Cram Session: Alternate Picking
The concept is simple. It’s the application that takes work.
• Increase your alternate picking accuracy.
• Systematically work through every possible fret-hand fingering.
• Improve your string-skipping technique.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Welcome to my new Premier Guitar column where we’ll be examining a wide variety of techniques, from picking, legato phrasing, and tapping to string bending and vibrato. And regardless of your musical and stylistic preferences, there will be something for everyone in each lesson. In every column, we’ll get some exercises under our fingers and then explore a few real-world examples in the styles of selected greats.
To kick things off, let’s tackle a staple of modern guitar technique: alternate picking. But before we dive into our examples, there are a few points to ponder regarding how to develop a strong picking technique and ultimately increase picking speed.
What do Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, and Steve Morse have in common? Each one shares a few key elements in their technique. Most notably, a very relaxed picking hand and perfectly synchronized hands. So rule number one: Always try to keep your picking hand relaxed and light in order to remain articulate and not get stiff.
When it comes to holding the pick, there’s no right or wrong way—just the way that works for you. Compare Paul Gilbert to Steve Morse: Gilbert holds the pick with the flat of the thumb against the side of the index finger, while Morse holds the pick with both the index and middle fingers and the thumb (much like Eddie Van Halen).
Another thing to consider is where the picking motion comes from. Gilbert picks from his wrist, while Jason Becker’s technique comes from his fingers. When watching Malmsteen play, you’ll see his picking hand barely moves.
As you analyze your picking technique, pay attention to how both hands are synchronizing. Many guitar students become so focused on the picking hand that they forget about the fretting hand. This hand must be completely in time and able to keep up with the picking. If you are picking 16th-notes, you need to be sure that the fretting hand is able to execute them. With that in mind, I suggest spending some time working on your left-hand timing. You don’t even need to use the picking hand for this, just make sure the left hand is able to play different rhythmic subdivisions.
Now lets take a look at our examples. The first group of exercises is aimed at helping you develop some basic fluency, rather than something musical (those will come later).
One of the most effective exercises I’ve used is based around the 24 different fingering permutations listed below (Fig. 1). Work each one across the entire fretboard two different ways. First, start with a downstroke on each downbeat. Then, flip it around so you start with an upstroke. We will encounter various string crossings as a guitarist, so it’s best to be ready for anything a solo, riff, or lick can throw at you.
Ex. 1 demonstrates the first permutation (1234). We start by moving across the strings from the 6th to the 1st before shifting to the 2nd position and repeating the pattern back down. Although I’ve only shown as far as the 7th fret, you should continue the exercise until the entire fretboard is covered. Remember to begin this exercise with a downstroke (as shown), but also reverse the picking and start with an upstroke. Another permutation (2134) is outlined in Ex. 2.
We mix up directions in Ex. 3. The exercise sticks to the top two strings and moves around from the 2nd position to the 6th position. This is a great one to help improve the coordination between hands. To really lock in with your metronome, try accenting each group of four 16th-notes.
Ex. 4 covers an area that many guitarists find awkward and demanding: alternate picking through arpeggios. For this exercise, I have included an A minor arpeggio (A–C–E) based around the “E” CAGED shape. (If you need a refresher course in CAGED, read “The Guitarists Guide to the CAGED System.”)
The idea is that each note of the arpeggio is played twice before crossing the string to the next note. Set your metronome to a reasonable tempo and gradually build up speed. I would also suggest expanding on this idea by trying different rhythmic values for the picking hand, such as eighth-note and 16th-note triplets.
We can’t talk about alternate picking without an example of some three-note-per-string scales. In Ex. 5 we’re using a basic G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) that moves across the strings starting from the 3rd position. Each group of four moves up through the scale. Once you have this pattern down, try reversing it to form a descending sequence.
Our first stylistic example (Ex. 6) is a pentatonic line that sounds like something Eric Johnson might play. Two-note-per-string pentatonic sequences are very tricky to execute and the constant position shifts make it a demanding run.
Which it comes to hyper-speed picking, metal titan Zakk Wylde is hard to beat. In Ex. 7 we see a lick based in C# minor with a descending pattern that combines groups of six over a 16th-note rhythm. It starts with a fairly wide stretch and links two different positions of the C# minor pentatonic scale (C#–E–F#–G#–B).
In Ex. 8, we investigate some minor sounds inspired by Yngwie Malmsteen and Marty Friedman. This descending figure is based around the D harmonic minor scale (D–E–F–G–A–Bb–C#). Timing is essential here, so make sure to lock in with the click and shred away!
Another Yngwie-inspired lick is in Ex. 9. This time we’re playing through the A harmonic minor scale (A–B–C–D–E–F–G#). You hear this style of lick all the time in Yngwie’s solos and it’s an effective way of moving up the fretboard.
Our final example (Ex. 10) is from the legendary Paul Gilbert. It’s very demanding because we’re combining alternate picking with some string skipping. We’re using a three-note-per-string G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#), but sticking exclusively to the 1st and 3rd strings. Start slow as there are plenty of position shifts throughout.