Guitar Technique Expert Guide
On this page you’ll find an overview of all the main techniques you’ll need to learn to succeed as an accomplished player.
Although you strum a lot as a guitarist, picking is just as important. Particularly if you play lead guitar, you’ll need to get into some good picking techniques. There are more ways of picking than you might think, some of which use your fingers, some that use a pick and some combining the two.
Fingerstyle (Finger Picking)
Fingerstyle playing is prominent in all kinds of genres, from classical to country to blues.
It involves using your thumb as well as your fingers to pluck the strings, simultaneously or one by one.
When you’re reading fingerstyle music, the fingers are often notated as P, I, M and A. P is your thumb, I is your index finger, M is the middle finger and A is your ring finger. Usually, P is reserved for the lower strings, whilst I, M and A are used for the G, B and E strings respectively.
When multiple strings are played, this can be as a strum with the nail of your index finger or as a multi-stringed pluck. There’s also the pinch technique, which involves playing the lowest note of a chord which your thumb and one of the high notes with your finger.
Depending on the genre you are looking to explore, fingerpicking can be complex or very simple. Whilst folk fingerpicking is pretty straightforward, classical guitar pieces can be extremely technically demanding.
Particularly popular in rock music, alternate picking is one way of significantly increasing your speed.
Whilst it can feel easier and more natural to stick to downwards picking, this will soon tire your wrist as well as make it harder for you to play faster.
Training yourself to go down-up-down-up as you play fast lead parts will make it physically possible to pick up more speed and will eventually feel the more comfortable way of playing. Try this technique with your scales as you’re warming up, and it will soon become the way you always play.
If you watch some of the shred guitarists like Malmsteen and Satriani, it’s almost impossible to imagine them not alternate picking.
Hybrid picking is the combination of using a pick and your fingers. This can enable you to play two strings at the same time that you couldn’t when using just standard plectrum playing.
It’s popular in a lot of blues music as well as heavier guitarists like Zakk Wylde.
As well as making it possible to play multiple strings, hybrid picking can enable a more pizzicato attack than a plectrum can. If you listen to Mark Knopfler’s playing, which rarely involves using a plectrum, you can hear the difference in tone and attack.
Another benefit to hybrid picking is that it allows you to perform string leaps that might be difficult with a plectrum. Although the angle at which you hold the pick and pluck might be a little awkward, hybrid picking, used sparingly, is a great trick to have up your sleeve.
Sweep picking makes super-speed possible. It’s a technique where, instead of picking multiple strings separately, you go down or up them in one movement, called a ‘sweep’.
This is often used for fast arpeggios, though it is not to be mistaken with strumming a chord. Whilst chords are usually played with the intention to ring out, sweep licks are more often staccato, with guitarists releasing their fingers immediately after playing the notes. This is to enable a speedier sound, harsher attack and clarity of articulation.
Popular amongst Malmsteen, Vai and Michael Angelo Batio, to name a few, this is an essential part of heavy metal shred guitar, where speed matters.
Economy picking is designed to produce maximum speed in your guitar shredding.
It combines sweep picking with alternate picking to enable you to play lots of notes, close together, super-speedily. It’s kind of like drawing circles with your fingers, as you go down with a sweep, up and around and repeat.
It’s an advanced technique, which you can hear from guitarists including Vai and Satriani, and it’s one that can take your shredding to the next level.
The general rule of economy picking is that when you’re playing multiple notes on one string, you alternate pick. When you’re changing strings, you do so in a sweep.
When you have a good grasp of the basics, it’s time to get down some more advanced techniques. Learning these will take you a step closer to sounding like the guitarists you admire and build your confidence and ability as a musician.
String bending is essential if you want to sound anything like any of the guitar Gods. Gilmour, Hendrix, Satriani and Vai all demonstrate bending at its best.
Bends are used to move the pitch of a note to a higher pitch. They’re notated as curved arrows, which either say ‘full’, ‘½,’ ‘¼’ or another value (these are the most common). The value describes how far you should bend the pitch. So, if it says to do a full or whole bend, the note you’re playing needs to be bent until its pitch shifts up one tone. If it says ½, push the string up until the note’s lifted by a semitone. If it says ¼, the note only needs to come up one semitone.
Gaining control over your bends is an important part of becoming an assured lead guitarist.
The sliding technique is like bending, but you don’t need to move the string, rather, you move your finger across the string. If you have a slide from fret 5 to 7, it will be notated by a diagonal line pointing upwards above the two frets.
To play it, play fret 5 and look into fret 7. Then, slide your finger into the fret without striking again.
Slides can either go up or down, with the diagonal line pointing to match the direction of the pitch. Sometimes, slides are notated without a starting or finishing note. When this happens, the general rule is to slide from two frets when it’s before a note. If the slide is after a note, slide down and release your finger at the same time, giving the impression that the note is sliding to ‘nowhere’.
Legato is the quality of smoothly flowing notes. The route to achieving this is generally through techniques like bending, sliding, hammering on and pulling off.
The word comes from the Italian ‘tied together’, which is exactly what these notes become. You know to play notes legato when they have a curved line above or below them. This is to state that you only pick once during those notes, at the beginning. There should be no silences in legato passages.
Blues music is predominantly legato, whilst styles like funk and heavy metal tend to favour the opposite – staccato, which is sharp, short playing.
Palm muting is common in pop-punk, rock and metal, but also comes up in reggae, funk and disco music.
It’s achieved by using the side of your right palm to gently press the strings close to the bridge. This dampens them and discourages ringing out sounds. It can enable melodic clarity as well as ensuring that guitar parts aren’t too overpowering. There are tonal benefits to palm muting, as it brings out lower frequencies and there it also enables your guitar to work as a percussive instrument.
Palm muting is often used to create a dynamic difference between verses and choruses in punky or grunge bands. A lot of Green Day songs use palm muting to give their verses an exciting, driving sound that isn’t overpowering, whilst strumming freely through louder choruses.
Palm muting is usually used by players who use a pick, though it’s not impossible without one. Palm muting without a pick, however, is unusual and quite difficult.
Harmonizing is a technique that can be used through riffs, guitar solos and even chord progressions.
It involves finding the fourth, fifth or another interval to harmonize with an existing melody. On a guitar, locating the fourth interval of a note is easy as it’s on the same fret, on the string below. To locate a fifth, do the same, then go up two frets.
Harmonizing can be used in dualling guitar solos, like Thin Lizzy’s ‘Boys are Back in Town’. It’s also something you can use more subtly to add texture and colour to your playing.
Vibrato is the technique of gently ‘wobbling’ notes.
It’s achieved by bending a string up and down slightly so that it keeps landing on the original pitch. You keep your finger pushed down on the string as you move it gently. This can take some getting used to, but the trick is to relax and let your wrist gently do the work, rather than using your entire arm.
Usually, the range is less than a semitone, though sometimes vibrato can go up and down as much as a tone or two in pitch.
When it’s an extremely wide vibrato like this, it’s written as a tall zig-zagged line above and after the note. When it’s normal vibrato, it’s a curvy zig-zagged line above and after the note. The length of the line determines how long you shake the note for.
Harmonics (Natural and Artificial/Pinched)
There are two kinds of harmonics you can achieve on a guitar: natural and artificial, or pinched.
Natural harmonics can only be played on certain frets: 4, 5, 7 and 12. To play them, touch above the metal part of the fret gently with your finger. It’s important not to push down. As you strike the note, you should be able to lift your finger away and hear a long, ringing note that’s a higher pitch than the fret would usually play.
This technique appears in the intro to ‘Sanitarium’ by Metallica, on the 12th fret of the E, B and G strings.
Artificial harmonics are also popular in heavy metal music, particularly amongst Zakk Wylde and Dimebag Darrell. You can play them on any fret, on any string. To play one, strike the string with your thumb at exactly the same time as you hit it with your pick. You will probably need to change your picking grip accordingly. You’ll know when you’ve done one, as you’ll hear a high pitched ‘squealing’ sound.
Tapping is a trick that was made particularly popular in the 70s/80s by guitarists including Eddie Van Halen and Kirk Hammett.
It involves using your picking hand to hammer on and pull off in different places to your fretting hand. This hand can even do bends, slides and chord shapes in more advanced tapping songs like ‘Building the Church’ by Steve Vai.
In TAB, tapping is usually notated by a square above the notes. So, if you were pulling off from frets 19 to 15 to 12, with the 19th fret being the tap, it would have a small square above it. The three notes would be joined together with a legato curve.
As well as enabling great speed, this trick can enable you to reach spread out notes that you couldn’t reach with one hand. On top of these benefits, tapping looks cool and can add a ‘flashiness’ to your soloing.
Double stops are when you play the same fret on more than one string at once.
This happens quite a lot in blues and blues-rock solos, particularly around the pentatonic scale.
Whilst we are used to using the tips of our fingers to play notes, some double stops require flattening your finger across two strings so that both notes can ring out. You then strike both strings at once, as though you were playing a very small chord (which, I suppose, you are). Not all double stops use just one finger, though when they are in the bluesier styles, this is the most common kind.
This technique can be a really useful way of giving your lead guitar texture and making a solo cut through a bit more.
Hammer-ons are one way of achieving legato sounds. They can take a bit of getting used to, but once you do, it’s likely that you’ll use them all the time.
If you wanted to hammer on, for example, fret 7 from fret 5 on the G string, you would first play fret 5 with your index finger, then push your ring finger onto fret 7. Where you’d normally strike the string again, avoid doing so. If you only pick the string as you play fret 5, then push the finger onto fret 7 without picking again, you will have hammered it on.
If there’s no sound, try again, ensuring that where you hammered on was towards the end of the fret and that you used the tip of your finger. It might take a few practices, but it’s a popular technique used by lead guitarists that can increase your speed and make your playing smooth.
Pull-offs are another way of ensuring that the notes run legato. To achieve one, get two notes ready and pull the highest one off onto the lowest. For example, if you wish to pull off from fret 8 to fret 5 on the E string, you need to get both of your fingers ready on those frets. Then, strike the string and flick your finger off the 8th fret, leaving your first finger on fret 5. The finger you flicked away will have struck the string again, making it so you could hear the note from the finger that remained very clearly.
Pull-offs are very popular in blues music as well as rock and beyond. They can increase your speed, enhance your style and give you the smoothness you need for many licks. Although the example we provided had just two notes, you can pull off as many notes as you like, until you run out of fingers!
Advanced strumming patterns often use syncopation and a combination of down-strokes and up-strokes. They can also contain arpeggios. These are notated as wiggly arrows instead of straight arrows, indicating that you need to play the chord one note at a time (usually quite quickly).
As well as this, more advanced strumming patterns can contain dynamic instructions. When this is the case, smaller arrows can mean quiet strums, whilst larger ones mean to play loudly. It’s always worth checking a key, where possible, that’s specific to the book or site you’re using to learn. Although they’re reasonably consistent, TABs and strumming guides do differ in their notation.
Soloing is another skill that can’t have its importance overstated.
Although they’re called ‘solos’, they’re normally played with rhythmic accompaniment by other instruments. Guitar solos take the lead part of a piece in the form of a heavily improvised, lead melody.
They’re usually technique-heavy, using skills like bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs and sometimes harmonics and tapping. They’re also often played on overdriven settings, though not always. Guitarists like Clapton tend to play guitar solos with a cleaner sound.
Learning a bunch of scales and modes can develop your soloing skills as you have an increased amount of options. Also, becoming familiar with multiple positions of scales will open up the fretboard and enable you to solo up and down the neck. It’s worth learning some of the solo’s you admire, then analysing them to see how they work. A deeper understanding of other guitarists’ creativity enhances your own.