With so much attention given to the fretting hand when playing guitar, picking hand technique is frequently overlooked. With little or no dedicated attention, the picking hand seems to be dragged along for the ride with the progression of fretting hand technique. What can happen over time is the development of fretting hand technique becomes limited by the slower developing picking hand, and progress as a whole is stalled. So with this lesson we’re going to spend some time developing a foundational picking hand technique, alternate picking.
What is alternate picking?
Alternate picking is the alternating of down pick strokes with up pick strokes for each note played. It tends to be a bit smoother and allows for faster picking than all downstrokes and, certainly, all upstrokes. It’s also more efficient as it requires less movement for each attack and wasted motion is kept to a minimum.
When reading guitar tab, the picking direction is indicated by symbols that sit on top of the tab. You can see them labeled in the diagram below.
In the tab above, the first note is down picked, the second up picked, the third down picked and the fourth up picked. These symbols are used to note each picking direction for all notes in the exercises.
When alternate picking across multiple strings, there are a few ways in which it can be done, notably with inside picking, outside picking, or a combination of the two. Inside picking is when the pick stroke occurs on the inside of two strings (downstroke on the higher pitched string, upstroke on the lower pitched string), whereas outside picking occurs on the outside of the strings (downstroke on the lower pitched string, upstroke on the higher pitched string).
Most of the time this happens without much thought, but understanding the differences can lend itself to different tones coming out of the note.
Again, this nuance doesn’t seem particularly significant, but its impact can be great as the attack is different and the feel is different, which ultimately impacts the tone of the notes being played.
Alternate Picking Exercises
The alternate picking exercises in this lesson start with the basics and move to some more challenging variations that will help fine tune the movement. For these exercises we’re going to keep the fretting hand pretty static. It’ll either be off the fretboard completely or holding chord positions.
Exercise 1 – Single String
This first exercise sets the foundation of alternate picking. It’s a basic single string alternate picking exercise and just happens to be the first alternate picking exercise I was taught. If this picking style is brand new to you, this exercise will get you started off on the right foot.
For this exercise, start on the open 6th string and play 8th notes using alternating up and down strokes. Start slow and play with a metronome to keep the rhythm consistent throughout. Start with a 30 second duration and extend out to 60 seconds when you play without any loss in rhythm.
Repeat the exercise for the remaining five strings. You may find as you get closer to the 1st string the exercise becomes a bit more difficult as the pick won’t glide over the thinner strings as well as the wider strings. Be sure to not let this impact your rhythm. Slow the exercise down if need be until you’re able to pick it cleanly.
Exercise 2 – String Pairs
In this exercise we’re going to progress to alternate picking across two strings using 8th notes. Again, starting with the 6th string, you play four 8th notes using alternate picking then switch to string 5 to play four 8th notes.
Again, take this exercise across the fretboard pairing strings 5/4, 4/3, 3/2, and 2/1.
Exercise 3 – Triplets
Playing standard 8th notes simplifies transitions between strings because the swing of the pick moves more naturally toward the adjacent string . Triplets throws a wrinkle into this feel. This first triplet exercise is to help you get the feel of playing triplets with alternate picking.
Exercise 4 – Triplets with String Pairs
This second triplet exercise might feel a bit awkward at first, so take your time. As with the previous string pair exercise, you’re going to play a set of triplets on one string following by triplets on the adjacent string.
Continue the exercise across all string pairs (5/4, 4/3, 3/2, 2/1).
Exercise 5 – Inside Picking
This next exercise uses inside picking across string pairs. Starting with strings 5 and 6, you’re going to alternate between a note on the 6th string and a note on the 5th string using inside picking. In other words, you will use alternate picking, but the pick will contact the each string in the space between the strings. So it’s going to be an upstroke to contact the bottom of string 6 and a downstroke to contact the top of string 5.
Exercise 6 – Outside Picking
This exercise will be the same as exercise 5, only this time we’re going to use outside picking. The downstroke will occur on the outside of string 6 and the upstroke to occur on the outside of string 5. Apply the exercise across all string pairs.
Exercise 7 – Chord Arpeggiation
For our last exercise, we’re going to arpeggiate chords using alternate picking. Typically when arpeggiating chords in this manner, you would use all downstrokes going from string 6 to string 1 and all upstrokes coming back the opposite direction. In this exercise, we’re going to alternate upstrokes/downstrokes on each note moving vertically across the fretboard.
This may sound easy, but it can actually be quite challenging at first if you’re not used to it. So again, take your time and start slow. Only speed up once you can play at a given tempo without any mistakes.
In the example here we’re using the G major chord, but you can apply this exercise across any chord, so I recommend practicing with as many chords as you can.
Exercise 8 – Arpeggios
With this last exercise, we’re going to use alternate picking over an arpeggio. While this is similar to arpeggiating a chord, with a chord you’re only going to pick one note per string. Arpeggios introduce multiple notes per string and single note per string patterns, which makes the alternate picking pattern a bit more complex.
In this example we’re using a G major arpeggio. Major & Minor Arpeggios on Guitar and Major 7th, Minor 7th, and Dominant 7th Arpeggios provide plenty of other examples where this picking technique can be applied.
Putting time into picking hand technique is important to overall development. In most cases, the sound of the note begins with the pick strike, so we want that to be as clean and crisp as possible. With these alternate picking exercises you can begin to build a solid foundation for accurate, clean picking that will carry over into clean notes and great tone.
Cheat Sheet: Alternate Picking Exercises
Download the cheat sheet for this lesson: