesome when approached with a locked wrist and pivoting elbow.

The secret synergy

Although I fervently try to stick to pure "side-to-side wrist" picking for the sake of purity and "good form", continuing to elbow pick but also freeing up the wrist creates a synergistic relationship which many famous players use with great success to shred like mad! Have you ever noticed how players like John Petrucci play with the wrist up to a certain speed, and then inject elbow motion to take it to the next level? Let's take a look:

The wrist is freely picking side-to-side, but now the elbow picking creeps in, too. They both work together to execute the pickstokes. The reason these motions complement each other in such a way is because both "side-to-side wrist" picking and "elbow picking" operate along the same axis. They both move the pick along the same line through space. Energy provided from one fulcrum feeds the other, and vice versa. Rest your arm on a table and pivot at the elbow. You will notice that if the wrist is relaxed, it will pivot passively in response. That's evidence of this wrist and elbow synergy.

In summary

Don't pick purely from the elbow with a locked wrist. I recommend you use the "side-to-side wrist" picking method outlined in my ebook PDF "Lead Guitar Practice Methodology" as default. I can pick with pure wrist at about 240bpm 16th notes. Which in all fairness is about the fastest I've ever needed to play. With elbow assist I can get up to 280 - 300bpm. Because of the strength of the muscles involved, you will always play fastest with an elbow pivot assist. This is just a fact. Nevertheless I must urge you to resist the temptation for as long as possible.

Purchase and download my ebook PDF right now for just $15USD! Check out the trailer and description in this promo video to see if it's for you:

 

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Diminished Scale Picking Patterns

The diminished scale is another very interesting scale. It's a neverending repeating pattern of whole tone, half tone, whole tone, half tone etc. For this reason there are only two main scale positions, as opposed to the 5 positions of the pentatonic scale or the 7 positions of the major scale. It also sounds terrifying in a heavy metal solo and is great for working all 4 fretting fingers as you will see. I will now take you through the 2 main scale positions, and then I will show you 3 of my favorite diagonal shapes.

Whole-Half Diminished Scale

Starting on the 7th fret, try out the Whole-Half diminished scale. It's called this because from the root note, in this case B, we play a whole step ahead (2 frets) followed by a half step (1 fret) after that. This pattern repeats endlessly.

Half-Whole Diminished Scale

This is the second position and therefore starts on the second note of the first scale shape, the C#. This is the same idea as before but flipped around so that we begin with the root note, followed by a half step, followed by a whole step, and so on.

Whole-Half Diagonal

Because of the repetitive nature of the diminished scale, you can arrange your fingerings into really interesting diagonal shapes like this. This one is exclusively the "Whole-Half" fingering.

Half-Whole Diagonal

This one is exactly the same as before except instead of using the "Whole-Half" fingering on the B (7th fret), we will be using the "Half-Whole" fingering on the C# (9th fret)

Wide 2-nps Custom Diagonal

Here is a custom, wide, diagonal position which is a favorite of mine. It begins on the B (7th fret), skips the whole step and the half step to land on the fourth note. I then shift this pattern up and across diagonally. Wow what a sound!

Be sure to bust out these evil scales next time you encounter a heavy open E riffing breakdown!
Check out the video lesson below for the playthrough

 

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Min7 Alternate Picking Patterns

Last time I showed you how a Cmaj7 arpeggio could be arranged into useful picking patterns. Now, staying in the key of C major/A minor, we will be moving on to the Amin7 arpeggio. The notes and intervals contained in the following two picking shapes make up the arpeggio:

A, C, E & G.
R, m3, 5th & b7


A root, minor 3rd, 5th and flat 7 makes up a minor 7 chord/arpeggio.

Shape 1:

Shape 2:

Here's a bonus - because Dmin7 and Emin7 chords are both in the key of C major/A minor, you can play the exact same patterns for those arpeggios as well. This fact makes the arpeggio picking shapes extra useful.

Here is a descending run which I created by blending the Dmin7 and the Emin7 shapes together:

To hear these shapes in action (+ some bonus music theory) check out the video I made for this lesson:

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Cmaj7 Alternate Picking Shapes

Here I have arranged the notes of a Cmaj7 chord into some seriously handy scale-like shapes. Pick through these, work them into your own soloing and get ready to jam with a whole new sound.

While using every note in any given scale is surely effective, by choosing and limiting which notes you play you can discover a whole new realm of sounds, licks and opportunities.

And so the idea I present today is how you can arrange the notes of a Cmaj7 chord/arpeggio (B, C, E & G) into playable scale-like shapes. Use the following shapes in the key of C Major (AKA A Minor):

SHAPE 1

SHAPE 2

SHAPE 3

Work these ideas into your own style. Blend them with your current favourite licks. Enjoy utilising the fresh sound that is the major 7 arpeggio.

To see and hear these shapes in action (+ a music theory breakdown) check out my video lesson below!

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Mixed Scale Runs: Picking + Legato

Blast through your scale runs and create subtle texture differences in sound by mixing picking and legato. While there's little more satisfying than a perfectly executed alternate picking run, I'm a huge fan of injecting legato into the mix. Why? I believe there are two reasons:

Play faster sooner

I realised as a beginner (and struggling with alternate picking) that I could drastically increase my scale run speed by picking some notes and using hammerons & pulloffs to hit others. It gave my picking hand just enough of a rest during the legato sections to keep up.

It sounds great

I also realised that the mixture of percussive, picked notes and fluid smooth notes created a subtle yet pleasing sound difference throughout scale runs. See what I mean by giving this quick scale section a go, ascending and descending in C Major:

As abstract as this comparison is, I would compare the mixing of legato and picking to how a sparrow flies. If you've ever seen one flying overhead you may have noticed that they flap for a second or two and then tuck in their wings and fall for a moment, and then flap again, and fall again.
This is how picking + legato feels for me.
It makes me feel like a sparrow =|

Here's a brutal Jeff Loomis style shred lick using the technique!

 

 

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