Oh boy, this one is huge! Alternate Picking is one of the major guitar techniques that you will find all over the place. No matter if lead or rhythm guitar – alternate picking got you covered!
I remember that it was a drag learning alternate picking. I could already play some speedy legato and rock licks and now I needed to slow down? I was devastated! Why should I learn something new
that complicates everything? Little did I know what new dimensions I was about to enter.
Alternate picking made everything easier once I got the hang of it! I was able to play songs and runs that seemed unreachable. I cannot
imagine a world without this picking style. Neither should you!
Alternate picking licks for ultimate high-speed mayhem
WTF?! Alternate Picking
Alternate picking means that you strictly alternate between down-strokes and up-strokes. This way you can pick way faster and more efficient compared to only playing
down-strokes. That comes in handy for fast lead runs, overdrive metal riffs and an overall more fluent guitar playing.
Alternate picking is a universal technique. It is used in rhythm and lead playing at any tempo. The term speed picking is often used if you want to refer to alternate picking as a fast lead
technique. Not only does alternate picking enable you to really speed things up but it will also give you this mean and aggressive attack.
Check out “Technical Difficulties” by Paul Gilbert or the intro and verse riff from “Whiplash” by Metallica to get an idea of alternate picking if you are new to the subject.
Best Practice: Avoid Beginner Mistakes
What kind of pick should I use? You are better off with a harder pick when crushing at 200bpm. A harder pick does not flap around when speed and precision are needed. An undying
classic is the Jazz 3 by Dunlop or my absolute favorite the Dunlop Ultex 1.14. Just try different picks and see what feels best for you.
How should I hold my pick? The way you hold your pick should not be fundamentally different than how you would hold it anyway. Place the pick on the side of your index finger and
put your thumb on top to have a firm grip. The pick should have a slight angle to the strings. That reduces resistance of the string when picking. In return the movement will be more fluent and
easier to perform.
How should I hold my hand? The angle in which your hand is approaching the guitar is an often overlooked factor. Try to find the most natural and efficient way for you to pick.
Pay close attention when practicing to find out what works best for you. The feel is very hard to explain, and everyone has a different approach. I highly recommend Ben Higgins lesson “Speed
Picking – What They Don’t Tell You” on YouTube. He did a rad job on explaining the mechanics behind the picking hand motion.
That’s some big chunk for the fundamentals. Over time it will all be second nature to you, and you will not even think about it once you have mastered alternate picking.
1. Getting Started: Alternate Picking Basics
Here is an easy exercise to get your alternate picking up and running:
Establish a firm grip. Find a natural and relaxed angle for your hand to execute the exercise with minimal effort. Making things easy on yourself will help you
become better at a faster rate. Get comfortable on all six strings since each string has a different tension and feel to it.
The next exercise is a chromatic one that will bring your fretting hand into play. Chromatics are cool to get started with alternate picking because it is very easy. You do not
need to think a lot and you can focus on the picking and synchronization of your hands.
Those two exercises are a solid start if you are new to the alternate picking. Once you got the hang of it, those exercises can be quiet boring. But fear not! I have chosen two
musical licks which are challenging and damn fun to play.
Sync Your Hands Or Get Thunderstruck!
The synchronization of your picking and fretting hand is essential or else you will sound like sh*t. That is especially the case when you pick up speed. Let’s demonstrate this
with AC/DC’s classic intro lick for "Thunderstruck".
Yes, this is strict alternate picking, and it will show you the importance of hand synchronization. Even at grandpa speed! This one is cool because the whole lick happens on one
string and needs steady alternate picking. The lick will increase stamina and forge your picking hand for further adventures.
Next, we have a delicious piece of music from the song “In The Still Of The Night” by Whitesnake. The strong melodic character makes it an
awesome exercise to practice and play.
Notice how the string change is always on a down-stroke? This picking pattern is typical when you have an even number of notes per string. Another very melodic
example would be the intro and main riff from “Fear Of The Dark” by Iron Maiden.
Mastering the fundamental movements and concepts of a technique is the first step to be able to play more advanced stuff as you progress.
2. Full Shred Ahead! – Three-Note-Per-String Runs
Let's get down to the speed business! Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for three-note-per-string runs. Designed for speed those licks
will cut through anything without mercy.
As the name implies, you have three notes per string which give you an efficient and easy approach to play through scales and whatnot
at mind-blowing speed.
Check out this A-minor scale played in a three-note-per-string format:
I bet you noticed something weird when playing through the example?! Now when we change strings, we alternate between down-strokes and up-strokes. The other examples above were
played on one string or always used a down-stroke when changing the string. Bummer!
Changing strings will be the biggest hurdle in the alternate picking business. There are two ways to do it. Anyone? Yes, Captain Obvious!
The string change will be on a down-stroke or an up-stroke.
The best concept to master three-note-per-string runs and string changes, is by practicing scale fragments and small patterns. This method is presented by the one and only Mr.
John Petrucci in his instructional masterpiece “Rock Discipline”.
As the name scale fragment implies, you will take small bits from a scale or bigger lick and practice them until you got it under your fingers and up to speed before piecing it
together. Here are a few of the most basic shapes or scale fragments that are used for three-note-per-string runs.
The above version is called ascending and when changing strings, you will start on an up-stroke. That picking pattern is often
called outside picking because the pick will constantly be outside the two strings when changing between them.
Playing the whole thing backward is called descending. You will notice that compared to the ascending version the picking pattern of down-
and up-strokes has changed. What was once a down-stroke is now an up-stroke. The pick will now be inside the two strings when changing
between them. That picking pattern is often called inside picking.
Please do not worry too much about the terminology right now. I just wanted to show you the differences and what it is called in guitar-nerd language. For now, it is just
important that you practice those scale fragments and pay attention when changing strings to get a feel for it.
Here is another scale pattern that is just perfect for stamina and speed development:
All those scale fragments and variations of them will appear in nearly every three-note-per-string run. The way the A-minor scale is played at the beginning is, in fact, an extended version of
the second scale fragment or pattern you just witnessed. From the lowest to the highest string ascending and descending on the way back.
Another alternate picking master is the shredtastic Paul Gilbert. One prime example of his three-note-per-string style is shown in the
This C-major scale uses the third pattern of the scale fragments shown earlier. The lick demonstrates perfectly how piecing together small patterns can make up terrifying shred runs.
Getting good at small patterns and scale fragments will give you a darn good foundation to tackle monster runs as shown above. Take your time with all the exercises and get comfortable
with alternate picking.
3. Nat Geo Shred: Examples Of Alternate Picking
Glad you made it so far! After all the information it is time to kick back and enjoy the beauty of alternate picking in its natural habitat. Delight your ears with some of the tastiest alternate
picking licks and runs.
X – Scarified [0:07]
Paul Gilbert gives this riff a nice twist with the tricky timing. That riff makes a great exercise and is damn fun to play.
Make sure to check out Racer X, Mr. Big or Paul’s solo stuff. This dude is nuts!
– Cowboys From Hell [2:50]
Playing fast is not about playing the most complicated things. In fact, simple licks like this up to speed will have a tremendous effect. Dimebag shreds this bluesy lick with incredible
The lick can be played starting with a down-stroke or an up-stroke. That's why the tab includes both variations. Go with what feels best for you.
– Breaking The Silence [3:13]
Gus G takes no prisoners with this ear candy of a run. No matter if with Firewind or solo - Gus is worth checking out for great sounding alternate picking licks.
Osbourne – No More Tears [4:55]
Next, we have the berserker of guitar slingers on the menu. Zakk Wylde proves that three-note-per-string runs are not the only option to set things on fire.
Zakk’s brutal approach to the pentatonic scale can be heard on nearly every solo from Ozzy to Black Label Society.
Children of Bodom - Black Widow [3:38]
Finnish wild child Alexi Laiho is known for his shred skills on various techniques. Alternate picking is no exception! If you look closely at this lick, you will notice that there is just one
simple picking pattern that repeats through the whole scale. The beauty of simplicity.
- Anthem (We Are The Fire) [1:52]
From 0 to 200 this blazing fast run is just pure alternate picking beauty with some challenging string changes.
Moore – “The Pepsi Lick”
This one is not from a song but a Pepsi commercial. Back in the days, Vinnie played a head-spinning lick that made even the last Pepsi bottle explode! It´s a great and simple lick. Make sure to
watch the clip on YouTube.
In the clip, the lick is played when the amp falls apart, and the dude tries to open the last bottle. Classic 80s - You just have to love it!
Alternate picking is a simple technique when you look at the basic concept. As soon as you start playing, you will notice that there are a lot of challenges. This article has hopefully made a lot
of things clear and helped you in your alternate picking quest.
My recommendations for further studies:
"Intense Rock" by Paul Gilbert
"Rock Discipline" by John Petrucci
"Speed, Accuracy and Articulation" by Vinnie Moore
I had struggled with alternate picking for a very long time. I never thought I could do it.