Tremolo picking is alternate picking done quickly on a single note. This staccato technique has been around for years—5000 to be exact. Shred masters of the ancient world were playing an 11 string lute called the Oud. Players of this Persian invention didn’t use picks—they used an eagle feather to play staccato trills and rock the Fertile Crescent.
In American history, tremolo picking first made its appearance on the mandolin—arguably because the instrument has such limited sustain. Mandolin players were forced to alternate pick notes at quick tempos to accommodate the melody they were playing.
In the early Sixties, Dick Dale popularized the technique for electric guitar with his surf rock masterpiece “Misirlou.” Van Halen then heard the technique, and the rest is history. Ax wielders from Al Di Meola to Zack Wylde and everyone in between have used tremolo picking in one form or another and for one very good reason: it sounds awesome.
You know what else sounds awesome? Tapping. It is one of rock guitar's flashiest, coolest sounding techniques. Van Halen knows it, Steve Vai knows it, and so do you. Tapping allows you to create a veritable cascade of notes. It lets you create combinations of high and low notes your fingers on your neck hand alone could never pull off (pun intended). And, let’s face it, it looks super cool.
So what’s better than tremolo picking or tapping? Doing both back to back in the same solo. This is shredding at its finest. Because while each technique individually melts faces, imagine the reaction when they are combined. Indeed someone’s going to need to come up with a new expression. “Tapping and tremolo picking melted that dude’s face, but the two back to back liquefied his entire freakin’ head.” Alright, we’ll work on the semantics later. On to the lesson.
Combing these two monstrous techniques of shred is not easy. The individual techniques are hard enough to master but switching between them creates a whole new challenge: how to control your pick. Because when you’re tapping you need at least one fingertip free and your pick enough out of the way that it’s not going to inadvertently touch any strings.
On the other hand, when you’re tremolo picking, you want your pick flush against the fretboard and in super close contact to the string your picking for economy of movement. When you think about it, tapping and tremolo picking are, for all practical purposes, opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how you hold your pick and where you need it to be. At least we don’t have to do it with an eagle feather.
There are a few ways to solve this conundrum. One possible solution is holding the pick between your thumb and middle finger. This leaves your index finger free to tap, and if you can comfortably control your pick that way, problem solved. Allegedly Eddie Van Halen holds his pick this way and if it works for the King, it may work for you.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for me. I like to hold my pick between my thumb and index finger. This is especially true when I’m tremolo picking because I feel it gives me better control. When I’m tapping I’m usually holding the pick between my middle finger and palm.
To switch from tapping to fast picking I use my middle finger to slide the pick along my thumb until it’s high enough on my thumb I can grab it with my thumb and index finger. Switching back to tapping is a bit easier. I simply tuck the pick into the cup of my hand and hold it in place with my middle finger, then tap with my index finger.
Easy? Definitely not. Worth doing? Just depends on how much you want to liquefy your audience’s heads. I go from tapping to tremolo picking and back to tapping again in the solo to Stone Mob’s comedic song “Natalia.” Watch the lyric video and then the accompanying instructional video. I’ll show you an insane tapping pattern and how to seamlessly combine it with tremolo picking. Cheers and keep those picks moving!