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How Should I Use More or Less Force When Picking?

Playing dynamically, which is what results from using more or less force when striking the strings, is a skill that every guitarist should work on implementing. This allows us to utilize a wider range of articulation and a plethora of additional tonal benefits. 

One example of this is when using what guitarists love to call an ‘edge of breakup’ tone. This means the guitar signal is hovering over the fine line of clean and overdrive and, depending on a few factors, playing just a little bit harder can produce a more distorted sound, though only temporarily. The same can work in the opposite way - playing softer can result in a cleaner sound. The reason this works is because more, or less, signal is traveling from the guitar into the amplifier and the signal is therefore treated differently. 

You may find this useful when transitioning between sections of a song to save you having to change channels on an amplifier, or operate some effects pedals. 

More specifically relating to articulation would be the use of accents within a piece of music - this is where a specific section of a song is noticeably louder or more forceful than the rest; you would be required the play harder when there is an accent in the music which is noted by a > symbol above the note. Alternatively, you may be directed to play with a ‘crescendo’ or similar instruction - as this means to gradually get louder, you could only really achieve this with a volume control or increasing the force of your playing. 


Playing softly allows you to achieve what some may refer to as a ‘sweet’ tone - you can both hear and feel when this is being achieved as the player, but from a listener's perspective the notes would sound more rounded; softer notes have a less angular waveform which may lend itself more to certain styles. For example, on the 2000 smooth jazz album ‘Never Too Late’ by Michael O’Neill, there is a very soft, rounded guitar tone that is stylistically appropriate. It wouldn’t really work if you had that ‘ice-picky’ bridge pickup sound on an S-type guitar, not that you couldn’t make it work. 

The reference track also features many dynamic changes so is definitely worth a listen!

Guitar players are notoriously picky when it comes to their guitar tone or the equipment they use. Some signal chains can be extremely noisy and difficult to control, though a guitarist may persevere for magical tonal reasons. Eddie Van Halen is a great example of how controlling your picking, and muting effectively, can help reign in an unruly amplifier. The famous ‘brown sound’ he was partly famous for was noted for being almost unplayable unless you knew exactly how to control it… which no-one else could do!

On the other end of the spectrum, if you are using an amplifier with a lot of headroom, which means there is plenty of space before things start to get hairy and overdrive naturally, then dynamic control can be that subtle change in volume that can be helpful for a sound engineer. 

It may be useful to consider how someone speaks. There are natural peaks and troughs in the level of someone’s voice when they are speaking that could be related to the emotions they feel, what they are saying or where they are saying it. Many liken the playing of the guitar to speaking through alternative means, so the reasons are not mutually exclusive. When a person is speaking in a very monotone way, you would say it sounds robotic - the same is true to one’s guitar playing. Don’t fall into that trap!

Believe it or not, there are scenarios where you should play with as little dynamic control as possible. This would be the case when playing something that uses a tone similar to that of Periphery. Mark Holcomb, who plays guitar in Periphery, uses a signal chain that starts with a really heavy gate effect. The gate activates to an extreme level and very quickly, and if you pick too softly then there will be no signal coming through. 

You don’t always get the chance to have a soundcheck when you are a touring musician, but especially so at festivals where there simply isn’t the time. However, on the rare occasion that you can do a soundcheck, it’s important to play as loudly as you are expected to within the performance. This is so you don’t end up being too loud at any given point, and the sound engineer won’t be inclined to pull out his or her hair. 


Improving the control you have over the dynamics of your playing will only come with some careful and attentive practice. Like many things on the guitar, it comes easier to some people but anything you can do to help it is not time wasted. 

I will explain an exercise I often get students to work on during a lesson. 

  • Choose a random note on the guitar (location is irrelevant),

  • Establish how quietly you can play on the guitar; play as softly as possible until you can barely hear the note. Do the opposite, which is to play as loudly as you can without causing the string to go sharp (a common issue with metal guitarists on the lowest string when they play too hard!). This gives you two points to work between, goal posts if you will,

  • Find a good drum loop or metronome (not imperative in this instance but recommended),

  • Start playing 8th or 16th notes with your random note and aim for the halfway point, between what you set out earlier on,

  • Try to play a few bars at the middle point, the lowest and then the highest,

  • Start at the lowest point and gradually increase until you hit the highest point (try to spread it out over at least two bars and progressing smoothly,

  • Do the opposite, start loudly and work your way down.

For many people, this is harder than it seems. Playing at the lowest level is tricky to keep consistent, playing as loud as you can has physical difficulties (some people miss the string or play more than one) and keeping a rise or fall in the dynamics without a big jump is not easy. Once you can do this, change where the note is - perhaps a higher string or higher on the fretboard.

Once you have single notes out of the way, try this with chords. Keeping the same level of discipline of several strings is another challenge - think how difficult barre chords were when you tried them after mastering open chords. You may also wish to experiment with using your fingers too!

One of my favorite guitar effects is the ‘envelope filter’ which some people mistakenly call an ‘auto-wah’. For the sake of understanding and given the discussion about dynamics, an ‘auto-wah’ is an effect triggered/controlled by timing, which is either set in advance or via a tap function. An envelope filter has virtually the same effect, but the action is triggered by the volume of the input signal which you would control by - you guessed it - dynamics! See Guthrie Govan’s masterful demonstration of the Wah Rocker 3 by Guyatone here. I would suggest trying to play with the effect if you can!

Different guitars can also react differently to dynamics, so if you have more than one guitar, it would be a good idea to really get to know each one of them and how they respond. To a very small degree, this can be due to the woods used, but more often than not it is a result of the type of pickup used and the output that is ultimately sent to the amplifier. 

Final Thoughts

A masterful control over the dynamics of your playing, and how that can make a difference to the bigger picture, is something often underrated and can make the difference between a good guitarist and a great one. 

Be mindful of your playing! As much as getting lost in the music is a fantastic thing to experience, you must simultaneously be aware of everything else that is going on around you. 



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