Hone your alternate picking with this technique workout

Paul Gilbert
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Alternate picking is a technique that every guitarist will encounter. From beginners to pros alike, a solid alternate picking technique is a must-have in your arsenal of techniques.

There are a number of guitarists who are well known for their dexterity when alternate picking, such as Paul Gilbert, Al Di Meola, Pat Martino, Molly Tuttle, Albert Lee, Barney Kessel, and Steve Morse. So, it’s present in pretty much every genre, from rock and metal, to country, jazz, fusion and bluegrass. 

Fast alternate picking is articulate and percussive and there’s a machine gun-like quality to it, unlike the smoother sound of legato slurs. Therefore, this technique is favoured by players in rock and metal styles where a strong and defined sound is required. It’s also the only way to play fast picked lines on single strings, such as the tremolo picking heard by Dick Dale on his famous instrumental, Miserlou.

The Paul Gilbert track Technical Difficulties showcases how he uses the technique when playing scalic patterns across multiple strings combined with palm muting. And Steve Morse’s playing on Tumeni Notes is a masterclass in using alternate picking when navigating arpeggios, rather than economy or sweep picking, which would be the preferred choice for many other guitarists. 

While the benefits of alternative picking are evident, such as precision, articulation and general speed, it can be problematic when playing arpeggio lines, where there will be an uneven number of notes to play on each string. This is why some guitarists favour the aforementioned economy and sweep picking techniques. However, Steve Morse has proved that his approach, although challenging at first, maintains a level of articulation that can only be achieved when using alternate picking.

One thing to bear in mind is the type of plectrum used in order to master this style. There isn’t a right or wrong way but most players prefer a stiffer pick, which doesn’t bend when the strings are struck, thus providing greater efficiency; others like a pointy pick such as a Jazz III style, where a smaller point of contact may facilitate the technique with greater ease.

However, this really is down to individual taste – note that Paul Gilbert’s latest signature picks comes in at a very bendy 0.50mm gauge. The key is to experiment and find what works best for you, remembering that different gauges will suit different people, styles and situations. 

The next thing to think about is how you pick. Some players pick from the wrist with a fairly secure elbow, while others lock their wrist and pick from the elbow. The angle in which the pick strikes the string is another important factor. Angling it slightly may make slicing across the strings easier, but having the pick strike the string flat on will provide a bigger tone.  

One crucial thing to remember is that you need to coordinate your picking-hand action with your fretting-finger movement. If they are not aligned and in perfect synch with one another, the results will be messy. The way to master this is to start slowly and increase your speed gradually. A metronome is the perfect practicing tool to assist with this. If you find any of the examples too fast at first, then take them at a slower tempo.

Playing examples

Example 1. Surf style

This example utilises quick 16th-note picking akin to tremolo picking in a surf rock style. Make sure that you observe the accents, which are a common occurrence in this style of guitar playing. Add plenty of reverb and light overdrive to get close to the sound. Dick tended to pick from his elbow/arm but that can prove tiring for long bouts!

Example 2. Country or bluegrass style

This segment is played in cut common time, sometimes referred to as double time and is in a country or bluegrass style. Aim for consistent dynamics with your up and downstrokes. Some slapback delay will help get an authentic sound, but don’t confuse your picking by adding too much. 

Example 3. Neoclassical rock style

This third example shows how alternate picking is used in a neoclassical style (à la Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore) on a single string. If you find the position shifts challenging at first, remember what I said about using a metronome and slow this one down to a more manageable tempo.

Example 4. Blues-rock style

This example uses pentatonic shapes using the first and second strings in a blues-rock setting. Watch the position shifts and aim for even dynamics across the strings. 

Study piece

This piece is a metal/neo-classical idea based around the A harmonic minor scale. Bars 1-4 utilises a pedal idea where the notes on the second string are repeated whilst the top note on the first string changes. Experiment with fingerings to work out what works best for you. This section ends with a descending A harmonic minor scale. The constant stream of sixteenth notes may be challenging at first so experiment with using a metronome and drop the tempo if need be. 

Bars 6-9, which are repeated continue with a stream of 16th notes but on the lower strings instead. Watch out for the palm muted sections and aim for a consistent rhythm and even dynamics. It’s very important that your upstrokes and downstrokes sound the same.

The final section gives some respite with a sustained A5 chord. The final idea goes between a palm muted riff followed by a double note scale idea and then a descending lick in the final bar, The main challenge here is the transition from the low sixth string to the 12th fret on the first string. 

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Simon Barnard

Simon is a graduate of the UK's Academy of Contemporary Music and The Guitar Institute, and holds a Masters degree in music. He teaches, examines and plays everything from rock to jazz.