Lesson #002: Reading Guitar Tablature & Picking Hand Technique

by | Jan 19, 2023 | Uncategorized

In lesson #001, we did not have the opportunity to play the guitar, because we had a few important things to cover before getting into it.

But today, I hope you have your guitar (equipped with six strings) and a guitar pick / plectrum ready, because it’s time to begin learning basic playing technique.

How to Read Guitar Tablature

Guitar tablature (or “guitar tab” for short) is a simplistic method for notating guitar music.

We won’t be getting into all the details of how to read guitar tab just yet. Consider this a crash course (it will help you a lot with the exercises we’ll be trying later).

Notice how there are six strings on the guitar? If you don’t remember what each string is called, be sure to refer to lesson #001.

This is a good time to remember that the sixth string is the thickest, while the fifth string is the thinnest.

In guitar tab, the six horizontal lines represent each of your strings. The numbers appearing on top of the strings tell you which frets to play and in what order (guitar tab is read left to right).

Guitar tablature

Image source: Acoustic Guitar

For now, all you need to know is a) the horizontal lines represent the strings on your guitar, b) guitar tab is read left to right, and c) 0 means open string (meaning – play the open string without fretting it).

Basic Playing Technique

Not all of us were fortunate enough to be born with – or to have kept – both hands, eight fingers, and two thumbs. Not to worry, plenty of people have figured out how to play the guitar with some disadvantages.

Christian guitarist Phil Keaggy, for instance, is missing half of the middle finger on his right hand because of a water pump accident.

For all intents and purposes of this lesson, though, we’ll pretend like we have all limbs and extremities.

Picking Hand Technique

Let’s begin with the picking hand. If you’re right handed, this will be your right hand, and if you’re left-handed, this will be your left hand.

We’ll look at fingerpicking and other techniques later, but for the time being, it’s important that we learn how to use a guitar pick / plectrum and how to hold it.

A plectrum should be held between your index finger and thumb. The pick should be held close to the tip, and when your hand is in position, the tip should be pointed in the direction of the guitar you’re holding.

How to hold a guitar pick

Image source: FuelRocks

There are two types of picking. There are downstrokes and upstrokes.

First, let’s practice downstrokes on the sixth string (low E). We are working strictly on our picking hand technique right now, so there is no need to do anything with the other hand (your fretting) hand.

To play downstrokes, you’ll want to position your pick above the string.

Give this exercise a try:

Picking hand exercise 1

For the time being, rhythm is not important. We simply want to practice our downstrokes.

Next, we’re going to do the same thing, except we’re going to practice our upstrokes. To play upstrokes, you’ll need to position your pick below the string you’re planning to play. But we’re still practicing using just one string, the low E string.

Give this exercise a try:

Picking hand exercise 2

As I said in the first lesson, repetition is your friend. It’s recommended that you give each of these exercises the attention they deserve, and there is no law against practicing them dozens or even hundreds of times! It all depends on what rate you want to progress at.

Alternate Picking

“Alternate picking” may sound like an intimidating term, but it’s simply a combination of downstrokes and upstrokes.

Now, I’m not going to lie – this can be harder than it sounds. Because the idea is to alternate, back and forth, between downstrokes and upstrokes.

But this picking method is very efficient, and while it may seem unnatural at first, in time it will start to feel like second nature.

Let’s go back to the single note exercise we looked at earlier. This time, though, instead of playing just upstrokes or just downstrokes, the goal is to keep alternating between the two.

Here’s what that looks like:

Picking hand exercise 3

Now, playing just one string is easy. But what happens when you begin incorporating the other strings?

Well, the long and short of it is that it can take some getting used to. All strings basically have the same spacing between them, but when you’re first getting started, you will likely need to keep an eye on your fretting hand to know which string you’re playing.

Which is why the following exercise is well worth your time.

Essentially, all we’re doing is practicing our alternate picking on all six strings. But this is a very important skill to master, for reasons already covered.

This is the trickiest thing we’re going to be working on in this lesson, so take your time, start slowly, and focus on good technique over speed.

Picking hand exercise 4


Now that we’ve got your picking hand all warmed up, we’ve come to the end of another lesson!

The good news is you have some time to process what you’ve learned today before moving onto new concepts and techniques.

So, practice lots, and I’ll see you in the next lesson.