Don’t Tickle Your Guitar: Playing Like You Mean It!

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was a young teenager just starting to learn to play the electric guitar, I read an interview with Angus Young in an issue of Guitar World (transcribed here) that has stuck with me to this day. The gist of the interview could be summed up in one elegant quote. On the subject of growing up with and learning to play guitar himself, Angus recalled this gem from his brother (and brilliantly understated co-guitarist) Malcolm:
“Don’t tickle it, hit the bugger!”
This line still makes me smile, and I’ve stolen it countless times when talking to other players about these kinds of things over the years. What the venerable Malcolm Young understood, and conveyed with storied effect to his younger brother Angus, is that to sound confident and powerful you’ve got to play your instrument confidently and powerfully.
You’ve got to play it like you mean it.

Close-up of picking hand with a Les Paul
Show your guitar no mercy!

Now, I know what you might be thinking – “Come on, dude. Your big secret is that playing hard sounds different than playing lightly? Wow! You must be some kind of genius!”
I know, I know. Bear with me.
I would never presume to say there’s a right or wrong amount of picking force to use for any kind of music. The tactile nature of finger-on-string arms the guitarist with a virtually limitless range of expression on the instrument. And yet velocity control – knowing when to “hit the bugger!” instead of tickling it – is perhaps the biggest hurdle I hear players both young and old, regardless of their experience, struggling to get over. We miss it so often because, I suspect, we don’t even realize it’s there.
The blame for this can be laid before any number of factors.
The massive amount of distortion available on many modern amps, pedals, and processors makes it a lot easier to turn a knob than change the way we pick. The audio compression inherent in video formats like YouTube that so many of us use to learn can mask the dynamics of the source material, and the lack of instructor feedback in these situations means it doesn’t get corrected. The current audio mastering fad of brickwall limiting (also referred to as the Loudness War) that squashes song dynamics to homogenous levels can actually hide the inflections of our favorite players from our ears, and we miss out on its valuable influence on our own playing. And the tendency of newer players to focus on speed techniques (who doesn’t want to learn to play lightning fast?) can lead to the exclusion of the same diligence when practicing picking inflection.
Any combination of these things and others can unwittingly train us to play timidly and compensate with a little extra distortion. But there are significant rewards for stepping out of our comfort zones and giving our strings a good healthy beating once in a while.
The key is in understanding the tonal effects of varied degrees of picking force and how to apply them to get notes to sound the way we want them to sound. Fortunately for us all, the biggest leap in getting the hang of velocity control comes from just recognizing the positive impact it can have on our playing, and experimenting with it. Mastering the power and location of picking is a lifelong pursuit, but it’s not something for which hours and hours of rigorous practice are required to start doing.
By way of example, I’ve recorded the same generic rock riff two times with the bridge humbucker in a G&L Legacy HB. In the first example, I’m playing with an even, light picking pressure and, as typically happens, I use a little extra gain to compensate for the lack of energy in the strings:

In the second version, I reduced the gain and modulated my picking velocity to get more snap and power from my guitar. Despite having less distortion, you can hear how this track is brighter and more authoritative:

Velocity control becomes even more important with single-coils. The extra clarity and reduced output of a single-coil pickup accentuates your power (or lack thereof). For this second example, I’ve recorded the same busy funk-rock riff twice to using the stock single-coil pickups of a Fender Eric Johnson Stratocaster. Again, the first example played lighty:

Not very funky.
Let’s try that again with some attitude:

As you may agree, there is a big improvement in the bounce and power of the riff. Notes have more punch, chords jump out, and the whole feel overall is more enthusiastic and confident.
In my final example, I recorded a chugging metal riff twice with a Hamer USA Special FM that has a high-output Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB pickup in the bridge. First with the same light, even, unenthusiastic picking attack. I’ve also resisted the urge to turn up the distortion for this comparison, because I want to illustrate how much less of it you need when you pick with some authority.
This first example sounds… pretty bad. It’s probably not how I would want my recorded guitars to sound on a metal track – especially in the second half when the double-tracked part comes in. It sounds weak, like I forgot to turn on my boost pedal or something:

By comparison, playing with a heavy hand in the 2nd version results in something totally different. A completely serviceable amount of chug and power emerges from the exact same settings on guitar and amp, and the track takes on a percussive quality that was lacking from the weakly-picked version. All it took was playing with some cojones!:

Ay, dios mío!! Much improved. Version one sounds like a riff I wish I wasn’t playing, but version two sounds like I mean it! And the increased clarity from using a little less gain means a cleaner, more articulate double-tracked portion in the second half as well.
One last thing I’d like to cover before closing is the fact that the less distortion you use, the more your picking velocity affects your tone. That means that if you can get by with using less distortion and playing a little harder, you gain the benefit of a much cleaner tone while playing lighter as well. All of a sudden you have significantly-increased versatility from your instrument without touching a single knob or switch. And getting all of that tonal nuance from your hands alone is a pretty liberating feeling.
So that’s it! Picking velocity – one blog post to explain, about five minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.
What do you think? Who would you cite as the one player who best demonstrates a deliberate, controlled, and powerful picking technique?

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10 Comments

  1. Funny, I think that the only clip that sounded better was the heavy handed single coil clip. Other than that, I much preferred the light handed approach, it’s cleaner, and it’s heavier as well. That’s why I like rythm players such as Dave Mustaine & James Hetfield so much, when they’re playing fast single not riffs like Holy Wars & Master of Puppets, you can see that they’re really relaxed and the pick attack is pretty light as well.. You can’t play fast and hit every note like Stevie Ray Vaughan.

  2. Jimmy Page. The king of Pick Attack Velocity!!! Edward Van Halen has some serious velocity from 1984 and earlier. And Eric Clapton when playing for The Blue Breakers had a mean pick attack. What do all these musicians have in common? A low-gain, non-master volume Marshall amplifier.

  3. Really solid article on a simple, yet often forgotten about playing technique. Really helped having the audio demo’s – thanks for this!

  4. Great post, Adam! I don’t exactly when I discovered picking dynamics, but it was during my first few years of playing in garage bands (back in the ’80s). I wasn’t a confident lead guitarist then, but I had something to prove I guess, so I approached my rhythm playing with attitude and physicality (incidentally, this also did wonders for my stage presence as I got better). And, as you mentioned, dialing back the gain really helps.

  5. I meant to say, “I don’t KNOW when, blah blah.” I also forgot to mention a major dynamic influence: Def Leppard’s “High ‘n’ Dry” album. I remember reading an interview with the late Steve Clark in which he described recording with producer Mutt Lange for the first time, how he and Pete Willis recorded multiple tracks with both Gibson and Fender guitars, using less gain from the amps. Man, those guitars are in your face!

    1. Layered, lower-gain guitar tracks are a great way of getting a huge sound down to tape (disk) vs. fewer tracks with more distortion.. One of the best lessons you can learn in the studio, IMO.

  6. I seldom use a plectrum on either bass or guitar and when I do it’s to get a specific sound from the dynamics. I find I enjoy the wider palette of sounds I can explore by using different parts of my fingers (tip, side, nails), different fingers/thumb, the attack (barely touching it all the way out to plucking it just under the breaking point) and muting technique (palm, side of finger, nail, fret hand). I do find I occasionally compensate with gain when I want an even, strident quality to the passage. That’s just me though and I’m not a hard rock/metal player. That said, I still agree with you. When you play confidently, it comes through in the performance. You gotta play it like you mean it.

  7. EXACTLY! This is the thing that so many people miss! I’m still surprised by this- some people just don’t “get it”! You can get much more variation in pick attack ALONE than you can from any effect or amp setting!

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