Getting Started with Tremolo Picking

(Image credit: Flickr Commons Image via Kmeron)

Guitar tremolo picking shows up in nearly every style of music that accommodates electric guitars. Moreover, it’s not necessarily a lightning-fast technique. Some of the best acoustic guitars are also ideal tremolo picking instruments.

Even a consistent sequence of quarter notes could be handled using some form of tremolo picking.

But how do we do it? How do we learn the technique?

At first it’s going to seem really difficult, if not impossible, to get your right hand to pick consistently or at high speeds. Most will find that the back and forth rhythm and the timing involved with the right hand is the more difficult aspect.

As a result, it’ll probably feel sloppy and certainly not on beat.

So let’s say you’ve tried tremolo picking and put in some time (maybe a lot of time) and it’s just a mess.

The results are demotivating to say the least.

“What am I doing wrong?”

In all likelihood the reason it’s not working for you is because you haven’t practiced it the right way. You’ve skipped ahead to faster speeds and more difficult forms of tremolo picking without laying a proper foundation for the more difficult stages of the technique. So my first piece of advice is this: Don’t start out tremolo picking with 16th note sequences or even moderately high speeds.

You can get there but, if you start out on the speed trail you’ll get discouraged and give up on the method, wholecloth.

And that would be a shame, because tremolo picking doesn’t have to be fast. Instead we can start slow, and plot a practice plan to accomplish the following:

1. Learn how to tremolo pick slowly
2. Learn how to tremolo pick while keeping time and staying on beat
3. Lay a foundation for faster speeds and more technical proficiency in the future.

Let’s jump in.

Step 1: Setting a foundation with alternate picking

Alternate picking is a firm prerequisite for tremolo picking. If you don’t get alternate picking, or can’t do it, tremolo picking is out of the question. So before we do anything, let’s set a foundation by going over a crash course in this fairly basic technique.

What is alternate picking?

When you’re picking a note on the guitar, you have two opportunities to hit the string:

  • 1. On the way down (the downstroke)
  • 2. On the way up (the upstroke)

What a lot of inexperienced players tend to do is pick on the way down, then bring their hands back above the string before picking on the way down again.

This is problematic for obvious reasons. You could be playing twice as many notes without any extra movement.

Alternate picking solves this problem by its own definition: Picking the note on the way down and picking the next note on the way up.

A simple example can be covered with one note:

One note on the way down and the next on the way up, then simply alternate back and forth.

We can use the following symbols to indicate up and down strokes:

After getting into the habit of playing this way, you won’t need symbols to direct alternate picking. It’ll just happen naturally.

Try the following arpeggio, for example:

If you’re not used to it, the movement might feel a little awkward, though it shouldn’t take long for your right hand to acclimate. Assuming you’ve at least gotten the spirit of the technique, we can take the same tactic and use it to start practicing tremolo picking.

We’ll go through a detailed process of how to practice and build up speed using quarter, eighth and (eventually) sixteenth notes.

Step #2: Start with quarter notes

In most cases tremolo picking is used to handle eighth and sixteenth notes (or 32nd notes if you get to really high speeds). To begin practicing the technique, I’d recommend starting with quarter notes and mind-numbingly simple, repetitive patterns. While speed within each note type can vary according to BPMs, this gives us an easy way to display time on a music sheet.

Until we get to 16th notes, assume that all these tabs fall somewhere around 120 bpm. Here’s a click track on YouTube if you need it.

Take the following score, for example:

Practice this run using the same back and forth picking motion as you do with alternate picking.

If we want to up the difficulty, we can use the same quarter note pattern broken into a chromatic sequence:

At this stage there is little difference between alternate picking and tremolo picking. And yes, it’s still super easy.

However, being intentional about the quarter note timing allows you to practice the more rigid consistency of tremolo picking and will get your right hand used to the motion, thus preparing you for more speed.

Remember, tremolo picking is as much about timing as it is about speed, where alternate picking isn’t (inherently) dictated by timing at all.

Let’s try moving the second part of the chromatic pattern onto a different string:

We can expand this pattern to cover the last two strings, giving us a more substantial quarter note exercise:

Practicing tremolo picking on one string is going to be something you’ll want to stick with and come back to often. Jumping from string to string adds another level of complexity and difficulty that should be focused on after you’re comfortable with tremolo picking on one string. Just make sure you give yourself plenty of practice time with both.

Step #3: Moving to eighth notes

To begin our eighth note tremolo picking, we’ll stay on the same string as before while simplifying the tab. When you begin eighth notes it’s important to keep your fret changes minimal and focus on the consistency of your right hand, since it will do the heavy lifting.

Remember, we’re still at 120 bpm.

Here’s the run:

Remember to keep speed low and concentrate on creating a consistent tempo.

You can also move this pattern around to different frets and strings. Note that the fourth and third string runs are often the easiest for tremolo picking practice, simply because of the ideal string size (not too thick, not too thin).

Let’s try the same pattern on the third string:

Once you’re comfortable with this pattern, you can try something broken up over the third and second strings.

When you want to add more notes to an eighth note run, a good rule to follow at first is to do two tones for each measure. In other words, the first four notes of a measure will be one tone, while the second four will be another.

Here’s what I mean:

Once your right hand is getting a feel for the eighth note tempo, you can start to try different patterns.

Here are a few more eighth note tabs for you to work with:

Eighth Note Pattern #1

Eighth Note Pattern #2

Eighth Note Pattern #3

Eighth Note Pattern #4

Run through these tabs at your own pace until your right hand gets used to the speed required to keep up with the eighth note arrangements.

I’d suggest sticking with something around 100 - 120 bpm.

Once that feels a little too easy, you’re ready to move onto the realm of sixteenth notes.

Step #4: Moving to sixteenth notes

Sixteenth notes always seem challenging at first, though they are not unattainable, at least not at a reasonably slow speed. In the example I give below, the timing was around 80 bpm, which is where I’d recommend you start out as well.

Once again, you can use an 80 bpm YouTube click track if need be.

First, we’ll do two measures of two notes:

Notice the timing marker “80” at the top of the score.

80 bpm is slow, making the sixteenth note measures manageable and a great practicing spot.

To add complexity, you’ve got two options:

1. Increase the bpm
2. Make the tab more challenging

We can expand on this exercise and challenge ourselves the same way we did with the quarter note and eighth note exercises.

For the above score I’d recommend staying at 80 bpm and practicing the following patterns:

Sixteenth Note Pattern #1

Sixteenth Note Pattern #2

Sixteenth Note Pattern #3

Once you’re comfortable with these you can go back and up the speed.

If speed is such that you’re not able to keep a consistent timing and rhythm, it’s a signal to dial things back and slow down.

As timing and consistency improve, speed will come much easier and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an effective tremolo picker.

Wrist and Elbow Soreness in your Right Arm

You’re almost certain to deal with some fatigue and soreness, particularly at your wrist and elbow joints in your right arm.

Some of this is unavoidable and will go away with continued practice.

Otherwise, there are a few things you can do to help the cause:

#1. Focus on your wrist

Most of the movement from tremolo picking should come from the joints in your wrist and not your elbow.

#2. Avoid tensing your forearm

Your forearm will want to tense up, especially when you’re trying to pick at higher speeds. Try to avoid that tensing reflex as much as possible to cut down soreness.

#3. Stay within your comfort zone

While it’s true that you need to push yourself to improve, you can get better (and faster) by playing within your speed comfort zone, even if it seems “too easy.” In fact, you’ll be better off with tremolo picking if you spend most of your time practicing below your speed threshold.

Other picking considerations: Fingerstyle, pick thickness, etc.

You should note that thicker picks are going to be more stubborn when it comes to tremolo picking. For early practice sessions, it might work better for you to use a medium or even thin pick, which will be a little more forgiving.

The flimsiness of those picks works better for the quick back and forth motion across the strings.

Some people also find tremolo picking easier when using their fingers.

Try experimenting with both and see which approach feels better to you. If it’s the pick, start with something light and work your way up in thickness.

Your questions

Have thoughts or questions about this content? Want to know something about tremolo picking I didn’t cover?

You can get in touch with me via email or shoot us questions via the Guitar Chalk Facebook page.

Bobby is Guitar Chalk's founder and editor. You can hit him up on Twitter or shoot him an email to get in touch.

Flickr Commons Image via Kmeron.

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