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How to alternate pick on guitar

How to get started with alternate picking
(Image credit: Future)

Beginner guitar: New guitarists tend to pick every note in the same direction. Most favour downstrokes, though a few gravitate to upstrokes. 

Still, seeing as your pick has to travel in the opposite direction to get back to where it started, you may as well pluck another note on the way. That way you can play twice as many notes with the same amount of movement. 

Known as alternate picking, this technique is how shredders and bluegrass flatpickers get their speed – but it’s a core part of soloing, whatever style you play. 

We recommend getting started by repeatedly picking one single note. Aim for a motion that feels comfortable, sounds good, and where every note is roughly the same volume. 

With these basics covered, read on and we’ll help you take your playing to the next level with a handy scale exercise, some technique tips and a pair of inspiring musical ideas for you to try out. 

Wrist, forearm or elbow?

Which body parts should you move for your picking motion? You can find amazing guitarists who pick primarily with their wrist (Yngwie Malmsteen), forearm rotation (Paul Gilbert), and elbow (Michael Angelo Batio) – though, like we say, alternate picking isn’t exclusive to virtuoso shred. 

Regardless of the music you’re into, try to be mindful that you’re not tensing up, as this can lead to pain and injury. As long as you feel relaxed and sound good, any of these motions (or a combination of them) are valid.

Picking scales: Double-pick scale notes to improve your technique

Usually with scales you’ll play each note once, then move on to the next one. A great way to hone your picking skills is to pick each note two or four times instead. For example, in G major you’d play G G, A A, B B, and so on.

(Image credit: Future)

Technique check

How to get started with alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

1. Trigger grip

Finding a comfortable grip is essential. For a ‘trigger’ grip, place the pick on the side of your index finger. Drop your thumb on top to hold it in place.

How to get started with alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

2. Pad grip

A variation on the trigger grip, here the pick is pinched between the pads of thumb and forefinger.

How to get started with alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

3. Pad-side grip

Kind of halfway between pad and trigger, the pick is on an angle. Use whichever of these methods feels most comfortable and in control. 

How to get started with alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

4. Three finger or middle finger

It’s fine to use thumb and two fingers (like James Hetfield, shown here) or thumb and middle finger (like Eddie Van Halen).

Example 1.  Outside-style alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

This melodic rock lick will help you get used to swapping between strings using the ‘outside’ method (a downstroke on the lower-pitch string, then an upstroke on the higher one). It just means you’re approaching each string from its ‘outer’ edge.

Example 2.  Inside-style alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

More melodic rock lead playing here in our ‘inside’ picking lick – so this time your pick approaches the strings from in between them. Make sure you are using strict down-up-down-up picking. It’s a key part of the alternate picking technique. 

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