Talkin’ Bout A Revolution: Circular Picking

In this lesson I’d like to look at one of my secret weapons. No, it’s not the magic amulet that lets me talk to animals. I’m still officially denying I have that in case that pesky wizard starts poking around again. And it’s not even my winning smile and sparkling wit. Still officially denying I have those too. It’s circular picking. I first learned about this clever little technique from an article in a guitar magazine when I was about 15, and it stuck with me in the back of my mind but utterly unused until I finally gave it a proper shot in my mid 20s. I immediately and unrestrainedly began to hate my 15-year-old former self for not getting right down to it and learning the technique straight away. DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE!!!

So here’s the deal with circular picking: It’s a way of picking which maximises speed but, more importantly, minimises movement and evens out attack. I love playing as fast as the next dude (probably more if you catch me after a few drinkies on stage with a spotlight on me), but it’s best used as a texture and a statement. Sometimes that statement is ‘Dude! Check out how fast I can play!’ and that’s totally cool. Other times that statement is to express something more abstract, like Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, and that’s cool too. Circular picking might not make you suddenly play fast if you’re currently a four-note-per-minute texturalist, but it’ll sure help you blaze through fast passages if you’re willing to put in the work.

The trick is to imagine that your pick is a tiny little pencil (or a mobile phone stylus, if you’re too young to remember when people wrote with pencils), and the string is a piece of paper. What you need to do is shift the pick to about a 45-degree angle to the string, then imagine you’re drawing tiny little circles on the very surface of the string. Seriously, if you find that your pick is slipping significantly below the string, you’re messing it up. If you’re doing it right you’ll get a lot of movement out of your thumb joint, while your index finger will kinda be dragged along for the ride too. You’ll also find that it just works better if you pick very lightly – you can’t really dig in using this technique anyway, but if you try it’s gonna sound terrible and inconsistent. Oh and it helps to use a pointy pick, so if you don’t have one, just drag the pick on the carpet a few times either side (that’s a trick Paul Gilbert taught me when I got a private lesson from him a few years ago – he joked that that one tip alone was worth the price of the lesson and he was right, dammit!).

So when should you use circular picking? Well, certainly not for everything… who wants to listen to music with no dynamic range all the time? (Oh that’s right, don’t get me started on the Loudness War). It works best for steady flurries of notes within a more dynamic solo section. It’s also great for tightening up intricate prog lines and thrash riffs on the lower strings.

The best way to practice this kind of picking is to select one note (I find the G string is the best one to practice on, and the first person to make a filthy G string joke has to go to the back of the class) and just hang onto that one note while you experiment with the picking style. Everyone’s hands are built slightly differently so you may have to adjust wrist angle, pick angle, pick grip and all that stuff before you zero in on the perfect alignment for your particular set of appendages, but it’s well worth it.

In the TAB you’ll find a few exercises. You can either repeat each individual bar as a picking drill unto itself, or you can cycle the whole thing through (perhaps when you get a bit more comfortable with the technique) to get your hands used to switching between tempos while maintaining the nuts and bolts of the technique. Have fun!

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