Best alternate picking exercise ever

Well, ever might be a bit exaggerated, but really, this little exercise can really help to focus your technique and get some specific things happening with your picking. The lick itself is short, so learning it and remembering it is easy.

Here’s a short clip of the lick, played pretty slow – play along or just listen.

example 1:

And here is the tab for the line.

Alternate picking- open position

The repeated downstrokes are swing 8ths with the last note missing… The alternate picked notes are 8th note triplets (all 3 notes).

Start at a tempo that is completely comfortable for you to play through it with total control. Don’t let the simplicity of this fool you! Here are some things to keep in mind:

The whole point of the exercise is to gain control over picking, so don’t take shortcuts. You must ALTERNATE PICK every note. Make sure you are not economy picking the notes (repeated up or down-strokes. This lick is very easy to play w/ econo picking, so there’s really no point to that. We are after super-tight alternate picking here.

Keep your hands relaxed. Even when you speed it up. The muscles you use to pick fast work much better when they are not clinched up tight. Chill out…breathe…

Don’t speed up until you can play through the notes over and over with NO mistakes or fumbly notes. Accuracy and clarity are key.

Try it in a closed position

Playing in open position messes with some people’s heads for some reason – if so for you, try it in a closed position. Here’s the same idea at the 5th fret:

Alternate picking- closed position

On the low strings

One more variation, this time on the low strings. Your hand will be in a slightly different position, so keep relaxed, loose, don’t move any more than necessary to pick each note.

low variation:

faster:

And here is the tab for the low version:

Alternate picking- low strings

Give it time

Results from this exercise will come in time. Just loop it until you can repeat the notes without any mistakes, and you really feel ‘in control’ of the up and down strokes. Once you feel this, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Your up-strokes will be just as strong and even as your down-strokes, and you will not be scrambling to get each note. I use it as a warm-up exercise or just to tune up my picking when I get slack.

Learning By Ear

Probably the most asked question in any guitar lesson is “How do you do that?” I always thought a better question for the student to ask would be “How can I do that?” Really, who cares how the teacher did it? Students are there to learn how they can do it themselves! The original question is usually followed by some finger-wiggling, and the student walks out with a riff or two but not the underlying knowledge…how to learn it themselves.

Being able to hear something and translate it to your instrument is (to me at least) a fundamental part of being a musician. Train your ears just like your fingers – the more you
-practice LISTENING and transcribing, the faster and more accurate you get at it.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ or ‘secret’ to learning by ear. It’s a combination of many things, all used together and developed over time, through experience. With practice, you begin to instantly recognize things you’ve heard before.

Use Deductive Logic

Picking parts off of recordings can be tricky. You need to use a little deductive logic here. Some things are pretty easy to hear right away, even something like the first chord in ‘Stairway to Heaven’…there is really only one way to grab that chord shape and move the notes like the song does, without really overworking yourself.

You can make assumptions based on a few things – You can use the notes that come before or after a part to determine what’s happening, and if something seems illogical like a huge jump in frets, maybe that’s not how it was played, try another way. You can listen for specific tonality – does it sound like it’s on a low or high string, wound or unwound string?

Is the lowest or highest note only available in certain places on the neck? That can quickly limit your choices. With practice, you can very quickly figure out things in your head this way. By eliminating the illogical options, you narrow it down to the logical (usually easier) ones.

General Tips for learning music by ear

  • Learn things in small pieces, then build from there. It’s much easier to learn bit by bit than a whole long section. If that means pausing the recording after each note or chord, then do it!
  • Don’t start with music that is too difficult or foreign to you. You really need to be somewhat familiar with the style to visualize what is happening. Once you learn the basic vocabulary of a style, picking out things in that style becomes much easier.
  • Practice as often as you can – transcribe stuff as part of your regular routine. There’s really no substitute for putting in the time.

Tips for figuring out guitar parts by ear

  • Always listen for open strings, because they have a very specific and (often) easy to recognize tonality. Long sustained notes while others are changing can also indicate open strings.
  • Is it an acoustic guitar? Acoustic parts are usually played on the lower frets, and there could possibly be a capo involved. Does it sound like a familiar chord shape, like an open G or D. just higher? Suspect a capo.
  • Take into account the guitarist’s style. If they don’t normally use really weird or difficult chords, you can at least assume that they aren’t going to use something too far out.
  • Listen for things like hammer-ons and pull-offs – if you hear a pull-off then you can assume the interval didn’t span two strings. Likewise, hammer-ons on a single string have a certain sound and can determine the fret location.
  • String bends can be a dead giveaway of string and fret choice.
  • Listen for notes played at the same time, like double-stops, as these can often only be played in certain places on the neck.
  • Always try to use fingerings that are efficient and easy to get in and out of smoothly. Chances are good that the original artist did the same thing.

Keep in mind that guitar playing doesn’t have to be based on dogmatic ideas. Learn EVERYTHING you can and don’t base you approach on any one concept…use everything you can learn, whether it’s the CAGED system or whatever, just learn it, internalize it, and use it! Just don’t get hung up in any one method. Music is too diverse to be pigeon-holed by a narrow approach. Remember, the carpenter with only a hammer sees every job as a nail…

Visualization

The most useful technique I’ve developed over the years is fretboard visualization.

In a nutshell, what I’m speaking of is the ability to ‘see’ something played on the guitar without ever picking up the instrument. Without this, the connection between what I hear and what I want to play would be much less, well, ‘connected’.

I used to race BMX bikes when I was younger, and my favorite thing was jumping. The key to pulling off a cool trick was to be able to really ‘see’ yourself going through the motions before you ever left the ground. I would run a scenario obsessively through my mind until I almost felt I had done it for real. The accuracy of this visualization gets better with practice, as does the amount of time it takes to do it. The more accurately you can visualize, the closer you will be to actually doing it for real.

So, back to how this relates to guitar playing. The whole idea is to be able to ‘see’ a part on the guitar without actually picking it up. This is a combination of ear-training (and good relative pitch), experience with chords and scales, and recognizing familiar sounds and tonalities that you’ve heard or played before.

I’m a Very good driver…

For me this really is/was like an obsessive-compulsive disorder! I do it with everything I hear, whether it’s guitar or not. If music is playing, I’m working out fingerings in my head, often unconsciously. Before you start calling me ‘Rainman’, let’s dig a little deeper.

Like I said, after a while this becomes an almost subliminal act, but for the sake of explanation, I’ll try to break it down into a ‘process’.

Hearing Intervals

Your ability to hear intervals is probably the most important part of this. Here’s an example.

Take a simple melody like ‘Amazing Grace’

The first interval jump is a fourth…from ‘A’ to ‘MAZ’.

If the key of the song is G, that means you play D then G. (songs don’t always start on the root note!)

The easiest place would be the open D string, then the open G string. That’s a fourth.

You can also play the same notes at the 12th fret on the D and G strings…one octave higher.

What you need to be able to do quickly in your mind is hear the interval, and hear the octave range so you have a ballpark idea of where on the neck it can be found. This is a VERY simple example, but that’s where it really starts. The better you get at hearing intervals, the easier this gets.

Want to solidify that fourth interval in your mind’s ear? ‘Here Comes The Bride…’ From ‘Here’ to ‘Comes’ is a fourth.

As you tackle more difficult material, the process remains the same…and the more you do it the better you get. After a while you begin to recognize the sound of melodic patterns and chords right away, without having to actually sit down with the guitar and work them out.

From Head to Hands

For me, the ability to visualize music allows me to get ideas from my head to my hands quicker. The more automatic the process becomes, the less time and thought it takes to make music.

When you are away from the guitar, ‘practice’ in your head. Run scales, chords, and songs in your mind’s eye. This eventually becomes a second-nature thing. If you’re sitting in a restaurant and there’s music playing, instead of focusing on how much you hate it, try and picture how you would play it on the guitar. Even if it’s Kenny G, listen to the melody and try to visualize where the notes would be on the neck! Ok, that might be a little much…but you get the idea.

Diminished Clusters

I’ve always liked the sound of diminished arpeggios. Just by themselves, they have a cool ‘out’ sound that can quickly add some flavor to a melody.

For this example, I will show how I organize the diminished arpeggios into neat little modular ‘clusters’ that can be easily moved around the neck.

There are 4 clusters in all, and they lie on 3 string groups. Linearly, they each move in minor third intervals, so you can shift positions pretty easily once you get the patterns down.

To get started, here are the patterns:

Diminished Clusters

Listen:

As I mentioned before, these shapes can all be moved up and down the neck in minor thirds, and you’re always easily within reach of the next pattern, so it’s hard to get lost once you can visualize the shapes! Practice each shape separately, then add another, practicing them as a pair, then add the next, etc… Once you have all 4 down, it becomes pretty simple to go anywhere on the fretboard, intertwining with other scales/chords/arpeggio shapes.

Here are some lines over an A7 sound, adding the diminished arps here and there. You can shift between bluesy/jazzy dom7 lines and the diminished stuff to create color and tension. I tried to make it pretty obvious where the dim. stuff is. These are just examples of the sounds, not really great licks to memorize.

Listen:

For more ideas on using these patterns while playing changes, check this article out.

And if the aliens DO come, tell them I said hello.

Hybrid Picking Rhythm

Since most of your time is spent playing rhythm in a band situation, it’s good to have a few different techniques at hand (sorry for the pun…) when it comes to country/blues rock stuff.

In this example I am just going to show you a basic country-rock type of rhythm, using the pick and fingers technique. I play pretty hard when I pluck the strings with my fingers, so I really have to keep my right hand loose, just barely holding onto the pick. If you tense up your right hand, your wrist will cramp up and your endurance will suffer. Keep it loose!

When you practice this, use a metronome to keep good time and get your picked notes and plucked notes equally loud. The difference in tone that your fingers will make gives the technique a cool funky sound, very aggressive and percussive. Ok, that may have been one too many adjectives! Let’s dig in, shall we?

Here’s a tab of each pattern – it just loops the same pattern for each chord. Notice the picking — flatpick the bass notes, fingerpick the set of strings below. Nice and simple.

Hybrid Rhythm

Once you get comfortable with the basic pattern, add ornaments or accents to make it your own. Just keep in mind the more solid, the better. Too much variation or ornamentation and suddenly you are not groovin anymore. Focus on locking onto the beat.

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Economy Picking Fun

A great tool to add to your arsenal is economy picking.

Economy picking only applies when you’re crossing strings, so it’s really all about reducing right-hand motion as you go from string to string.

At first, it’s a pretty easy concept to get a handle on. Mastering it takes a bit more time.

First, some basics:

The simplest example of economy picking is this:

Economy Example 1

The thing to notice here is that I’m playing two downstrokes in a row when I change strings.

Normally you would alternate pick this, playing D – U – D – U. The repeated DOWN stroke allows you to save the motion required to go below the next string and then pick UP.

Here is a video example showing a whole major scale across 6 strings. (slow)

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And here is the tab for the entire scale:

Economy Example 2

I did use a bit of alternate picking on the high strings to change direction, but you could do the math and figure out patterns that use strict economy picking. I suck at math.

A key point to remember is DON’T BOUNCE YOUR HAND WHEN MOVING ACROSS STRINGS. This blows the whole ‘economy’ concept. Keep your hand moving in the direction of the string change.

Here is a video showing the same pattern up to speed.

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Don’t let the initial benefits of this technique convince you to abandon alternate picking altogether though! There are many situations where this method will not work, such as a simple pentatonic ‘box’ scale, where you play 2 notes per string. Gotcha! You could certainly use some other pentatonic scale patterns to facilitate the technique though.

The most useful patterns for this picking style use odd numbers of notes per string, or combinations of odd on one string and even on the adjacent string(s). It’s all about the repeated stroke when crossing strings, hence the ‘economy’ term.

The hardest part about the technique is making it sound as even and rhythmically locked down as alternate picking. It will take some serious metronome practice to get your pickstrokes nice and even, and not sound like you’re just raking the pick over the strings. Try to make your notes loud, clear and fat, not scratchy and uneven.

Don’t practice with a bunch of distortion…use a straight clean tone and really concentrate on getting nice even notes.

Hybrid Picking 101

The technique I get asked about the most is hybrid picking. I use it all the time, for rhythm as well as lead playing.

I prefer to use a flatpick over a thumbpick, so my technique is to use a flatpick and the middle and ring fingers, occasionally the pinky.

Switching back & forth between the flatpick and finger/flatpick combo becomes second nature once you get the basics.

There are 2 basic ‘rolls’ to start with, the Forward and Reverse rolls, like on a banjo.

Pk = Pick M = Middle R = Ring

hybrid rolls

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Be mindful of your picking hand’s posture and keep it loose. Don’t squeeze the pick too hard. If there’s ANY tension in your right hand, you’re doing something wrong. Relax, shake it out, start again.

Make sure each note is equal in volume and dynamic level.

Here’s a tricky little lick that uses 2 main shapes, over an E9 chord. It can be used over any E7(dominant) type chord.

You could pick each note of this separately, but when you speed it up the hammer-ons smooth it out a bit, so it isn’t quite so staccato sounding.

hybrid lick

Video, complete with clams!

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Experiment with using the pick & finger technique with chords, double-stops, single-note solos, anything where you want to get that snappy attack and freedom of movement in the right hand.

Start each exercise very slowly with a metronome or drum machine, working up the tempo gradually. Keep that hand loose!

Microphone Placement

Microphone placement is an important piece of the tone puzzle, so it’s good to know how your tone can be changed by simply moving the mic a little bit.

The basic thing to remember is that generally, the closer to the center of the speaker, the brighter your sound. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but in my experience that’s the scoop.

Another factor is distance – the closer the mic to the speaker, the more bottom end and low midrange you get. The examples below should shed some light on the matter…

The gear used for the test is a Les Paul w/BurstBucker Pro bridge pkp into a Fender 65 Reissue Deluxe Reverb, Eminence Red White & Blues spkr. Volume on 2.5, Treble 3, Bass 3. SM57 microphone straight into an Aphex mic pre into protools.

No effects or extra EQ, compression, etc… And no volume adjustments between mic placements.

The first example is the sm57 at 4 common positions, 1/4 inch from the grillcloth. Click the red dots to listen. Notice how the sound gets a little darker and lower as you move away from the center.

The next example is with the sm57 3 inches away from the grill, same positions. Notice how the sound is thinner, with less low-end and quieter volume.

The next example is another variation you see a lot of people do, with the mic off-axis. I included 2 positions here. Tone is darker, a bit queiter, and has a slight midrange coloration happening.

(Click the microphones to hear)