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Guitar Tips – Alternate Picking

Elvis Elvis

Alternate picking is very important to both lead and rhythm guitar. All the same, it’s not necessarily natural.

In my experience, most new players clumsily grasp their pick and proceed to play everything with downstrokes, almost as if they’d forgotten there was another direction.

The mark of experienced players, on the other hand, is that they’ve remembered that other direction, and so their playing tends to be more of the down-up-down-up variety.

There are some styles of music that are best played with strict down picking, but nevertheless it should not be relied upon as the only way to pick.

Something like this:

|------------------------------------| 
|------------------------------------|
|------------------------------------|
|------------------------------------| 
|------------------------------------| 
|-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4----| 


except at the slowest speeds, is usually best played with strict alternate picking. If done correctly, it will begin with a downstroke, but just as importantly it will end with an upstroke; this sets the stage for the next phrase.

Alternate Picking Basics: Practice

I’ll make this quick.

I’m pretty sure I can’t legally make you do anything, but if I had the power, I’d require you to use a metronome, at least occasionally.

The secret to building guitar speed is to do it right at a slow speed and gradually speed things up. Metronomes just happen to be perfect for this.

Guitar Tips   Alternate Picking

If you’ve never used one, it’s easy. Click that link and crank it up to a good starting speed. A good place to start is sloooooooow (like 60 BPM). You should be offended at how slow it is; you should think, what is this? Kindergarten or something? Don’t cut yourself any slack. All of this is normal. That’s where you start.

Now that you have your speed start playing. Find a speed at which you can easily play a grouping of notes on every click, whether they be regular eighths or sixteenths or triplets.

Once you’ve mastered the exercise at a given speed(like, no mistakes through five or ten repetitions mastered), jack the tempo up by about five bpm and repeat. Keep it up and you will soon discover that you’re starting to get sloppy.

Slow it back down then and resume at the last speed you had perfected.

If need be leave it for another day and come back to it. You may be surprised at what laying it down and coming back later does. Sections you couldn’t complete at 80 bpm you now nail at 90 bpm.

That’s all there is to it. Do it right slowly and increase the speed. You’ll be playing real songs soon enough. This will ensure that you sound like a musician instead of a rhythmless hack.

Alternate Picking: One Hand Only

First things first. Put your fretting hand down for the time being; this will work on strengthening the precision and speed of your picking hand. Too easy? Crank that speed up and have at it.

With that out of the way…

Exercise 1: Even Zeros

This first routine is for your picking hand only. Start slowly and gradually increase your speed. Alternate picking only of course.

|-----------------------------------------0-0-0-0----|
|---------------------------------0-0-0-0------------|
|-------------------------0-0-0-0--------------------| 
|-----------------0-0-0-0----------------------------|
|---------0-0-0-0------------------------------------| 
|-0-0-0-0--------------------------------------------| 

Exercise 2: More Even Zeros

This one is similar to the last but has just two notes per string.

I personally find these a bit more difficult as you don’t have much time to settle on a string before you’re off to the next one; great for developing agility and precision.

If doing all the strings is too much at first, pick your favorite two and jump between those.

You may also wish to hold any chord that comes to mind and practice this alternate picking technique over that. You’ll find that it can be a great melodic device.

|---------------------0-0----------------------------| 
|-----------------0-0-----0-0------------------------| 
|-------------0-0-------------0-0--------------------| 
|---------0-0---------------------0-0----------------| 
|-----0-0-----------------------------0-0------------| 
|-0-0-------------------------------------0-0-0-0----| 

Exercise 3: Odd Zeros

One more for your picking hand only. Same as before but with three notes per string. Remember to strictly alternate pick this one.

Watch the transition between strings. That will be the trickiest part. Don’t let yourself play it faster than you can cleanly handle. Keep it consistent.

|-------------------------------0-0-0----| 
|-------------------------0-0-0----------| 
|-------------------0-0-0----------------| 
|-------------0-0-0----------------------| 
|-------0-0-0----------------------------| 
|-0-0-0----------------------------------| 

Exercise 4: String Skipping

String skipping is a wonderful technique for increasing agility, not to mention that it sounds awesome. I’ve started with the low E and expanded from there. This one gets harder as you go, so pick a reasonable speed to start.

|----------------------------------------------------|
|----------------------------------------------------| 
|-----------------------------------------0-0-0-0----| 
|-------------------------0-0-0-0--------------------|
|---------0-0-0-0------------------------------------| 
|-0-0-0-0---------0-0-0-0---------0-0-0-0------------| 

|-------------------------0-0-0-0--------------------| 
|---------0-0-0-0------------------------------------| 
|---------------------------------0-0-0-0------------| 
|----------------------------------------------------| 
|----------------------------------------------------| 
|-0-0-0-0---------0-0-0-0-----------------0-0-0-0----|

Alternate Picking 2 – Both Hands

Here’s where it all comes together. In the interest of proper form you should probably slow things down here.

Quick tip… use these exercises as guides but feel free to deviate from them if you feel like it. Real songs don’t stay in one place, either, so move the pattern up, move it down, do whatever. Just stay in time and make it clean.

Exercise 1: The Exercise

Yes, everyone has seen this one before, but that’s because it’s like the bench press of the alternate picking speed-building world.

Even if you’re an old pro at this, I invite you to play it a few times out of respect.

This one can help you a lot. A LOT.

|-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4----|
|---------------------------------1-2-3-4------------|
|-------------------------1-2-3-4--------------------| 
|-----------------1-2-3-4----------------------------| 
|---------1-2-3-4------------------------------------| 
|-1-2-3-4--------------------------------------------| 

|-2-3-4-5--------------------------------------------| 
|---------2-3-4-5------------------------------------| 
|-----------------2-3-4-5----------------------------| 
|-------------------------2-3-4-5--------------------| 
|---------------------------------2-3-4-5------------| 
|-----------------------------------------2-3-4-5----| 

Exercise 2: Football Training

Ever seen that football agility exercise where players hop side-to-side from tires on the ground? This next alternate picking exercise will do the same for your fingers.

This one is tougher primarily because it uses a pattern you will not often see in songs. When I start and play the 1-3, my natural tendency is to make a scale of it and play 4 instead of 2.

This exercise challenges that habit and forces you to focus harder on what you’re doing.

Be precise and build speed slowly. I can’t say that enough. Do that and you’ll be shredding like a madman before long.

|-----------------------------------------1-3-2-4----|
|---------------------------------1-3-2-4------------|
|-------------------------1-3-2-4--------------------| 
|-----------------1-3-2-4----------------------------| 
|---------1-3-2-4------------------------------------| 
|-1-3-2-4--------------------------------------------| 

|-2-4-3-5--------------------------------------------| 
|---------2-4-3-5------------------------------------| 
|-----------------2-4-3-5----------------------------| 
|-------------------------2-4-3-5--------------------| 
|---------------------------------2-4-3-5------------| 
|-----------------------------------------2-4-3-5----| 

Exercise 3: Shift, Don’t Lift

It’s easy enough to transition between strings when you have a simple, repeating pattern such as 1-2-3-4-etc…

What if the pattern isn’t so simple, though? Still a four-note per string pattern, this exercise will train you to “shift” your fingers when changing strings rather than lift them way off the fretboard.

You’ll still have to lift your fingers partway off the fretboard to do this exercise, but you don’t have to lift them nearly as much as most players do. It’s almost a “hop”, if that makes sense, just a tiny little hop. Watch for the tendency to fling your fingers high into the air and force yourself to barely lift them off the fretboard.

Above all, make sure to keep it clean and smooth, and watch for accidental pull-offs when transitioning between strings.

Remember, unwanted string noise is enemy #1.

 |-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1----|
 |---------------------------------1-2-3-4------------|
 |-------------------------4-3-2-1--------------------|
 |-----------------1-2-3-4----------------------------|
 |---------4-3-2-1------------------------------------|
 |-1-2-3-4--------------------------------------------| 

Exercise Set 4: String Crossing Triplet Style

Distinct from string skipping, strong crossing involves transitioning between adjacent strings, and as you play more of them, you will see that this type of movement has a unique ability to tie your hands into knots.

The challenge is worth tackling, though, especially when it’s combined with a triplet feel as in these examples (just count the notes as ONE-two-three ONE-two-three, etc.)

For starters, check out this neoclassical Jason Becker-inspired lick. Learn the pattern and repeat. Be very careful not to play any open strings; doing so will make your playing sound like rubbish.

Use your index, ring and pinky fingers on this first one, and make sure to count it in groups of three.

|--3--| |--3--| 
|----------12----------| 
|-12-14-15----15-14---:| 
|----------------------| 
|----------------------| 
|---------------------:| 
|----------------------| 

Contrast that with this bad boy (use index, middle, and pinky fingers):

|--3--| |--3--| 
|----------12----------|
|-12-13-15----15-13---:|
|----------------------|
|----------------------|
|---------------------:|
|----------------------| 

And one more for fun…

This beast will test your ability to move up the strings while also crossing between them. Try to lead off each group with your index finger.

 |-----6-----| |------6------|
 |--------7--------------8----------|
 |-7-8-10---10-8-8-10-12---12-10----|
 |----------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------|


 |------6-------| |------6-------|
 |----------10----------------12----------|
 |-10-12-14----14-12-12-14-15----15-14----|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------| 

Alternate Picking 3: Extras

What if I told you that alternate picking doesn’t always have to start with a downstroke? Better come up with an answer quick because that’s exactly what I’m about to tell you.

Alternate picking can also start on an upstroke.

That means you don’t have to tie your hands into knots on tricky passages.

Exercise 1: Up Or Down?

Play this next example both ways: first, starting with a downstroke, and then starting with an upstroke. For many players, starting on an upstroke keeps the hand from getting tied into knots in that tight space between strings.

 |--------------------------------------|
 |--------------------------------------|
 |--------------------------------------|
 |-7---10---9---7---7---10---9---7------|
 |---7----7---7---7---8----8---8---8----|
 |--------------------------------------|

 |------------------------------------------------|
 |------------------------------------------------|
 |------------------------------------------------|
 |-9----12----10----9----9----12----10----9-------|
 |---10----10----10---10---11----11----11---11----|
 |------------------------------------------------| 

Now let's try a few single-string licks. These can be tricky at first but there's no reason they have to stay that way.

Exercise 2: Sprinting Up Mountains

This type of exercise will develop your ability to shift laterally while playing a scale on a single string. I’ve put the notes in groups of four to make it easier to follow.

Once you’re past the first section you’ll have to start shifting your hand up to make things work. You may choose to shift at the beginning of each group, or you may, like me, choose to shift in the middle of the group. For example, on this first section, I’d play 2-4-5-2 (with my index, ring, pinky, and index fingers, in that order), then I’d play 4 again with my ring finger, then 5 I’d hit with my pinky finger and carry that up to hit 7 with the pinky as well, finally falling back to hit 4 with the index finger. I’d repeat that pattern for the rest of the phrase. Your mileage may vary with this. Do what works for you.

Try this ascending scale first, making sure to let the final note ring:

 |----------------------------------------|
 |-2-4-5-2--4-5-7-4--5-7-9-5--7-9-10-7----|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|

 |---------------------------------------------------|
 |-9-10-12-9--10-12-14-10--12-14-16-12--14-16-17~----|
 |---------------------------------------------------|
 |---------------------------------------------------|
 |---------------------------------------------------|
 |---------------------------------------------------| 

Exercise 3: Sprinting Down Mountains

And now a similar scale descending (again let the last note ring:

 |------------------------------------------------------|
 |-17-16-14-17--16-14-12-16--14-12-10-14--12-10-9-12----|
 |------------------------------------------------------|
 |------------------------------------------------------|
 |------------------------------------------------------|
 |------------------------------------------------------|

 |----------------------------------------| 
 |-10-9-7-10--9-7-5-9--7-5-4-7--5-4-2~----|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------| 

Exercise 4: Carbon Copy

This is one of those old-but-good exercises. Somewhat plain on its own, it still sounds wicked cool when you get it up to speed.

Same drill as before… take it slow and watch the transition between strings, because as with any odd-numbered pattern, you will be picking in a different direction on each new string, and this can easily disrupt your groove.

 |-3-| |-3-| |-3-| |-3-| |-3--| |-3--|
 |--------------------------------7-9-10----|
 |-------------------------7-9-10-----------|
 |-------------------6-7-9------------------|
 |-------------6-7-9------------------------|
 |-------5-7-9------------------------------|
 |-5-7-9------------------------------------|

 |-3--| |-3--| |-3-| |-3-| |-3-| |-3-|
 |-12-10-9------------------------------------------|
 |---------12-10-9----------------------------------|
 |-----------------11-9-7---------------------------|
 |------------------------11-9-7--------------------|
 |-------------------------------11-9-7-------------|
 |--------------------------------------10-9-7-5----| 

Exercise 5: Why Was Six Afraid of Seven?

Because seven ate nine. Now incorporate this exercise into your routine and burn that awful joke into your brain for all time.

Sevens, eights, and nines over open strings combine to create one wicked exercise. Sounds cool, as does most string skipping, if you can get it up to speed.

 |---------------------------------0-7-8-9------------|
 |:----------------0-7-8-9---------------------------:|
 |-0-7-8-9--------------------------------------------|
 |---------0-7-8-9------------------------------------|
 |:------------------------0-7-8-9-------------------:|
 |-----------------------------------------0-7-8-9----| 

Exercise 6: Lightspeed Shred Melody

Try this cool riff with open strings. Guaranteed to make you sound like a rock star. Try moving it to other strings and see how the sound changes.

It’s a simple riff but what might get you are the fretted notes. You’ve got to be on that fret and back off it in no time. If these give you trouble isolate the trouble spots until you are able to alternate between the open and fretted notes with no problem.

 |----------------------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------------------|
 |-0-0-0-0-8-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-7-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-8-0-0-0----|
 |----------------------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------------------|
 |----------------------------------------------------|

 |-----------------------------------------------------|
 |-----------------------------------------------------|
 |-10-0-8-0-7-0-8-0-0-0-0-0-5-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-0-0-0----|
 |-----------------------------------------------------|
 |-----------------------------------------------------|
 |-----------------------------------------------------|

 |------------------------------|
 |------------------------------|
 |-0-0-0-0-5-0-0-0-5-3-2-3-0----|
 |------------------------------|
 |------------------------------|
 |------------------------------| 

Of course there are more exercises out there, but these are a good start. You might want to consider investing in a professionally-made book, such as Rock Discipline by John Petrucci. Or just keep working on these. In any case, good luck with the alternate picking and keep playing!