Alternate picking is arguably one of the most used right hand techniques on the guitar amongst sweep/economy picking and strumming. This technique is especially popular in shred (fast soloing) but you can use it in any style. In this article I will try to explain this technique from very basic examples to some real world examples where alternate picking works as a great solution.
The explanation of alternate picking is very simple. You pick the first note with down stroke and the next note up stroke and so on. You just keep alternating your picking direction regardless of what you are trying to play. (e.g. string change, tempo, odd note groups).
The picking signs in tab for down and up strokes look like this
Chromatic alternate picking exercises
The best way to start practicing alternate picking is to use some kind of chromatic pattern. Here is one:
Notice the picking direction signs under the numbers (frets).
It is highly advisable to use metronome in these kinds of exercises. When you feel 100% comfortable with the tempo that you set, then you can increase it 5 or 10 bpm until you feel comfortable again. You can then keep increasing until you are happy with the desired speed. The speed you want to achieve is entirely up to you. Be patient and do not start with a tempo that doesn’t feel right for the start. I am playing these examples in 120bpm (quarter notes) and the second time round I play 8th notes in the same tempo (twice as fast) – for the purpose of this lesson.
Let’s now do something more with this example. Play that same pattern then move the whole thing one fret and keep doing this until you reach 12th fret. Use left hand fingers 1,2,3,4 respectively in every bar.
Make sure that every odd note in the group of four (1 and 3) are played with down strokes and all even notes (2 and 4) are played using up strokes – in every bar. If you find yourself playing it opposite then you must have missed a stroke somewhere earlier or you played two notes with the same direction one after another. In that case the best thing to do is to start the exercise over rather than keep going the wrong direction.
The next audio example is the same thing reversed (from 12th towards the 1st fret). I played it in 8th then in 16th notes. Here use 4,3,2,1 left hand finger pattern in each bar.
Now let’s include other strings using the same pattern, starting from the 6th string down to 1st string.
Let’s now combine the two. When you reach the last note from the above example, move the pattern one fret up and play the exercise reversed towards the 6th string. Note that from this point you are starting from the 5th fret on the 1st string going down. When you reach the 6th string you can again move the pattern one fret up and play the exercise towards the 1st string starting from the 3rd fret. Do not lose continuity when you finish the cycle. Play the whole thing until you reach the 12th fret then go back and cover the whole neck from 12th to 1st fret.
Here is part of Ex 4 played in 8th notes.
Here is the whole thing played in 16th notes up to 12th fret and back.
You can play these exercises using different combination of left hand fingers. Instead of 1,2,3,4 try playing 1,3,2,4 and back 4,2,3,1. You have 24 possible combinations. Try each one until you reach complete finger independence. This can help you strengthen your left hand and improve coordination between left and the right hand. I still use these exercises to warm up. It is advisable to spend 10-15 min every day playing these examples before start playing some “real thing”.
Using scales as exercises
You can make your exercises more interesting if there is some kind of melody involved. For example, major scale itself is not really a “developed” melody but it certainly sounds more interesting than boring chromatic patterns.
Let’s take G major scale in 2 octaves and see what we can do with it.
Here is the catch that most beginners don’t realise when they start practicing alternate picking. As we said in the beginning, in order to call the technique alternate picking you need to continuously alternate the picking direction regardless of string change or anything else. Notice the red circles! In the 2nd bar we are starting with the down stroke on the 5th string. The next note is on the 4th string but up stroke. In this situation most beginners just sweep from 5th to the 4th string making two down strokes without even realising. That approach is called economy picking which we will cover in some other article. The only logical explanation why that happens is probably because it feels more natural to sweep from one string to another but that’s not alternate picking. For that very reason I marked those notes in red so you make sure that you don’t make that mistake in these “sensitive” places. Most people have big problems switching from economy to real alternate picking because they got used to one technique from the beginning. However, with some practice, it is of course possible to “re-learn” and fix that issue. There are situations where economy picking works better. It gives smoother sound and some patterns/phrases are easier to play. Alternate picking gives you more “attack” on notes and therefore sounds a bit more “aggressive”. The cool thing about alternate picking is that every note has a very clear definition, especially when playing fast runs, where in economy picking those sweep picked notes are “blended” thus creating a smoother sound which sometimes is not the best solution for a particular style of soloing. That’s why jazz guitarists prefer economy picking because their phrasing sounds better if it’s not too aggressive. Of course the best thing you can do is to learn both techniques and use each where you find it appropriate. One technique won’t ruin the other one; you can only be richer by knowing both :)
Let’s make some more interesting patterns out of the same G major scale from example 5. The next example uses the 3rd intervals continuously giving you notes in order: 1, 3, 2, 4 – 3, 5, 4, 6 etc...
We can make more variations using the same scale. This one has the following pattern: 1, 2, 3, 4 – 2, 3, 4, 5 – 3, 4, 5, 6 etc... This time I will play it in 8th notes.
Here is another one, again using the same scale, but played in triplets using 3 note grouping like this: 1,2,3 – 2,3,4 – 3,4,5 etc...
Some of you have probably heard of the 5 position scale system. Here is the whole chart for the major scale in all 5 positions.
Major scale patterns - 5 position system
Don’t let these letters and chords confuse you. We are only talking about alternate picking :) Bottom line represents the 6th string and the top line represents the 1st string. Notes in squares are your root notes. I set my root note to be G so the whole example is actually the G major scale in all five positions. Read from left to right and from 6th to 1st string continuously. I played this example in 8th notes. Here we don't necessarily have to start or finish on the root. Notice that the very first note is half step lower than the root (F#). Don't worry about that, that's how the system works. That note belongs to that position and it's also a part of the scale. When I play the scale reversed I don't play the last note so I can stay in 4/4 time signature.
Take all 5 positions and apply patterns from examples 6, 7 and 8 on them.
Many people find alternate picking particularly useful when playing scales using 3 notes per string. Let’s see how G major scale looks like if we use 3 notes per string approach.
Take this 3 note per string scale and apply patterns from examples 6, 7 and 8 on it.
Sometimes you will come across a tab where you see grouping of 5, 6 or 7 (or more) notes within 1 beat (one quarter note). 5 and 7 groupings are usually seen when fast (mostly improvised) solos are transcribed. Yngwie Malmsteen’s solos are full of such groupings. I don’t think he plays that on purpose but it just comes out like that in transcription if you’re not lazy to learn the original :) He usually plays a fast run as fast as possible and those groupings occur spontaneously. However there are examples where such groupings are done on purpose. John Petrucci uses these a lot in his solos and riffs. 6 note grouping (16th triplets usually) is a very common one in fast solos and easy to visualise because the group of 6 has even number of notes.
Let’s have a look at a couple of examples again using G major scale.
5 notes per beat
6 notes per beat
7 notes per beat
Licks and phrases
By now you can probably guess that there are a countless number of cool things can be done using everything that we’ve learned so far. Here are some of my common runs when I go for a fast alternate picking lick.
The next one is modified string skipping lick by Paul Gilbert. He doesn’t pick this one all the way but I did for the purpose of this lesson. Notice 5/4 time signature.
Real world examples
Let’s look at some of the cool lines done in context (proper recording).
Rock ballad style improvisation by Emir Hot
The fingering for this next awesome piece written by Muris Varajic has been rearranged in a quite unusual way which makes it more difficult but useful picking exercise. Muris plays the same notes but different position. Notice how the time signature changes from 1/4 to 4/4.
Mojo Oro by Muris Varajic
And finally one of my favourite themes by Vinnie Moore :)
Prelude/Into the Future by Vinnie Moore
And that’s it for this time. I hope you will find this article useful and that your alternate picking will improve using these exercises and examples. Practice, experiment, and then make your own exercises and phrases and don’t mix up and down strokes :)
If you like what you’ve read and heard then I can recommend that you listen to Paul Gilbert and early Vinnie Moore albums. I learned so much from these people. Kee Marcello from Europe also has a fantastic alternate picking and very melodic solos which you might find interesting.
Feel free to leave comment here or on the forum. Also feel free to post some of your alternate picking examples on forum. I’d be happy to hear some.
See you soon.
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