There are many skills that you will need to learn well in order to become an awesome guitar player. Having an understanding of basic music theory and increasing the finger dexterity on your fretting hand are a few examples.
One area where many guitarists may struggle is with developing a solid picking technique. Let’s take a look at some of the different ways to pick the guitar, and also throw in some exercises for good measure.
But before we do, I’ve got some advice that you have to take to heart…
One last thing before we get going
We will be using standard guitar tablature for our exercises. Since we are going to be discussing picking in particular, there will be a lot of talk about “upstrokes” and “downstrokes” with your pick. The tab symbol for a downstroke is , and an upstroke is .
Got it? Great! Time to get pickin’!
As the name implies, here you will be doing nothing but downstrokes. This technique is used mostly to add an effect to a melody line. At the same time, it can be used with palm muted chords to give that heavy chunking sound that is a staple of a lot of rock music. You can take it to the extreme if your tastes more along the metal side of things.
Same thing as down picking…but in reverse!
Up picking is typically used more with chords than with single lines. The reason for this is that hitting the higher strings first (instead of the lower strings as you would with downstrokes) will give a different sound. The difference is subtle, but it’s there.
It also works best when you use mute all of the strings after each upstroke (you can slightly lift your fingers off the fretboard or use part of your picking hand) as it helps to give a staccato, percussive sound.
Here we will use an open A major chord (without playing the high E string):
Alternate picking is – by far – the best way to play a single line at any speed when you have to pick every note. It is exactly what the name refers to – you alternate downstrokes and upstrokes to create a fluid motion that is precise and smooth.
A few tips:
When playing single note lines, you have to make sure that your fretting hand is in the right place before you strike the string. If you don’t then there’s a really good chance that your notes will sound muffled and sloppy.
Always try to use your wrist to pivot for the up and down motions, not your whole forearm. Using this technique is much easier to control and won’t fatigue your arm so much.
Tremolo picking is basically alternate picking on steroids. It is a technique that is mostly used in a different way than most alternate picking. With tremolo picking, you are simply using up and down strokes as fast as you can on a single note.
Eddie Van Halen used this technique quite a bit – a great example is the flurry of notes at the end of the “Beat It” solo. There isn’t a bunch of different notes, just a bunch of the pick strokes on the same note which changes every few beats (check it out and you’ll see what I mean).
With tremolo picking, it’s very difficult to do it any other way than to move your whole forearm up and down. That helps with control of the pick – which you’ll have to hold pretty tight.
Let’s face it – playing notes on the same string all the time gets pretty boring, and it’s not exactly the most musical thing in the world! At some point, you will have to get used to moving to other strings while you are playing a solo or a melody. This is called skipping strings, and it is an essential skill for great guitar playing.
Here’s an example using the A pentatonic minor scale:
Notice how that whenever you play an upstroke, your very next note is played as a downstroke. This works best with alternate picking as you can time your upstrokes and downstrokes when changing strings to keep your hand motions efficient.
One other thing to point out: when you have completed an upstroke and are then skipping a string to play your next downstroke, you have to make sure to lift your pick far enough away from the strings so you don’t hit a string by accident as your hand is moving.
String skipping isn’t just going from one string to the one immediately above or below it, though. You can get great musical effects by making large interval jumps and moving several strings away.
Let’s use the A pentatonic minor scale again and check it out:
Back in the 80’s when shred guitar ruled, the ultimate goal seemed to be able to play as fast as possible. A perfect example of that type of guitar player was Yngwie Malmsteen – the guy was just unbelievable with the picking control and phrasing that he used.
Yes, he used alternate picking quite a bit. One other technique that he often used was called “sweep”, or economy picking.
With sweep picking you get the benefit of playing multiple notes with one pick stroke. Typically, this is used when playing arpeggios, so your fretting hand is often held in a traditional chord shape. As each note is played you then slightly lift your fretting hand fingers off the string so the note doesn’t ring out.
It takes a little practice to get this technique down pat as it takes a fair amount of coordination between your two hands. But, as with anything with the guitar, practice makes perfect!
Here is an exercise in the key of G. Any time you see either a downstroke or an upstroke together that means that the same pick stroke is being used for those same notes:
Build this pattern up and you’ll be impressed by how fast it’ll sound like you’re playing!
Hybrid picking is a form of finger picking in the sense that you use more than one finger on your picking hand to pluck the strings. It is particularly common in country guitar and – when done in the right way – can really add some style to your playing.
To start off, use your thumb and index finger to hold the pick – just like you typically would. The key here is to then use your middle finger (or whichever one you feel comfortable using; for our purposes here, we’ll use the middle) and pluck another string at the same time you use the pick.
While it’s true that you could just use your pick to hit both strings at the same time, there is a big difference with how hybrid picked lines sound. They tend to have more “snap”, are more percussive, and both notes will ring out clearly.
This exercise gets a little twang in your thang, with a nice bend higher up the neck at the end of the phrase:
To pull this one off, always use your pick for the notes on the 4th string in the first three measures, and on the 3rd string in the last one. Use the tip of your middle finger to pluck the 3rd string (again, in the first three measures) and the 2nd string on at the end.
Another aspect that makes hybrid picking so flexible is that you aren’t limited to playing strings that are right next to each other. In this exercise, you will be using your pick on the third string and your middle finger on the 1st string. Add a whole step slide at the end of each measure and you’ll have a tasty little lick:
Final tip – you have to start slow before you can go fast
It’s kind of like a sports car, right? You’d love to get in it and go up to 100 MPH in 0.5 seconds, but getting to that speed that fast can be dangerous. In fact, you’d probably lose control and crash it up pretty bad.
While I don’t think that anyone could ever consider playing guitar ”dangerous”, the same principle applies.
When you are trying to improve your skills, speed is a key factor. Nowhere is this more important than when you are working on your picking. It is a very mechanical skill and it’s super easy to try and go too fast too soon. Not only will you not sound like crap (sorry to be blunt…but yeah – it’s true) but you won’t develop the accuracy you need to be efficient.
I can’t overstate this. Always start out a new picking pattern slow so you can play every note cleanly. Only when you can play it properly should you work on picking up the pace. Trust me…someone like John Petrucci didn’t just pick up the guitar and blaze up the fretboard!
Wrapping it all up
Each of the techniques that we have gone over would be great skills for you to have in your playing vocabulary. While it’s true that these types of exercises can bore you to tears, you’ll be a LOT better off in the long run once you have the skills locked down.