View Full Version : Right hand technique

Darren Kern
Jan-16-2006, 5:14pm
I've posted several times over the past year asking questions and making progress comments about right hand technique. The best thing that happened to me is when I met David Long inbetween sets at one of his shows, and he showed me how he holds the pick, between the first knuckle on the thumb and on the side of the index finger, on top of the first knuckle bend. This worked really well for me in getting better at picking melodies, but I struggled to get a good sound/feel while strumming with this hand position.

It hasn't gotten better with time. The pick makes too much of a raking sound, regardless of how loosely I hold it. It's not so bad with loud songs, but anything mellow sounds bad. Admittedly I often resort back to my old ineffective 3 finger pencil grip because strumming and chopping sounds better this way, but it's a very poor way to pick melodies and leads. Has anyone else experienced this? What can I do to improve? I've tried experimenting with pick angle, showing more/less pick, etc. to no avail.

Also, using this "new" grip, which is a loose fist type grip, I sometimes drag my middle finger knuckle across the strings. I haven't found a good way to eliminate this from happening completely unless I close my fist too tight to be comfortable.

Jan-16-2006, 5:31pm
Hi Darren, I hope someone more knowledgeable than me replies too, but I thought I'd give you my $0.02. I am not convinced that there is one "right" way to hold a pick. I think everyone needs to find what is comfortable and what works for them.

That said, I think that a 3-finger grip would be pretty uncomfortable and restricting for me. I don't do well with a "fist-type" grip. I usually hold the pick between my thumb and index finger and let my other fingers just lay out naturally - wherever they feel like going. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

It's kinda like a relaxed "OK" sign grip. I don't post my pinky, and I don't stick my other 3 fingers out stiffly. They just float in a natural, curved position. I think I get that from finger picking the guitar. Even when using a pick, I'll pick with my other fingers sometimes. If they're not curled up in a fist or sticking out and rigid, they're "ready for action".

Instructors may be cringing at my technique. If so, hopefully they'll jump in and set you straight. I've always just done what came naturally. Of course, look where it's gotten me - hah! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Celtic Saguaro
Jan-16-2006, 10:32pm
The raking sound may be the fault of your pick, not your technique. Every mandolin can sound different with the same pick. Find a music store where you can buy individual picks and try a variety. Sometimes, unfortunately, a pick that sounds fine for melodies sounds awful for chords.

Your problem with the loose fist isn't uncommon. As I'm sure you've figured out it's caused by not keeping your hand the same distance from the strings consistantly. People will disagree, but planting a finger on the pick guard or mando top should keep you from scraping your middle kunckle. If you don't want to plant a finger watch your right hand as you play and concentrate on keeping it in the same plane. Your fist will be swinging, but the whole hand should not be moving in and out.

Jan-17-2006, 2:40pm
I've tried the David Long grip. It works for him, but is too extreme for me. I have a tendency to let the pick slip too far toward the tip of my thumb and let the index finger get too straight, approaching a pencil grip. I can get much better tone using this grip, but I can't pick as clean or loud. I try a middle-of-the-road approach by putting the back edge of the pick (large triangle)into or near the crease of the thumb joint and let the index finger make a 90 degree angle with the thumb. I also want a slight curl in my index finger.

Darren Kern
Jan-17-2006, 2:45pm
Thanks for the replies. I know there are other posts about right hand technique, but I feel my problem is slightly different. Celtic, I think you're right about keeping my hand the same distance from the strings consistently. I think that's something that should take care of itself over time. GBG, if you have a digital camera, do you mind posting a pic of how you hold the pic? You've got me intrigued but I can't quite picture it. Thanks.

Darren Kern
Jan-17-2006, 6:14pm
It appears that every time I post about right hand technique problems, I end up making a bunch of progress in the next few days after I post. This afternoon while practicing, I realized that part of my problem is the actual angle I have been holding the pick. I changed my angle more forward and down, and it seems to mellow out the sound and get rid of the feeling that I'm raking the strings, for the most part. My buddy kudzugypsy told me I needed to correct my pick angle a while back when he gave me a lesson, and I guess I forgot to stick with the change.

Jan-17-2006, 7:38pm
Hi Darren: Its great that you are analizing proper pick grip. I went to your website and looked at the picture of you playing one of your mandos. You seem to hold the pick much like I used to. I used to hold the pick out towards the ends of my thumb and first finger. I did this for about 20 years or so before I realized my tone basically sucked. Also I had a very difficult time with the faster tunes with my tone all the worse. In hindsight I really wished I had gotten a few pointers earlier on and not developed some bad habits. Anyway I finally got to few great workshops here in BC and John Reichman and John Moore and Emory Lester all helped me in my never ending quest for better tone. One thing they suggested was changing the way I held the pick. I will attempt to explain what has been working for me. Looking down at the right hand make a very loose fist. You should be seeing the top of your thumb for this explanation. The outside edge of the first finger should be parallel with the left edge of thumb. You have to curl your first finger up to do this. Hence the loose fist. The rest of the fingers curl in underneath to follow the first finger. The pick is placed on top of the first joint and the pad of the thumb. After you have the basic hand shape thing down you have to experiment with different shapes of picks to find a shape thats going to find a happy resting place with your new hand shape. I find a larger triangular heavy shaped pick works best for me. Emory has very little pick exposed, John Moore has much more pick exposed. I also don't strike the strings with the pick at right angles to the string. I tilt the right hand a bit and the pick the strings at an angle. I tip the pick forward abit. John Reichman attackes the strings with the pick with the hand tipped back. He has a thumb shape very much like yours which curls up somewhat. He is very well known for the excellent tone he gets. Also keep the wrist loose and use the weight of the hand. This will come naturally when you use this loose fist grip. Because you will be using the weight of your hand instead of your finger tips your tone will improve big time. To change the way you hold your pick takes alot of work but one can prevail. I am very happy I made the effort after such a long time. I think it took me about 3 months before I was happy with the new way of holding it. I will try to e-mail a few pics as trying to post them on here will be too painful .....be patient, your on the right path and if John Moore is every in your neck of the woods ya better corner him. He is a great teacher.....regards........Tom

Darren Kern
Jan-17-2006, 8:26pm
Tom, thanks for the advice. #The pic you saw of me was when I first started playing about a year ago, and that's the method I used to play guitar with (haven't played that way in a long time). #You're right, it's worthless for tone and accuracy both. #Thanks for offering to email pics to me.

Jan-17-2006, 11:20pm
Hi Hy, (just had to type that sorry) . I saw Long and Compton last WE at a workshop. They spent a lot of time on the pick grip used for MONROE STYLE playing. If that's what you are after, it will make getting that kind of playing easier. Not all great players of the past used that grip though.
I played for about 8 years, I was just thinking I was getting pretty good when I discovered the pick grip thing on my own. I had to change. It took me a year or two to get it normalized. The change made many things better and now I can't think of any it made worse. But during the change over playing anything could turn into a challenge. Good luck.
why the name Hydrilla? It's all over my lake here in Wewa.

Darren Kern
Jan-17-2006, 11:40pm
bowfinger, thanks. #Yep, the Monroe style is my favorite, so if I can end up with some semblance of that style of playing, I'd be a happy man. #I know what you mean about the change taking a long time. #I knew shortly after I started playing that I was very limited by my right hand technique, and would never be any good if I kept playing that way, but years of bad habits on guitar are hard to break. Man, that must have been cool to go to a Compton/Long workshop, they are both in my top 5 favorite players.

The name Hydrilla comes from my previous life as a tournament bass fisherman. #I was known for being right at home fishing the grassbeds of the Potomac River and other places we went to, my friends started calling me Hydrilla and the name stuck http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Jan-18-2006, 12:05pm
I like to bass fish also. I do more fishing than catching lately.
When I changed my pick grip about 12? years ago, that helped a lot in my monroe style playing. Therefore I would make every effort to change the pick grip. If possible , Slow down to a crawl to work on the fundamentals just like it was a sport (cause in many ways it is). Then pick up speed gradually, you'll get there. Compton said other day that he still works on his right hand picking fundamentals. Also that he is better now than 10 years ago. Wow, I thought he was "there" 10 years ago.
ComptonandLong covered R. hand ,left hand, triplet, downstrokes and double stops. These 5 are the fundamentals of the Monroe style. I knew most of it already but it was fun just to go and sit and see and be in a small group session. I wish I could have gone to one of those about 12 years ago that would have been a real time saver(faster learning). Maybe next time I can get a private lesson.
Do you give fishing advice?

Darren Kern
Jan-19-2006, 9:03am
I used to, but I'm out of touch with it right now. I could certainly give technique lessons but I haven't been fishing enough lately to know what's working right now and what's not. In fact, I can count the number of times I went fishing in '05, sadly.

Jan-19-2006, 9:26am

Nice explanation. I might add a nugget I got from Lou Martin a long time ago:

Let your right and left hands 'hang' for that ancient tone. Sort of Zen-like, but stresses the importance of follow through and milking a note for all its worth.

Jan-19-2006, 11:08am
What's helped me a bit with Monroe style is listening closely to what the right hand does in a certain song- when he gallops or shuffles, perhaps a strong upstroke, maybe an accent right before a string change in the upstroke- I work on getting my right hand to do those things and it's almost like I can play the wrong *notes* and it sounds more Monroe.

BTW- I was just listening to a Lou Martin lesson tape of him playing a oldtimey version of Salt Creek- so cool. Much better than listening to him talk. ;)

Jan-19-2006, 12:12pm
What's helped me a bit with Monroe style is listening closely to what the right hand does in a certain song- when he gallops or shuffles, perhaps a strong upstroke, maybe an accent right before a string change in the upstroke- I work on getting my right hand to do those things and it's almost like I can play the wrong *notes* and it sounds more Monroe.

BTW- I was just listening to a Lou Martin lesson tape of him playing a oldtimey version of Salt Creek- so cool. Much better than listening to him talk. ;)
I hear you about Lou's proclivity for gab. My fave Lou-speak...when talking about Old Ebeneezer Scrooge, the Monroe tune...and I quote...

"[Bill] was in the levitical mode of bluegrass mandolin, with the patriarchal/matriarchal musical motifs"

Gee, wonder of Bill thought of it that way # http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Jan-20-2006, 7:12pm
AlanN - never quite heard it decribed quite like that before but I must say thats a great way to express and sum up what I was trying to convey. I think I'll post that above my desk when I do my practice sessions. Thanks for sharing ............Tom

Jan-20-2006, 10:46pm
Sounds like Don King to me http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

James P
Jan-21-2006, 2:16am
Speaking of Zen-like sayings, my teacher said something like: "The left hand plays the head, your right hand plays from the heart."

Jan-22-2006, 7:48am
hey Darren - dang man, you still tring to find out how to hold the pick?
you got to move on - you're getting to hung up on this - just start playing, all that stuff will work itself out with A LOT of picking.
Get out to some festivals this summer, there are plenty around your area, and "bird-dog" the he11 out of every good mandolin player you see.

when i visited you, yes, there were some issues, but we finally made good progress by the end. at least you werent *tickling* the strings any more - you were getting a good solid sound - that is step 1 - usually the rest will come from that.

the thing is - your ALWAYS changing and adapting - that is how you get better. you dont learn how to hold the pick correctly and then move on to step 2, i have gone thru numerous changes in my right hand over the last 20 years- some of them were major, some were very minor. i had a problem with the *locked wrist* syndrome some years ago - and i spent a whole year tring to correct that - it actually turns out that a looser wrist solved my problem, it improved my tone, and speed - but it took me a whole year to get to that point where i could adjust...its hard to change a 12 year old habit overnight.

i'd STRONGLY recommend you find some guys in the area to pick with (there is a Raleigh BG group on yahoo) dont think your not good enough to sit in a jam either, believe me, some of them folks are way behind you - doesnt matter their level, as long as they can keep basic timing - and just get out there and make some music. you already know some tunes, add some simple songs like 9lb hammer / Sittin on top of the World, etc - things that arent to complicated, and take it from there. a lot of the time, in a **relaxed** jam situation (not a hi-pressure gig), your mind will turn off all those barriers.

get a book (if you like to read) called "Effortless Mastery" - you can find it at B&N usually or amazon.com - i think you would enjoy it - covers much of the *inner game* of music as opposed to all the technical stuff.

david blair
Feb-27-2006, 1:01am
Hi Darren,
I encourage you to find the path of least resistance to the tone you want. Find that tone, and practice it slowly, with a metronome, playing different amounts of notes per beat, in different patterns of string changes. Do this BEFORE you start to play any of your regular material. This really helps me!

Feb-27-2006, 9:28am
Food For Thought (http://www.johnmcgann.com/techtips.html)

Feb-27-2006, 12:22pm
great page john- thanks! my favorite players seem to drive it all through their right hands- sam bush to me is the ultimate in this respect- amazing rythms-constantly changing, and even his solos seem to eminate from that right hand driving the melody.

Apr-14-2006, 12:58pm
Hey John McGann, the DVD video of your concert that John Baxter put on Mandozine has finally reassured me that it is OK to use fingers on the top as a guide for picking--not planting. WIth the "karate chop" description of the hand position I finally can pick fast AND cleanly. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif

Sadly, now I'm thinking of having a fniger rest installed. It never ends... http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Now how might I go about getting the full DVD of your concert? I just loved the tunes, and might go out later today and get some Django recordings.

Apr-14-2006, 2:18pm
I suggest watching Tim O'Brien's right hand tecnique.
Very light grip, pick held lightly, playing with great touch. Think about what the best golf instructors say-
hold the club with two or three fingers, lightest touch
possible.Remember that tight grip inhibits rhythm.

May-02-2006, 2:31pm
I have always held my pick with more of my tip of my index finger and my thumb. What I have found this did for me is made me prone to roll my thumb and index finger together when picking instead of primarly using my wrist. I have been told this is a similiar technique Jesse McReynolds uses ( in fact I noticed for only playing for four years I had pretty decent crosspicking skills). Although when observing more hard hitting mandolin players I noticed most all of them use a closed fist ( Bill Monroe, Mike Compton, David Mayfield, Mark Schimick). I have just started to use this technique by gripping the pick by laying it over the first joint of my index finger instead of the tip and using a closed fist. I found that this requires me to use my wrist primary when picking ( unless you tend to use your forearm which I feel is poor technique for picking a melody). It is difficult making a transition and very frustrating but I have already been much more happier with my tone even though that I can only play at a fraction of speed and buzz strings here and there. The tone is much more bold, balanced, and its louder. I am so convinced that this will improve my playing over time and am excited to struggle with it knowing that it will eventually payoff.

May-02-2006, 4:33pm
jasona- my fingers aren't on the top- they hang down but I am not touching the top...

May-03-2006, 11:55am

I had a look at your link and was interested that you also had some discussion of fingerstyle guitar technique. #Until several years ago, I mostly played guitar with my fingers, and I still grow my nails. #Also, when I grab a guitar I will often play it flatpick-style using the nail of my index finger. #When using a flatpick, I try use a loose-fist grip similar to the the ones discussed above, but when showing only 1/4" or less of pick, the index fingernail can get in the way and strike the strings ahead of the pick. #Usually more often when I'm straining a little bit and my fist or wrist angle changes. Do you have any particular tips for flatpicking cleanly if you keep longer fingerstyle nails?

Joe F
Jun-25-2006, 4:55pm
I had a breakthrough of sorts this weekend regarding right-hand technique.

At both my regular Saturday and Sunday old-time jams, my playing seemed to be faster and cleaner than usual. #This happens to me from time to time (what I refer to as "mando-moments"), but this time it was consistent. #One of the regular fiddlers commented that my playing seems to have reached a new level.

I thought about what she said for a while as I was playing, and then it hit me what the difference was. #In the past, I had always played with my pinky lightly anchored on the pickguard. #This weekend, I was using a loosely-closed fist, with no anchor, and even though I still rest my forearm lightly on the strings behind the bridge, it seemed to free up my hand considerably more than before.

What's really interesting is that this seems to have happened unconsciously. #In the past, I've tried the fist grip a few times, only to get frustrated and go back to my old method. #Maybe as I tried playing faster tunes than I'm used to, my right hand adapted on its own. #Whatever the cause, it feels very natural now, and I don't plan to go back!

FWIW, I use a thick Golden Gate pick with a few small holes drilled in it to keep it from rotating. #I hold it between my thumb and index finger, with the point roughly in line with the index finger.

Jun-25-2006, 9:42pm
jasona- my fingers aren't on the top- they hang down but I am not touching the top...
John, thanks for this information. I am not planting, but gliding my hands along the top as a judge for depth. I think I need a pickguard to help me get my hands off the top.

Jun-26-2006, 11:12am
Dang!. Now you guys made me think. After my head quit hurting I checked myself out. use a thin pick (53mm Dunlop nylon). I tend to hold the pick lightly between the thumb and near the end of the forefinger. My hand sometimes rests lightly on the pick guard with the rest of the fingers kinda open. I get the movement mostly from the thumb and forefinger rather than from the wrist. Weird huh? Well, with a last name like mine what would you expect?

Jack Strange

Jun-26-2006, 11:29am
Here's what my guitar teacher has me doing: Play each string open for one minute, eight notes with metronome (sp) on 60 to 80 bpm. It helps find the voice in the pick, it helps with the way you hold the pick (for the sound you're looking for) and it helps with tempo. By not doing any fingering with the left hand, it also forces you to concentrate on just the right hand. It takes 6 minutes on the guitar, so for mandolin you'll be done in 4!

fatt cross-training-on-guitar dad