Laying a Solid Foundation for Alternate Picking

Ever wondered how to get started learning alternate picking? It all starts with building an impenetrable foundation for speed. Click here to find out how.

Laying a Solid Foundation for Alternate Picking
4

Introduction

This is the second part of the "ironclad guide to alternate picking" (part one)

created for guitar players who want to learn shred picking fast and effectively. Learning to alternate pick fast takes a lot of dedication and effort and it certainly doesn't happen overnight, but stick at it and the results you get may surprise you. Hopefully this six-part guide will give you all of the information you need in order to succeed and pick fast!

Last time we covered some useful practice techniques you can use to accelerate your progress - if you haven't read that article yet then go back and read it (it should be linked on my profile)! It's vital that you understand how to make your practice more effective if you want to learn quickly. Once you've read it you'll have a good understanding of what to do if you want to accelerate your progress, so you can make sure the time you spend practicing isn't wasted.

This time we're going to move on to the foundation for all alternate picking you'll ever do - picking on a single string. This is a skill that, unlike the others we'll cover in future articles, you'll use every single time you play a picking lick. Learning to control your right hand while you pick up and down on a single string will enable you to play far more shred passages than you could before, as well as expanding the freedom you have on your instrument; in short, it's an absolutely vital skill.

We'll start with tremolo picking, which is picking up and down on a single note, before bringing in the left hand and focusing on synchronisation. I'll show you how to make all of the skills immediately useable in your own songs and solos so that all the things you learn are useful and applicable. This helps to keep it fun while also meaning you can keep progressing at a fast rate.

The Number One Reason People Fail

Before we get on to the exercises, I'd like to cover another point that could make the difference between success and failure. You see, as long as you keep repeating a certain pattern of movement, the connections in your brain will continue to get stronger and the movement will continue to get easier. As long as you practice perfectly and ensure that each repetition is relaxed and effortless, all you need to do is keep repeating the motions over and over again, gradually increasing speed (but not so quickly that you make mistakes) until you get to the speed that you want.

So if this is the case, it means that as long as you keep practicing you WILL get fast, no matter how long it takes. So then, why do so many people fall short of their speed goals? Why doesn't everyone who practices in a relaxed and efficient manner get fast?

The reason is that they either give up or move on too soon. They practice the same pattern for a few days, or even a week, and then get frustrated and/or bored with their progress and move on to something else. They keep repeating the cycle, never really mastering anything or making any significant progress, for months, years or even decades without ever reaching their ultimate playing goals.

Frustration is a natural human emotion - everyone gets frustrated at some point in their guitar playing life. But what causes frustration and boredom? Maybe if we could identify the cause, we could prevent ourselves from getting frustrated and bored, and stick to the same thing for long enough to get to hyper speed…

The reason you get frustrated is because you don't meet your expectations. Every time something exceeds your expectations (no matter how low your expectations were) it makes you happy, and every time something doesn't meet your expectations (even if the results are still nearly as good) it makes you annoyed. The Danish people were recently found to be the happiest people in the world. Why? After talking to many different people from Denmark and researching the topic, it becomes clear that the answer is in low expectations. If you don't expect a lot, then even a mediocre outcome becomes something to get excited about.

This leads us to the conclusion, then, that if you set your expectations lower you'll end up more pleased with your results, get excited instead of frustrated, stick to the same patterns and licks for longer periods of time, and thus put in the required number of repetitions for fast playing. So, what you need to do is set your expectations lower! It will probably take much longer than a single week to master a basic alternate picking lick, so don't expect to master it in that amount of time. In fact, it could take up to three months (or even longer) to get even just your single string picking skills solid (never mind string crossing), so don't despair if you don't get quick results. Is it worth three whole months of daily practice? It's up to you to decide, but remember this: the three months will pass anyway; where do you want to be at the end of them? Where you are now, continually flitting between new exercises and licks and never really making any progress, or do you want to be a fast guitar player?

Building up an Impenetrable Foundation

The foundation for any and all alternate picking is in the tremolo. Learn to pick up and down on a single note in a fast and controlled manner, and you'll have the perfect skillset for building up more advanced licks.

In order to learn the tremolo it's advisable to start by very slowly picking down, then up, then down, then up, on one string (say the high E string) just to get used to the basic motion. It might take a few minutes to get the motion down, or it might take a week, but stick with it until it starts to feel natural. Then, try it on the other strings. Remember to keep in mind the practice tips from last lesson, and play at a speed where you can keep playing indefinitely without mistakes and without tension. Your max speed isn't the tempo at which you can just about pump out a few notes; it's the speed at which you can play for two minutes or more, without so much as a hesitation (never mind a mistake). This is your "perfect control" speed, where everything works well and you have full control over your fingers and muscles. Don't worry about using the metronome at this stage; just focus on getting the basic motion down.

Then, once that's done, you can start to use a metronome to work on your timing. Set the metronome at 60bpm and play just one note for every click of the metronome. Can you play it perfectly in time with no effort? If not, keep at it until you can. Then, slowly increase the speed by 1-2bpm every couple of minutes until you feel tension building up in your arm, hand or fingers. At this stage slow it back down and build up again bit by bit. Once you've got a perfectly controlled tremolo sorted at around 120bpm playing one note per beat, go down to 60bpm again but this time play two notes per beat, and build up in the same way. Then, see if you can play three notes per beat (known as triplets) and get them all evenly spaced and in perfect time. Focus on feeling the rhythm and maintaining complete control over the length of each note. Then do four notes per beat (known as 16th notes) and see how fast you can get it while remaining completely relaxed. Once you can play sixteenth notes at around 80-90bpm in a completely relaxed and controlled manner, then move on to the licks below.

This first example is in E minor. You can use it whenever you're soloing in E minor/G major to give a nice element of speed to your piece, or even to give your solo a fancy and climatic end. Move it up and down the fretboard to move it into different keys; in this example the twelfth fret on the high E string is our root note but shift the whole pattern down seven frets and the root note is now on the fifth fret, making it in A minor/C major. Try playing the same pattern on all strings and in different positions. The lick is based in the first position of the natural minor scale. Play four notes for each beat, and remember to pick continuously up and down (use whichever fingering is most comfortable for you).

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

This next lick is also in E minor and involves open strings. There's a little more challenge to this one thanks to the quick left hand movements that are required, but get your hands synched up on this and you'll have a great foundation for what's to come.

E|-12-0-0-0-10-0-0-0-8-0-0-0-7-0-0-0-5-0-0-0-3-0-0-0-2-0-0-0-12-----| 
G|------------------------------------------------------------------|
B|------------------------------------------------------------------|
D|------------------------------------------------------------------|
A|------------------------------------------------------------------|
E|------------------------------------------------------------------|

Try playing this lick on all of the strings in succession to make sure that your picking hand gets used to playing on each and every string. It might feel awkward at first, but stick at it and it will soon feel natural. The root note for this lick is the same as the open string that you play the lick on e.g. play it on the B string and it's in B minor, etc. Use this knowledge to use it in solos next time you play in E, A, D, G or B minor.

You can also play the lick above as triplets rather than sixteenth notes; this feels different because the fretted notes now fall on downstrokes and upstrokes rather than just downstrokes. Focus on making your picking motion perfectly even and in time.

E|-12-0-0-10-0-0-8-0-0-7-0-0-5-0-0-3-0-0-2-0-0-12--------| 
G|-------------------------------------------------------|
B|-------------------------------------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------------------------|
E|-------------------------------------------------------|

The next one is a scale sequence in G major, played all on the G string.

E|-----------------------------------------------------------------| 
B|-----------------------------------------------------------------|
G|-0-0-0-0-4-4-4-4-2-2-2-2-5-5-5-5-4-4-4-4-7-7-7-7-5-5-5-5-9-9-9-9-|
D|-----------------------------------------------------------------|
A|-----------------------------------------------------------------|
E|-----------------------------------------------------------------|
E|--------------------------------------------------------------------| 
B|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
G|-7-7-7-7-11-11-11-11-9-9-9-9-11-11-11-11-12-------------------------|
D|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
A|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
E|--------------------------------------------------------------------|

Keep practicing these licks daily until you get them to around ten notes per second - that's 150bpm sixteenth notes, or 200bpm triplets. Those tempos might seem daunting, and it may take you a while to reach them, but keep practicing and you'll get there. It's vital to get a good, relaxed tremolo down before trying to synchronise your hands because otherwise it'll be much harder to play clean and fast. We've given you a few examples of tremolo picking licks that sound pretty cool when they're sped up, but there are loads more things you could try, so don't think improving your tremolo picking has to be boring!

The Next Step

Once you've got a good tremolo down, it's time to start synchronising your hands. We'll start with some single position licks and then work up to some more exciting sequences on a single string - Yngwie style!

In order to get this skill learnt quickly, it's important to consider which fingerings you are using when you learn licks. There are three common fingering patterns for most scale patterns that people use:

|1|2|-|4| 
|1|-|3|4|
|1|-|2|-|4|

By learning to pick these three you'll have the perfect foundation for doing all of the three-notes-per-string or CAGED patterns up and down, as the fingering on each string will be made up of one of these three patterns (or, if you're using CAGED patterns and there's only two notes on a string, they'll be made up of two notes of three from the patterns above).

The thing to remember is that in order to synchronise your hands, you need them both to be performing the movements perfectly evenly. You should already have a very even right hand motion thanks to the tremolo picking practice, so the left hand is usually the main problem here. The reason is that even if your legato technique is good, it's easy to miss little timing variations between the notes that you'd usually pick up if you were picking them (legato technique has a softer articulation than picking, so because of this it sounds more "flowy" and it's more difficult to notice timing differences because the individual notes sound less distinct).

This means that it's helpful to isolate each of these patterns and learn them one at a time to get your finger motions even for each one. We're going to learn the |1|2|-|4| pattern first because most people find that one easiest. Then once we've got one lick with that pattern sorted, we can learn lots of others using the same pattern quite easily because we've already got the synchronisation down.

Remember to practice these licks all over the neck and, as always, follow the practice tips in the first lesson.

This first one is great for using over A minor:

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

You could use it as an ending to a solo, playing the lick a few times and then bending up to the root note on the 17th fret:

E|-12-15-13-15-12-15-13-15-12-15-13-15-12-15-13-15-15b17~~~~~~| 
B|------------------------------------------------------------|
G|------------------------------------------------------------|
D|------------------------------------------------------------|
A|------------------------------------------------------------|
E|------------------------------------------------------------|

Simple ideas like this help to keep the practicing fun and enjoyable, so always remember to look out for cool ways to apply the licks to real music!

The next lick is good for synchronisation because one of the notes in the lick is repeated twice, making any synchronisation errors immediately noticeable. It's in E minor:

E|-------------------------------------------| 
B|-7-10-8-7-7-10-8-7-7-10-8-7-7-10-8-7\5~~~~~|
G|-------------------------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------------|
E|-------------------------------------------|

Later on we'll use both of those in classical violin-style sequences all the way up and down the neck, along with this third lick (which is a signature of Yngwie Malmsteen):

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

You can also do a variation on this involving a rather hefty stretch in the middle! If you can pull this one off you can be sure that your synchronisation is really solid, because the stretch makes it trickier to keep your movements even. Practice this, and the lick above will seem easy in comparison.

E|-15-12-13-15-13-12-17-12-13-15-13-12-| 
B|-------------------------------------|
G|-------------------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------|
E|-------------------------------------|

Now I want you to try the licks above, but with the other fingering patterns to get those learned too. I'll give you an example to start you off so you know what I mean:

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

This is just the first lick but played with the |1|-|3|4| pattern instead. Apply that fingering to the rest of the licks in this section and get them down, then move on to |1|-|2|-|4|.

Speedy Scale Runs

Now that you've got some nice fast licks under your fingers, we can move on to the really fun bit - applying the patterns to single string scale runs! Get these down and you can have fun shredding all the way up and down the neck - and all simply using the same skills we've already learned so far.

We're going to make sequences by playing the patterns above (and some new patterns) at each individual scale position along the neck, so we end up with exciting and long runs that are a great addition to any shred solo.

The secret to mastering the position shifts is to start small, and to break it all down. There are two types of position shifts that I like to categorize the licks into: licks where you shift position with a slide, and licks where you shift position without a slide. We'll start with sliding position shift licks, because most people tend to find these easier.

This first lick involves a really simple sliding shift of just one fret! It's in E harmonic minor. Notice how you're using two of the fingering patterns from above in one lick (|1|-|3|4| and |1|2|-|4|)

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

Once you've got that under your fingers it's time to try one of the other kind of position shifts. Notice how this time we don't shift left hand positions with slides, so the feeling is a little different. Focus on getting the position shifts relaxed, quick and effortless. This one's in A minor.

E|--------------------------------------------------| 
B|--------------------------------------------------|
G|-14-17-16-17-12-16-14-16-14-17-16-17-12-16-14-16--|
D|--------------------------------------------------|
A|--------------------------------------------------|
E|--------------------------------------------------|

Now time for something much bigger! This one goes all the way up the neck in A minor on the high E string.

E|-5-8-7-8-7-10-8-10-8-12-10-12-10-13-12-13-12-15-13-15-17~~~~| 
B|------------------------------------------------------------|
G|------------------------------------------------------------|
D|------------------------------------------------------------|
A|------------------------------------------------------------|
E|------------------------------------------------------------|

Try taking the other patterns from earlier on all the way up and down the neck in the same way (if you don't yet know your scales, this is an ideal reason to do so!)

You can even combine big runs like this with tremolo picking to create some cool sounds, similar to what Yngwie Malmsteen does in "Far Beyond the Sun" at around 4:20. It's an awesome trick to use to add extra intensity without making things more difficult for yourself.

E|-17-17-17-17-13-17-15-13\12-15-13-12\10-13-12-10\8-12-10-8\7-10-8-7\5-| 
B|----------------------------------------------------------------------|
G|----------------------------------------------------------------------|
D|----------------------------------------------------------------------|
A|----------------------------------------------------------------------|
E|----------------------------------------------------------------------|

Finding ways like this to keep things fun and interesting is a key part of learning to pick fast, because it ensures you'll keep your motivation flowing and keep progressing.

I've only given you a few ideas for position shifting licks, but there's a reason for that - I want you to be creative! You've got some examples, so see how you can take them up and down scales in this way. You could even try shifting them chromatically, or combining them with legato… the possibilities are endless.

Have fun with it, and keep playing. Remember, the only thing stopping you from getting to where you want to be is yourself. Stay focussed and you'll be surprised what you can achieve!

About the Author:
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2 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    HugoPan
    really nice lesson in general. but it would be nicer to have some videos as well. alternate picking is a technique very easily damaged by bad habits, and seeing how you pick, the way the hand is positioned and some other minor details would help a lot. but anyway, good lesson. thanks.
    HugoPan
    And I forgot mentioning, the introduction about frustration and avoiding boredom was spot on for me.