"You cannot tense up, you have to be super loose" – top session guitarist Tom Bukovac returns with another great lesson and this time it's on picking

Brett Papa and Tom Bukovac
(Image credit: Brett Papa / YouTube)

We thought we had it good with Tom Bukovac's chord lesson last week, but it looks like the Nashville session ace and tutor Brett Papa are just getting started. They've got a picking lesson and it's inspiring and eye-opening in equal measures.

Tom Bukovac's years playing with top names including Joe Walsh, Stevie Nicks, Bob Segar, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban and pretty much every big name in Music City has needed serious versatility and chops. And he has both in abundance, with a  frighteningly good picking hand. 

Now he's sharing his knowledge on Papa's YouTube channel.

Some surprising insight emerges straight off the bat: Bukovac will often use the shoulder of his guitar picks – Billy Duffy style – when playing fast. "For some reason it just makes it smoother," he notes.

You could knock this pick right out of my hand, I'm barely holding it

Then there's a real fundamental gem of insight that might just change your playing forever: "The way that I play is not up and down with the wrist, it's a turning of the wrist motion," Bukovac explains. "And the key to it all, and I cannot stress this enough… You cannot tense up – you have to be super loose. Like really loose. You could knock this pick right out of my hand, I'm barely holding it.

"The human tendency when you get excited and you know you have a fast flurry of notes coming up that you have to play, you're waiting to hit a baseball that's coming 100 miles an hour, and you're super tensed up. That's what I struggled with for decades. I could do it in rehearsal, but as soon as the tape was rolling I couldn't do it, because you get too excited and you rush and all that stuff. All the tendencies that you have – rushing is the biggest one. So I've just tried to get to the zen place when I can get super relaxed."

This is the starting point, and it's really the foundation for everything. As Papa points out, even he's surprised how much Bukovac's wrist is moving when he's picking fast because of his looseness. It allows him to play fast for longer. "I'll see people when they try to play fast and they'll tense up," notes Bukovac. "And they're good for about 10 or 12 notes and they're done."

Tom Bukovac

(Image credit: Elanor Jane )

Bukovac has a lot more to share on picking. Including how to start building up picking speed. You will have to repeat phrases over and over. Bukovac still does, but this isn't about shredding because he knows it's not necessarily very musical to just play fast flurries. It's an investment in a bigger picture. "I do this to keep the guns sharp," he explains. "And I've found you can play difficult stuff more effortlessly and you can play easier stuff really effortlessly. And it sounds so free and natural because you're not struggling with it."

And while subscribers to his excellent Homeskoolin' series on YouTube will be familiar with some of it, this is a wonderfully condensed lesson on a subject all players will benefit from. I for one will be re-watching it over Christmas and trying to kick some bad habits. I just wish Brett, Tom and YouTube had been around for me 2- years ago! 

Support Brett Papa by subscribing to his YouTube channel and head to Tom Bukovac's YouTube channel to do the same. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.