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Alternate vs. Economy Picking : Mastering Your Guitar Picking Technique

Welcome to our guide on improving your guitar picking technique! Whether you're a beginner looking to develop solid fundamentals or an experienced guitarist aiming to refine your skills, mastering picking technique is essential for achieving fluidity, speed, and precision in your playing. In this blog post, we'll explore effective tips and exercises to help you elevate your guitar picking to the next level.

Understanding Guitar Picking Technique

Before diving into specific exercises, let's first understand what guitar picking technique entails. At its core, picking technique refers to the way you use your pick to strike the strings of the guitar. Proper hand positioning, wrist movement, and pick grip are crucial components of effective picking technique. Additionally, maintaining relaxation and efficiency in your movements can prevent tension and fatigue, allowing for smoother and more effortless playing.

Common Challenges in Picking Technique

Many guitarists encounter challenges when it comes to picking technique. These may include difficulties with string skipping, inconsistent picking, and tension in the hands and wrists. These challenges not only affect the quality of your playing but can also lead to frustration and discouragement if not addressed effectively.

General Tips for Improving Guitar Picking Technique

1. Start Slowly & Use a Metronome: When practicing picking exercises, start at a slow tempo. Focus on executing each pick stroke accurately and cleanly. As you become more comfortable, gradually increase the speed while maintaining control over your movements.  Practicing with a metronome is invaluable for developing steady timing and rhythm. It will also help you keep track of your progress by showing you exactly what tempo you can play. Start by setting the metronome to a comfortable tempo and play along with it, making sure to stay in sync with the beat. As you improve, gradually increase the tempo to challenge yourself further.

2. Write the Picking Direction & Focus on Accuracy: While speed is impressive, accuracy should be your primary goal. Pay attention to the clarity and precision of each note you play. Practice slowly and deliberately, ensuring that every pick stroke is consistent and even. I always recommend writing the picking direction to ensure that your practice is consistent and to make sure that you are playing the ideal picking pattern for the passage. You may discover a more efficient way to play after writing in the picking pattern

3. Experiment with Pick Angles, Thickness, & Grip: The pick is obviously a huge factor when working on picking technique. Depending on the song, a different pick may even be appropriate. The angle at which you hold your pick can significantly impact your tone and technique. The same can be said for the pick thickness and how tightly you grip the pick. Experiment with different pick angles to find what works best for you. Some guitarists prefer a straight-on approach, while others tilt the pick slightly for a smoother attack. It may be helpful to watch a video of another player performing the song to see what kind of picking technique they are using.

4. Practice Regularly & with Clear Goals in Mind:: Consistent practice is key to improving your picking technique. Set aside dedicated time each day to work on your picking exercises. Even just 10-15 minutes of focused practice can yield significant results over time. You may be surprised how quickly you improve with consistent practice. Sometimes, I can nearly double my speed on a passage just with 2-3 days of focused practice. It may seem obvious, but practice is essential for improving, definitely more so than the type of pick and strings you are using.

Essential Songs for Picking Practice

There are a few different styles of picking technique which I’ve separated below. The most commonly used are alternate picking & economy picking. Now, let's explore some essential picking exercises to help you develop your technique:

Alternate Picking Practice: 

Alternate picking involves alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes. Start by practicing simple scales or chromatic exercises using alternate picking. Focus on maintaining a steady rhythm and even picking motion. The key with alternate picking is to maintain a downstroke on every strong beat. If you are playing 16th notes, there will be downstroked on the beats as well as the “and” of each beat. The upstrokes will fall in between resulting in a steady stream of Down & Up picking that is synchronized with the beat. This is also useful for incorporating strumming between picking since they both share the same direction of the pick. 

Bluegrass Flatpicking:

Bluegrass music typically uses an alternate picking technique heavily. I recommend learning some popular bluegrass melodies in the open position with strict alternate picking technique. This is also known as “flatpicking” or “crosspicking” when including chords and arpeggios. Here are some popular bluegrass songs to try:

  1. “Cripple Creek”: This is a traditional Bluegrass song that is often played on the banjo. It’s known for its upbeat tempo and catchy melody, making it a favorite among beginners for its simplicity and fun rhythm.

  2. “Soldier’s Joy”: This is a classic old-time/bluegrass tune that is popular in the American fiddle canon. It’s one of the oldest and most widely distributed tunes, dating as early as the 1760s. Its upbeat tempo and catchy melody make it a great song for beginners to learn picking techniques.

  3. “Shady Grove”: This is a traditional Appalachian folk song believed to have originated in eastern Kentucky around the beginning of the 20th century. It was widely adopted in the bluegrass repertoire due to its beautiful melody and lyrics. Its simple chord progression makes it a good choice for beginners.

  4. “Wildwood Flower'': This song is a classic in the bluegrass genre, known for its beautiful melody and lyrics. It’s often played on the guitar, making it a great song for beginners to learn crosspicking technique. 

Here’s a video introducing bluegrass music with some sheet music examples.

Blues & Rock Alternate Picking Songs

Alternate picking is often used in Blues and Rock music as well to mix lead lines with chord strumming. We can pick with a loose strum-like technique to get a bluesy tone. Check out performances by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan or John Mayer to see how this strum technique is blended into alternate picking. Alternate picking is also useful for rock songs where constant 16th notes are needed. The consistent pattern is easy to repeat for a stream of notes. Here are some classic rock examples of alternate picking:

  1. “Snow (Hey Oh)” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers: This song has a fast, repetitive riff that’s perfect for practicing alternate picking with string crossing.

  2. “YYZ” by Rush: The main riff of this song is a series of fast, short runs across multiple strings, which is great for practicing alternate picking.

  3. “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. This has a repetitive alternate picking part on a single note throughout the intro.

Economy Picking Practice:

Economy picking is a more efficient picking technique that involves using the fewest number of pick strokes possible. In economy picking, we will maintain the same direction when crossing strings. This breaks the rhythmic nature of alternate picking but allows us to play smoother and faster. This style is popular with jazz guitarists and shred guitarists since it allows us to build speed and incorporate “sweep picking” during arpeggios. Practice scales and arpeggios using economy picking patterns, focusing on minimizing unnecessary movements and conserving energy.

Jazz Guitar, Bebop Heads

Jazz music is well suited to economy picking rather than alternative picking due to the syncopated rhythms and frequent arpeggios. Alternate picking tends to sound more even while economy picking works well for adding accents. Here are some Bebop jazz melodies that jazz guitarists often play with economy picking.

  1. “Donna Lee” by Miles Davis/Charlie Parker: This song is a fast-paced bebop tune that requires precise picking and fretting. It’s a great song to practice economy picking due to its complex melody and chord changes.

  2. “Anthropology” by Charlie Parker: Another classic bebop melody over “Rhythm Changes”, one of the most common chord progressions in jazz music.

  3. “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker: A bebop melody over the chords to “How High the Moon”. This one has plenty of twists and turns to test your economy picking chops.

  4. “Spain” by Chick Corea: This song has a fast, repetitive riff that’s perfect for practicing economy picking. The rhythm is quite challenging, making it a great song for intermediate to advanced players.

Shred Guitar Solos

Lastly, here are some metal and hard rock examples of economy picking. These are great for advanced students who want to break into playing shred solos and mastering economy picking. The efficiency of economy picking allows players to build up speed and accuracy. Here are some examples:

  1. “Blitzkrieg” by Yngwie Malmsteen: Yngwie Malmsteen is known for his neoclassical metal style and often uses economy picking in his fast-paced solos.

  2. “Hail to the King (Intro)” by Avenged Sevenfold: The intro of this song features a repetitive riff that’s perfect for practicing economy picking.

  3. “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson: Although not a heavy metal song, Eric Johnson uses this technique in songs like “Cliffs of Dover”, and it’s a great song to practice economy picking.

Scales and Arpeggios: 

Practicing scales and arpeggios is essential for developing dexterity and familiarity with the fretboard. Experiment with different picking patterns, such as three-note-per-string scales or sweeping arpeggios, to challenge yourself and expand your technique. Scales & Arpeggios are our musical ingredients that we bake into all styles of music. Their technical nature makes them perfect for technique practice. You can try playing scales with various picking techniques to understand the advantages of each. There isn’t a right or wrong way, just different results, so try new techniques and see what works for you.

Advanced Techniques and Resources

For those looking to further expand their picking technique, there are advanced techniques such as sweep picking and hybrid picking to explore. Sweep picking involves playing rapid arpeggio sequences using a sweeping motion with the pick, while hybrid picking combines pick and finger techniques for increased versatility. You can incorporate these advanced techniques with your foundation in alternate or economy picking.

Improving your guitar picking technique requires dedication, patience, and consistent practice. By following the tips and exercises outlined in this guide, you can develop the skills necessary to achieve fluidity, speed, and precision in your playing. Remember to start slowly, focus on accuracy, and practice regularly to see tangible results over time. We hope this guide has provided valuable insights and inspiration for enhancing your guitar picking technique. Keep practicing, stay motivated, and most importantly, enjoy the process of mastering this essential aspect of guitar playing.



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