I recently noticed that someone had come to this site via a search for the term “circle picking.” Circle picking is a technique I’ve heard of but it’s been something of a mystery for me. I set out to find out more and am glad I did. It’s a cool little technique I want to play with.
If I discovered one thing, it’s that there are really two techniques called circle picking. One is nicely described in this post.
Hold the pick how you usually would. Unless you have a really unorthodox picking style, circular picking can work with almost any pick grip, as long as you keep the pick from going below the surface of the string. To begin with, it’s better to practice by fretting a note around the middle of the neck rather than starting with an open string. That’s because an open string vibrates a little further than a fretted note, whereas what we’re trying to do here is take advantage of a relatively static string for enhanced picking accuracy.
So let’s choose the 12th fret of the G string. Position your hand so that it’s not going to move from the wrist. We’re going to let all the movement occur between the thumb and the index finger. Now, use the pick to trace tiny circles on top of the string. It helps to imagine the pick as a tiny pencil or stylus. And it helps even more if you use a pick with a pointy end. But even if your pick’s point is more rounded, you can still achieve circular picking technique. Angle the pick so it slices diagonally across the surface of the string rather than coming down against it in parallel. This gives you the least amount of string resistance and lets you really build up some steam.
Note the advice on angling the pick diagonally which is what many people call edge picking and something I discuss here.
If anything, as I played around with this I realized I’d already been doing something a bit like circle picking though I did find certain benefits in more consciously making the circle motion.
Circle picking as described above is basically a tweak to alternate picking*. With conventional alternate picking you basically push or extend the pick downward, then pull or retract it upward. That can work well enough but you are using force (from your thumb or wrist, depending on your picking style) to push the pick in one direction, then you negating that force by pulling back in the opposite direction. By moving in a circle you have a kind of smoother motion that doesn’t fight itself as much—less negation. I have no idea if you end up using less force (from a physics perspective) but it feels easier to me. If anything, it’s a little too easy and the motion can run away from you. It takes practice to nail this down I imagine and this is probably why I’ve heard this technique called “the most difficult picking technique.”
* I’ve seen several people confuse alternate and circle picking. To be clear, circle picking is a variation of alternate picking; you can do both at the same time.
The Seymour Duncan web site also has a discussion of circle picking. I want to highlight this section.
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.
That point about the 45-degree angle is again describing edge picking. And note that again there is this notion of the thumb and index finger doing the work.
The second way:
I highlight this stuff about the thumb and index finger because this is what separates the second form of circle picking from the first. In the second form, you bring the wrist into play, as described here.
First off, by holding the pick between your thumb and index finger, draw a small imaginary circle (about 1/3″ in diameter) with the tip of the pick. Make sure that you’re not moving your wrist, but just your thumb and finger…just like you were drawing the circle with a pen.
Next grab your guitar, choose a single string and start picking the string down and up in standard fashion by moving your wrist; floor to ceiling. As you’re picking down and up, start “drawing the circle” and you should notice that you’re now striking the string twice as many times as you were without the circle! Now practice on the other strings with scales etc., and add this to your bag of tricks!
The difference here is clearly this notion of adding in the wrist movement. I haven’t played with this idea much so I can’t comment in depth but it sounds intriguing. As the linked article states, you can hear this technique used to play chords on the Roy Buchanan song embedded below. It starts when the song switches from acoustic to electric, about 56 seconds in.
Thank You Lord – Roy Buchanan