Fast Alternate Picking

A friend recently asked me for some advice on alternate picking:

You have good alternate picking technique. This is something that I have struggled with forever and a day. Having the Compy [Splawn Competition – Gray] only exacerbates this problem. Just wondering what you did to develop good alternate picking. I do a variety of exercises, go back and forth with using the metronome and not using it.

I can hammer-on fast runs pretty alright, but I have relied on this technique for too long and need to get a good pick attack going on. I just love the dynamics of a good picked run like that.

Any insights as to how you developed your technique would be great.

Sidestepping the fact for a moment that I do not in fact have very good alternate picking technique, I have improved in the last couple of years, since buying a tight, bright, aggressive amp that will simply not let me hide in the marl of saturation and compression softer amps provide. After responding to my friend’s flattery I thought it might be worthwhile posting my reply here.


The skill I probably possess is not uploading the four out of five videos where my picking goes most awry, but I take your compliment and move on!

The truth is, I have improved a bit lately. I too was a legato queen until that big box arrived from Splawn and said, “Chu doin’, fool?” Lots of legato, and a fat helping of messy economy picking, which I learned because of you-know-who but which ultimately served only to screw up my meter.

I worked on alternate picking in two general ways. First was to take a few standard alternate picking runs, learn them well, then sit down and take a close forensic look at what my hands were doing. For example:

Paul Gilbert style Alternate Picking Run

E----------15-17-19-20-19-17----------------------------|
B-15-17-19-------------------20-19-17-20-19-17----------|
G----------------------------------------------19-17-16-|
D-------------------------------------------------------|
A-------------------------------------------------------|
E-------------------------------------------------------|

E-------------------------------------------------------|
B-------------------------------------------------------|
G-19-17-16----------------------------------------------|
D----------19-17-16-19-17-16----------------------------|
A----------------------------19-17-15-19-17-15----------|
E----------------------------------------------19-17-15-|

E-------------------------------------------------------|
B-------------------------------------------------------|
G-------------------------------------------------------|
D-------------------------------------------------------|
A----------14-15-17-19~---------------------------------|
E-14-15-17----------------------------------------------|

Yngwie style Alternate Picking Run

E-17-16-------16----------------------------------------|
B-------18-17----18-17-15-18-17-15----17-15-------------|
G----------------------------------17-------17-16-------|
D-------------------------------------------------------|
A-------------------------------------------------------|
E-------------------------------------------------------|

E-------------------------------------------------------|
B-15----------------------------------------------------|
G----17-16-14-17-16-14-13-16-14-13----14-13-------------|
D----------------------------------15-------15-14-------|
A-------------------------------------------------------|
E-------------------------------------------------------|

E-------------------------------------------------------|
B-------------------------------------------------------|
G-13----------------------------------------------------|
D----15-14-12-15-14-12----14-12-------12----------------|
A----------------------15-------15-14----15-14-12-------|
E-------------------------------------------------------|

E-------------------------------------------------------|
B-------------------------------------------------------|
G-------------------------------------------------------|
D-------------------------------------------------------|
A-15-14-12-11-14-12-11----12~---------------------------|
E----------------------13-------------------------------|

(This last one is especially good. It looks frightening, but it’s actually a simple, logical progression — descending four notes down a scale, skipping back up three notes, repeat — yet forces incorporation of uncomfortable things like 1, 2 and 4 notes per string, as well as the safe standard 3. Try the same pattern in different scales; strict alternate picking throughout.)

With these kinds of exercises, I’d say, “okay, what is actually hard about this?” By pausing when I’d trip up, going back to the moment it felt wrong, watching each hand, playing it slow, I’d zero in on what were, for me, the stumbling blocks. I’d ask: Is it when switching strings? Is it when starting on an upstroke? Is it when there’s more or less than three notes per string? Are some reaches uncomfortable and therefor messy? Are unmuted strings ringing out for a second during this kind of transition from string to string? Do I do better when my right hand is floating, or pivoting off a finger anchored on the pickguard, or resting on the strings? You know, really LOOK at it.

For me it turned out that, while guilty of almost all of this, my main problems were awful left hand posture from the lazy legato years, and poor synchronization between both hands. It could be anything for you, but the principle’s the same: rather than just trying to play something tough over and over and saying “WTF, why can’t I do this yet!” I had specific areas to focus on and improve. My woodshedding had direction.

Second was professional help. I say why not go to whomever you think does something best? I think the cleanest alternate picker in rock/metal is Paul Gilbert. I don’t have a single record, but that man is a picking machine, and happily he has a wealth of tutorial material out there. I once mentioned the kind of thing I was taking from him, a video which is like 8 minutes long just all about how exactly he holds a pick. How boring does that sound? But I find this kind of micro level tuition more useful than learning nice symmetrical exercise patterns; more about what the hands of these masters are doing different to us than just what frets they’re pressing. So I combed around eating up this kind of stuff off YouTube and blogs. Details.

So that’s been my little method. I still get very frustrated (I’ve largely fixed the energy-sapping hand posture thing but struggle all the time with synchronization) learning stuff that seems simple but I can’t get clean, but if I look back just a couple years I pick a lot better than I used to, so it’s not hopeless. My old Splawn – Day 1 video sounds fast in places, but it’s largely one picked note per string followed by a flurry of quick legato. Something like my recent stab at Far Beyond The Sun, all picked, would have been impossible for me to play properly back then — even if it is only the intro! I wish I’d had cruel, revealing amps since I was 11, rather than 30.


Naturally, I’ve tarted up the above response a little, such as adding tab, because you are a picky lot, and friends expect less than strangers.

I eagerly anticipate the release of Troy Grady’s documentary Cracking The Code, which he has me convinced will offer the best possible insights into how the pros, the truly exceptional, pick so cleanly, using his wacky ‘ShredCam’ to closely examine their movements in super slow-motion. Troy certainly teaches well on his languishing website, and picks like a terrifying robo-demon, so whatever he knows works and shall, I have little doubt, be expertly conveyed. The only problem is that nothing has been heard about the project for far too long! I am right on the cusp of writing him a rather heated open letter to find out what’s up. Beware, Troy, wherever you are hiding with the secret I’ve longed for for 20 years: there will be exclamation points.

8 Replies to “Fast Alternate Picking”

  1. Thanks Buddy for the tabs. Can you elaborate a bit on your “bad left hand posture” from playing legato?

    1. Hey Matt, my muse! My fretting fingers were skewed like this \\\\ on the board, from years of generating notes with my left hand; that was the most comfortable way for those muscles to do that. But it’s not a very clean or efficient way to fret picked notes, and it had a knock-on effect when doing longer stretches, say, F major scale from the 1st fret (1-3-5 etc.) My wrist would have to stick out unnaturally to accommodate the finger posture, my elbow would then have to drift in front of my belly to accommodate that… Just a posture trainwreck caused by bad habits. Loads of extra effort and energy just to play something worse! When I rebooted, I looked at classical players and got advice on posture to try to correct these things. This is what I mean by really taking a close look at what you are doing when something feels tough.

  2. Hi,

    I’m starting to play the guitar, and I have chosen your tabs for the Dr Horrible theme. Thanks a lot for your videos!

    1. That’s great Adrian, best of luck! It’s probably a little more complex than what I started out with, but it’s a nice even-meter piece with no tricky timing that should serve you well.

  3. […] (which I played intuitively and fluidly) for economy picking that I eventually had to go through a morally depleting reboot of my technique to forget, so that I might again play with something approaching an even […]

  4. […] own little deconstruction helped; I did get off the legato plateau. But not far enough. I needed more. I needed Troy’s […]

  5. Have you tried economy at all?

    1. I converted to economy for a couple of years, but it was still messy. My instinct is that specific mechanics to do with pick angle, posture, muting etc. are the vital components of fast, clean picking, and that a person who’s mastered them could excel at either economy or alternate, whatever he chose to concentrate on. But you’d know more about that than me. 😛

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