Alternate Picking

  • by
Featured Video Play Icon

Fig. 1: Simple Alternate Picking Exercise

Fig. 2: Alternate Picking Variation

Alternate picking is a technique in which you pick in a down, up, down, up pattern. It allows you to play a series of picked notes fluently and cleanly. It helps develop a good sense of rhythm because the regular picking motion helps acquire an evenness of timing that is absolutely essential. When picking single notes in a series you should always use alternate picking. Once it is mastered it will allow you to achieve great speed. Look and listen to the example below and ask yourself if you think it would be possible to pick at this speed with just downstrokes of the pick.

Pick Position And Movement

Everyone holds a pick a little bit differently. Most people find that
holding your pick with the tips of the thumb and forefinger sufficient.
How you hold your pick to the strings is what is important here. You don’t want the top of your pick to lean too far towards the ceiling or towards the floor. You may want to position you pick at a slight angle.

Limit arm movement to your wrist. Your thumb, finger, elbow, or arm should not move when picking. Keep your wrist movement to a minimum to achieve maximum speed.

Down, Up, Down, Up Symbols

Look at the picture below. The first symbol in the pattern is the down
symbol. The second symbol in the pattern is the up symbol. All the alternate picking exercises have these symbols in the tab.

Usually you won’t see these down, up, down, up symbols in tablature.
The use of alternate picking is expected when you pick a series a single notes. Since our purpose is to develop our alternate picking skill we’ve included them with each exercise for your preference.

Exercise 1

For this exercise practice the down, up, down, up alternate picking pattern on the open high E string. Start slowly! You want the notes to be as even as possible. Once you’re able to play the pattern evenly slowly increase the tempo. This may seem like a boring exercise, but it’s very beneficial to build alternate picking skills. Do the exercise while you watch TV. It’s a no-brainer.

Exercise 2

Now we’re going to alternate pick on all 6 strings. This one isn’t as
easy as it looks. Remember to keep the notes even. Once you can play through the exercise without a mishap and all the notes are even, try playing it faster and faster. Don’t get sloppy! Maintain a clean attack.

Exercise 3

Now let’s get the left hand involved. We used a metronome to play along with on this exercise. Concentrate on keeping it clean and even. It doesn’t matter if you have to go real slow at first. You’ll build speed with time. If you try to rush into playing fast before you are ready it will just sound sloppy.

Notice that there are 3 notes per string on this one and some strings
begin with an upstroke. We don’t change the alternate picking pattern even when we switch strings.

More About Alternate Picking

Alternate picking is a guitar playing technique, used only by pick users, that employs strictly alternating downward and upward picking strokes in a continuous run, and is the most common method of plectrum playing. If this technique is performed on a single note at a high speed, then it may also be referred to as tremolo picking.

‘Good’ alternate picking involves a continuous down-up or up-down motion of the picking hand, even when not picking a note (except when the gap lasts longer than one full up-down motion). In this manner, an up-beat (such as an even-numbered eighth note or, at faster tempos, sixteenth note) will always be played with an upward picking stroke, while the down-beats are always played with downward picking strokes. This allows for fluid incorporation of legato-based notes such as hammer-ons and/or pull-offs in the middle of picked phrases.

The technique has many advantages and some disadvantages, largely depending on the licks the guitarist is attempting to play. For example, during fast passages, alternate picking is necessary in keeping the picking arm from tiring out. At very high tempos, alternate picking is virtually required, since techniques like down picking are made highly infeasible.

Most scalar runs are most easily played using alternate picking. Similarly, the complex, syncopated rhythm guitar patterns found in death metal require a good alternate picking technique to play fast and accurately.

On the other hand, large arpeggios (especially those spanning more than one octave) are very difficult to play using pure alternate picking and almost impossible to play at great speeds, which is why many guitarists choose to employ sweep picking to play these arpeggios (eg. K. K. Downing, Frank Gambale & Mario Parga). Similarly, some kinds of licks are easier when played using such specialized techniques as legato, economy picking (a hybrid of alternate and sweep picking) or tapping.

Despite some of the well-known disadvantages of the technique, some guitarists (such as Al Di Meola, Steve Morse and Paul Gilbert) emphasize the near-exclusive use of alternate picking, even in situations where another technique would be easier, claiming that pure alternate picking leads to a more consistent sound and allows for greater control of tone.

Alternate picking can be heard in almost all styles of picked guitar music, from jazz, bluegrass, to heavy metal. It is also very often used in a subgenre of heavy metal, thrash metal.