What is economy picking and how can it benefit your guitar playing?

Yngwie Malmsteen
(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

When it comes to using a guitar pick, there are two main ways of doing so: alternate picking and economy picking. Whereas alternate picking uses a strict succession of up and down strokes to play single-note lines, economy picking takes a different approach where the choice of whether to pick up or down is directed by which string is being picked.

For example, when tackling an ascending three-notes-per-string scale, the pick strokes will follow the pattern of down-up-down on each string, meaning that the third note on each string is played with a downstroke while the plectrum continues the same downward motion to strike the first note on the next string. 

When descending a three-notes-per-string scale, the picking pattern would be up-down-up on each string. Try playing a three-notes-per-string scale with both alternate and economy picking so you can see and feel the difference. 

If you haven’t experimented with economy picking before and are a devout alternate picker it can be tricky to adjust to this new method. However, it’s a technique worth investing time in. The main advantage is that it reduces the work of the picking hand with it not having to play constant streams of up and down strokes. It can also aid fluidity, especially when playing arpeggios due to the close link between economy picking and sweep picking. 

Economy picking is used across a range of guitar styles and is often dictated by genre. There are many rock, jazz and fusion players who employ economy picking such as Frank Gambale, who championed the technique and released a series of books and videos on the subject. 

Other notable economy pickers are Eric Johnson, Jimmy Bruno, Yngwie Malmsteen and Les Paul. One style of music that uses its own take on economy picking is gypsy jazz, with its most well-known exponent being the great Django Reinhardt. 

Many players will often combine economy picking with legato for an even more fluid sound and even less strain on the picking hand

Many players will often combine economy picking with legato for an even more fluid sound and even less strain on the picking hand. This technique is favoured by many fusion players who employ streams of semi-quavers and sextuplets in their phrasing. However, although there are many benefits to using economy picking, it can lack the articulation and definition of alternate picking. So have a go at using alternate and economy picking, depending on what works best in any given situation.

This lesson’s examples and study piece show how economy picking can be used across a range of scale and arpeggio ideas. Make sure to follow the picking directions indicated on the score, as these are crucial to playing the examples correctly. 

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain: 6, Bass 6, Middle 9, Treble 7, Reverb 3

The choice of guitar or pickup doesn’t really matter here but since many of the guitarists mentioned are rock or fusion players, a certain amount of gain and slight delay and reverb will help you achieve a suitable tone to accompany the backing tracks. But do keep gain and effects to their required minimum, as too much can mask how well or badly you are playing.

Examples 1-5 tab and audio

Example 1. Three-notes-per-string scales

Here’s how economy picking is used when navigating three-notes-per-string scales. Ensure that you follow the picking direction, aiming for fluidity.

Example 2. Picking through arpeggios

This lick illustrates economy picking when playing arpeggios. This exercise contains elements of sweep picking, which is associated with economy picking.

Example 3. String crossing

Here’s another three-notes-per-string idea which demonstrates how economy picking is used when changing strings.

Example 4. Interval based lines

Here’s economy picking for intevallic lines. Start with a downstroke across three strings then the first note of the second four note groupings onwards is up picked.

Example 5. Arpeggios on two strings

This is another chordal example using arpeggios on the first and second strings. Again, start with a downstroke before a repeating economy picking pattern is used. 

Study Piece

We start off with an arpeggio line similar to that in Example 5, a little reminiscent of players like Zakk Wylde and John Norum. Start with a downstroke, using the direction to dictate your economy picking. There is a scale run at bar 9 before another arpeggio idea is introduced at bar 10 using the first, second and third strings. 

Follow the picking directions and aim for fluidity within your playing. In bars 18-21 we switch back to a series of scale runs which outline the chords played by the rhythm section, before ending with a descending and ascending run in the penultimate bar before resolving to a sustained A note.

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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.