Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Help with up strokes

Hello everyone,

I hope y’all are having a great day . I was wondering if anyone can give me some tips on how to properly execute an up-stroke when playing rythm bluegrass guitar . I have watched Ben’s Rythm Beginner series but am still having a bit of trouble . My pick either gets caught on the strings as I attempt to execute an up-stroke or sometimes I just end up hitting only the high E string , or sometimes I end up “raking” the strings as I execute an up-stroke , which in turn makes the strings ring individually. Any of you had a difficult time learning how to do an up-stroke? And if so , what did you do to overcome this? Thanks y’all in advance!

Howdy Braymond,
First off, upstrokes are less natural than down stroke for most. The more you try to do specific things, the better it will get. You just gain pick control over time.

As far as getting caught in the strings: make sure that your pick isn’t pointing upward. Try rotating your wrist counter clockwise and then repeat a few upstrokes, just trying to lightly brush the strings. Some say to tickle them until you get a good feel for it. Your wrist will typically rotate counter clockwise prior to upstrokes and clockwise prior to down strokes (assuming you are right handed). In time, that rotation will become much (and occasionally almost all) of the picking motion.

Loosen up the grip and wrist. It is hard to control you hand when there is tension.

As far as only hitting the high E on an upstroke: If you are just brushing during rhythm, I think that is ok much of the time. I am not always real particular about exactly what strings I brush to fill in rhythm. Again, with time and repetition, you will gain accuracy and control.

I suspect some others will pipe in here with some helpful tips.

Best of luck and let us know how it goes

I feel by what you say you are trying to put to much emphasis on the up stroke you might try just easy with the up strokes and pay more attention to where you are hitting the strings. Pick position is a product of wrist motion at least that is what I have found . think about your down strokes and notice how you attack the strings on the down stroke and do your best to do that on the up strokes and as Mike said the up stroke can be a little different than the down stroke. some people I know just click the strings on the up stroke sort of like a drum beat . Time cures a lot of problems so don’t give in, keep trying no matter what you do . If you have not been welcomed consider yourself welcomed . Enjoy the music !

I wish to do no harm if you find my suggestions not being helpful try something else .

Outside of what was said above, I will add two things for you to think about:

First, don’t neglect paying attention to your pick angle, you should not hit “straight down” (or up) on the strings. You can call that perpendicular if you will. The pick angle is very important for “cutting through the strings”. Slightly angle your tip - maybe 30 degrees, and then on your down stroke your hand angle should go from “9:00 and finish at 6:00”. It’s exactly opposite on the up stroke. I know that at your level it is difficult to actually “feel” the pick just like you can the tip of your finger. That will come after years of playing, but ultimately you will get there. Be conscious of both your pick angle and stroke angle.

Second, and pertaining to learning rhythm, I’d like to think that a lot of us learned it like a drum beat. I know I really wasn’t taught how to do a stroke or the proper way. Instead I was taught to say “Boom Chick” The “boom” is the down stroke and the “chick” is down. “Boom” hits the base note or (root) and then the “chick” goes down across multiple strings to make a strum. You have to keep the beat going in your head just like a drummer. We’ve all done it…just keep repeating it in your head and in time …Boom Chick Boom Chick Boom Chick, etc

Once you get the “Boom Chick” down you then graduate to the “Boom-Chick-A” The “A” introduces one to the “upstroke” at this level. Just repeat saying if over and over in your head…and in time… and make sure your hand keeps the beat. You’ve learned the “boom chick”, now all you have to do is an upstroke and make the “A”.

You’re pretty much just banging through the strings at this point. We’ve all been there, we all learned exactly like you are. Don’t feel special… we all worked our way through it and fought it just like you. It will come over time, just keep plugging away. 30 years from now you’ll still be plugging away and trying to learn something new with your pick and it’s just as difficult. But you’ll look back and appreciate what you went through and all the effort that you put into 30 years of playing…trust me me when I say that I’ve only got maybe 30 more years of life left and there is no doubt I’ll go to my grave thinking “Man I never did get good on guitar”. It’s a lifetime passion. It’s also a hobby. If one wants to get really good, then they need make a lifestyle out of it… just like pro athletes in sports. They eat, sleep and drink their sport, they train, they practice, they study, they work on technique, etc.

I wish you the best, it’s an enjoyable journey and well worth the effort. Try saying the “boom-chick-a” in your head and you’ll find that your brain is actually focused on keeping in time than it is moving the hand and then you’ll be relaxed and make a smooth sound and not loose your pick.

1 Like

is the 30 degree angle from the horizontal axis or the vertical axis of the pick (or both)?

I have to respectfully disagree with oldhat. For precision and speed, the pick is always held perpendicular to the strings or the top of the guitar in every axis. That is to say, the pick should be held without any lean away or toward the top or bottom strings, and without any lean away or toward the bridge or neck and should remain inline with the length of the strings.

Beginner guitarists should use a very flexible pick while learning so that they can continue to keep the pick at such an angle and learn to control their grip tension on the pick. It is control of grip tension that allows more advanced players to control the “flex” angle of the pick attacking the strings and in turn control volume, tone and speed.

If you were to actually turn the pick manually from 60 degrees to 90 degrees with every down or up stroke, you would never get any speed in either your strum or your flatpicking. Simplicity is everything and keeping the pick at a strict 90 degree angle to the top of the guitar will allow for complete control in any situation and at any speed.

So keep in mind that as you gain more control of the pick, you will also gain control of your grip tension on the pick which will allow you to control speed, volume and tone. And you will probably also prefer a harder pick as you gain more control as that will allow you to fatten your tone and produce a louder, cleaner notes.

FIrst, above I said “from 9:00 to 6:00”…that should be “3:00 to 6:00” if you are looking at a clock.

Lay your pick flat on a string, now life up the pick in the “back” by 30 degrees. The front of the pick is still touching the string but the back is off. “Back” being towards the bridge.

You probably can’t feel it now, but when you start getting seriously into flat picking, you will learn that the front part of the pick hits the string on the down stroke and the back part of the pick hit the string on the up stroke. This is what I meant/you will find once you play for a few years…the pick becomes as sensitive to you as your finger and you can tell what part of the pick is hitting the string. This takes a long time and it will come to you one day. Right now you have other pressing things to concern yourself with, but keep all of this in the back of your head.

The reason I tell you to keep it in the back of your head is because now is a good time to start. Too many of us who have been playing for 10-30 years have to re-do our picking strokes. This sucks! You think it’s difficult now, well wait until you find out how difficult it is to change a bad habit after doing it for 30 years!

Look at the angle this guy puts his pick at in the video…is around the 1:09 minutes into the vid…this is what I am talking about. And notice his hand on te strum goes from “3:00 and finishes around 6:00”

I know this is a lot for you, what is important now is that you enjoy yourself first and foremost. Get your strum pattern down so that it’s natural and like “breathing”, learn to sing in tune with a few songs, then start venturing into flat picking.

1 Like

Dr Guitar.

No problem here. I played for 20 years wit the pick striking perpendicular. Only when I decided to get serious about flat picking bluegrass and when I sought out advice from a few heavy hitters did I learn that nearly all of them angle their pick. I switched and the speed increased dramatically…and likewise did the tone.

With the pick angled it “slides” through the string verses gets caught up on it. Also, I am sure we all play with beveled edge picks. The down stroke the bevel lets you slide through like butter, on the up stroke the bevel on the “top” of the back part of the pic let’s you slide back up like butter.

I am being specific to Bluegrass flat picking here. I’ve seen the rock guys teach it different, but it seems like every serious grass guy holds it at 30 degrees or so.

Hello everyone ,

First I cannot thank you guys enough for all the advice that y’all have provided me with . I have taken every single advice into consideration and will apply what has been said and go from there. I can tell that most of you guys have been playing for a long time , and so I appreciate you guys giving me tips and things to look out for in the future. As you guys can tell, I’m brand new to Bluegrass guitar, and I’ve been told by a lot to master Rythm Guitar before anything else, and that’s what I intend to do. Nothing beats getting advice from players that have been playing for a long time and have been through what I am going through in this journey. i truly appreciate that you guys took the time to reply to my post , you all have contributed greatly and your feedback has not gone unnoticed. Bless y’all a million!

Yep. In my playing I have found that angling the pick to allow faster movement also causes the pick to slightly scratch against the string (especially the wound strings) creating an unpleasant tone. I’m not a rocker, but have played jazz for the last 40 years and needed a very clean, round tone. In my interactions with David Grier, Mark Cosgrove, Kenny Smith, Robert Shafer and few other pretty serious grassers during extended workshops and lessons, they also keep their picks perpendicular and use their grasp tension on the pick to control volume, tone and speed.

In all fairness, I believe Robin Kessinger and David Bromberg tilt their picks a bit, and neither of them are slouches!

I do understand that the natural angle of the pick, with the guitar situated on your right thigh and sitting horizontal to the floor is very similar to how your video shows. However, if you watch some of the truly great pickers like David Grier, you will notice that he adjusts the pick in his hand to accommodate a non-angled pick: [video][/video]

Anyway, there really is no wrong way, just what works for you. 35+ years ago, when I was studying George Benson’s style, I went to see him in concert to check out his playing first hand. Armed with a 2 row center seat in a relatively small venue, I found out that his right and left hand techniques were more like a rocker than a jazzer. It was then that I realized that good hand position is not always what it’s cracked up to be and that great players can play great even with nasty technique. After all, they practiced that way and got the tone they wanted though practice.

The moral? Take it slow and practice, practice, practice, practice…

Thanks drguitar; very clear explanation (both posts). I’m not a steel string guitar player by training, but I had always heard that, as you call it, grip tension was the key to access a variety of tonal coloration and speeds. In the type of playing I learned on, the analogy is the degree of compliance in the joints of the distal phalanges in the apoyando stroke.