Alternate picking, achieving speed and accuracy
I must start this article by stating that there is no "right" and "wrong" way to hold your pick and position your hand, however there are ways which (with subtle variations between players) have become established as the most ergonomically efficient.
This means that by following these methods you will get the best technique, in the least possible time. But I must repeat, these methods work the best, for the vast majority of people, there are always exceptions though; people who do it another way, but still reach a very high standard. Personally, I think these exceptions are due to slight differences in the bone structure of some peoples wrists, but I have no medical proof of this, as I don't think any research on this has been done! So what is presented here are the techniques and methods that work best for the vast majority of the population.
For most people, having efficient fast alternate picking, is based on an understanding of the principles behind; not just the alternate movement of the pick, but on the ergonomics and leverage involved. If this sounds complicated, stick with me and I think you'll find it's actually pretty simple. But to this end, I'm going to start with a discussion of the principles behind efficient alternate picking.
What moves the pick?
Well it certainly should NOT be your fingers or thumb, if you are using your fingers and thumb to move the pick, you are picking very inefficiently.
It's not an up and down movement from the elbow either, as this produces a comparatively stiff, not very fluent sound (though it is fast and accurate).
Do the following, and you'll understand what the right movement should be and why.
1) hold up your picking hand virtically up in the air.
2) rotate you wrist as if you were waving to somebody
3) see how fast you can do can do this rotating movement, and for how long you can keep it up.
The ability to make this wrist rotation, and to do it fast, is something that's just built in, its part of our physiology. So harnessing this built in movement (speed already built in) and applying it to picking, saves you a lot of time and heart ache, and will take you further.
Use your wrist to move the pick.
What part of your hand do you rest on the guitar?
There is some debate on this one, but only on one aspect of it, which I'll explain.
Method one, is to rest the fingers that aren't holding the pick on the guitar, thus supporting the hand. This is a bad idea, as it makes it difficult to use the wrist and encourages the finger and thumb holding the pick, to move. Don't use this method if you want fast picking, it will slow you down, and you'll be working much harder than you need to, even for moderate speed - that's if you ever get there. Having said this there are players who do rest thier fingers and yet play as well as anyone else, but they are the exception to the rule. For the vast majority of people, this is not a good method.
Method two, is to float the hand and wrist entirely, resting only the elbow, or there abouts, on the guitar. Some people (notably Robert Fripp) opt for this method, saying it offers good mobility across the strings. In my opinion, there are two potential problems with this method.
First,it offers no muting of the lower strings which is important for most players for various reasons. Partially muting picked strings is a popular sound in both rock and jazz, and this just isn't possible with a floating wrist. Also, at loud volumes, the lower strings tend to feedback unless muted when not being played. Also, most players find it difficult if not impossible to play up the strings, without making any string noise as their fingers leave the strings. Muting the strings you aren't playing eliminates this problem.
Second, most players find the lack of anchor point for the right hand makes it difficult to gain the correct leverage for fast accurate picking. Having said all this, if you listen to Robert Fripp's playing it's clear that this method works, as he's amongst the best players out there.
The debate is between method two and method three above. I highly recommend method three for the reasons I've stated. This is backed up by the fact that the vast majority of players with fast accurate alternate picking use this method. However, you might want to experiment with both methods two and three, as they are pretty much identical in how the wrist actually moves the pick and this is important - it's the motion of the wrist that should move the pick.
How do you hold the pick?
Here I think we have the greatest area of variation. In other words, there seem to be various subtly different ways of holding the pick used by top players of equal ability. Generally speaking it's best to hold the pick with only a very small amount of the pick showing, i.e: the finger and thumb that hold the pick should be VERY close to the string you are picking, and only a small portion of the pick should hit the string. Picking very deeply into the strings is inefficient. Also, your brain knows very accurately where the ends of you thumb and fingers are, so the closer they are to the strings, the easier it is to accurately move the pick on the strings.
Most people hold the pick between their first finger and thumb and this is best for most people. However some people hold the pick between thumb and first and second fingers with equally good results.
Let's get more specific on this point.
Where exactly on finger and thumb do you hold the pick?
Again there is some variation here, and if you have everything else right you'll find that you can vary exactly how you hold the pick at different times, for different sounds. But consider this: If you hold the pick with the very tip of your finger and thumb, you are having to use several joints and a whole set of muscles to keep the pick in position, while repeatedly picking the string. If, however, you put the pick on the side of your curled first finger being held by the ball of your thumb, you have significantly reduced the number of joints and muscles involved. This is because from the side, your finger wont bend, therefore, no effort is necessary to keep the pick in position. This is more efficient in terms of the muscles and joints involved, and helps your hand to stay relaxed, which is important.
This may sound to some, like its getting nit picky or over intellectualised, but but if you were learning gymnastics or weight training, you'd expect this kind of detail. For example there are established ways of using weights that are safe and produce maximum results. Having good technique on the guitar or any instrument, really is very similar to this on a physical level.
I'm certainly not saying music is a sport! There are some who do, but for me hearing music in that way entirely misses the point.
Also, I'm not suggesting that everyone should be aiming to be technical virtuosos. Some types of music require that, while others don't. I'm simply talking about getting the best result with the least amount of time put in. It just so happens that the same methods will lead you on to virtuosity by the quickest route as well, if that's what you are after.
What about pick angle?
Generally speaking you want to have the pick flat against the strings, ie: not cutting into the strings at an angle. A flat pick will give you a clean clear sound, and if you play fast it helps the separate notes ring out clearly. If you're picking angle is too steep (ie: it hits the string at say a 45 degree angle), it can lead to a muddying of the notes during fast playing. This is because an angled pick spends more time in contact with the string. When you play fast, this pick to string contact time can become a significant part of the length of each note. In order to let each note ring for the maximum amount of time when playing fast (and produce clear clean notes), you want the pick to spend minimum proportion of that time on the string - this means reducing the angle of the pick.
However, at slow and medium speeds, different pick angles produce different tones, and from this point of view, you might want to change your picking angle depending on the tone you want to produce when you play slowly. To some people for example, always keeping the pick totally flat at slow speeds can sound a bit clinical.
Solving picking problems
If you have been picking in a way other than the ways I've suggested here, and you're unhappy with your picking speed and agility, you'll need to change your right hand position. This can be quite a job if you've been doing it a certain way for some time. In my experience the best way to change old habits like this, is to take the "jump in the deep end" approach. Basically from day one that you decide to change your picking method, how you hold the pick position your hand etc... you do it the new way exclusively. In other words, you never allow yourself to go back to the old way. This may sound draconian, but its the quickest way to break bad habits and form new ones. Also its better to think in terms of forming new habits than in terms of breaking old ones.
I recommend the book "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey, for an excellent look at how to change habits quickly, as well as excellent mental approaches for maximising physical performance. You might think: tennis? Well yes the book is about tennis, but everything in it can be applied equally well (and works equally well) to the technique side of music. In fact the book has been popular with many professional musicians for over twenty years.
Economy of motion
Minimising your picking movements is very important. You only need to move your pick a very small amount up and down to sound the string (even loudly), so hug the string with your pick. Here is something you may find helpful to think about in this respect.
Imagine a drum stick hitting the head of a drum. The drums head gives the stick some bounce (like a pick and string), so the faster the drummer hits the drum, the smaller they're going to make the movements.
Imagine a drummer trying to do a fast drum roll on a pillow... there's no bounce, so it would be very difficult. Also, if they used floppy drum sticks the same problem would occur. So on the guitar, think of the pick as the drum stick and the string as the drum head. You don't want your pick to be too flexible (don't use thin picks) and you want to use the bounciness of the string to your advantage. A drummer doesn't need to lift the drum stick much between hits, the bounce of the drum head does that for them. Let the string help you in a similar way, and keep your picking movements as small as possible.
Crossing strings (Insides and Outsides)
Once your hand position etc... is right, most people find that with a little practice, its not that difficult to get a reasonable picking speed going on a single string. Its crossing the strings that is the hard part. In fact in many ways crossing the strings easily and cleanly is the key to alternate picking.
Note the following examples:
If the last pick on a string is a down pic, then the first pick on the next string must be an up pick. If the last pick on a string is an up pic, then the first pick on the next string must be a down pick.
This means there are two possible picking movements across the strings. In more detail they are as follows picking accross the G and B strings as examples:
If you pick down on the G string, you'll then pick up on the B string. This means that you are picking on the OUTSIDES of the strings.
If you pick up on the G string, then you'll pick down on the B string. This means that you are picking on the INSIDES of the strings.
When ever you pick across the strings, you should ALWAYS either pick INSIDE the strings or OUTSIDE the strings. If you are not doing this, then you are not alternate picking.
These two movements across the strings are going to be alternating back and fourth all the time when you play. So you need to be equally good at both. Most people find picking on the outsides of the strings the easiest at first. If so make sure you practice picking on the insides more.
The following are key exercises for becoming good at alternate picking. The examples below use the B, G and D strings, but these exercises can and should be done on all strings.
Skipping a string
Any exercise with the letters "rev" (short for reverse) next to them are exercises which can be done either with picking inside the strings, or with the outsides of the strings. All these exercises should be done both ways ie: you reverse the picking direction. If you started with a down pick the first time, you do them again starting with an up pick.
Note that the exercises which do not have "rev" next to them will switch you from inside to out side the strings alternately - if you do them correctly. So you don't need to do these ones again with reversed picking order. These are probably the most important of the exercises, so make sure you do them correctly. Here's an example of the picking order for one of these self reversing exercises. A down arrow (v) means a down pick, and an up arrow (^) means an up pick.
Single string exercises.
Crossing the strings at speed, accurately and with ease is for most guitarists, the hardest part. However, you should not underestimate the importance of single string picking. Where a lot of people fall down, is actually on getting a tight co-ordination between alternate picking and the fretting fingers on a single string. If you build strength into the tightness of co-ordination between alternate picking and fretting fingers, it will help overall speed even in string crossing. Remember that the stronger this is, the less easily it will fall appart when you play fast or difficult passages.
One of the best exercises for strengthening this coordination, is repeating a set of notes on one string and then moving an accent across each of the notes.
Here are some exercises:
The numbers in the exersises below refer to finger numbers. The arrow below the finger number, indicates where the accent should be.
Once these exercises are getting easy, do the same exercises in terms of moving the accent around, but cross over a string. For example:
Finally, use a metronome or drum machine/sequencer to practice to. Chose a practice speed where you can do the exercise correctly with some effort, not at a speed where you're making a lot of mistakes. If you find you are consistently making a mistake when playing, stop, identify the problem area, and design a small exercise to cover that particular picking problem. Its very likely that what ever picking problem you come across, will be covered by one of the above exercises.
A good method to follow:
1) Identify picking problems within the sorts of lines you play.
2) Make an exercise out of the picking problem.
3) Reintegrate the improved picking pattern into the original line.
Sign up for information about workshops and master classes here
Mark does take on a small number of selected students for one to one tuition subject to availablilty between recording and concert commitments. If you would like to apply contact us here