Should you anchor your picking hand?

August 30, 2018
Should you anchor your picking hand?

There’s some debate among guitarists whether it’s ok to anchor the picking hand.

As with so many other aspects of technique, there’s no absolute right answer. Watch ten different players and you might see ten different things. But there’s a basic principle of technique at work, and then several variables to take into account. Some of these are mechanical factors, some musical, but the more skilled a player you become the more you’ll begin to realize that you can’t separate one from the other. Every technical choice you make has a musical impact.

The basic principles we want to follow are economy of movement and relaxed control. Resting one or more fingers on the face of the guitar just below the strings can help with both these things, minimizing motion and making your picking more precise. Many people do use the term “anchor” to describe this technique, but I think that’s misleading. An anchor keeps you fixed in one place, but we need to be able to move around in order to strike any of the strings with equal ease and a consistent sound.

Try resting one or more picking hand fingers on the soundboard below the strings, and strike each one in sequence. If you keep the fingers in the same spot, you’ll probably need to start twisting the wrist to reach the bass strings. Aside from being awkward to begin with, you might also notice that this changes the angle of attack. The way the pick or finger strikes the string is important for both mechanical and sonic reasons. Minimal, relaxed movement is most efficient, while a focused, direct attack produces a strong, resonant note.

Instead of anchoring, think of balancing on the face of the guitar.

Maintaining some kind of contact does provide a helpful spatial reference, just like the way a railing helps you walk down stairs. We don’t hang on to the railing to keep from falling, but touching it helps tell your brain where your body is in space. Touching the guitar has the same effect on your control of the picking hand. But your touch has to remain light, resting without applying pressure. When you move from string to string, let your arm come into play. The wrist will move slightly as well, but shouldn’t have to twist dramatically.

The proportion of your hands is a major variable here. Some people have long fingers that allow them to comfortably reach the face of the guitar without restricting the movement of the pick. You might find it feel best to rest with the pinky alone, or with all three free fingers. Either way, you want to maintain relaxed control of the pick without restricting your ability to reach all the strings. If your fingers aren’t as long, you might find that you need to let them rest on the treble strings when you strike the basses. Other players might rest the heel of the picking hand against the bridge, stabilizing from the bass side. This works well for bass runs, but can make it awkward to reach the treble strings.

Strumming is another variable. Depending on the sound you’re trying to produce, you may need a much wider range of motion.

Some players keep the base of the hand resting on the bridge of the guitar. This requires a lot of side-to-side movement of the wrist to be able to strum. To really make the strings ring, though, you need to be able to swing past the strings and follow through on the downstroke. This will take your wrist off the bridge, but the full strum shouldn’t need to be stabilized the way picking individual notes does. If you’re combining single notes and strums, you might find it best to move the hand on and off the face of the guitar as needed.

If you maintain a light touch it’s not difficult to just allow the fingers to trail behind the movement of the pick. As long as you’re not unintentionally muting any strings, this will allow you to maintain better control over the single-note picking while still allowing for a full range of motion when you strum.

The bottom line is that we need to balance between two primary goals:

  1. Accuracy

    We want to minimize effort and maximize control in every aspect of guitar technique. Stabilizing the hand helps your accuracy by minimizing motion, but you need to make sure that the stability is really coming from balance rather than from muscular effort in the forearm. It can be easy to mistake control for tension if you’ve gotten accustomed to using the muscles of the forearm to direct the pick.

    Explore the difference between leading the arm from the fingertips versus actually engaging the muscles of the forearm. See if you can create a consistent feeling of lightness that you can maintain as you move from slow, relaxed notes on a single string into larger and larger strums. If you feel like your control and accuracy suffer, find a point of contact that allows you to maintain that open feeling in your forearm and still direct the movement of the pick.

    2. Tone

    The sound of your guitar is a product of how you play it. A clean pick attack produces a strong ringing note with minimal “scrape” or percussiveness. The angle of the pick as it strikes the string makes a big difference here. Try approaching the string from directly above and lightly moving the thumb towards the floor. Some electric players use a more angled attack so that the edge of the pick glides across the string; this does allow for some additional speed at fast tempos but usually sacrifices some definition and fullness of sound. Find a relaxed hand position that allows you to let the mass of the hand and arm do the work. Explore how this impacts the sound of the guitar.

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