Alternate Picking Techniques

In this article, we're sharing some tips and tricks for alternate picking.

guitar - alternate picking techniques

By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

Alternate picking is a very simple process in guitar playing where we switch between up and down strokes as we pluck the strings. There are many different varieties of this style, and various musical genres rely on the downward and upward strokes for their final sound and groove. In this guitar lesson, we will show you some tips and pointers on the guitar technique of alternate picking.

Alternate Picking Method

While the process and explanation of this is easy, doing it may be frustrating for beginner guitar players. Often when we start, we are only using downward strokes, or we are strumming down and up on ALL the strings. Once we dive into alternate picking, we need to pluck individual strings, which is hard to do without hitting the strings beside it!

First, find a chord you are comfortable with, like G major, and keep that shape. Check out a comprehensive guitar chord chart here. Now hold the pick at a slight angle to the strings and strum all the way down and all the way up slowly, hitting every string. Next, go to the low E and start picking the string down and up repeatedly, do it very slowly to be sure you have a clean sound. It’s called double picking when we hit the same string like this, and if you keep playing faster on only one note back and forth, it turns into tremolo!

After you count that for a few measures, move to the next A string and repeat the process. Do this evenly along each string; if you are hitting other strings, slow down. If it doesn't sound right, adjust your pick angle of attack. Also, be mindful to keep your wrist loose and not to rest your pinky on the soundboard. Do this over and over until you can start to get speed up.

Soon you will be able to change to another guitar chord as you alternate pick. Play a G-C-D-G chord progression and move up and down, keeping the sound clear and clean. As you get better, start skipping strings; this will be harder as you must pull the pick out and make a larger movement. The goal is to eventually do this as efficiently and fast as possible.

Travis Picking

This style was popularized by Merle Travis and stems from a fingerstyle picking that uses up and down strokes to accentuate the bass separately from the higher strings. It has a ragtime feel since it moves back and forth and can be done with a pick or your fingers. When done with a pick, it often leads to a bum-ditty sound because we hit the bass string hard and then do a quick up strum of the treble.

Travis picking is also a great way to add bass line melodies into your music and is perfect for beginners in alternate picking as it is a mix of specific string plucking and strumming. Try the G-C-D again but this time focus on alternating bass notes before hitting all the high treble strings.

Sweep Picking

This is the classic picking that leads to the heavy metal shredding sound so many guitarists love! Like alternate picking, it is easy to describe but harder to do. In this case, we aren’t moving up and down on an individual string. Instead, we “sweep” downward on the strings we need and then at the bottom, we sweep back up again. After each pluck we want the pick to land on the next string so it is ready to be hit in the downward or upward glide.

The motion is to be fluid, fast, and perfect and is often done with chords higher up the fretboard. The reason for failure in sweep picking is that the player doesn’t start slow enough and build the right core muscle memory. Another point of this picking style is speed, so eventually you want to add in hammer-ons and pull offs to lower the amount of picking you must do. The less picking, the faster it can go!

Of course, if you are just learning to play guitar, you need to watch the licks you practice; don’t try to jump right into Eddie Van Halen! Guitarists who smoothly and effortlessly sweep across the strings have spent MANY hours perfecting the motion. It’s not as easy as Travis picking or other up and down strumming.

Hybrid Picking

As its name implies, this style mixes the alternate, Travis style, and finger picking all in one. We still hold the pick in between our thumb and index finger, but now we use our other plucking fingers to hit the strings. So you play with both a pick and your fingers. This will especially be challenging as it will feel weird to move the middle and ring fingers as you pick.

Like Travis picking, this style is often used in country, bluegrass, and rockabilly genres as it allows us to emphasize picked bass notes contrasted with the finger plucked treble. Even if you don’t plan on playing that kind of music, hybrid picking is great practice to exercise your other fingers and get them comfortable with plucking and picking the strings. Anything that challenges your muscles and normal mode of playing will be helpful in the long run.

Inside Picking

This is another form where we alternate pick; however, we don’t just move down and up on each string. The high treble strings we pick down on and the low bass we go up. That way, we always end up on the “inside” of the strings. The point of this slight change is to increase efficiency and always be ready to hit the next string.

By always being on the inside, you will be close and ready to go for the next string you need. Again this style of picking is easy in principle but can be tough to get the right motion down. If you have especially been alternating down and up on all strings, you will have to slow down and pay more attention to your picking direction since you are now moving in a different way than before on the outside.

The best way to learn these picking styles is to find the easiest songs you like and practice playing them. You will find these alternate picking techniques are often mixed; the guitarist uses whatever sounds right and is the fastest and most efficient. When you have trouble, stop and immediately break down the picking as slowly as possible. If you are playing Travis picking country songs, it’s easier to make mistakes and still sound ok. However, when sweep picking metal shredding type tunes, each stroke must be perfect or it will not sound correct or cool!

And, of course, we can’t forget to make sure our fretting hand is always in the right place. If you are a beginner, just keep a few simple chords down while you practice these alternate picking methods. Only once you have a clean sound should you start worrying about changing more chords, don’t take on too much at once!

Alternate picking techniques on the guitar are not difficult concepts; they just require a lot of tedious practice. Get a metronome going at a minimum speed and start playing chords or arpeggios in alternate, sweep, and hybrid fashions. Look for a variety of songs and exercises, and just let your wrist get used to that smooth down and up motion. Just be sure not to jump ahead until you are ready. Slow and steady proper practice is what leads to insanely fast shreds and catchy bum ditty guitar vibes!