Playing fast can be a great tool when used tastefully. Heck, it can be a great tool when used totally distastefully! Sure, sometimes a restrained, elegant, subtle single note can say it all, but sometimes you can’t say what you have to say without unleashing a torrent of million-mile-per-hour notes. Now, there are many different ways to approach playing fast. Some ways are very specific, such as sweep picking or tapping. Others are more general – simply a matter of “just play really, really fast.” But there’s one technique which falls somewhere in between these two approaches, and it can spice up everything from gutbucket blues to twangy country to all-out shred metal assault: circular picking.

Circular picking is a technique often associated with Rory Buchanan, and it’s a great way of adding some speed and finesse to intricate passages or to simply impart more of a “hummingbird” feel to your surf style tremolo picking. And like many of the most fun guitar tools I like to work with, it involves a little bit of visualization.

How? Well the key is in the name: circular picking. Basically, you use the pick like a pencil to “draw” tiny circles over the surface of the string. When done correctly this allows you to skim the very edge of the string’s surface, reducing the amount of string dragging on your pick and allowing you to cycle through to the next note attack. Here’s how it works:

Hold the pick how you usually would. Unless you have a really unorthodox picking style, circular picking can work with almost any pick grip, as long as you keep the pick from going below the surface of the string. To begin with, it’s better to practice by fretting a note around the middle of the neck rather than starting with an open string. That’s because an open string vibrates a little further than a fretted note, whereas what we’re trying to do here is take advantage of a relatively static string for enhanced picking accuracy.

So let’s choose the 12th fret of the G string. Position your hand so that it’s not going to move from the wrist. We’re going to let all the movement occur between the thumb and the index finger. Now, use the pick to trace tiny circles on top of the string. It helps to imagine the pick as a tiny pencil or stylus. And it helps even more if you use a pick with a pointy end. But even if your pick’s point is more rounded, you can still achieve circular picking technique. Angle the pick so it slices diagonally across the surface of the string rather than coming down against it in parallel. This gives you the least amount of string resistance and lets you really build up some steam.

While your picking hand is getting used to the technique, don’t try to explore other notes. Just stay there on that 12th fret G note for a while so you can build up a steady pace. Soon your muscle memory will kick in and your picking hand will know exactly how fast and how wide to trace the circles to nail the particular tempo you’re looking for.

Once you’ve established a consistent tempo and a nice even note level from one strike to the next, you can start to throw in some additional notes. The speeds that you can achieve with circular picking can be pretty incredible, so it’s a good idea to experiment with musical figures that take advantage of that as a texture. Let’s try this little chromatic lick, which works as a good fretting hand finger exercise as well as a picking one.

Try this lick using the guitar’s neck pickup and a decent amount of overdrive. It’s not identical to the famed “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov, but it definitely has a little of that feel. Try moving the pattern to an adjacent string to help your hands get a feel for switching from string to string.

This technique isn’t just great for adding some momentum to leads though. It can also come in very handy for heavy metal rhythm of the single note variety. Check out what happens when we take the same pattern but transpose it down onto the low E string, switch to the bridge pickup and apply some palm muting and heavy distortion.

In this format the technique almost sounds like something Dave Mustaine might do in Megadeth (although Dave’s picking hand is a little more aggressive) or perhaps John Petrucci’s work in the solo section of Dream Theater’s “This Dying Soul.”

Circular picking is a great tool for adding some kick to country, rock and metal licks, and it’s limited only by your imagination and fretting stamina. It’s one of the lowest-impact picking techniques I can think of, since most of the work is done by the pick and the movement of the thumb rather than the entire wrist or forearm, and although the exercises here are chromatic in nature, you can apply it to your favorite scales, especially three-note-per-string scales, for the ultimate in high-speed but smoothly phrased lead guitar power.