5 Reasons Why Alternate Picking Sucks

Learn 5 reasons why using strict alternate picking will do nothing but hold you back from reaching your highest potential on the guitar. Plus, learn why most people mistakenly stick with alternate picking despite its flaws.

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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.

Ignorance

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.

Complacency

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.

Pride

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.

93 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Tiago Sa
    Just do what I do and use the technique that fits the situation the most. Alternate picking, downstroke, economy picking, it's all words. Using something because you THINK is best is ALWAYS wrong. Use something because you FEEL is best. Simple as that. And don't be a dick, always listen to players that know more than you. You DON'T know better.
    d4rkstorn
    This. This x 9000. I think Graehme here needs to play more: He needs to play so much that he no longer *thinks* about his picking hand. I mean seriously. When i play something, i don't suddenly go "oh i'm gonna play that part using economy picking. OH and now comes a few down strokes, and then a bunch of alternative picking." That's ridiculous: I haven't ever put THAT much thought into playing a musical instrument. I don't ever think about technique. I don't think about my picking hand. Hell, 99% of the time i don't even think in terms of notes, scales, chords etc: I think of a sound, an actual sound. And that particular sound comes out of the instrument. This same applies to my picking hand: I think sound; And to achieve a sound my hand "knows" how to do it without me having to think about it. This isn't bullshitting you but actual science: Our body remembers. Often time better than our mind. I play by feeling alone: That is how my picking hand operates. If yours does not, then you still have a long way to go: People don't play guitar using theory. The theory is there to give you *ideas* on how to play. It doesn't play the actual instruments. That being said: I use sweep picking, alternative picking, plain downpicking, economy picking, legato, even all 5 of my right hand fingers. And i mix them up completely. My hand performs the fastest, most comfortable and most economic picking operation without me having to think about it. By using "all" the techniques, i use none of them: I simply move my hand and sound comes out. And here's for the "credentials." I've played guitar(and other instruments) 25 years, every single day, and only for my own entertainment. Judging from the way he uses terms and gives out his opinions, i estimate that Graehme here has played less than 5.
    GraehmeFloyd
    So what should I do if what the knowledgeable people are saying doesn't FEEL right to me? Doesn't that contradict your advice of always following them? Feeling is bullshit. It is subjective and can be changed, and pretty easily I might add. What feels wrong today can feel like second nature tomorrow, that is the nature of practicing and growing as a player. Whether I KNOW better or not doesn't remove the problems that I presented in this article. They are a fact when it comes to strict alternate picking.
    PnT
    1. It doesn't use the most efficient motion ALL the time. Holy shit, alt picking isn't perfect! That must mean it sucks!
    Tiago Sa
    Also, as a comparison point, one of the most awesome alternate pickers of all time, John Petrucci (at least one of the fastest) doesn't use alternate picking all the time. He uses a hybrid of alternate and hybrid picking, AND legato on fast runs, with, get this, different picking frequencies depending on the string, to get the best tone out of each one. THAT's what proper guitar players do, they listen, and they feel the guitar.
    acrtl1000s
    fact: John Petrucci is the greatest guitarist ever. Past, present, and future. He doesn't even use a pick anymore. He has a direct line to the string force and uses only his mind to pick. The picking motion is just for show.
    NateCochrane93
    why is he the greatest? cause YOU think so? I forgot the part where music was subjective. fact: john pertrucci can sweep tap fact:i can probably write a better melody. (flame me)
    crazysam23_Atax
    @Nate: Ever hear Chuck Norris jokes? acrtl is making a "Chuck Norris" joke Petrucci specific here. Quite clever really.
    acrtl1000s
    That was the intention lol. I am not a great guitarist, in fact alternate picking is the most advanced technique I can struggle through. It's a fantastic technique, but not perfect for every situation.
    acrtl1000s
    But your melody won't literally melt my face. Tosin Abasi is also on par with his majesty Petrucci. So say we all.
    NateCochrane93
    how do u know. have u ever heard my playing? no. as I have never heard yours. calling anyone the greatest guitarist ever is such a load of crap
    cotlodjimmy
    But the thousands of fans of Dream Theater/Petrucci have heard him. Sadly I can not same the same for you. The album sales tours magazine articles etc deffinatly rank him at the highest level.
    Fuzorz
    It's an interesting opinion, but a bit silly since the author doesn't offer any different method explaining why its better.
    GraehmeFloyd
    The intention of the article was to explain the problems with alternate picking NOT to give you a solution. I'll leave that up to you. The solution that I have been taught to use overcomes all five of the problems that I highlighted in this article.
    juako.071
    I think it's all about comfort...
    GraehmeFloyd
    Comfort is such a subjective thing. When you started playing the guitar it didn't feel comfortable because you'd never done it before. After you spent some time working with it, it got more and more comfortable. To make an objective choice, you have to compare methods side-by-side. Once they have both been trained equally you can decide which to use. For me, alternate picking required more effort compared to my chosen way of playing. Even after having only spent a year of so on it compared to the 15 years of alternate picking, it still feels more comfortable.
    MeritGamer
    What an awful article. What the previous poster said "Do what feels and sounds right". To limit your ability because it's not optimal is just silly. Different attack, sound and viability for the lick. Need I say more?
    GraehmeFloyd
    I agree that certain approached can enforce a limit on what you play, but I can assure you that there are better approaches to picking that DON'T limit what you can play.
    qrEE
    1)alternate picking is good 2)you suck 3)I'm not going to put much thought into this response because you didn't put much thought into this article.
    StewieSwan
    Author should have included a video of them playing lightning fast and accurate to illustrate their point. Wonder why they didn't...
    zObiPhiOn
    Also, upstrokes do not sound like downstrokes. If they do you're either a robot or someone who's spent ageeees working on getting them to sound identical.
    rcm93
    Who the **** wrote this garbage? Ever since i switched to strict alternative picking my playing has improved drastically.
    GraehmeFloyd
    If you want to think about in terms of gears, downstrokes would be like 1st gear and alternate picking is like 2nd. What would your playing be like if you could transition into a 3rd?
    somies
    im simply amazed of how a drunk person can write with such clarity
    steve parry
    So what would you recommend using to compensate for alternate picking as an alternative?
    pAWNlol
    decent concept, but severely lacking. 1 he didnt mention any pros of it 2 he was EXTREMELY ambiguous with his examples 3 he didnt offer any alternatives. i wanted to like this, but it crashed terribly
    KampfOrange
    Reminds me of "The fox and the grapes". What are the bets that the author sucks at alternate picking?
    GraehmeFloyd
    This is a video of band I played with for a few years and was recorded BEFORE I stopped using strict alternate picking. What do you think?
    bornindarknesst
    Theres nothing fast, hard or challenging in that song or anything that really requires alternate picking..gotta say though it is a decent song. I just wish you'd offer alternatives and say why havingoptions is a bad thing.
    GraehmeFloyd
    Well, I'm glad to see that I've touched some sore spots with people. That was the whole point of this article. So many people will dogmatically stick to a specific way of doing things even if there are problems with the method. I want to make it very clear that what I intended to do with this article was NOT to try and tell you what you should use, but instead bring to light problems that I have encountered in using strict alternate picking for 15 years. For those of you who want to stick to alternate picking, don't let me stop you from doing so. Just know that when you run into situations where you struggle to use it, there are better ways out there.
    Andrew32459
    The article is an ultimate bullshit since the author hasn't offer any proper replacement for alternate picking (if it ever exists).
    Jimmy_Page
    5 reason why the author sucks: 1 • You write this piece of sh!t 2 • Repeat Nº 1 four more times Seriously, what kind of "lesson" is this? C'mon, this is just crap.
    Roarz
    maybe i could believe this more if there was a video showing what he means rather then text, becuase its very easy to write things, but showing practical examples.. hmm..
    nut427006
    I know one of the guitar player that use alternate picking most of the time Al Di Meola and he's one hell of a beast
    pnkr0cker
    I pretty much strictly do alt picking because it just happened. I wasn't told to do it, and I wasn't trying to play like someone else. It just felt more natural than straight downstrokes...
    migs dmax
    The way you pick depends on the situation. you would not want to alternately pick a riff made for sweeps or vice versa.
    SkepsisMetal
    I actually prefer the more varied dynamic sound of alt picking over straight down picking. Also, lol
    casco18
    Paul Gilbert is responsible for this... No, but seriously, Alternate picking is awesome when is needed, but some patterns will require other picking. I just find stupid saying that alternate picking "sucks", because the fact is that the one that "sucks" is the guitar player that can't tell when to use the best technique.
    belleraphon
    Wow what a ****ing stupid ****ing article!! Only a complete failure at guitar will write garbage like this.
    fanapathy
    OK so what's the point of the article? It doesn't even attempt to suggest a more optimal technique. You might write this article about any technique. "5 reasons why tapping sucks" and whatever. It's completely pointless, they're all useful.
    joeyreece
    Is there anyone that's actually an alternate picking Nazi? Do people even think about it once they've learnt how to do it? People urge you to learn it because it simply is a handy picking technique to have at your disposal. Questioning alternate picking is just so irrelevant and unjustified
    Jimjambanx
    Whatever's comfortable, and whatever fits the situation. Alternate picking an arpeggio? Not very efficient. Alternate picking a lick on one string? very efficient. Not to mention alternate picking gives a different tone to that of other picking styles. Economy picking only really works for 3/6 note per string runs, and legato doesn't give the same tone. This is a really poorly written article, yeah alternate picking isn't the end all be all solution, but it's the most versatile and important picking style there is. I'd also like to mention how you just keep going back to speed, you keep going on how it's not the fastest way. There are more important things than speed you know, and even then, alternate picking is a lot of the time your fastest option anyway.
    GraehmeFloyd
    1. For ONE string, strict alternate picking is the most efficient method. As soon as you add more strings, these 5 issues come into play. 2. I addressed the issues with "tone" in the article and I'm not suggesting that you use legato as a replacement for alternate picking. 3. Speed is a byproduct of the following: accuracy , consistency , efficiency , and control . You can increase ALL of these things by using methods that go beyond alternate picking; economy picking is one example, but there are others. I'm not try to say that speed is the singular goal. If I told you that I could increase the horsepower in your car by 20% with little to no cost to you, would you say no? You don't have to use the increased speed that comes with it, but that extra headroom in power would mean that it is available if ever you needed it. You are expanding your range of playable speeds and making what you normally play even easier to do. This is what I am proposing.
    bornindarknesst
    I think I have to remind you that guitar isnt objective at all. some guitarists are GREAT objectively but have subjectively terrible technique. What most people would consider awful, you might consider amazing.
    GraehmeFloyd
    Let's be clear what our words mean: Objective means WITHOUT bias or preference. Looking at things based on facts and making a decision based on logic while avoiding emotional or personal influences. This is the method used by professionals in the scientific community to come to conclusions. If something is being considered objectively, than theoretically each personal should come to the same conclusion. Subjective means based on someone's preferences or personal experiences. This IS based on emotion or bias and can vary radically from person to person. Each person can come to a completely different outcome because of their own unique perspective. I would suggest that when you consider the technical ability of a player, it should be thought of objectively. However, their musical abilities such as songwriting, performance, creativity, etc. should be considered subjectively. It is certainly possible for someone to have objectively poor technique, but still be a great musician subjectively. But, imagine how much better they could become if they had both.
    zObiPhiOn
    Reading the above comments, I've just remembered it's UG. If it's a troll, well done, you had me there. It's pretty good idea to spread misinformation about guitar, might prevent a few people from getting better than you. I'll post this anyways, cause it's already written down and might help out these people: You can follow a downstroke with another downstroke. Usually you'd be alternating 16th notes, so in one beat you go down up down up. If you don't play the 2nd and 4 sixteenths, that leads to just two downstrokes. This makes alternate picking the easiest way to groove, because contrarily to what you say it actually reduces the possibilities. Either you're playing the 1rst/3rd sixteenths with a downstroke, or the 2nd and 4th with an upstroke. Funk players usually strum constant 16ths. They either mute with the left hand when not playing or do not hit the strings.
    Sethis
    Wow I can't see the reason why this article has so many dislikes. It doesn't aim to offend anyone who uses alternate picking or to imply that you will never get good with it. It just states that if you want maximum efficiency it is not for you.
    offdego
    For a person that talks about being versatile, he should be able to write a different kind of article. I guess everyone should pick different techniques and apply the best way possible. A quote from Miles Davis, ¨don´t play what´s there, play what´s not there¨
    MaggaraMarine
    I use alternate picking when it feels better and I use economy picking when it feels better. I agree that using alternate picking on arpeggiated chords isn't always the best way to play them. I don't think, I just play. The pick motions come naturally. But for example Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. If you are using a pick (I know it's played with fingers but this is just an example), I see no point in alternate picking the open strings. I would use directional picking there. But for example Zakk Wylde style pentatonic runs are easier to alternate pick. At least to me. Alternate picking, sweep picking, economy picking and finger picking are all "correct" techniques. A good guitarist should be able to use all of them. I could write an article about how using a pick sucks. I mean, four fingers should be faster than one finger. But that's not true - fingers work for different kind of things like alternate picking and economy picking does. It depends on the situation what you should use.
    GraehmeFloyd
    I agree with you about the idea of being comfortable with a number of different techniques. It is important for any guitar player to have a set of different tools that they can use for a given situation; much the same way a painter will use different brushes. However, I have found that for myself, I no longer need to consider using strict alternate picking as I have something which can reproduce what it does and also offers more.
    peterpanpixyland
    Thanks GraehmeFloyd. I appreciate articles like this that encourage thinking outside the box. When you've played 40+ years, you get to where despite your improvements, there is no one but yourself who can help solve whatever technical problems remain. You correctly point out what I'd call the "mental momentum" you have to overcome to try something new, and also that there really is no such thing as cheating. Here's another so called "cheat" that I've realized. You DON'T have to pick every damn note! As one who I'll say "attempted" Jazz for many years, too many teachers led me down the bunny trail of abandoning all the tricks of hammer ons and pull offs I'd used in rock playing. Truth is, just like strict alternate picking, its not a bad thing to do for a while but eventually it becomes restrictive. John Scofield, for example, totally opened my eyes about the fallacy of picking every note as a "requirement". A good example there for me is when you are alternate picking some notes on one string and suddenly need to "sweep" pick down several strings. Being able to switch from the alt to the sweep spared me a lot of grief, which I think is one of your points. But another major help (at least to me) is realizing that if I don't pick the last note before the sweep begins, it made it easier for my right hand to change its momentum. The trouble of course is that whole "cheat" mentality. Easier doesn't mean its wrong! Of course like the abandonment of strict alt picking, people will argue endlessly. But sooner or later the individual player must figure out what actually works best for them, and if it means breaking rules or molds, or "cheating" or whatever, so be it. :