Alternate Picking part 1

Strong alternate picking has so many benefits, I really don’t need to go into that, so I’ll skip the sales pitch. Besides being wonderful and useful, I also hold the (perhaps opinionated) view that alternate picking prowess often separates the good guitarists from the truly amazing ones. Sure, there are players that have cultivated a style which has no need for alternate picking (Frank Gambale, Alan Holdsworth…to name a couple) but the majority of players have a more traditional approach, and picking technique is where most players would like to improve. I won’t debate whether one technique is better than the other…each is just a means to an end.

I’ve come up with some exercises that really target the difficult parts of the technique and will hopefully whip your picking into shape. You will need a metronome or drum machine for this, and you can listen to my examples to see how to set the click. (all the examples are 8th notes, with the click set to 1/4 notes) The tempo is completely dependent on your skill level. My examples are only for basic reference, and hopefully to inspire and push you a little.

Nothing could be simpler in concept than alternate picking…just pick down and up. In most cases you pick down on the downbeats and up on the upbeats. Simple!

Just three rules to remember –
– Start Each Example With a DOWN Stroke.
– Use Strict Alternate Picking.
– Practice each example until you can ‘loop’ it repeatedly without mistakes.

The tricky part of alternate picking surfaces when you start crossing strings. There are some specific reasons for this, which we’ll explore. First, let’s get some pick control.

The first thing we can do is warm up with some accents. Pick a string, any string. Now, start picking down-up-down-up on the string as evenly as possible. Next, start accenting the UP stroke only, playing it louder than the down stroke. Make sure you are playing very evenly and KEEP YOUR PICKING HAND LOOSE.

Concentrate on minimal movement and nice consistent sound.

Ok, now that we have the basic UP accent, let’s apply it to a scale. I’ll use this one octave E major scale pattern, playing strict down-up-down-up and accenting the UP stroke. Start slowly and work up your speed. Most importantly, make sure that your technique DOES NOT CHANGE as you increase the tempo. Also make sure you don’t tense up your picking hand as you speed up.

up accents

Samples:

90bpm
120bpm

I singled out the upstroke on purpose, because that is typically where the trouble starts with alt picking. We want up and down to be equally controlled. Another point is that many players unconsciously go into ‘economy’ picking when they play scales, without really knowing it. There is no way to play this exercise and have the accents fall on the UP each time without using strict alternate picking. Hmmmm…

Next, let’s pick on downstroke accents. Instead of using the example above, which you could easily re-use and just accent the downstroke, let’s change it up a bit.This exercise uses the same scale shape, but now we are placing the accent on every 4th downstroke. I’m using 8th notes instead of 16ths because it is a little more tricky to think of the groups of notes this way. End the long run, I think

it helps your hand/brain coordination. 16th notes are a little too automatic
since they are already in neat little groups of 4. Again, to make the accents fall on the DOWNstroke, you MUST alternate. Start very slowly so you can make sure the accents are in the right place.

down accents

Samples:

90bpm
120bpm
240bpm

Still with me? Great. Now lets ramp up the torture a bit.

This exercise is a straight B major scale, played in 3rds. Musically, it is a good pattern to know, and surely you’ve heard it used before. Technically, it addresses one of the most tricky parts of alternate picking – picking OUTSIDE of a pair of strings. Why is that significant? Because picking ‘inside’ the strings is easier, and players often unknowingly do this and throw off the strict alternating, which we want to avoid. A large part of strong alt technique depends on this one aspect.

The very first two notes of this pattern hit this idea. Start with a DOWN on the low E string B note, then play the A string Eb with an UP. In this entire exercise, each time you cross strings you must pick OUTSIDE the string pair to maintain the alternation. Exquisite Torture, huh?!!

As usual, start slow, get the scale pattern down pat so you don’t have to think about it.

3rds

Samples:

90bpm
120bpm
240bpm

Now I’d like to ratchet up the psychological torture just a bit. Everything so far has been in ‘closed’ positions, or up the fretboard on fretted notes only.

For this excerpt, I am using open strings along with the fretted notes. For some reason, many players get thrown off when open strings are mixed in with the frets. Sure to derail the picking hand if it’s not solid as a rock.

This is a sort of bluegrass-inspired lick, just Emin pentatonic with a bunch of passing tones to make it flow. You’ll hear open strings ringing in my exampes…that is on purpose. Try not to mute the strings as you play. I ‘float’ my picking hand over the strings, not anchoring anything on the guitar except for my wrist very lightly brushing the bridge just behind the saddles.

open E pentatonic

Samples:

90bpm
120bpm
240bpm

My last example here is a bit tricky, as it incorporates a mix of one and two notes-per-string. It’s a diminished scale in a sort of stair-stepped, down 2 up 1 kind of pattern. This is probably going to be the trickiest one to play fast and clean. Again, we are having to pick ‘outside’ the strings on the transitions, so try to minimize your movement as much as possible. I chose this pattern because it would be basically impossible to play it with economy picking (in this fingering) so you are again forced to alternate. Muuhhuhuhuhuhhhhhaaaa!!!

diminished

Samples:

90bpm
120bpm
225bpm

Work with these examples for a while…do them each day as part of your practice routine. Don’t just play them a couple of times and expect to be a better picker. It takes a lot of time and work to really get this technique down. I can guarantee that if you put consistent time into it, you will see results. And always try to incorporate this into other things that you play. It’s important to have this come ‘second nature’ so you are free to think about the music, not just the technique.

Well, that’s all for part one. Check out Part 2!