How To Make Clean Guitar Playing Easier Using Optimized Picking Technique

To play guitar fast and clean, you need to build a lot of speed in your hands, right? 


The secret is in moving your hands more efficiently than they are moving right now. 

More efficiency = more speed. 

And besides enabling you to play fast – greater efficiency makes your playing sound better and feel a lot easier. 

Want proof?

Check out this video:

Click on the video to begin watching it.


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Here is a story to make this point more clear:

One of my guitar students once asked me to help speed up his scale playing.

So, I asked him to play for me at his current comfortable speed.

When he finished playing, I asked him:

“Let’s say, we took what you just played at your current speed and put it on a record. Would you be happy?”

“Heck no”, he said. “Because my playing is horribly sloppy too.” 

“That’s right”, I nodded. “And the reason it’s sloppy is because I see a lot of inefficiencies in how your hands are moving.

So, why don’t we make your current motions more efficient first, clean up your playing at your current speed… and THEN work on playing faster?”

He agreed. And we spent the rest of the lesson training him to make his current technique more efficient and fix his sloppy playing. 

A month later, he emailed me and sent me a recording of his progress – bragging about his new speed breakthrough and how clean it sounded. (He went from 600 notes per minute to 690). 

Want to know the elements I trained him on?

Here they are:

Guitar Technique Element #1: Wrist Vs. Forearm

The general rule is: Use your wrist to pick on a single string and use your forearm to change strings.

There are some exceptions to this (such as when doing ultra-fast tremolo picking, for example)…

… but before you worry about exceptions – get the general rule down first. 

And here are some common mistakes to avoid: 

1. Moving the pick only with the wrist.

When you do this, your wrist gets out of alignment with the forearm. This causes your hands to get out of sync. Plus: string noise becomes a lot more likely. 

It’s important to keep the wrist and the forearm in line and avoid excessive bend in the wrist.

2. Moving the pick only with the forearm.

Here is the problem: your forearm is a large muscle group. It takes a lot of energy to get it moving and a lot of energy to stop its momentum.

So, if you pick every note using your forearm, you use way more effort than necessary to play notes. 

The result: slower and less efficient playing. 

3. Moving the pick with the thumb and index finger.

If you pick this way, the string is not in the same place consistently when the pick is attacking it.

This makes it very hard to tell if your hands are in sync or not. (Because you don’t have a consistent reference point of feeling your pick strike through the string.)

Watch the video at the top of this page where I describe it in detail.

Fast & Clean Guitar Technique Element #2: Thumb Muting

What is thumb muting?

It’s where you rest your picking hand’s thumb on the lower (in pitch) strings– muting them. 

The thumb then slides up and down as you play, keeping your playing clean. 

I first started using thumb muting because I wanted to clean up sloppy string noise in my sweep picking. 

But when I saw how effective it was, I began using it all the time on all lead guitar techniques. (String bends, vibrato, scale playing, string skipping and everything else.)

And here is what I found:

Besides keeping your playing clean, thumb muting also makes your picking technique more efficient. 

Think of it like this: 

When you mute with your palm (instead of the thumb), the default point of rest for your hand is…

…away from the strings 

It’s outside of what I call: “the string trench”.

What that means is: your pick has to travel a much greater distance to play notes. 

This inefficiency makes it very hard to play guitar fast and clean.

But when you use thumb muting, the default point for rest is with the pick DOWN inside the trenches of the strings. 

This gives you a lot of efficiency and makes your guitar playing feel much easier and sound a lot better. 

Question: “Tom Hess, I hear pinch harmonics when I use thumb muting to play lead guitar. What can I do?”

Answer: If you are hearing harmonics, it means your thumb is hanging over the edge of the pick. When this happens, your pick strikes the string you are attempting to play. 

To fix it, change the way you hold the pick. Pull your thumb back, so it does NOT hang over the edge of the pick. 

This way you’ll only play the string you want to hear with the pick. While your thumb rests securely on the lower strings.

(You can roll the thumb towards the tip of the guitar pick when you do intend to play pinch harmonics.)

Question: “Tom Hess, I don’t know of any famous guitarists who use thumb muting. Who else uses it besides you?” 

Answer: Thumb muting is a relatively new technique which I invented. I teach it to all of my guitar students, many of whom play guitar at well over 1000 notes per minute.

Check out what some of my students (to whom I taught thumb muting) have to say: 




(Dan and Gottfrid are two of hundreds of guitar students I had the pleasure of helping transform their sweep picking (and other areas of their playing) in Breakthrough Guitar Lessons

Fast & Clean Guitar Technique Element #3: Directional Picking: 

Directional picking removes all the inefficiencies from strict alternate picking.

It works like this: 

You use alternate picking when you are on a single string. But when you change strings – you pick in the direction of the next string.

Here is an example of alternate picking vs. directional picking on playing a scale: 

Alternative vs Directional Picking

Question: “Tom Hess, does directional picking work only for 3-note-per-string scales? What if I want to play blues or pentatonic licks?”

Answer: You can use directional picking on everything (including blues or pentatonic licks).

That’s because directional picking is not “economy” picking. With economy picking, there is a strict rule.

The rule is: always sweep pick when you change strings. 

Obviously, this isn’t always possible. So, that means: you have to preplan all your guitar licks 

Directional picking doesn't require any planning. Nor does it require you to sweep pick through every string change. 

You simply move the pick the shortest possible distance to the next note from where you currently are.

And yes, when you are playing 2-note-per-string licks, your pick will have to skip over strings. There is no way around it. 

But this still follows the philosophy of directional picking:

“move the pick the shortest distance to the next note”.

You now know what it takes to make your guitar technique more efficient and play cleaner and faster.

The next step is to apply these elements into your guitar playing and learn other things you need to fully reach your musical goals.

I can help you with this in my Breakthrough Guitar Lessons. 

Here is how it works: 

Tell me about your musical goals and guitar playing challenges. And I’ll create a customized lesson plan to get you playing guitar the way you want. 

Plus: I’ll track your progress, give you feedback on your guitar playing and hold your hand every step of the way to nearly guarantee your results. 

To begin, go to:

Online Breakthrough Guitar Lessons With Tom Hess

Here is what my guitar students are saying:





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