What is Alternate Picking and How to Master It

A lot of beginner guitarists, and even some intermediate players, have the bad habit of playing the strings using only downstrokes. If it has been a while now since you started playing the guitar, surely you already know what alternate picking is – the combination of downstrokes and upstrokes. Alternate picking is essential for all guitarists, regardless of genre – so the sooner you master it, the better.

The theory behind alternate picking is very simple: when you play single note lines, you should always pick your notes with a down-stroke, then an upstroke, then a down-stroke, upstroke, down-stroke, and so forth, alternatively (keeping in mind the shortest rhythm time). 

This kind of picking allows you to optimize the right-hand motion and reach speeds impossible to obtain with a one-way-only picking. And it is logical right? After all you’re utilizing both the down-motion and up-motion, giving you twice as fast a rhythm. 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.

The Basics of Alternate Picking

There’s nothing really complicated about it. To alternate pick, all you have to do is: pick downstrokes and upstrokes consistently. That’s it! However, you must start off with holding the guitar pick correctly – that  is essential if you want to reap the full benefits of alternate picking. Watch Neli’s video below to check if you already have that covered. 

Once you’re holding your pick correctly, try having it at a slight angle to the string rather than holding it parallel to the string. 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.

Once you have found an angle that works, it is time to concentrate on the movement of the picking hand. With alternate picking, you should use small movements. An important thing to pay attention to is also where the picking movement is coming from – and that would be the fingers, not from the wrist for high speeds.The wrist is slow, as it requires a bigger movement to move the entire hand than it does to simply move the joints of the fingers. You can use your wrist movement for regular speeds. The important part is to NOT use movement from the elbow. Not only for technical reasons, but playing from the elbow can lead to injury.

What to note when exercising

Remember, you are alternate picking. The first stroke on each note should be a down and the second stroke should be an up. So when you exercise, you should begin with a downstroke and continue with an upstroke. Ideally, you want to get to a stage where you can play all exercises 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 slowly. You can play exercises at whatever pace is most comfortable for you, but the rhythm must be consistent.

When you are wondering what to play as an exercise remember that scales are a great way to practice alternate picking. Whenever you learn a scale on the guitar, unless you’ve been specifically told otherwise, you should play it using alternate picking. You can also use Neli’s Ultimate Scale Exercises by joining our Guitar Family. You will receive it straight to your inbox in a few days.

And one final thought – 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.

For more tips and tricks we invite you to join Neli’s Guitar Family and subscribe to her YouTube channel! If you are ready to dive into the world of ukulele (or guitar) you can sign up for a lesson HERE – the first one is 50% off!

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