Before I go over the main problems, let me be very clear about what I mean by alternate picking. Whenever I refer to "alternate picking," what I really mean is "strict alternate picking." When you use strict alternate picking, you are adhering to two basic rules:
1. Every downstroke is followed by an upstroke.
2. Every upstroke is followed by a downstroke.
In addition, I am primarily referring to the use of alternate picking in soloing and single-note playing. Feel free to use which ever method you like when playing rhythm parts.
The 5 Main Problems With Alternate Picking
1. It doesn't use the most efficient motion ALL the time.
Although alternate picking is very efficient in certain situations, there are many times where it becomes cumbersome. A common example occurs with what is known as "Outside The Strings" picking, where the picking pattern is constantly approaching the strings from the outside. This movement is not only a very inefficient way of playing a passage, but it is also very challenging to play at high speeds.
In my years using only alternate picking, I remember spending countless hours working on these types of tricky picking patterns. Although I eventually was able to play them well, it always felt like a struggle compared to other picking patterns. If I had known better, I could have saved myself a lot of time and frustration by using a more effective picking method or invest that time into other areas of my playing.
2. It isn't the fastest way to pick.
This is really a follow-up to the previous point, but it is an important one to be aware of. If a picking pattern is less efficient, not only will you have to work harder to perform it properly, but it will also limit the maximum speed that you will be able to achieve. If one of your objectives is playing at extremely high picking speeds, than alternate picking will do nothing but hold you back from reaching your highest potential.
3. It isn't self-correcting.
A picking pattern is self-correcting when it is inherently able to compensate for:
I. A poor choice of starting direction, or
II. A mistake made by the player.
Alternate picking does neither of these things. If you start with the wrong picking direction or make a mistake part way through a pattern, it could ruin the entire thing. Let's be honest, nobody is perfect. We aren't guitar playing machines, we're all human. Mistakes are going to happen no matter how good your technical abilities. Why not use something that will compensate for that?
In the past, as I worked through scales, sequences, and complex soloing patterns using alternate picking, I had to be extremely careful about the picking direction I started with as well as try to make sure that I maintain the correct picking pattern as I played. What would often happen is I would make a mistake in my picking part way through the pattern and end up unable to complete the part because the picking wouldn't work anymore; I had thrown the entire lick out of alignment with a single mistake.
In addition, as I worked through very challenging passages, I would have to experiment with a variety of different picking patterns in order to find the one that would work. This would often require spending weeks at a time practicing a single variation, only to discover that it was not effective at high-speeds.
4. It creates too many possibilities.
When it comes to choosing which direction to pick the next note, alternate picking relies entirely on what the previous note and doesn't take the coming note into consideration at all. The result is that there are always two possible ways to play the next note; either a downstroke or an upstroke. Because there are always two possibilities that may occur, it means that it will be harder for your hands to become completely consistent with picking as a whole. You always have to decide which direction is coming next.
As an example, play two notes of the 2nd string, followed by one note on the 1st string. If you are using alternate picking, you will have played the note on the 1st string with a downstroke. If we instead play three notes on the 2nd string, that same note on the 1st string is now being played with an upstroke. If it's the exact same note, why should there be two possible ways to play it?
Ideally, what we want is there to be only ONE possible way to play the next note. This eliminates any decisions made by the player and will actually help to make your playing faster, more accurate, and more consistent. This ideal situation would allow you to free your mind from thinking about picking and let you focus on making great music. Sounds like a win-win to me.
5. Poor Movement-to-Note Ratio
When you use alternate picking, every movement of your pick will result in a single note being played. This is a one-to-one ratio of notes produced for movements made; 1 movement produces 1 note. This ratio of 1:1 is extremely inefficient and can be greatly improved. By increasing the average number of notes produced from each movement, the amount of work that needs to be done to play at a specific level will drop significantly. Simply put, it will FEEL easier to play the same parts and become possible to play them faster if that is what you want to do.
Reasons Why Guitarists Mistakenly Stick With Alternate Picking Despite Its Flaws
Now I'm going to go over why so many guitar players stick with alternate picking despite the problems that it imposes. There are five basic categories that you might fall into and I'm familiar with all of them because at one time or another I fell into EACH of them.
Many people simply aren't aware that other methods of picking exist. If this sounds like you, then you may have learned alternate picking from someone else (a teacher, a friend, an article, etc.). This is where I was for a very long time; I had learned alternate picking from my first guitar teacher and had no idea that there were better methods out there.
If you are aware of more effective picking methods and have chosen to stick to alternate picking, it may be because you don't want to spend the time needed to unlearn everything you know about alternate picking. You might even feel that by changing to something else, all the time you spent working on alternate picking was a waste. This is just not true.
When I abandoned alternate picking, I had been using it for the better part of 15 years. I had already invested thousands upon thousands of hours trying to completely master alternate picking and although my picking was very good, I still wasn't completely comfortable using it in a number of different areas. When I decided to make the switch, it took me a month of solid practice to become comfortable with the new method. How was it that I could make the transition so quickly? It was because all of the work that I had put into alternate picking helped to make the transition easier than if I were starting from scratch. Now my playing is faster, more accurate, and feels completely natural; my playing feels effortless, especially when I improvise. Trying to go back to alternate picking actually FEELS wrong.
Famous Guitar Players Use Alternate Picking
Many players fall back to the excuse that if someone famous uses a particular technique, effect, gadget, or tool than that means that they should do the same thing. It is important to remember that just because your guitar heroes do something, it doesn't mean that you should do the same thing; maybe if you light your guitar on fire you can be as good as Jimi. There are great players out there who have achieved amazing levels of ability using alternate picking, but that doesn't remove its inherent problems.
Another side to this is the thought that using anything other than alternate picking is "cheating." I'll respond to this by simply saying, "Is a car a cheater horse?" All I'm asking is that you carefully consider why you are using alternate picking when there are more effective ways out there. Harder doesn't mean better.
The "Nothing Else Sounds Like Alternate Picking" Myth
This is a very common excuse that guitarists give. Their reasoning is that using alternate picking gives their playing a particular sound due to where the downstrokes and upstrokes land in time. They believe that it is primarily the picking direction which attributes the tonal character to the string.
This is complete garbage. The string doesn't "know" what direction the pick is coming from, and from a physical point of view, it doesn't matter what direction you approach from. The only reason alternate picking sounds the way that it does is because people have a tendency to play downstrokes harder compared to their upstrokes. If you put in a little bit of work and learn to control the volume of your upstrokes, you can make them sound indistinguishable from your downstrokes.
Some of you are aware of other picking styles, but have settled with "I'm an alternate picker. It's how I play the guitar." As a guitarist, you need to understand that no single technique or concept defines who you are, or at the very least it shouldn't. What should define you as a player are the musical choices you make; which notes you play, contour, phrasing, attitude, tone, etc. Technical things like picking and fingering should facilitate who you are musically and not dictate it. When you use alternate picking you are severely limiting your musical options and are actually obscuring who you are as a guitarist.
The Choice Is Up to You
Now that you've learned about the problems inherent with alternate picking and have recognized why you may still be use it, you need to decide for yourself how to proceed. It is my hope that you, like I did, decide to abandon alternate picking in favor of a more effective method. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.