Rethink your approach to pentatonic shapes by pushing the limits of your picking.
• Visualize different string groupings for pentatonic scales.
• Understand the basics of economy picking.
• Learn how to create lines in the style of Eric Johnson, Shawn Lane, and Joe Bonamassa.
When I first heard about economy picking, the simplicity intrigued me. The concept is relatively straightforward: After a downstroke, if you're moving to a higher string, you make another downstroke. If you travel to a lower string, that requires an upstroke. Many beginners often intuitively do this. It wasn't until a bit later that I adopted a regimen of strict alternate picking for scales and sweep picking for arpeggios. But the idea of economy picking echoed in my mind. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have one picking style that could fluidly transition from arpeggios to scales? As time went on, I explored players like Django Reinhardt, Frank Gambale, and George Bellas, and economy picking naturally found its way into more of my technique.
I want to preface this lesson by saying this picking option may be a useful addition to what you do, but not necessarily replace your picking style.
Picking can be related to drum sticking, where your upstrokes and downstrokes are similar to a drummer's right and left drum strokes. In a fill, the drum strokes aren't always going to alternate, and other sticking patterns are common to make the most efficient movement around the drum kit. For the audio examples here, I am playing everything on a nylon-string Martin 000C miked so that you can really hear the percussive attack, but the ideas in this lesson can be used on electric guitars and in any musical style.
Even early on in my economy picking exploration, I wanted to apply this technique to phrases built on pentatonic scales, which are typically played in a two-note-per-string (NPS), alternate-picking style. Consider this: Arpeggios are often associated with sweep picking, and they're often played in a one-note-per-string style. Major scales and modes typically use a three-note-per-string fingering. The examples presented in this lesson focus on combining these NPS numbers into what we'll refer to as "string groupings." All the examples in this lesson use the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G), so it should be familiar territory for you.
For Ex. 1, instead of playing the minor pentatonic as you commonly would with two NPS, we will play a string grouping that we'll call 2+1. That means we will play two notes on a string, then one on the next, and so on. Pay close attention to the picking directions here and think of it as a sweep picking effect, where the pick simply lands on the next string, ready to play it, without having to jump over it first or change direction.
As for the fretting hand, we'll use a bit of a rolling technique here: If two notes are played by the same finger on different strings, you roll your finger (from tip to pad or vice versa) to fret the next note. It's like a mini two-string barre chord, but the notes sound one at a time, rather than ringing out together.
Ex. 2 has a different grouping: 1+1+2, i.e., one NPS, one NPS, then two. This will give us an even four-note phrase to ascend string sets, then descend. Also, notice how I tend to start with a downstroke but as the phrase continues, the next pattern starts on an upstroke. In the beginning, you have to really be mindful about the pick direction. But at some point, your hands will develop a synchronicity where your right hand naturally follows the notes that your left hand is playing. This requires less attention than alternate picking, and it allows you to just focus on the notes you're playing.
Next up is a five-note phrase based on a 2+1+2 formula (Ex. 3). I've always been drawn to the rhythmic accents that phrasing in five gives you over a 16th-note subdivision. Also, pay attention to the left-hand fingering where you roll your index finger across strings. You don't want the notes to ring into each other; instead, strive for a clean separation when transitioning from note to note.
Ex. 4 features another grouping of five. This example is a string grouping of 1+2+2 NPS. This has a similar sound to licks by Eric Johnson or the late Shawn Lane. Although both these players mostly used alternate picking for pentatonic scales, they would use economy picking to play phrases consisting of odd groupings.
Ex. 5 delves into playing patterns across four strings at a time. This one uses a string grouping of 2+1+1+2 NPS. Notice that there is a string skip as the pattern begins on the next string set. For that leap, travel in the pick direction of the leap—this often yields two of the same pick directions in a row. Practice slowly and eventually this movement will become very natural.
Now let's move into some three-note-per-string pentatonic scales. Ex. 6 includes all the notes of a pentatonic scale, but in a grouping of 3+1 NPS. This may be a bit of a stretch, but the sounds and sequenced patterns available in this approach are really captivating.
One of the patterns achieved from this stretched-out pentatonic shape is found in a string grouping of 3+1+2, as shown in Ex. 7. Hopefully you can hear the smooth sound economy picking offers you. While you could play these same exact notes using two-NPS alternate picking, that would yield a different sound from how it's notated here.
Now for a fun seven-note grouping: Ex. 8 uses a string grouping of 3+1+3. When you have an odd pattern of notes like this superimposed over a steady current of 16th-notes, it creates an interesting sound. Now, instead of isolating the ascending and descending versions, try playing each grouping up and then back down. Invent your own combinations!
Since we have stretched to this wider scale shape, let's try it with some of the previous string groupings. Ex. 9 uses the three-note-per-string pentatonic stretch, but only plays the outer two notes. This example is with a 2+1 string grouping that gives you some interesting interval leaps—some notes are far apart and others close together.
Our last example (Ex. 10) uses a wider stretch in a 2+1+2 string grouping. It moves around vertically in its five-note phrase. Notice how this is more like arpeggio sweep picking than some of the previous examples.
Take the ideas presented here and elaborate on them. Imagine these economy picking examples transposed into the four other pentatonic shapes and into other keys. Another approach I love to play with is side-slipping a fret higher or lower in and out of key. Also, instead of playing long streams of notes without pause, try isolating each grouping with sustained notes between them, or use different rhythmic subdivisions, such as triplets. One of the cool things about economy picking is how a specific combination of pick directions can yield a cascade of notes from one smooth movement. Happy picking.
This article was last updated on August 20, 2021
From bluegrass to metal, you can’t underestimate the power of the open string.
• Create angular and melodic phrases using open strings.
• Learn how to combine major and minor tonalities.
• Improve your hybrid picking.
When I first started learning guitar, I was mostly interested in playing rock and blues and never gave much thought to open strings unless they were an integral part of a riff. It wasn’t until I was a classical guitar major in college that I came to appreciate the use of open strings, not just for their sound, but also for making difficult position changes easier. I found that in addition to producing a unique tone, open strings could be a great tool for connecting phrases that would otherwise be impossible to finger.
In this lesson, we’ll use open strings to execute some fun rhythmic riffs and solo lines. So grab your guitar and put on your hunting cap, because it’s open season on open strings!
For the boogie riff in Ex. 1, I borrowed some ideas from the legendary guitar wrangler Jim Campilongo. It starts with alternately bouncing off the open 5th string with the pick and plucking the 4th and 3rd strings simultaneously with the middle and ring fingers. Be sure to separate the open-string pattern from the plucked notes so they feel like two separate parts. Play the double-stops at the end very staccato—almost like a piano part.
The next example (Ex. 2) is an excerpt of my solo from the title track of Van Davis’ Come with Me. King’s X’s dropped-D grooves were a big influence on this tune, but the solo ended up with an almost Irish flavor due to the rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs. I saw a video of George Benson using a similar technique when he was trying to emulate the sound of bagpipes.
The solo, which is basically in E Mixolydian (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D), starts with a quick hammer/pull pattern in the 7th position. Repeat the pattern almost exactly in the 5th position, except after the open strings, play C# on the 3rd string. Finally, shift down to the 4th position before ending with, wait for it ... more open strings.
In the second measure, the phrase starts again with the 7th- and 5th-position patterns, followed by a jump up the neck for a quick flurry to the open E in the 10th and 9th positions. Repeat the first measure again (with a very slight change on the last two notes) before ending with a simple descending phrase from E minor pentatonic (E–G–A–B–D).
Keep in mind that the individual notes are not as crucial as the overall arc and movement of the line. When you practice the lick slowly, it might sound a bit messy with the open strings ringing out over the fretted notes, but once it’s played at tempo, it becomes a driving and propulsive solo. Try experimenting with other hammer/pull variations and different keys—as long as the open E and B notes work with the key you’re playing in.
“Assgrass” (Ex. 3) is an up-tempo bluegrass tune of mine that’s played almost exclusively on the open 3rd string. I gave the song a silly title to embarrass my acoustic guitar duo partner, Nat Janoff, who would announce the tunes before we played them.
Starting on an open D, slide up from F to G on the 4th string, and then let ’er rip on the open 3rd string with steady alternate picking. Then bounce off the 5th and 3rd fret, sneaking the open 3rd string between those notes before resolving on the 3rd fret and open 4th string. Now repeat the same phrase, but hold the 3rd-fret Bb. At the end is a Steve Morse-style lick that bounces around before a semi-chromatic run up on the 5th string to the 5th fret and back down the major scale to the low G.
I recommend tackling this slowly at first, so you can make sure all the picked notes sound even. My students often ask about playing fast, and one trick I’ve learned is not to pick too hard, but rather lighten up your attack so the notes fly out with less effort.
The final example in Ex. 4 is from “Gimme Five,” an instrumental piece I wrote in 5/4 that features the fun challenge of an alternating lead and rhythm part.
This starts with a six-note picking pattern in D major (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C#) out of the 7th position. On the last note of the repeated phrase, slide your fourth finger up to B on the 12th fret of the 2nd string before transitioning into a simple phrase that hints around A major.
Next is a rhythm figure consisting of three chugged open 5th strings, followed by a triad that moves up the neck and builds tension over the bass figure. Be sure to mute the low-note chugs as you let the ascending triads on top ring out. The next measure is exactly the same as the first one, but this time it moves into a fast descending riff out of E Mixolydian. The tricky thing in this section is that the F# on the 3rd string is hammered with the fretting hand. The open string provides a brief moment to prepare for the final ascending ascent in E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#). Let it ring and sing!
As in the previous example, I recommend keeping the picking light on this pattern. In the audio sample, I’ve included the bass line to help illustrate the harmony at tempo.
Forget all your chords, arpeggios, and scales! Let’s dig into some weird and funky techniques.
• Explore the limitless world of unorthodox techniques.
• Create new and refreshingly musical sounds.
• Develop a sense of timing when it comes to slides and scrapes.
The sweet rumbling sounds of the power slide and the aggressive scratching of the pick scrape are two positive—and peaceful—sonic equivalents of a big-screen explosion. They are the weapons of choice in the flashy and more pyrotechnic side of rock ’n’ roll. It feels so right when you hit it and when it hits you. But are you doing them right? And how many of these techniques do you have in your arsenal?
Having done a lot of rock gigs in many different settings, I’ve noticed how certain techniques can enhance a performance. So in this lesson, rather than discussing scales, licks, or tones, I want to focus on the techniques inherent to rock guitar that are often overlooked and not studied. Don’t worry: They’ll all be extremely approachable and instantly gratifying.
You may think you already know all there is to know about pick scraping and power sliding, but there are many different ways to approach and deliver these effects. I became aware of the many variations when I started subbing for guitar wizard Joel Hoekstra on the Broadway show Rock of Ages. Since the musical features rock from the ’80s, the guitar book is filled with scrapes and slides, all at my discretion to interpret. They’re not much of a challenge to deliver, but since I come from an improvisational school, I tend to try to do things a little bit differently every night—within the scope of my abilities and the show’s possibilities. It might not seem like much, but those scrapes and slides provide a rare opportunity to alter details in order to keep the material fresh for myself, my bandmates, and the audience. As my friend (and fellow sub at Rock of Ages) Angus Clark puts it: “Have you ever done a gig with that many pick scrapes in it?”
Here are 10 variations on the technique that I find myself using most of the time. As a general rule of thumb, a decent amount of gain on your amp or distortion box will really make the guitar speak and scream nicely. Most of the versions are interchangeable and will “read” the same in a rock context, so feel free to keep what you dig and toss what you don’t.
Note: For dramatic effect, all the following examples land on a low E5 chord. Hey, why would you do a power slide in the first place if it didn’t land on an E5?
Ex. 1—The Classic Scrape
You hear this one everywhere. Place your pick perpendicular to your low strings, positioned so the pick digs into the grooves of the windings (you can usually catch two adjacent strings for a fuller sound). Start high on the strings—near the bridge—and slide down toward the neck. You’ll have to feel out what speed works best for the ideal sound. Keep in mind that pick gauge and material will also alter the sound. The key element of any successful scrape or slide is timing. The Classic Scrape is ideal when you want to fill a complete measure.
Ex. 2—The Downward Slide
Another classic. Place your fretting hand high on the low strings (on or above the 15th fret), pick the low strings, and then slide your fretting hand down. Timing-wise, this one seems to work best when it’s quicker. In the example, the slide is a two-beat pickup that starts on beat 3.
Ex. 3—The SRV
Similar to the previous example, but this is executed on the high plain strings instead of the low ones. Sure, you can find examples of this that predate Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he was the first guitarist I heard use this technique so dramatically and effectively. Hence the moniker.
Ex. 4—The Revving
Like the name implies, this one emulates the revving sound of an engine. Start near the 3rd fret on the low strings, then slide up and back down. Your timing must be impeccable. In this example I cover one beat when I ascend and one when I descend.
Ex. 5—The Scrape ’n’ Slide
This is a very powerful combination of the first two techniques. Execute the Classic Scrape, then as your picking hand gets past the neck, your fretting hand must hammer-on to the high frets of the low strings and take over the noise, sliding down toward the headstock. A bit of coordination is necessary, but it’s a great sounding variation. Plus, it looks really awesome. This usually works best when drawn out over a full measure.
Ex. 6—The Revving Scrape ’n’ Slide
This is my personal favorite: a super-effective combination of Examples 1, 2, and 4. Start by revving up, then scrape down and slide down. The revving up serves as a one beat pickup to the full measure of scraping and sliding.
Ex. 7—The Elephant
Another favorite of mine, this is a variation of the Revving that loosely imitates the sound of your preferred pachyderm. Start revving up on beat 2, use beats 3 and 4 to land on a high note, and finally bend the low string as far as you can. A lively sound indeed.
Ex. 8—The Strangler
Similar to the Elephant, but here you stay on the note you land on after revving up, and then shake it with an exaggerated vibrato.
Ex. 9—The Gojira
This next one is inspired by the extreme metal band Gojira, who often use this specific sound (and variations of it) as a compositional tool in their riff writing. The sound is less transparent and more pronounced, and might not fit anywhere as well as the other variations we’ve seen so far.
To execute, place your fretting hand past the last fret and push the high strings down (as if you were fretting them), then use a slow sweeping upstroke all the way to the lowest string. When you hit that low string, your fretting hand should actually be on the neck as you proceed to a one-string downward slide. The upstroke serves as a grace note to the quick power slide. Otherworldly!
Ex. 10—The Freakout
Finally, this last example is an extreme noisemaker. Place your fretting hand high on the neck on the high strings (as many as you can manage, as long as the top strings are covered). Then start tremolo picking across several strings while sliding down. This one may also cut through more than the others, so use carefully.
Have fun exploring the noisy combinations of these examples and maybe come up with some of your own variations. In addition to scales, note choices, and so on, there is often an art to the ugliness and noisy qualities of an unconventional technique.