Allow me to introduce you to the incredible Brian Hood.

Brian is a professional audio engineer who has worked with many notable artists in the metal and hardcore genres such as Gideon and Sworn In.

This guy knows aggressive music.

He’s also given some of the best advice in the industry, and if you can forgive the crude phrasing momentarily, I’d like to introduce you to just one of these nuggets of wisdom today.

“If you pick like a b***h, you’re gonna get a b***h tone.”

Audio engineers the world over nod in agreement when this magical phrase graces their jaded but finely tuned ears.

It means your picking is weak, it’s soft, it… well, it sucks.

Why should you pick harder? What does this statement have to back it up?

In a word: plenty.

What Brian Means

Let’s start with Brian’s reason, which is the core of this idea, and then we’ll expand upon this concept with my own notes.

Brian tracks bands who play aggressive music. Music that’s in your face, it’s a punch to the gut, it’s meant to be loud, heavy, and intense.

Bands come into his studio and as soon as they go to lay down their guitar tracks they’re surprised that they don’t sound super aggressive and heavy… while they pick the guitar like they’re playing a soft country ballad.

Drums sound better when hit with a good amount of force, as any engineer who has worked on metal/hardcore/punk before will tell you. They sound full, bright, aggressive, loud – the same thing applies to guitars (and bass!).

Why doesn’t a jazz drummer’s snare sound massive and in-your-face? It’s not because he’s using a different snare, that it’s made of different wood, that he’s using different sticks, it’s because drums, guitar, and bass are all physical instruments.

The amount of force you use actually changes the sound.

You can’t take a shy smooth jazz performance and make it sound like an angry, disenfranchised teen from the roughest part of New Jersey just because you slap a 5150 and Mesa 4×12 on his DI’s.

If you want that aggression – the punch and impact of all the best bands in the genre – then you need to start with the performance.

This is what Brian means by his statement. If you want an aggressive quality to your sound, you need to play with aggression.

Don’t Forget The Tone

The quality of the sound becomes more aggressive, but the tone improves too.

If you pick harder your tone becomes brighter and far more articulate. More attack, more clarity, and your notes don’t sound like a flurry of blurred notes, they have clear rhythmic divisions and each note has its own place in the bar.

Guess what? You can turn down the gain knob too.

So much of the time when our tone isn’t “angry enough” we turn up the gain. Everyone knows that distortion adds to that aggressive sound, but it has its downsides too. Too much gain leaves your tone a muddy, dynamic-less mess.

Aggressive picking means you don’t have to rely on your gain knob to make up for your soft, timid picking, and the tonal benefits are significant.

More aggressive, increased attack, increased clarity, stronger rhythmic sense, what more could you possibly ask for?

But… I Wanna Go Fast!

This wisdom has been thrown around a lot because so many artists and engineers in the industry know how true it really is, but I’ve also seen a lot of backlash from players saying it doesn’t apply to them.

“That’s great for rhythm guitars but you can’t play hard AND fast for leads – soft and small motions are the key to SHREDZ!!!

Let me throw out a few names of guitarists who pick HARD all the way through their complex and technically impressive music…

– Wes Hauch (The Faceless, Alluvial)
– John Browne (Monuments)
– Andy James
– Sims Cashion
– Jason Richardson (Born of Osiris, Chelsea Grin, All Shall Perish)

See my point here?

Jason Richardson alone is enough to debunk that argument. He’s one of the most technically proficient guitar players to ever pick up the instrument and he picks with tons of aggression in every note of his leads.

One more example for you…

Bruce Lee. I know, bare with me here…

Bruce was a master of his craft, and one of his most famous skills was his One Inch Punch.

He had exactly one inch between his fist and the object or person he was hitting. This distance is seemingly way too small to develop any amount of strength and force behind a punch, and yet he was knocking people over left and right.

He proved that large motions are not necessary to create a large force.

As guitarists we don’t have to develop anywhere near the same amount of strength in our motions that Bruce did, and guitarists like the ones mentioned above have proved why speed is not an excuse to pick softly.

The key is finding a balance between the two. It’s learning to pick hard using small, efficient motions. These players have found that balance.

The two concepts of playing fast and playing hard are NOT contradictions.

Fighting The Noise Floor

Alright, so we know the tonal benefits, we know we can still play at lightspeed, but there’s another side of the argument I rarely see explored that I believe is equally important in this discussion.

No matter what style of music you play or what gear you use, there is always some amount of unwanted background noise in the signal.

This can be electronic hum and hiss, or it can be undesirable physical noises that result from sliding your hands along the strings, accidentally hitting an open note or harmonic.

Consider these noises to be your “noise floor.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, it’s a technical term used to describe how much noise electronics create in comparison to the sound that you actually want to hear. Think of it like the difference in volume between what you WANT to hear, and what you DON’T want to hear.

If you pick softly, you’re almost compressing your playing, because your notes are going to be softer and closer in volume to the noise floor.

If you pick harder, your notes will be much louder than your noise floor.

Not only does this make the noise inherently less distracting, but it lets you set your noise gates lower without cutting off your notes or choking your tone. You get a tighter tone without the negative impact of a noise gate on super high settings.

Considerations and Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, when you really are playing a ballad it doesn’t make sense to whack the strings as hard as you can, dynamics and context are not to be overshadowed by this knowledge.

But… that’s kind of the point. We can’t just think of “dynamics” as playing quieter, it goes both ways. If the music calls for you to play hard, then play hard!

Context requires you to use your discretion, but hopefully this article has broken down a lot of the myths about playing hard and showed you the benefits of doing so. Take time to look at your own picking technique and see how you can optimize it.

Take this information and use it wisely, because you never know when Brian Hood might be right around the corner, listening…

This article was written by Connor Gilkinson, our editor located in Canada.

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