Relaxation drills I used to make my biggest picking breakthrough in ages

Hey all,

I recently made great strides in my picking hand relaxation using a process adapted from piano technique literature. While I still have a lot to work on, I’ve finally managed to overcome – or rather, avoid – the tension that locked up my picking arm, and I can now tremolo pick 210 bpm reliably and freely. I put up a video on YouTube explaining the process and drills:

There’s a long-ish free document that covers it in more depth, along with references to the sources I used:

The process was largely inspired by a fantastic piano video named “Freeing the Caged Bird”, https://www.lister-sinkinstitute.org/freeing-the-caged-bird-dvd. In particular, she outlines a “Basic Stroke” (excerpt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjSWu8ZADzI), a concise breakdown of the act of playing a note at the piano. It’s a great video.

If anyone is struggling with tension, or looking for new ideas to explore, this might be interesting. It was extremely useful for me!

Cheers and best wishes, jz

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This is just what I’m looking for. Currently tensing up after bursts of 5 16th notes or so and can’t seem to shake it. Can’t wait to give these exercises a run through!

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Sorry for the mild off topic but wanted to share this: we usually don’t recommend short bursts in the initial stages of learning picking technique. What you are looking for is a smooth and fast motion that you can sustain comfortably for something like 2 bars of 16th notes.

The short bursts - e.g. those di-Meola style isolated triplets - are more like the end of the road, not the beginning.

Ahh thanks for the info. I’ll keep this in mind going forward.

It’s strange, for the bursts I feel fully relaxed and that it could be sustainable, but the tension sets in nonetheless

That was cool to watch. Luckily my picking hand doesn’t get that tense when I pick fast, it’s more so my rear right delt or elbow which leads me to believe it’s just my posture/the way Im sitting.

That was my problem too. The CtC approach is correct, I just needed these complementary drills to facilitate it. And I’m still working on other picking areas, like cross picking, but feel that this has helped a lot.

More anecdotal info:

I’d imagine if after only 5 notes you feel tension, something isn’t right. Either the motion is wrong or the speed is higher than what you can handle. From my own experience, I’d highly recommend filming a technique critique just to make sure you aren’t barking up the wrong tree (I was).

I think the importance of the accepted CtC approach is that most people (myself included, until pretty recently) don’t really know what it feels like to perform a fast motion, correctly. Now, once you can feel it, I absolutely think short bursts are quite helpful. I’ve been experiencing a good deal of success myself with this (i.e. why this is anecdotal lol). BUT, I haven’t been doing it with ‘exercises’ and I’ve only been doing it with both hands together. I’ve been forward chaining licks that are part of solos I want to play. I’ll go at or beyond the speed and start with a couple notes, adding one at a time, several reps each time. The result is good, for me. HUGE hand sync benefit too. To tie in with the topic of this post, when I do this, I feel relaxation the entire time. Since I’m experiencing such long spans of relaxed playing at high speeds, it’s helping cement it into my overall technique. I’m sure many are in the same boat as me - playing 20+ years so doing anything remotely different from what we grew up doing feels weird. Once we learn the right way, we have to make it rote.

So, I do really think relaxation is important. I’d imagine this approach, if done at the correct time (i.e. when you’re already doing a motion correctly) could be some good variety to help with the whole motor learning process.

@jzohrab overall cool video, thanks! My only constructive criticism is that it appears it caters heavily to a wrist/forearm mechanic. If someone had a more DiMeola mechanic or Vinnie Moore elbow style, it doesn’t seem it would apply, without some substantial modifications. For my own selfish purposes, as I’ve been working a lot on a rotational mechanic, it’s totally usable and much appreciated as one more angle to work this stuff :slight_smile: Nice research!

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Hey @joebegly, thanks! Yep I did mention in the doc that it should hopefully be adaptable to other picking styles, but I really don’t know. Eg for elbow picking, one could do elbow drop instead of wrist drops. I hope that others will take these ideas as a starting point for their own research — I’m sure that at least some of it is applicable to anyone looking for this sort of thing. Baby steps :slight_smile:

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Yep, and if nothing else, variety is a common theme I hear preached on here. Albeit, variety done correctly lol! I’m interested to check out the other stuff you shared re: piano technique. I’m always curious how other instruments with a more robust pedagogical history successfully teach technique. I love that Troy & Co are trying to standardize something analogous with electric guitar.

Thanks for posting this…I will definitely try some of these ideas…good job on the explanations

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Cheers @rbernie28, send me a DM if you want to chat about anything with it, will be interesting to see if another person can replicate my experience. jz

I appreciate the input! I plan on filming a technique critique soon, cause I’m definitely having hiccups getting the motion to work. The air motion feels great, but once the strings get involved some weird muscles get activated. Getting the air motion to the guitar is my goal at the moment

I could never get those air motions to work when translating to guitar – perhaps some of my old underlying tension and maladjustment was hampering this. The drills I outlined don’t use air-only motions, but if they work for you, great. Good luck!

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Hi there, I really want to try this picking hand relaxation stuff. Thanks for your time and effort in putting this together. Question, have you, or have you considered applying this approach to fretting hand stuff?

Appreciate your work.

Corby

i wonder if you had someone else lift your arm and hand if it would work even better since it isnt an extention of your own body.

Hi @curvy , cheers!

You could definitely apply the “raising and dropping” to the fretting hand as well, it will help uncover lurking tension in your fretting hand shoulder and arm. Usually I find that people with extra fretting hand tension are simply trying too hard with fretting … it’s easy to do, I still find myself doing that.

This page has some notes about fretting hand tension.

Depending on the context, I sometimes find “Hammer Groups” to be useful to reduce tension as well. It can be a tough practice technique, but it’s still useful!

Cheers and thanks very much! jz

The idea for the “lift and drop” actually came from a fantastic piano teacher named Barbara Lister-Sink: she actually raises and drops her students’ arms, so that the student gets a feel for what completely zero effort means. So, you’re very likely right. :slight_smile: I didn’t have another person available to try it out for me. I actually tried a few weird-looking variations, but the simple raise-and-drop using the other arm worked just fine. If you can get a teacher or friend or whatever to help you out, it might give you a different feel. cheers! z

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Thanks for the reply, I’ve been working with your method. Here’s another question…have you been able to apply this approach you’re using for single string tremolo picking to multiple stings? From double stops all the way to full chord rhythm strumming?

Thanks for your time!

these exercises are very interesting. the first or second time I tried them, apparently it was such a release that I had to stop and cry a little.

does anyone have any tips for lessening tension when practicing wrist drops? I’ve discovered that if I support forearm, say by laying it across the table, I can really feel my wrist relax and move up with my other hand and down with gravity. but, if I try to support my forearm in the air, as in the “arm hold”, my wrist still feels pretty rigid.

Hey @vac, great that it’s given you some insight. Like everything, I think that these exercises can only give you clues about what’s going on with your playing. I still use this stuff to keep track of what’s happening. (Recently-ish I’ve switched to gypsy jazz style technique, and am still running into issues with tension etc – neverending, for me, at least.)

I hear you on the forearm-in-the-air problem. It’s possible that you’re using too much effort to hold the entire arm up. Maybe try some of the arm drops, just to get a feel for how little effort you need to support your arm. Sometimes when I lift my arm, I find that my wrist gets involved too for some reason, even though it has nothing to do with supporting the arm. It’s like the hand tries to lead the lift, when in fact it’s all done by the elbow. And I don’t think that your shoulder needs to be involved much … sometimes I find my entire shoulder lifting when my arm moves. So, you could get your arm into position, try some single string stuff, and then simply try to drop the arm so it free-falls down to hang by your side. It’s not a realistic approach for real playing, but it may give you an idea as to how much extraneous stuff is getting involved in your arm positioning.

Switching between slow and fast playing can help as well, because when you play at speed it’s not so much a feeling of “tension” or “relaxation” but one of “properly-tuned engagement”, if that makes sense. Especially when you switch strings, only a few things need to happen for your arm to get repositioned correctly, and if you use too much effort it will quickly build up and lock things out.

So, I’d say just keep working at it, bit by bit. This is new movement acquisition, rather than something that you grind out over and over. Try it out for 10 mins, take a break or switch to something else, then 10 mins again, etc etc, taking it easy and just keep exploring.

ps - everything is just a theory and an idea. Keep hacking at it if it works for you. Cheers! jz