Alternate Picking Basics

alternate pickingAlternate picking is an important, fundamental technique, so I give it a large portion of my time in a practice session. I like to start out with simple single note exercises to prime the right hand for the upcoming onslaught of speed picking and string crossing. I’ve transcribed and recorded a typical exercise that I use to achieve this. It develops into several smaller exercises that I run during a practice session and I’ve condensed them all into this post for ease of practice. I like to start with just a single string and tend to vary things rhythmically (always mindful of keeping everything interesting and creative). I’ve stayed fairly conservative with the rhythm here but the backing track leaves the door open for more ambitious rhythms should you wish to experiment. Once I’ve finished the one string exercises there are then two areas I like to focus on with alternate picking – picking inside the strings and picking outside the strings.

When crossing strings (going from the Low E string to the A String for instance) certain factors determine which direction the pick will go. Hypothetically, assuming that I start with a down pick – If there are 3 notes on the Low E string and then I cross to the A string and play 3 notes there, the pick directions will be – down, up, down (cross to A) up, down, up. In order for the pick to complete the up pick on the first note of the A string, it must go around or outside it first. Alternatively, if there are 2 notes on the Low E and 2 notes on the A, the pick directions will be – down, up (cross to A) down, up. This time the pick (after the last up pick on Low E) travels between or inside the strings. Both inside and outside picking, as they have come to be known (in reality the pick follows more of a figure of eight style pattern for both), need equal practice and every player is stronger at one or the other but rarely strong at both. Both also have different pros and cons – inside picking is technically a shorter distance to cover for the pick and is therefore faster but feels more difficult due to the danger of double picking or ‘hiccupping’ the string you’re crossing from, whereas outside picking covers a greater distance (ergo slower) but due to it’s ‘avoidance’ factor feels easier. So my alternate picking exercises always fall into one of the two camps – inside or outside. The transcribed exercise follows on from a single string exercise and moves onto inside and outside exercises seamlessly along the course of a continuous exercise so as to build stamina, strength and speed whilst actually saving time.

The question of which pick direction (down or up), starts any given sequence of alternate picking was the source of some confusion for me in the beginning. I thought that I needed to mix up practicing starting with a down and an up. This perceived practicing of a weakness (the up pick needed to be as good as the down) was then answered by inside and outside picking practice (above) and I realised that the pick direction had more to do with where in the beat I was at any given time –

I always have a down pick on the beat

This could be due to psychologically associating the general feel of the beat with the word down (the head and foot always come down on the beat so why not the pick?) and it could also be that it is easier to get a run started by using a down pick – starting on an up pick to me feels too delicate of a ‘run up’ to the string and can soon end with getting ‘stuck in the middle’ when crossing to the next string. An example of this is any given run of 16th notes. 16th notes are distributed as 4 equal notes per beat. Therefore starting with a down pick will make each beat nice and straightforward – down, up, down, up. However that doesn’t mean that every one of the 4 notes per beat will be played. The alternate picking run may start on any of the 4 notes (and miss any out) in the beat so there is a need to adhere to the laid out pick direction, across the beat, for any of the notes. For example – I count 16th notes as (see my counting language post linked above) 1 e & u | 2 e & u | 3 e & u | 4 e & u. So if I were to start an alternate picking run on the ‘&’ in the 1st beat, I would start with a down pick. If I were to start the same run but on the ‘e’ in the 1st beat the run would begin with an up pick.

So along with the transcriptions I have included the pick directions that I use and have stuck to, with much success. Check out my alternate picking chops (around 54 seconds in) here.

Of course the above pick directions will only work with an even number of notes per beat (2,4,6 & 8) not with an odd number of notes per beat (3,5 & 7) so inside and outside picking must be mastered (and plenty of experience with even numbered note divisions gained) before attempting those more difficult divisions.

What has not been covered in this post (important enough that it deserves it’s own post) is the importance of efficient muting with the left and right hands and will be covered (and linked here) in detail in a separate post.

Here is the transcription of the exercise –

Download (PDF, 50KB)

And here is me playing the exercise today –

And finally the backing track to exercise to –

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