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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Clean Note Transitions

This is a lesson on how to play passages of notes in
a perfectly clean and intelligible way. You must eliminate silence between notes
to create a seamless stream of sound. Picture your notes as a brick wall. You
want to lay the bricks so tightly that there are no spaces in between them.

The problem:

When a guitarist first begins learning, every movement is very deliberate and
conscious. When they play single notes one after another they have to stop,
find the next note, move their fingers there, and prepare to pluck the string.
All of these conscious actions lead to a period of silence/shuffling around
while they prepare to play the next note. And so a satisfying flow of notes is
not achieved.

The solution:

The solution to technical problems is always to tackle the problem directly and with a targeted
exercise which is as small as possible so as to reduce the workload on the
brain and fingers and to ensure faster results.

Ex #1 - Basic single string clarity:

Let’s achieve a loop of two perfect notes on a single string. On the high e string, the thinnest,
pluck the 12th fret. Let it sound for a moment. Now press the string
against the 15th fret with your pinkie, and the MOMENT you do, as in
instantaneously, pick the string. If you did this correctly you should have
heard the first note stop and the second note begin almost seamlessly. The only
sound in between should be the gentle percussive click of the pick striking the
string. Now lift your finger back off the 15th fret and immediately
pick again to return to the 12th fret. Again the notes should
transition seamlessly. Go back and forth between these two notes slowly and
perfectly. Remember to palm mute the other 5 strings to kill string noise.

Ex #2 – The “See Saw” exercise. AKA “The Siren”:

This exercise is exactly the same as Ex #1 except that the second note is on the b string
instead of the high e. The purpose of this exercise is to keep the same clean flow
of notes going even while crossing strings. Keep both index finger and pinkie
touching the strings at all times. Never lift either finger off its string. To
fret a note simply press down gently and then pick. The other finger will be
gently resting on/muting the other string but NOT fretting it. To play the
other note simply reverse roles. So put simply, both fingers will be touching
the strings at all times but only one will ever be fretting at any given
moment. When the b string is being played, your palm should be muting the 4
lowest strings. When the high e string is being played, your palm should be
muting all 5 lower strings. Loop this.

Ex #3 – Pentatonic scale section:

You are now ready to apply your one and two string transitions to a scale fragment. Very slowly play
through the three highest strings of the E minor pentatonic scale. Focus
diligently on starting the next note as soon as the previous begins. Build that
perfect wall of notes. No space in between the bricks. Go in one direction.
Have a rest. And then return.

Check out the video lesson:

 

 

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