Alternate Picking 101


So you would like to learn how to alternate pick? Or, maybe your having trouble getting your picking sounding like a machine gun? Well, you have come to the right person. I understand what it is like to have good chops, but not be able to alternate pick fast. It bothered me for years! But, then one day I figured out the secret to super fast picking… the metronome and playing faster than I could cleanly! If you do not have a metronome, go out and buy one NOW! This is a must and you will NOT be able to pick fast and metrical if you don’t practice with a metronome. A metronome will smooth out your timing between pick strokes at any tempo.

I remember being super frustrated with alternate picking. I was in a slump. Couldn’t pick fast, no matter how hard I tried. One day a revelation occurred to me. I was sitting down at my computer listening to some Imperialist. Then, the song “17th Century Clicking Picking” came on. I was floored. My jaw hit the ground and then I said, “I WILL ALTERNATE PICK LIKE THAT.” That was the point that I realized my faults.

I wasn’t practicing on a consistent basis with perfect technique at slow speeds. So, you know what I did? I grabbed my metronome, and sat down every day, 4 to 16 hours, in my dorm room, and practiced to that metronome. Everyday for a month, without a miss. You can guess what happened! It was after I learned to pick really fast that I truly learned what my faults were. What amazed me was that my progress happened in just a few days after a long period of intense practicing. Not everyone has that sort of practice time available. But, by consistently practicing with perfect technique, anyone can avail at speed picking.

Let me reiterate how important it is to practice at a slow tempos and master licks for long periods of time at a slow speeds with perfect technique. Never make the mistake of trying to play to fast than you can cleanly. If you do this, you will not sound clean at high speeds. Also be sure to not over-train yourself. Just like you can over-train your muscles in weight lifting, you can wear out your joints and tendons in insane technical practice over long periods of time. If you start feeling any pain, stop! Enough preaching, let us now go over the rules of thumb before we dig into picking.


Rules of Thumb

Be Loose

The less tension you have when you pick, the faster you will be able to play and the less muscle strain you will suffer. Never dig in when picking really fast. Lay back and be loose.Make sure there is NO TENSION anywhere in your body. Think about your shoulders, back, arms, legs, toes, and head when you practice. Tension = INJURY. Tension = SLOW.


Think Economy

Economy motion is the key here. This means try to eliminate as much motion between pick strokes as possible. The less that you have to move your hand, the faster you can get back to the string. When practicing slowly with perfect economy, make sure you minimize your motion between strokes.


Never Pick from Your Elbow

If you speed pick from your elbow, stop and relearn! I’ve you can really mess up your elbow by doing this. It also takes a lot more energy to move your whole arm than it does your wrist of fingers. You can use your wrist (e.g. Paul Gilbert) to pick or your fingers (e.g. Michael Angelo). What is important is that you pick a style and stick to it. Consistency is key.


Warm Up

Always stretch out your tendons and massage your elbows. We don’t want you getting CTS or Tendinitis! If the blood is not flowing through your hands well, you will not pick fast and accurately.


Slow Before Fast

You can not play fast unless you can play slow. Do not ever attempt to play something faster than you can if you are going to sacrifice cleanness for speed. This is a big NO in alternate picking and it held me up for a long time. Learn it slow, practice it slow, and drive it into your subconscious! Get comfortable with the lick, and then develop the speed. As they say in football, “you have to catch the ball before you can run with it.” Developing speed is all about perfect practice at slow tempos for long periods of time to ingrain the movements into your subconscious. It is then when you gain the speed that your brain regurgitates what you practiced on autopilot.


How to Build Speed

Take a few patterns on or 2 strings like e–5-7-8– or e–8-5-7-8-7-5 and drill them into the ground at slow tempos. Practice them at a moderate speed with perfect technique for long periods of time. You want to ingrain that picking movement into your skull to the point where you are so sick of these simple licks that you would rather die than keep practicing them! That is the trick, drilling a few simple licks intensely and building your speed with them. Once you start getting the speed under your hands, you should then expand into the harder stuff like string crossing and combining fragments into longer licks.


Part 1 – The Basics

So, what is alternate picking? Simple, it is the process of playing a series of notes while using consecutive alternating motion between picking strokes. This means you never repeat the same picking stroke twice. e.g down, up, down, up, etc… Now, with this in mind, let us apply this idea. play the following example. Remember our rules of thumb! (Note that the V indicates an upstroke and the 3/4 of a square marking indicates a down stroke)

Congratulations, you have just alternate picked! Pretty easy hey? Well here is a classic picking exercise to help you develop those picking chops.

I’m sure you’ve seen that exercise 100 times by now hey? I know, I’ve seen it probably a thousand, and I’ve played it way more than that. But, this exercise is a classic for a reason, IT WORKS! Remember to do it in a descending fashion too! You should also try different variations of finger combinations. It is great for building finger interdependence.

Moving onward, one of the most difficult parts of picking super fast is crossing strings. Whether it be fumbling up the consecutive motion, or making noise while crossing strings, crossing strings while picking fast can get ugly! How do we prevent that. Simple, start SLOWLY and isolate the problem. Try this exercise on for size. Be careful not to make noise when crossing strings. This is a great Paul Gilbert lick for practicing string crossings:

Remember us talking about economy motion? It is really really important when crossing strings. The less motion you use when you cross, the faster that you will be able to burn. Here is another great Paul Gilbert lick with a different feel of a string crossing.

Playing those exercises daily will really help you clean up your string crossings.


Part 2 – 3 Note Per String Picking

Playing 3 note per sting patterns is probably the easiest thing to do at super insane speeds. 3 Note per string patterns tend to have a more natural feel compared to other picking patterns. With this in mind, let us try some ascending runs. I hope you know all your major scales, if not, read my master class on it. On a side note, personally I always palm mute all of my picking runs because they sound more articulate and they tend to be cleaner. Experiment and find out what you like the most.

How about we try isolating those weaker fingers to strengthen them.

*Yawn* I’m falling asleep, too easy right? Then, let us add some string skipping to see if you can hold up.

OK hotshot, I get the point, you want something challenging? Try this bad boy out for size.

Well, as they say, what goes up, must come down. In light of that, we shall do some descending picking patterns.

Combo platter anyone?


Part 3 – One String Picking

For some reason, this can be a total nightmare, but, with enough SLOW practice, oh yes my friends, you too can blaze these killer licks. Just remember the rules of thumb! One sting picking is not made for the impatient. Here we go. This is a lick using the harmonic minor scale.

(Finger it: 4 3 1 \ 1 2 4 / . The trick is getting the shift fast with out making it sound like your sliding!)

OK, here is the classic Yngwie one note per string picking lick.

Here is one of my favorites. The faster you play this, the better it sounds.


Part 4 – 4 Note Per String Patterns

Alright shred heads, here is the next step. We shall begin by playing the simple chromatic scale.

Hopefully, you are starting to see how we approach efficient picking. I’m going to start to leave out the picking markings. By now, you should have a great idea on how to pick things. Here is a 4 note per string lick.

Here is one more lick with some cool open stringage (is that a word? haha, it is now!).

Remember that you should play all these licks in a descending fashion too!


Part 5 – Sequencing

There are 2 great ways to make long picking licks. The 1st is to combine short scale fragments into long licks. The next is sequencing in scales. This is where the really cool picking licks are derived from. Nothing sounds cooler in my opinion than a super fast sequenced lick. So here we go with 4’s.

Just wait until you get that beast up to speed. It sounds tight. This next lick is one of my favorite. It is a Paul Gilbert style sequence. Give her a whirl, and pay close attention to the sequencing pattern!! This one is guaranteed to hurt, so warm up and stretch out..

You can sequence in any way imaginable, just be creative and experiment! Soon you’ll be tearing it up all over the neck. You can try sequencing any scale imagine. Try taking a scale and doing groups of 3, 4, 5, 6, and anything else your brain can concoct! Once you get your hands trained to sequence fluently, you will be able to rip up and down the fret board with ease.


Part 5 – Insane Guitar

Now that you can tear up this whole master class up (this far), lets have some more fun. Let’s tear it up with some cool sounding licks. Only proceed to this section if you are able to rip all the previous licks on this page effortlessly. We are going to have some fun! Please remember that when learning large licks, do so in small sections.
You have to love the pentatonic scale! Pay close attention to the 2 note per string stuff. It can really mess you up if you are not careful.

Here is a cool diminished lick with some string skipping.

Now let us burn up some minor scales.

Well, I think you’ve got the idea. There are some many cool picking licks out there. Listen to some of your favorite guitarists and learn theirs. There are many great articles in the archives here with tons of cool picking licks. Always remember the principles behind good technique and I wish you the best of luck with your picking!