By: Tom Hess
I have often been asked how I, and other players, are able to play really fast without playing sloppy. Playing sweep picked arpeggios cleanly while using a lot of gain (distortion) can be a big challenge. Many players have a hard time keeping all of the lower strings from ringing out while soloing on the higher strings, causing a sloppy noise.
When I was first learning how to develop a fast picking speed, I was sloppy and had no idea how to solve the problem. The guitar teachers I had at the time were not virtuosos and really didn't know how to play both fast and clean at the same time. Fortunately in 1993, I began studying virtuoso guitar playing with George Bellas, who has flawless world class technique. At my first lesson I asked George to show me how he developed his extremely virtuosic playing so impeccably clean.
Unlike most players who try to mute the lower strings with the palm of their picking hand, I use my right hand (picking hand) thumb. The thumb rests on all of the lower strings lower than wherever the pick is. Here is an example: If the pick is currently playing a note on the B string, then the thumb would be muting (touching) the G, D, A and low E strings. The high E string would be muted by one of the fingers on the fretting hand (usually the first finger).
Practicing this thumb muting technique can be frustrating at times and may feel unnatural at first. The most common problem that players / students have is the new positioning of the picking hand. If you are used to muting with the palm, then it may feel awkward to reposition your hand so that it is more parallel with the strings. The solution is to stop trying to rest the palm on or near the bridge of the guitar. It may feel awkward at first because you are not used to holding your hand this way, but keep practicing and at will begin to feel natural soon.
Another common problem is inadvertently muting the very string you are attempting to pick. This is caused by the thumb getting in the way of the picked string and unintentionally muting it. This usually happens when the thumb is not centered on the pick and the tip of the thumb is hanging over the pick near the string you are attempting to play. If this happens when you are practicing this technique, reposition your thumb so it is holding the pick more in the center and is not hanging over the edge of the pick.
Playing some fast virtuosic lines can really add fire and passion to the music, but if those lines are not executed cleanly, you won't get the desired effect. Getting my own picking hand disciplined to keep my playing clean took a lot of work initially, but it has paid off greatly for me and it can for you too if you keep working on it and don't give up. My original goal was mainly to clean up my arpeggio playing, but I later discovered the benefits of expanding the thumb muting technique to all types of lead playing. Now I pick this way all the time. If you decide to implement this technique in your own playing, try the ideas above. If you discover, after practicing it for awhile, that you are still having difficulty perfecting the technique you should consider seeking out a guitar teacher that can competently teach this well. See my previous article on choosing a teacher, in that article I talk about how you can find a good teacher who does not necessarily need to live near you in order to teach you.