Proper guitar picking technique is fundamental to a guitar player. The picking hand is the driving force behind your guitar playing. Without a solid picking foundation, you’ll find it difficult to reach your potential on the guitar.
While I do enjoy exercises, the best way to improve on guitar (and make it more enjoyable) is by learning songs. All of the techniques you can practice in isolation can also be practiced within the context of a song. With that in mind, below are 5 song intros you can learn to greatly to improve guitar picking technique.
I picked these particular songs because they provide a variety of styles from alternating picking, to string skipping, to arpeggiating chords.
Throughout your time as a guitar player, you’ll come across many picking techniques, from finger picking, hybrid picking, economy picking and so on. However, the songs in this lesson primarily focused around three foundational techniques:
- Alternate picking – alternating between upstroke and downstroke
- Arpeggiating chords – playing the notes of a chord individually
- String skipping – playing consecutive notes on non-adjacent strings
An important consideration when it comes to developing your picking technique is to make sure you’re using an appropriate pick for what you’re playing. You want to use a pick that doesn’t flex too much or your accuracy will suffer.
Another consideration is the grip. I’ve gone through a plethora of picks, from Tortex to Gator Grips, but I find them too slippery and constantly have to adjust.
I’ve found the Dunlop Jazz III picks to be the right combination of both. They’re the perfect stiffness without being too thick, and they never slip from my fingers.
The picking pattern (upstrokes and downstrokes) for each example below is noted in the tablature. In case you’re not familiar, each pick stroke is noted directly above the tabbed note.
The first group of song intros focuses primarily on arpeggiating chords. There are other aspects of picking incorporated as well, but I chose these songs for the focus on picking chords.
Everybody Hurts – R.E.M.
Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. is about as straightforward an example of arpeggiating chords as it gets. With this intro you’re picking the notes of the D major and G major chords. It also incorporates a little string skipping on the G chord.
Listen to the intro: R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper is another intro that’s almost purely chord arpeggiation. The tempo of the picking and chord changes makes this intro fun and a bit more challenging than Everybody Hurts from above.
Listen to the intro: Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
The intro for Simple Man allows you to practice playing individual notes of a chord and sprinkles in a fair dose of string skipping as well. Since it’s using easy to play open chords, it’s another great exercise for beginners.
Listen here: Lynyrd Skynyrd – Simple Man
Road to Nowhere – Ozzy Osbourne
The picking pattern to Road to Nowhere is really similar to Simple Man. It too sprinkles in a bit of string skipping while arpeggiating over D, A, G, and Em chords.
Listen to the intro: Ozzy Osbourne – Road to Nowhere
Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love – Van Halen
Ok, so this one could just as well have been included in the string skipping section, but since it shares some similarities with the others in this section I added here instead. In either case, Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love is another great song intro to up your picking chops.
Listen to the intro: Van Halen – Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love
Welcome to the Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
This intro provides an excellent progression in string skipping. You first start off playing on the 3rd and 2nd strings, then progress to the 4th and 2nd strings, and finally to 5th and 2nd strings.
Listen to the intro here: Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle
Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin
Immigrant Song is another great intro to practice string skipping. This one has a bit of a gallop feel to it and a pretty quick jump between the 6th and 4th strings. It might take a little practice to avoid picking the 5th string inadvertently.
Listen to the intro: Led Zeppelin – Immigrant Song
What’s My Age Again – Blink-182
The intro to What’s My Age Again by Blink-182 is really cool riff for practicing picking. I like that it provides a progressive skip, going from one string to three strings apart. If you find it tough to make the leap, you can always practice each skip as it’s own little exercise
Listen to the riff: Blink-182 – What’s My Age Again
Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
The intro to Sweet Child O’ Mine originated from a string skipping exercise Slash used, so it’s fitting to include this one under this category. If you watch Slash closely as he plays it, you’ll notice his picking pattern is a little unorthodox. It’s noted in the tab below, but feel free to pick this one however is most comfortable to you.
Listen to the riff here: Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
Suite Sister Mary – Queensryche
This is probably the most challenging string skipping intro on this list. The difficulty of the riff combined with the time change in the second bar makes it a bit challenging. Take your time, play slowly and get the picking pattern down cleanly and it’ll all come together.
Listen to the intro here: Queensryche – Suite Sister Mary
Eye of the Tiger – Survivor
What better way to start this section than with Eye of the Tiger by Survivor. This iconic riff, famously known for being the theme song to Rocky III, is purely alternate picking. The key to this riff is the emphasis on the one beat. Without it, it just wouldn’t be the same.
Take a listen to the intro here: Survivor – Eye of the Tiger
Run Like Hell – Pink Floyd
The next example is Run Like Hell from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. This is another example of how emphasizing certain beats can breathe life into a riff and make it more dynamic. The riff itself is straightforward alternate picking.
Listen to the riff: Pink Floyd – Run Like Hell
Thunderstruck – AC/DC
The intro to Thunderstruck doubles as a great alternate picking exercise as well as a hand synchronization exercise. You commonly see this riff played using some combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs. However, if you listen closely to the track you can hear that the entire riff is being picked.
It’s a pretty high speed intro, so start slow on this one. This is a perfect riff to use with a metronome to help get it up to speed.
Listen to the riff: AC/DC – Thunderstruck
Number of the Beast – Iron Maiden
The alternate picking examples so far have been pretty straightforward. Aside from a little accentuation, they’ve all been pure alternate picking.
Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden changes that a bit. Added to the mix is a bit of economy picking. With this type of riff, it’s important to start slow and really focus on the up/down strokes. Once you get the pattern down you’ll find that groove that will enable you to play it up to speed.
Listen to the intro here: Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast
Snow (Hey Oh) – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Snow (Hey Oh) by Red Hot Chili Peppers provides an interesting challenge. It requires precision alternate picking across multiple strings at a high tempo. If that’s not enough, add in a little downstroke nuance and you have quite a task ahead of you to perfect this one.
Study the picking pattern on this one closely and take your time. Following the pattern below makes the picking pattern uniform on each chord form. Break from the pattern and your picking changes with each chord change, adding another level of difficulty to an already difficult enough riff. Check out the full Snow riff breakdown.
Listen to the riff: Red Hot Chili Peppers – Snow (Hey Oh)
Picking is a foundational skill that every guitarist must develop. These song intros make great picking exercises to help build this foundation. Not only will they improve guitar picking technique, but they’ll also keep learning musical and fun, which is just as important to making progress on the guitar.