The Real Alternate Picking ‘Secrets’

You’ve probably heard about alternate picking before. You might even be doing it most of the time you play guitar…but are you doing it properly?

I mean, you can only play as fast– or as accurately– as you can pick. So, it makes sense to make your picking motion as efficient, and easy as possible, right? That way it wont be the factor that holds you back when playing more complex things.

Well, that’s what this lesson is going to be about. You’d be surprised at how much difference a good alternate picking technique can actually make! Many, many guitarists are struggling needlessly because they’re getting this part wrong!

Click the image on the right for a larger version of the infographic that’ll show you the basics. If you want a more in-depth lesson, you’ll want to watch the video below, and keep reading!

How to do Alternate Picking

The basic idea behind alternate picking is pretty simple: you pick the string on the downstroke, and then again on the upstroke. This means that you get a note every time the pick goes past the string. Therefore you get twice as many notes as when you’re using downstrokes alone.

That’s the basics of it. However, to really do it correctly we need to get into the details.

Holding the Pick

As I explain in the video, you should be holding the pick between your finger and your thumb. I use a grip where the pad of my thumb is against the side of the pick, and my index finger curls up over the other side. I like this way because it gives you a good grip of the pick, without too much effort.

hold the guitar pick between your first finger and your thumb

There are some other ways to do it, and if they work for you then that’s OK. Just be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

For example, I used to ‘pinch’ the pick between my thumb and (end of my) first finger. This is what many people start with as it kinda feels natural. It worked fine for a while, and it meant I had more control over the exact angle of the pick. However, I soon realised that this made it harder to keep hold of the pick, and took more effort!

Some people solve this problem by then using two fingers on the pick with the thumb. This makes it easier to hold the pick, but using more fingers creates more tension. Tension is bad because at best you need more effort, and at worst you can cause RSI injuries.

Remember: playing fast should feel effortless- that’s the reason it can happen so fast. If you have to really put effort in for every note, you’re slowing yourself down!

Therefore, using the side of your index finger against your thumb, you get the best of both techniques. You get increased grip, from greater surface area of the pick being held (as with two fingers), but you’re increasing tension with more fingers.

The Correct Motion

Using only the very tip of the pick against the strings should be all you need. The more of the pick in contact with the strings, the more friction created. Friction is bad because you have to fight against it to speed up.

move the pick up and down, but angle it against the strings, and only use the very tip if you want to play fast

For the same reason, you shouldn’t be using the pick ‘flat’ against the strings. Instead the pick should be at about a 45 degree angle to them. This will reduce the surface area of the pick that collides with the strings.

Then, the motion is produced with a ‘side to side’ movement of your wrist. Some people use their arm for this, but again, that requires more effort. I also find the arm-method to be less accurate- and when you’re trying to hit a particular string, you need accuracy!

Crossing Strings

Now, so far we have a technique that will work really well on single strings. The problem is: how often do you have a guitar part that’s only on one string?

When crossing strings, or ‘string skipping‘, with this technique, you’re always going in the wrong direction. For example, going from the D to the G strings, you’re either playing the D string with a downstroke and having to go over the G string to come back up for an upstroke…

Example 1


…or, you’re playing the D with an upstroke, and are now moving away from your target string (the G).

Example 2


The solution that I use for this is to twist my wrist slightly. It’s only a slight movement, but enables me to lift the pick up, away from the strings, in the same motion. So, going from the D to the G string, I would twist my wrist slightly, so that the flat part of the pick moves upwards. This will send me away from the strings, without changing the picking motion.

tilting the pick brings you out of the line of the strings, and makes it easier to string skip

Then, going to other way (G to D string) I would twist back the other way- moving the top of the pick downwards. That way, the upstroke will pull the pick out of the strings and enable me to come back to attack the D string for a downstroke.

getting ready to string skip in the other direction, I tilt the pick the other way

This technique can take time to get used to at first, but after a while it’s second nature.

There are a few other ways around this problem. Most notably, the ‘economy picking’ style of guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen. I will be covering these in a future lesson.

If you really want to get into playing lead guitar, my new book ‘Awesome Lead Guitar’ is out now. In it you’ll learn the most common scales and techniques that lead guitarists use with full scale diagrams and tabs!

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