Guitarist Cameron Mizell

New York Guitarist & Composer

The website of New York Guitarist Cameron Mizell.

Alternate Picking

Every other Wednesday or so I'll be sharing some guitar playing tips. We'll start with basic techniques that, while simple, are important skills to maintain for even the most advanced players. If you haven't read these before, I've written two previous posts for guitarists: [bullet_list]


The warm-up routine above only discusses exercises from a left hand perspective, warming up the fingers on the fretboard. But if you've played through some of those exercises you'll notice that the picking can get a little tricky. So today we're going to talk about the right hand, specifically, alternate picking.

I started paying attention to my own picking technique lately as I put this lesson together, and I found that probably 90% of the time I'm using alternate picking for melodic lines and to arpeggiate chords while playing rhythm guitar. The rest of the time I'll use sweep picking or hybrid picking, but only when alternate picking can't produce the articulation or rhythm the line needs.

Alternate picking is the act of switching between downstrokes and upstrokes. This is much like strumming rhythm guitar--the motion of your arm keeps a constant up-down motion and occasionally misses the strings. The motion creates a steady time feel, but by not hitting the strings on every pass you create a more interesting rhythm. But even though the idea is the same, I've witnessed many beginning and intermediate guitarists that play great rhythm guitar really struggle with alternate picking.

Along with the exercises below, use alternate picking on all your scales, arpeggios, or whatever other exercises you practice. Work it into your regular routine until it becomes a habit.

Exercise 1: Countdown

Mute the strings with your left hand so all your focus is on your picking effort. Start on the lowest string with a downstroke, alternate pick four times, and move to the next string, continuing the alternate picking pattern to the top string and back down. Start again with only three plucks per string, then two, then one. Then do the whole thing over again but start with an upstroke. (Click on the image for a larger, easier to read size.)

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Notice that when you pluck the first string an odd number of times, the following string starts with an upstroke. Pay attention to how your pick moves from the downstroke of one string to the upstroke of the next, especially when you're picking once per string.

Exercise 2: Minimal Effort

To increase picking speed, you have to relax your hand and use the smallest movement necessary to hit the string and come back the other direction. You can do this exercise using the same pattern as Exercise 1, and also apply it to Exercise 3 below.

Start with the pick at rest on the top of the string. Pluck the string with a downstroke and then immediately rest it on the underside of the string. Play an upstroke and immediately rest it on the top of the string. Repeat. Go slow and take as much time as you need between each movement. You'll build up speed as your muscles learn the minimum amount of effort needed to pluck a string.

Exercise 3: String Skipping

This series of exercises is similar to those above, but we'll be skipping strings, making your picking hand cover more distance. These exercises will help you arpeggiate chords more deliberately, very useful for playing rhythm guitar.

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More Guitar Picking Techniques

Speed: Picking fast has always been one of my weaknesses. The key to playing faster is to simply relax. Playing music has never been a feat of strength, but when we run into fast tempos it's natural to tense up and try to plow through. To help relax your picking hand, relax your other hand. Tension is symmetrical. If you are gripping the neck of the guitar too hard, you're probably also holding the pick too tightly and have too much tension in your picking hand. Relax, loosen up, and the speed will come to you!

Volume: Picking with minimal effort usually results in a quieter, smaller sound. If you don't pluck the string very hard, it's not going to ring very much! I picked up a tip from somebody I play with in a bluegrass band:

If you keep your fingers together, there is more mass focused on the pick, and you'll automatically get more volume. It's simply a matter of physics. I've also heard of guys practicing with a stone in their picking hand, which just takes the idea a step further.

Keep the fingers of your picking hand together to increase volume.

Velocity also creates volume. The faster the pick moves when it plucks the string, the more volume you'll get. This doesn't mean you have to play harder, rather you just have to learn to play through the string. Strike the string like you mean it! The exercises above will help develop the control and confidence you need to do that.

Improving Tone: Ever notices how a dozen guitar players playing the same acoustic guitar can all sound different? This is because so much of our tone comes from the way we pick the strings. I've experimented with many types of picks looking for something that suits my playing style, but ultimately, anything with a smooth surface and clean release can produce good tone.

The key is to hold the pick at a slight angle to the string so you are actually picking with the edge, and not just the flat side. Your tone also changes depending on how close to the bridge or neck you pluck the string and what string you play the note on. Great players will constantly adjust their pick angle and where they attack the string to create a more interesting and musical sound.

Hold your guitar pick at an angle to the string for a bigger tone.

Playing Triplets: One of the dilemmas with alternate picking is that you're locked into an 8th note or 16th note rhythm. The constant down/up is great for keeping steady time when the beat is divided evenly, but what about odd divisions like triplets? There are a few ways to play through triplets:


  • Slur - A hammer-on or pull-off between two of the notes prevents the rhythm from interrupting the down/up motion of the pick.
  • Double Downstroke - If you alternate pick a triplet, the third note will be a downstroke. Follow that with another downstroke for the next beat. This is naturally easier if the note on the next downbeat is on a higher string, so the pick can continue in a downward motion across the adjacent string. Brad Davis developed a speed picking technique using which he explains in his Standard Down Down Up Picking Lesson video. This is very similar to the next technique...
  • Sweep Picking - This is where you pick several adjacent strings in the same direction, literally sweeping across the strings. Like strumming but in a slower, controlled manner. Sweep picking triplets is especially ideal for arpeggios or larger intervals, but with creative fretwork you can work out scaler lines with sweeps.


Articulating: Finally, to keep your playing interesting, you'll need to learn to accent some notes while ghosting, or barely playing, others. This creates a more dynamic arc to your melodies. To work on this, play the exercises above but accent the first of every four notes, then the second, third, and so on. Learn how it feels to play adjacent notes so the technique can happen naturally when you're playing melodies.

If you found this post helpful, please see my other guitar and mandolin lessons on this blog. I am also available for private guitar and mandolin lessons in NYC or via Skype.


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