There are various approaches to practicing right hand blocking. They all have their merits, and they all take time. Here’s a practice routine I’ve used often, which has helped me practice right hand blocking, and be more efficient in developing the technique. It is comprehensive: it covers various areas of right hand blocking that, when combined, give the right hand more freedom to pick and block the strings it intends to.
Some of the exercises in this routine are based off of exercises I’ve learned from great pedal steel guitarists over the years, more specifically Buddy Emmons and Joe Wright. They are my two biggest influences when it comes to right hand blocking technique, and this routine combines aspects of both of their technical styles.
Part 1 – 10 minutes
I usually begin with one two-string grouping, let’s say strings 6+5. I’ll have my middle finger on string 5, and my thumb on string 6. I choose a place on the neck where these intervals relate to the tonic key or my practice drone. (i.e. E9 neck – key of G, fret 3, strings 6+5. This sounds the 3rd and 5th intervals of the G major chord.) I stay on these two strings and relax, as I’m not going to skip to any other strings or groupings for 10 minutes or so. I fire up the metronome at a slow tempo, usually in the 60’s or low 70’s BPM.
NOTE: I usually only pick with these two fingers (more similar to palm blocking method), but if you want to utilize your index finger more, you can switch it out for the middle finger here and there and practice it the same way – you can also practice this with your middle finger on string 4 instead of 5, so you can rest your index finger on string 5 and be ready to pick it whenever – you are now in a three-string grouping. I digress.
Begin picking quarter notes along with the beats, while alternating various patterns between the fingers – use your imagination for combinations, but try to memorize them. Here’s a good starting point (T=thumb, M=middle finger):
TTMM means on beats 1(T), 2(T), 3(M), 4(M)
You get the idea, there are vast possibilities. Add in a second measure and you’ll multiply your practice possibilities…
TTTT / MMMM
TTMT / MTMT
TMTM / TTMT
MMMT / TMMM
After a few minutes of trying to consistently line up these hits with your fingers, right on top of the beats from the metronome, it’s time to move on. I should say it’s time to double down: play the same patterns you just played for the two measures, but as eighth notes to the same tempo you had going on the metronome just before. You can swing these notes if you come from a more swing/jazz tradition. Or if you want to start becoming a part of this tradition.
Now it’s like this if we count it out…
TTMMTTMM means 1(T) +(T) 2(M) +(M) 3(T) +(T) 4(M) +(M)
Try these patterns…
–Continue this practice until it has been ten minutes since you started the whole practice session.
For more advanced players: continue for several more minutes using the various patterns above, but relate them to triplets and sixteenth notes.
This routine helps calibrate your fingers for attacking the strings, in a pocket, without the worry of skipping string groupings. Mentally, you can think of this as playing a two-string guitar and not worrying about anything else string-related.
Part 2 – 10 minutes
This routine helps calibrate your hand for skipping positions between string groupings. For instance, if you want to play strings 4+3 at the fourth fret, then strings 6+5 at the fourth fret – your right hand has to skip a small amount to reach these with the fingers. For more on this technique, visit Joe Wright’s videos on Sierra’s website. Joe Wright undoubtedly helped me with this routine. I learned a lot about the technique from him on these videos.
***I turn my ears off the best I can for this routine, as there won’t be much harmony for this exercise unless you’re playing on the C6 neck. Or you can lower your E’s on the E9 neck and get away with it***
I start with the metronome slow again, usually between 55 and 85 BPM. I am aiming to play notes on the quarter notes like last time, and then after five minutes I switch to eighth notes, just like last exercise. I begin with a two string grouping (more palm blocking style) on the same two strings (6+5) and position my two fingers comfortably in this pocket again like they were in the last exercise.
I play these two strings (6+5) on beat 1, then skip to strings (5+4) for beat 2…skip to strings (4+3) for beat 3. Keep going until you reach the top of the strings (2+1). Come back down the string groupings, still skipping one string at a time to the quarter notes, and keep going until you reach the bottom of the strings (10+9). Keep doing this up and back for a few minutes, keeping in mind that your right hand’s fingers should feel like they can attack the strings at the same comfortable position you had them in Part 1’s exercise.
-After a few minutes, do the same method, but skip two strings instead of one each time…
Strings 10+9 then…
4+3 continuing up and back the groupings landing on quarter notes. After a few minutes, switch to eighth notes if things are going well.
These two practice routines will do wonders for your right hand blocking technique. Practice them separately, and they will soak together nicely when you play later: helping you form better overall right hand technique.