Alternate Vs. Directional Picking

There is a common argument in the guitar playing community on whether one should learn to play using alternate picking or directional.

logo
Ultimate Guitar
0

There is a somewhat common argument in the guitar playing community on whether one should learn to play using alternate picking (strict up/down strokes all the time) or directional (also referred to as economy or sweep picking).

Just to be clear, let me explain what I mean when I say directional picking. If you were to play a major scale using 3 notes per string, directional picking would call for you to play down/up/down on the first string followed by DOWN/up/down on the next (higher in pitch) string, followed by DOWN/up/down again on the next higher string and so on. As you see 2 down strokes are performed consecutively when changing strings. If strict alternate picking was to be used, the player would pick down/up/down all the way through the scale. If you were to descend the scale using directional picking, you would play up/down/up, UP/down/up, UP/down/up and so on. Again notice that when you cross strings you perform 2 of the same pick strokes in a row.

Now that we are clear on what both terms mean, let us look at why some people choose to discredit the value of directional picking. I have seen comments such as: Alternate picking will leave you more free when improvising because you will not have to limit yourself to prearranged patterns since the picking motion is always down/up/down or Directional picking is not as powerful and it distorts the rhythm and precision that can be obtained by strict alternate picking.

Let's examine the above points more closely. The first argument was that strict alternate picking leaves you more free when improvising since the motions become automatic. Well the reason why the motions feel automatic is because your muscles remember anything they do enough times and are able to automatically execute whatever they have been trained to do. If you were to take the trouble to relearn your picking technique, the new motions will eventually become so ingrained in the muscle memory that they will become natural as well.

Directional picking when approached correctly is simply the most logical way to pick. In school we were taught that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. With directional picking we use the straight line approach to minimize the motion that is needed to get to the next required note. When you see the string you are going to play next, you go directly to it (hence the name for the technique). There is no need to memorize predetermined picking patterns. Once you master the technique, you will be able to execute extremely fast lines without much thinking at all. The result? Since less motion is required for the pick to travel to the same destination brings greater speed, accuracy and flow.

Moreover, with the extra motion that is involved with alternate picking (that is required to cross over the string to maintain the constant down/up/down motion of the hand) puts extra strain on the muscles and makes you more likely to get injured. Why would anybody want to compromise their own playing ability?

Moving right along, lets look at the second argument. Some people claim that directional picking disrupts the rhythm and the precision (articulation) obtained by alternate picking. Interesting. When one takes a look at guitarists such as Tom Hess, Mike Walsh, George Bellas, Ney Mello, Chris Kalkbrenner, Frank Gambale or Jimmy Bruno (all extremely high caliber virtuoso players who use directional picking), it is obvious that their playing is always incredibly metrical and precise with no loss of rhythmic control whatsoever. The reason why players tend to believe the argument against directional picking is because the technique can be tricky to learn correctly, but once mastered results in much greater ease of playing and greater speed. The challenge of directional picking lies in training the forearm stability to correctly stop the pick when needed. This requires a great deal of strength of the stabilizing muscles of the forearm which must be developed through special training. Most players never take the time to master the technique properly and this leads to loss of control in playing. When I say that this technique is more efficient than alternate picking I am not saying that it is much easier to learn. The point that I am trying to make is that this technique gives you greater results per amount of time spent (then alternate picking). As with anything, I cannot overemphasize the need for a great teacher who can explain and teach the technique well.

Another common argument is that if the vast majority of guitar virtuosos such as Rusty Cooley, John Petrucci and Paul Gilbert and Michael Angelo use alternate picking with such success why would anyone bother learning directional picking?. When looking at these players it immediately becomes obvious that alternate picking can be and is being used with tremendous results. So what is going on here? I am not discrediting alternate picking. It is obvious that it can bring great results. However it takes a LONGER time to master alternate picking than it does directional picking due to excess movement that the technique requires. Moreover, it is not as ergonomically efficient thus increasing the risk of possible injury. However it is entirely possible to become equally fast using both techniques. The question is: how much time do you wish to spend developing your technique?

Now I can hear people ask: then why do the majority of guitar players use alternate picking if it is less economical? This is a valid question and I think that the reason for this is because of certain traditions and conventions that have been followed in guitar playing through the years. However, as in any other science (and guitar technique is a science that obeys the laws of physics- this is of course entirely different from the art of making music) certain advancements are continually being made. The discovery of directional picking proves that. It is already being used by players with great success. Guitar technique is still in its early stages of development (do you realize that electric guitar is less than 100 old?) therefore it is only natural that new discoveries in areas such as technique will occur.

Speaking from personal experience, I actually (when I first began playing) started out intuitively using directional picking because I was self taught for the first year that I played. When I got my first teacher, he told me that I was picking "incorrectly" and I switched to alternate picking for about two years. Then when I realized the advantage of directional picking I switched my technique again (for the second time) and now I use directional picking almost all of the time with great success. I can also testify to the fact that directional picking felt very natural to me when I first learned it on my own, and later alternate picking felt just as natural when I changed my technique for the first time. Now that I have changed to directional picking for the second time it feels more natural than ever.

Hopefully this article opened up your eyes to a new technique that you may not have considered trying out before.

You can contact me at mike@mikephilippov.com I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. I reply to all e-mails.

If you are interested in learning new ways of thinking about music and taking your playing to the next level, check out: The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist

2007 Mike Philippov All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Mike Philippov is a solo guitarist, music composer and instructor. He teaches private guitar lessons in Indianapolis Indiana. He has published his instructional articles on many guitar websites that are read by thousands of guitar students worldwide. His music was performed at recitals held at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Mike has also organized and taught several guitar workshops including one that was held at Oak Brook Academy of Music and Art in Chicago IL. Mike is also a co-author of an instructional book: The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist. Currently Mike is busy working on several projects including composing and recording a solo CD featuring music in the neo-classical and progressive rock styles as well as more instructional products that are in the works at this time. Please visit mikephilippov.com and sign up for a free newsletter which is sent out periodically and contains helpful tips and advice for guitar players

E-mail Mike at: mike@mikephilippov.com

165 comments sorted by best / new / date

    RiffD
    Ah, now it makes sense. The "never two down, never two up" did it for me. Thanks!
    kirbyrocknroll
    Basically...alternate picking= up, down, up, down, etc. Economy=you go in whatever direction the next string is, and alternate pick if you are hitting the same string more than once. Checked.
    wasp2020
    Under_Score247 wrote: i only sweep .. not bothered to learn directional picking, its like starting guitar over again :O
    Uh, what? Sweeping is a technique used when all notes are on adjacent strings, this lesson just deals with general picking lines. In fact, sweeping is just another form of Directional Picking, because you're using more then 1 down/upstrokes in a row. And this reminds me of Steve Morse, an incredible alternate picker...everyone look up "Tumeni Notes" by him. Alternate picked "sweeps"!
    gynther flynt
    yes, finally someone has said it well enough to silence the haters! economy picking is simply the best way when thinking logically.
    mpeskett
    Dead_Guitarist wrote: Virtuoso describes technical ability. If you play someone else's music you are still a virtuoso if it's complicated enough. The real talent lies in writing - anyone can become great at the gutiar with practice, but improv (and not just scalic runs, but melodic and tasteful stuff) and writing decent songs will always be much harder and more respected.
    Oh yeah, you're right there, I didn't know virtuoso described technical ability only, of which Rusty Cooley is extremely proficient in. As for musicality though, not my cup of tea. Plus I haven't heard him play anything very rhythmically challenging.
    Cheesepuff
    kendog1327 wrote: i use both types of picking as i have found they both work well in certain passages,,why not learn both so you have more options in your arsenal??
    Cheesepuff wrote: Eventually you will come across a lick you can't do with your picking style. So learn both.
    Jackolas wrote: Why not do both when needed; best of both worlds.
    MESAexplorer
    Someone should post a lick that is alternate picked, and one that is economy picked to show how you need to know how to use either technique to improve yourself. Personally, I use whatever I can get the most flow out of...unless I want an akward type of sound a la buckethead.
    WolfenGuitarist
    I am Alternate, and I can play any every tab I've come across, after reading this article (good job on it too!) I actually went and hunted down some tabs that had details saying that economy picking would help. Sorry guys but there is no differance, I used guitar pro with the correct tempo and tempo changes to replicate the speed of the song in all areas, which were designed for economy picking, but I had NO trouble playing any of the song. Neither of these techniques are better/more efficient then the other, do what feels best.
    the_bi99man
    I agree to just do what feels best. Personally, though: I'm completely self-taught. Never had a lessen in my life for guitar or bass, both of which I play. When playing with a pick (I like a lot of finger picking on both guitar and bass -and slap-bass, too) I use "economy picking", although I never knew that it even had a name until recently. I tried using strict alternate picking once, and switching strings on the up-beat (picking "down/up/down" on the low E string, followed by "up/down..." on the A) felt terrible. After doing it for a while, my wrist popped on one of the string changes, and then started hurting really bad, so I decided that alternate picking is definitely not for me.
    mikehislop
    Honestly i think he means to say that either you pick down up down up.... or down down down. Unless you just do a mess of down down up up up up down to make it easier to play. Basically up down up down is the best way to play though because you can play faster and have better fourm. Also this applies to strums that are usally a down strum comes on a whole beat and an up strum is on a 1/2 beat.
    RockerPseudonym
    You know what's better than having to choose which style to use exclusively? Use both as the situation requires! Alt picking is superior in speedy passages, as was explained, economy picking is good for sweeps, or if you want to change the time signature between licks. You could always just downpick...a lot, until you get a Popeye arm...
    docinder
    i use both, it really depends on the song i am playing. i cant just use one, i have grown to love both. one should use both styles to better there playing. i have been playing for many years, and i started with alternate picking, and i didnt take lessons until my third year.
    rik231
    The idea is to use both forms of picking (and others such as chicken picking) where it is required or where it makes life easier for the musician. Simple. Why stick to one method? thats like learning hammer ons and not bothering to learn pull-offs! very silly and leaves you very limited with what you can do.
    LDZ
    It is about the music . A downstroke is naturally a little stronger than an upstroke so alternate picking may be better at creating emphasis on the beat (and so reducing emphasis on the off-beat). Of course there are times when strict alternation is not followed; of course
    lightning
    passages should be done in the most efficient way possible. Ease of playing is important but my thought is that a technical choice should be based on a musical choice. What if you are never worried about these emphasis/dynamic issues? While these nuances may not be meangingful at all times, I believe you may be missing something in your music if you don't consider them at all. Technique serves the music.
    the piper
    Why wouldn't you just use both? I don't see why you would have to argue about it, it can only help you if you use both picking styles.
    MorbidVentress
    Yngwie Malmsteen uses Economy and Sweep picking all the time and he is the greatest guitarist to have ever graced the earth... I never even used a pick until this year and its actually slowed my play down.
    RockerPseudonym wrote: just downpick...a lot, until you get a Popeye arm...
    Masturbation is great for the picking arm, so is air guitaring to DragonForce and Malmsteen. I also find, that learning the piano/keyboard helps with the fretting hand rather well.
    MorbidVentress
    Kailoq wrote: Because there are some things which are near impossible to play without a pick (vica verca is true too ofcourse). On top of that there are certain sounds that are easier to get with a plectrum (like artificial harmonics).
    Artificial Harmonics are easier without a plec.
    ZivonHunter
    InsomniaRocks wrote: Kailoq : ZivonHunter wrote: Here's a better idea, rather than argue about this, why not try raking and plucking instead? It's easier, and picks just get in the way. Because there are some things which are near impossible to play without a pick (vica verca is true too ofcourse). On top of that there are certain sounds that are easier to get with a plectrum (like artificial harmonics). He was being sarcastic >P
    If you're thinking I was being sarcastic, I wasn't. I'm the kind of person who won't use anything extra to play a guitar(other than an amp if it's an electric) unless it's something not normally used.
    Jawshuwa
    mpeskett wrote: I certainly differ from you on the term "virtuoso". To me, Rusty Cooley is far from virtuoso. All he does, is play consistent 16th and 16th note triplets and perhaps even 32nd notes very fast. There's nothing complicated about what he is doing, technique wise and rhythmically. He just plays it very fast. John Petrucci on the other hand is someone I would call a virtuose as he is very comfortable playing odd rhythms and in odd time signatures, and creating interesting melodies. Also, John has never said he gets fatigued by alternate picking, I've never heard of that from anyone. I've heard of injuries in the fretting hand but as for the picking hand, never heard about that. I personally use economy picking, I think it just feels nicer and flows better, wheres alternate picking is very metronomic and doesn't really flow which you can hear when listening to John Petrucci and Paul Gilbert. Just my 2 cents.
    The term "virtuoso" gets tossed around carelessly nowadays; it's almost lost its purpose. Cooley plays a lot of fast stuff, yes, a LOT of fast stuff, but he's more than capable of playing slowly with brilliant phrasing and technicality. Regardless, he's a shredder, and in today's standards, just about anyone that's a shredder is a virtuoso. Not my thoughts on it, but generally held to be axiomatic.
    Dead_Guitarist
    Hey as an afterthought I see a lot of stuff posted about "injuries" on this site. Now I have been self-taught up until recently and I play like three hours a night, what's all this injury stuff?! Arthritis n stuff, I take it? What's the best way to avoid this stuff?
    drjeff420
    There is no certain or "best way" to start. What I found works best is to go with the flow of the song. You don't learn how to play guitar in one day. It comes naturally with lots of practice. -jeff
    penner
    To me, alternate picking seems like an expert technique and directional is more intermediate. Beginners just downstroke. I wouldn't consider sweep picking either directional or alternate in the sense that you're only downstroking for a reason, to get a certain sound. I feel alternate picking is the way to go. I feel you have a broader range this way.
    ZootCst
    The only correct way is to be able to do either one depending on what the situation calls for.
    RockerPseudonym
    CORT noob wrote: Just do the easiest natural way. I don't even think about my picking.
    I agree with the above statement. I alternate pick through a speedy passage, or where it's of greatest convenience, but it's also really cool to do an altpick run, and then downpick a couple times if you're hitting the same note 2 or 3 times, directional/economy picking doesn't necessitate(sp?) a sweep
    guynaa
    don't forget that both techniques dont sound the same (economy is a little lighter sounding) and that not all patterns are executable on economy (for example 2 notes per string)
    bassetrox
    This column is a little bit too biased for my liking. A guy on a jazz forum once said: If you are learning directional picking, you must learn it exclusively, and only use this method until it is mastered What do people think of that?
    bassetrox
    And2001PT wrote: You don't actually have muscles in your hands or wrists
    WHAAAT? Lmao. I understand your point, but changing human anatomy to justify it is going a bit far! Plus many people (eric johnson etc) acheive speed and musical flow through circle picking, which relies mainly on the usew of the thumb.
    buddastrat wrote: Aggressive picking can only be accomplished with alt. picking. I've never heard anyone use economy picking and sound like Mr. Chainsaw Gilbert.
    Thats a good point, the article didnt really cover the differences in sound produced. Directional is more more flowing and less aggressive.
    kendog1327
    i use both types of picking as i have found they both work well in certain passages,,why not learn both so you have more options in your arsenal??
    Dead_Guitarist
    Virtuoso describes technical ability. If you play someone else's music you are still a virtuoso if it's complicated enough. The real talent lies in writing - anyone can become great at the gutiar with practice, but improv (and not just scalic runs, but melodic and tasteful stuff) and writing decent songs will always be much harder and more respected.
    lespaulfromhell
    excellent article! I don't think picking a certain way should be forced on anyone, whatever is most natural to the player should be how they pick. I happen to use directional picking, mostly because taking time to learn STRICT alternate picking was something I didn't care for. I have to say I do prefer this method of picking, because, IMO, it seems more logical, and it just feels more natural
    InsomniaRocks
    Everyone's been saying it, but I have to say it too...LEARN BOTH SWEEP AND ALTERNATE PICKING! And sorry to be biased, but I like to use alternate picking as my general method, and whip out sweep picking for fast licks, like arpeggios for example. I think alternate picking is the more solid of the two, but any guitarist who wants to be seriously good should aim at getting a good grip on both techniques. They are both hard to MASTER, just like anything is hard to master, (and i most definately havent yet), but do you need to be a ****ing virtuoso by the end of this month? Give it time...it can take years.
    pl0x
    Alternate, i started learning from directional but i realised i would eventually hit a brick wall where i couldn't go any further so start alternate asyou can do more things
    Tasman
    Yeah this isn't a very god article, its certainly not objective, yeah good idea lets focus on the good of the directional and forget about alternate is pretty much what you're saying
    InsomniaRocks
    ZivonHunter : InsomniaRocks wrote: Kailoq : ZivonHunter wrote: Here's a better idea, rather than argue about this, why not try raking and plucking instead? It's easier, and picks just get in the way. Because there are some things which are near impossible to play without a pick (vica verca is true too ofcourse). On top of that there are certain sounds that are easier to get with a plectrum (like artificial harmonics). He was being sarcastic >P If you're thinking I was being sarcastic, I wasn't. I'm the kind of person who won't use anything extra to play a guitar(other than an amp if it's an electric) unless it's something not normally used.
    Ew never mind then. I agree that playing with your fingers is great, and sometimes preferable, but I am a huge fan of the pick. And what about hybrid picking? if you use all three free fingers it is almost as unlimited as with straight finger picking. I'm the kind of person who thinks that if you master hybrid picking, you can get almost the same sort of feel as with finger picking, but with the added bonus of a pick for extra speed. Oh and try playing some dick dale or dragonforce without a pick .
    Chiefwiddler
    When you reach a decent level of accomplishment at playing, your picking hand will automatically use the route of greatest ease to arrive at the desired string. If you have to think about it while you are playing, what chance do you have when jamming spontaneously?
    Fryer Mike
    Ok, this topic has really strayed from its original subject... The idea that a person can only pick one way is not that great... first of all, if you get too comfortable with one of the picking types, you will lose skill in another. That is a fact. But if you even them out, then you will be pretty awesome at all of them over time. Also, if you were to use one type of picking too pften, it becomes ALOT harder to correct your mistakes quickly, and knowing several types of picking can really make that better too.... i dont know what im talking about anymore... Mike
    Cannibalkyle16
    rusrec00 wrote: Fargalas wrote: I'm sorry, but this article is terrible. ..... So you can pick who you listen to. The fastest player in the world, or Mike Philippov. Blah blah blah (I turned you off after the your initial pummeling began) Why is this board filled with so many people like this? I will listen to someone who is trying to help others over someone who does nothing but throw out insults and bash people who are trying to contribute and make UG a better forum. So fartglass if you know so much, then write a friken column about it Member profile for Fargalas: Status: UG Newbie [ ? ] Title: UG's resident Fargalas Contributions: [ 0 total ] Tabs: [ 0 ] Reviews: [ 0 ] Columns: [ 0 ] Lessons: [ 0 ] News: [ 0 ] Posts in forum: [ 283 ] Nope....no columns, no reviews, no news, no lessons...but plenty of trash talkin in the forums. Give the guy a break hes tryin to help
    Probably because he has a life you idiot
    NosferatuZodd09
    I taught myself to downstroke everything ish... I downstroke eight notes up to 200 BPM... sometimes faster... I didnt alternate pick ever kinda... cause when I was learning I was never really required to alternate pick cause it wasnt fast enough lol... my body learned that way... X_X... usually my rule's downstroke anything that is fast as eights at 200bpm... anything as fast or faster than triplet 8ths at 200bpm I alternate pick X_x... cause it's the speed that dtrives me to use either technique
    jimmypagerules!
    ive invented a new way of picking, instead of the two explained, its easy, i shred anything. seriously, faster than batio, u wudnt believe it, ive been plasying guitar for 7 months only, i also have a new left hand tech, i call it optimum shred, i have no need to pick, my legato is so amazing, i can get oppick sounds, my fingers are so strong, my hammer ons and [pull offs do it for me. back to my right hand, if u hold the pick between index and pinky, and use ur other fingers to rest on the guitar, and pick as close top ur left hand as posssible, practise this, and you may be able 2 play half as fast as me. michaelangelo, cooley, angus young, lane, romeo . . . theyre nothing on me . . . i will be a guitar god
    Power Driven
    is it just me or should this aricle be called Directional Picking Over Altenate Picking, i mean if your going to make an article like this dont make it so one sided and biased, this is the worst article i have ever read trying to "discuss" 2 different topics. its just not good.
    Power Driven
    and as to the comments about sweep picking and economy picking. they ARE two different techniques, they have some similarities but if you can economy pick doesn't mean you can sweep pick, as far as I'm concerned its the hardest technique to master. i give this article a -5