Alternate picking is one of the most sought-after guitar skills. Used extensively by players like Yngwie Malmsteen and Buckethead, it’s the ideal way to play intense, lightning-fast runs that sound like no other technique out there. This is the third part of the “Ironclad Guide to Alternate Picking” and the first lesson of the series that will cover string crossing – if you’ve already got single string picking down and know how to practice well, it isn’t necessary to go back and view the other articles in the series.
Most people view “string crossing” as just one technique, when it’s actually made up of numerous different movements and techniques that should each be learned separately; for this reason, I’ve divided the challenge into three separate articles that will each cover one vital piece of the puzzle.
String crossing is the thing that most people find most difficult about shred picking, and for good reason – in the same time as every other note, the pick has to move around three to four times further, meaning it has to move faster but then immediately slow down again to play the next note.
This can mean that string crossing takes much longer to learn than single string picking, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. If you break down the challenge (just like we did with single string licks) then you can actually conquer your string shifting difficulties pretty quickly, especially if you follow the vital practice tips in this article.
In short, don’t get too bogged down with thinking that it has to be difficult because that kind of thinking will only hinder you. Instead, you need to remember that all you are doing is moving your fingers! If you can play something at 60bpm, then you could probably learn to play it at 61bpm, right? Of course! Well then, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to get to 62bpm either. Then 63. 64. 65. 66… and so on. Before you know it you’ll be at 100, then if you can play that fast surely you could learn to play just one bpm faster and go for 101? 102, 103, 104… Then keep building it up. 120, 150… 200…. 250 even! That’s even faster than most metronomes go. But if you keep building up, one bpm at a time, there’s clear evidence that you can get there. Focus, and keep focusing, and the sky’s the limit.
The Ultimate Method
It’s time to discuss which practice approach is better: the inside/outside picking Troy Stetina crew or the pick slanting Troy Grady guys (what is it with all these Troy’s inventing new alternate picking methods?). First, just a quick explanation of what each approach involves.
Play the following two examples, paying particular attention to the picking:
Notice how in the first one, your pick jumps from the outside of one string to the outside of the other and back again. This kind of string change is called “outside” picking.
Then, in the second example, your pick is in between the strings and picks them from there. This is called “inside” picking.
Play each example to get a feel for how your hand moves in each case, and so you can recognise inside and outside picking in your licks. The classic way to learn alternate picking string shifts is to learn outside picking and then inside picking, and then combine the two. The two movements feel different, so it makes sense to learn them separately, right? Correct, so that’s what most people did. However, recently a new way of breaking down string crossing came to prominence…
This first reached the mainstream with Troy Grady’s “Cracking the Code” series. The idea is that you slant your pick either up or down to make certain string changes far easier, and then switch between the different slanting directions as needed.
First, let’s get a feel for “upward” pick slanting. This is where the point of the pick is closer to the ceiling than the part you hold, so the pick is literally slanted upwards. This means that when you do a downstroke, your pick gets buried between the strings making it very difficult to lift it up and change strings. However, the advantage is that after every upstroke the pick is left hovering above the strings meaning that you can easily switch strings after upstrokes without having to “jump” the pick upwards and over another string. This makes upwards pick slanting ideal for licks where the first note after every string shift is a downstroke, like four or six note per string patterns that start on downstrokes.
Play the following example over a few times with the upwards pick slant to get a feel for it:
3 D U D U
Downwards pick slanting is simply the opposite – where the point of the pick is closer to the floor than the other end. This means that your pick gets buried between the strings after upstrokes, but after every downstroke the pick is lifted up above the strings making it very easy to do the string shift. This makes it good for licks where the last note before a string shift is a downstroke and the first note on a new string is an upstroke (making it the opposite to upwards slanting in terms of usage).
The following example will give you a feel for downwards pick slanting:
4 D U D U
By learning these two slanting methods and practicing them individually before combining the two and learning to switch between them without hesitation, you’ll develop a superb string crossing technique that will give you complete freedom of what to play. You’ll be able to play any lick you can imagine – and even some you can’t!
You can of course get great results by following the inside/outside picking philosophy, but pick slanting tends to reduce the amount of movement involved and in my experience it produces better results.
Most people who practice picking do eventually develop a pick slanting technique without realising it, but many don’t – explaining why some people seem to learn fast picking in much less time than others. By focusing on this specific motion, you can guarantee that you will learn to pick fast – as long as you stay dedicated and hit the challenge with enough force!
In this first lesson we’re going to focus on upwards pick slanting to start you off, before spending the next lesson on downward slanting and the one after that learning how to combine the two to achieve ultimate picking freedom.
String Changing Secrets
Before getting on to the licks, we’re going to cover some vital pieces of info that’ll help you to progress faster.
The first “secret” is that it’s not just the string change itself that makes a lick difficult – it’s also dependent on the amount of time between each string change. If a lick has only two notes on each string before changing to a new string, for example, it will be far more difficult to play fast than a lick that has six or eight notes between each string change. This is because in the second lick you have more “run up time”.
Let me explain this concept. Imagine were standing still on the edge of a large puddle and suddenly someone shouted “JUMP!” and you had to jump across the puddle immediately. Chances are you’d get a bit wet! However, if you had more time to prepare, you could take off your bag, take a run up and you’d be much more likely to make it across and stay dry. This is because you have more time to prepare – and the same idea applies to picking.
When there is more time between each string change, your subconscious mind has more time to prepare itself and regroup ready for the new movement. This makes licks with more time between the changes easier to play fast, making them great for beginners. However, there is a disadvantage to this too – if the string changes are less frequent then you’ll do fewer repetitions of the string crossing movement for each minute you spend practicing meaning that if you only ever practice the easier licks (ones with fewer string changes) you’ll take ages to actually get the movement fast!
This is a bit of a dilemma, but there is an easy solution – separate your licks from your exercises. By this I mean that your exercises are the things you play to practice the movement (i.e. the licks with string changes every 2-3 notes) and the licks are the things that are easier to play fast (so the licks with less frequent string changes) that you play in real song situations.
When you sit down to practice your alternate picking technique, play your exercises most of the time because you’ll do more repetitions of the string crossing movement and thus get better at it in less time. Then, spend just a little bit of time playing licks that have fewer string changes to get them under your fingers, and you’ll be able to play them much faster than if you didn’t practice the more difficult ones first.
Let me give you an example to explain this more clearly. Let’s say I want to learn the following cool “upwards pick slanting” lick in B minor:
This has a string change one in every six notes. The string change is the main challenge for the right hand here, so if I wanted to learn that lick I would only spend a little of my practice time on that specific lick – instead, I’d spend most of my time on something like this:
It has far more frequent string changes – 3x more, in fact, because now there’s one every two notes rather than every six. This means that if I practice this lick I’ll get more progress, even if I won’t be able to play it as fast as the first one because the density of string changes would make it more difficult.
The concept here is that you use the more string-change-dense licks as “tools” to help you learn the easier licks faster. I hope this makes sense, but if it doesn’t leave a comment and I’ll see if I can explain it better!
The Second Vital Secret
Another important tip to keep in mind is to be careful what you focus your mind on when you practice your string changes. For best results, I’d advise focusing on the last note on the string before a string change, and the first note on the new string. Focus on slanting the pick correctly and make sure that those notes are absolutely perfect.
You’d be surprised how much just focusing on those two notes above the others will help to improve your technique. Look at your picking hand and make sure your notes are played correctly! Once you try this you’ll realise why the “run-up time” concept above works – it gives you more time to regroup your thoughts and focus on the next string change. This is why I’d advise playing the following exercises extremely slowly at first, so you have more time to think about what you’re playing next and get your technique perfect.
I’ll start you off with a few exercises with loads of string changes in them so you can get used to the string change motion and get in plenty of repetitions. Then, when you move on to the cool licks below, they’ll seem much easier since there are fewer string changes, so getting them fast shouldn’t be too difficult.
Start every exercise on a downstroke and alternate consistently, unless otherwise noted.
The first one is played with muted strings. This makes it very easy to hear how clean and precise you are, so I’d recommend continually coming back to this one even when you’ve got your string changes down just to make sure you’re still playing cleanly.
1. D U D U
This next one combines legato with picking to form a cool major arpeggio. The legato gives your picking hand time to reform and reposition, and also gives your brain a rest so it can focus on the next lot of picked notes. The main difficulty here is keeping your timing even between the picked notes and the pull-off, so start slowly and make sure to use a metronome consistently. Although this is in the “exercises” section due to how close the string changes are to each other (there’s only one note between each one), the legato note actually makes it pretty easy to get fast.
2. D U D U
This third exercise uses an E minor pentatonic scale. You could try taking it up each of the positions on the neck, too if you like – similar to what we did in the previous lesson.
3. D U D U
This next exercise shows how you could start to change positions make it more interesting:
4. D U D U D U D U
The fifth exercise involves a pull-off meaning you can completely focus your picking hand on just the string change and slanting, with no extra right hand movements as distractions. Due to the fact that only one in every three notes is a pull-off, it actually sounds as if every note is picked at high speeds! This is similar to exercise 2 in that it could just as easily be placed in the “licks” section – although the string changes are very frequent, the legato reduces the challenge and makes it pretty easy to get up to speed.
5. D U D U
Time for Some Cool Licks
Once you’ve practiced the exercises above for a little while, the upwards pick slant should be feeling much more natural. Once you’ve gotten to the stage where you don’t have to even think about the slant (it’s just automatic), then you’re ready for the following licks. It can take a while to get them up to speed so remember to switch back and forth between these licks and the exercises above to get fast progress.
This first lick involves a typical classical-style sequence pattern that is taken between the B and E strings.
The next one shows how a very similar picking pattern can be used for a different lick, giving you an idea of how versatile upwards pick slanting is (it can be used for any lick where there are an even number of notes per string).
Now we’re going to see how this concept can be applied across three strings. Remember to keep everything clean and precise, and don’t sacrifice accuracy for speed.
How about applying the concept to a D minor pentatonic scale run?
The True Uses of Upwards Pick Slanting
Hopefully by now you can see just how much you can do with upwards pick slanting. If you’ve got your single string picking up to speed, you shouldn’t have too much trouble learning these licks. Next time you come across a new shred lick you want to learn, see if you could use upwards pick slanting to play it. Could you rearrange the notes somehow to get the same sound but keep an even number of notes on each string? I’ll give an example below:
Say I wanted to play the following lick:
1 D U D U D U
Now, if you try to play this with upwards pick slanting you’ll find that your pick gets buried between the strings after the third note, due to the fact that it’s a downstroke. Hmm…. What if we started on an upstroke, then?
2 U D U D U D
Yay – much easier… for the first time round. Then when we try to repeat the lick again we’re going to have problems because we’re having to change strings after a downstroke again. We could of course learn to play this lick using a combo of downward pick slanting and upward pick slanting, but if you just want to use upwards slanting (and not learn the other skill just yet) there is still another solution – rearrange the notes. See the next example:
3 D U D U D U D U D U D U
Notice how the seventeenth fret of the D string is the same pitch as the twelfth fret of the G string, so the lick still sounds the same, but this time all of our string changes are happening after downstrokes, so we can use upwards pick slanting for every single one! The left hand pattern is a little bit more awkward, but it’s not anything that is overly difficult.
Hopefully this example has shown you that upwards pick slanting is incredibly versatile, and that you don’t have to think you’re limited if it’s the only thing you learn. However, next lesson we’ll be covering how to learn downward pick slanting and apply it to loads of cool licks! Don’t miss it.
About The Author
Tom has been a rock guitarist for over a decade and shares his wealth of experience and knowledge through his UK-based blog TomGuitar (previously Guitar Made Easy). Head over there now for cool lessons, great reviews and awesome articles!