Beginners often find it difficult to start alternate picking.
By alternate picking, we mean alternating the pick from a downstroke to an upstroke or from an upstroke to a downstroke as opposed to playing just upstrokes or just downstrokes. Alternate picking allows you to increase your speed and change the dynamics of the pick attack to alter your sound, and generally will give you a smoother sound, creating a better flow between the notes.
Why Not Just Use Downstrokes?
When you’re just learning how to play there can be a tendency to want to keep using all downstrokes because you can play certain musical passages faster than if you start to alternate pick. Sticking to all downstrokes at first, then, can give a beginner short-term speed gains. This is only because they are familiar with that technique; in the long term, alternate picking will be much faster. Learning to alternate pick will open up a wider variety of music to you and will allow you to play more complex music at higher tempos.
‘Learning to alternate pick will … allow you to play more complex music at higher tempos.’
About the Exercises
In this lesson we are going to look at five exercises to help your alternate picking technique. When picking in general you want as little of the pick to make contact with the string as possible. Generally just the very tip on the pick should contact the string. As with all things musical, always keep in mind the quality of the tone and music is the primary goal, so use your ears and listen closely. The tone should be clear and the notes played evenly and cleanly. Aim for consistency between the notes’ tone and volume.
A lot of exercises can be very unmusical. In many cases these have a valid application when used correctly by more experienced guitarists. However, I find for a beginning guitar player, making things musical and fun to play will increase the odds that the requisite amount of time is spent practising the material.
‘Work on these exercises a little each day. With practice, alternate picking will get easier.’
The following alternate picking exercises increase in difficulty with one being the easiest and five the hardest. Begin each exercise with a metronome set at a comfortable tempo. Start each musical example with a downstroke and then alternate downstrokes and upstrokes. In the beginning this can take some time to get used to. If you find it difficult, work on these exercises a little each day. With practice, alternate picking will get easier, so try not to get discouraged.
If you find any of the exercises too difficult, start with a smaller section of an exercise. For example, practice just the first four notes until you get the pattern and picking comfortable and in time with the metronome, and then add four more.
Alternate Picking Exercises
The first exercise is played on just one string. Start with a downstroke and then alternate pick. The rhythm is all eighth notes, so that is two notes played evenly for every metronome click. All the downstrokes are on the down beats – 1 2 3 4 – and the upstrokes are on the upbeats – the “and” in 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.
Exercise two incorporates two strings. Even though you are changing strings, keep using strict alternate picking. The goal here is to get you used to this technique, not to play the exercises as fast as possible.
Exercise three is a variation on exercise two.
Exercise four is more challenging because it involves two non-consecutive strings.
The fifth exercise is intentionally made more difficult by using odd note groupings that make alternate picking challenging. Again, don’t rush through this – focus on keeping strict down and up alterations of the pick strokes and producing a good, even rhythm, tone and volume.
About the Author
Written by Dave Ward
I hope you find these exercises helpful in starting to develop your alternate picking technique. For more guitar lessons you can find me on Twitter @jimifan or on my websites.