A lot of players underestimate the importance of the picking hand. Beginners usually have more trouble with fret/left hand skills than with strumming or simple picking. They are busy learning chords, rifs & songs. As they develop their skills, the picking/right hand may be neglected. Have you ever wondered why the dominant hand is usually used for picking, since fret hand skills seem to be harder at first? Why not put the hard stuff into the hand with the most “dexterity”?
Good players know how important the picking hand is. Picking the strings is what makes the sound. That’s where the rhythm and expression come from. The fret hand selects the notes, but it’s the picking hand that determines the precise timing, shape and volume of a note. Is a note exactly on time, or a little early or late? Are the notes in a phrase consistent with each other?
Are there some that are emphasized or muted? Is the attack hard or soft? Does a note sustain or cut off? Is it loud or soft compared to its neighbors? The quality of a notes comes mainly from the picking hand. Being able to shape your notes and phrases is critical if you want to sound good and find a groove.
If your picking hand is accurate and responsive to your musical ideas then you can make even a simple progression come alive. If you hit a wrong note, it will still be on time and in the groove. Maybe your band will think you are being creative! But watch out if those notes come in too early or late, or if they don’t feel right.
Try this exercise on your guitar or bass. Keep your fret hand off the fretboard. Play only open strings. With a 4/4 metronome background, try to get a groove going on just one string. Later you can use 2, 3, or more strings. Don’t use your fret hand at all. Keep a pattern going for at least 2 minutes. Try slow simple patterns at first, then increase the speed & complexity.
ALWAYS listen to the timing and shape of the notes. You can do this finger style or with a pick, and with any style of music. See how long it takes to get something interesting to happen, and see how long you can last before you stumble or lose the groove.
Try muting the strings with your fret hand or a cloth and do exercises with even less tonality. Playing your instrument this way is something like drumming, or playing a tonal rhythm instrument like the kalimba. You may be surprised. It’s not that easy, and you may notice weaknesses when you focus completely on your picking. If you stay with this line of practice for a while you will surely notice improvement when you get back to your normal routines and songs.
The picking hand gives rhythm & expression to your playing. Give it the respect it deserves and help it along with some focused picking hand practice. You may be surprised at what a difference it makes.