Alternate Picking on Guitar: The Ultimate Guide

Want to learn about alternate picking? You’ve come to the right place!

In this free guitar lesson you will learn:

  • 3 alternate picking challenges which will make you sound amazing.
  • The no1 alternate picking secret that will transform your guitar playing.
  • 5 must-know tips that will enhance your musicality and phrasing.

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What Is Alternate Picking?

A lot of beginner guitarists, and even some intermediate players have a bad habit of playing their guitar strings using only downstrokes.

Alternate picking is the combination of downstrokes and upstrokes.

Why Do You Need To Learn Alternate Picking?

Alternate picking is essential for all guitarists, regardless of their genre.

You hear alternate picking everywhere in guitar music from Metallica to Al Di Meola to Dick Dale to Stevie Nicks.

‘Edge Of Seventeen’ by Stevie Nicks is a perfect example of alternate picking. Just listen to the opening guitar riff:

Alternate picking is by no means the only picking technique there is, but it is nothing less than an essential technique.

Alternate picking is faster, more controlled and easier than relentlessly down-picking a guitar string.

By only using downstrokes we’re using twice as much energy to get half as much speed.

Not all guitarists are as obsessed with fast playing as others, but speed is something the vast majority of guitarists will employ at least some of the time.

As for control, that’s something that’s essential whether you’re playing fast or slow.

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The Basics of Alternate Picking

In principle, there’s nothing really complicated about alternate picking.

To alternate pick, all you have to do is:

  • Pick downstrokes and upstrokes consistently.

That’s it!

However, you must know how to hold a guitar pick correctly. This is essential if you want to reap the full benefits of alternate picking.

If you’re unsure on how to hold a guitar pick, check out this article: How To Hold A Guitar Pick: A 3 Step Guide

Once you’re holding your pick correctly, you need to look at the movement of the picking hand.

With alternate picking, you must use small movements, NOT big movements.

In this video, Andy demonstrates basic alternate picking technique on the low E string.

Take note of where the picking movement is coming from: the fingers.

Not from the wrist. If you try and alternate pick from the wrist, you will almost certainly end up hitting more than one string.

The wrist is also quite slow, as it requires a bigger movement to move the entire hand about than it does to simply move the joints of the fingers.

For accurate and swift alternate picking, you must:

  • Rest the heel of the hand on the bridge of the guitar and drive the pick using your fingers.

The reason some guitarists struggle to keep their hand on the bridge and move the pick with their fingers is because they’re instinctively trying to put a lot of power into their picking.

Moving the pick with the fingers doesn’t feel all that powerful, it is however, quicker and more accurate.

So when practicing this alternate picking exercise, don’t focus on sounding loud. Instead, focus more on accuracy.

What you will find as you practice alternate picking more and more is that a lot of that volume will start to return once your fingers have adapted.

Try Angling The Pick

Another thing that can help is to have the pick at a slight angle to the string rather than holding it parallel to the string.

There are differing schools of thought on this.

Here’s what the pick looks like held parallel to the string:

alternate picking

Here’s what the pick looks like held at an angle to the string:

alternate picking

With the pick at an angle, it will meet with less resistance from the string. This is because the curved edge of the pick will slide across the string.

This makes alternate picking easier.

If you try angling the pick like this, imagine you’re drawing a very fine zig-zag line, except with a pick instead of a pencil.

This zig-zag motion will allow you to have more control in your picking hand. However, this only works with a tilted pick. A pick held flat to the string will miss the string if you try and zig-zag with it.

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Alternate Picking On The Other Strings

Obviously we don’t want to limit our picking to one string.

In this next exercise, we’re going to incorporate all six.

Here’s the tab:

alternate picking

Not sure how to read tab? Check out this article: How To Read Guitar Tabs

Remember, we’re alternate picking. The first stroke on each string should be a down and the second stroke should be an up.

This exercise should begin on a downstroke and finish on an upstroke.

Ideally, you want to get to a stage where you can play this exercise evenly and consistently. There shouldn’t be any big gaps between notes.

If you find yourself falling back into bad habits, give yourself time to think and practice this slowly.

You can play the exercise at whatever pace is most comfortable for you, but the rhythm must be consistent.

No speeding up or slowing down partway through. If you start off playing slow, you must finish playing slow.

alternate picking

Alternate Picking With Palm-Muting

One of the best ways to bring alternate picking to the fore is to combine it with palm-muting.

Adding some palm-muting to your alternate picking will give it a tight, chuggy sound.

Palm-muting is when you dampen the sound of the strings with your palm. Learn about palm muting here: Palm Muting: An Essential Guide

This is one of the main reasons we need to make sure we’re moving the pick with our fingers, NOT the wrist.

It’s impossible to palm-mute if the heel of the hand isn’t on the bridge of the guitar.

In this video, Andy demonstrates alternate picking with palm-muting on the D string of the guitar, slowly at first, then slightly faster, then faster again.

There’s no point trying to do this sort of thing quickly if you can’t do it slowly. Start alternate picking slowly and build up to doing it with more speed.

Can you hear how the tone is different, the guitar strings have more of a muted sound. That’s what we’re going for.

As with the two previous exercises, your alternate picking needs to be consistent and even. No big gaps between notes.

Take your time and make sure you’re keeping the rhythm.

Every so often when learning guitar, we need to take a step back and revisit an earlier exercise. If you’re really struggling, practice alternate picking without the mute again and then try it with the mute.

Alternate Picking Scales

Whenever you learn a scale on the guitar, unless you’ve been specifically told otherwise, you should play it using alternate picking.

Scales are a great way to practice alternate picking.

Have a go at playing the C major scale using alternate picking:

C Major Scale E Shape

A lot of the time, string changes can throw people off when alternate picking and we can suddenly end up with a double downstroke. Go slowly at first to make sure you’re alternate picking consistently.

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

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Alternate Picking With String-Skipping

This is a more advanced exercise.

Make sure you’re comfortable with alternate picking technique, before you try this exercise.

String-skipping, for those who don’t know is where we miss out a string in a scale pattern and go straight to the next one.

It’s a great way to make your improvisations sound less like scales and more like melodies.

Here’s a tab of a string-skipping exercise based on the C major scale:

alternate picking

And here’s a video demonstration of it:

This exercise can be tough. Especially if you haven’t tried a pattern like this before.

It’s absolutely crucial to have the basics of alternate picking down before attempting anything like this.

Skipping strings out can feel weird, but it’s a cool technique to understand if you want to enhance your musicality.

General Practice Tips For Alternate Picking

The first exercise in this lesson, is the most important.

You absolutely must have it down before moving onto any of the other exercises. If you don’t have the basics of alternate picking down, you’ll never be able to progress as a guitarist.

It’s vital that you don’t forget the fundamentals. Always refer back to the basic exercises to keep your technique in check.

The best way to practice alternate picking is to use it as much as possible. Whether you’re playing lead, scales or even chords. Try and use alternate picking in everything that you do.

There’s no point learning a technique if we aren’t going to put it into practice, so make sure that you use your new alternate picking skills regularly.

alternate picking

Do You Have The Need For Speed?

If you’re the sort of guitarist who likes the idea of playing fast, then alternate picking is one of the most useful tricks you can have.

If guitarists who play at moderate speeds struggle without alternate picking then fast guitarists aren’t going to stand a chance.

Bonus Tip

A great practice tip for guitarists who have the need for speed is to try and alternate pick semiquavers on one string to a metronome.

To do this:

  • Pick four notes for every click of the metronome.

You can find a metronome here: Metronome

The best way to do this, is to practice slowly and build your speed up gradually. Start off with a slow speed like 60 bpm, then once you feel you’ve mastered this technique at that tempo.

Move the metronome up 5 bpm. Do this until you’ve become a picking speed demon!

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