Learning Alternate Picking

What is a Downstroke? an Upstroke?

There are two possible ways to use a plectrum to pick a string.  You can start above the string, pick down towards the ground, and end up below the string. This is known as a downstroke.  Or you can start below the string, pick up towards the ceiling, and end up above the string. This is known as an upstroke.  When most people start playing the guitar, they use downstrokes exclusively. It take most beginners a while to develop the dexterity and wrist strength needed to use upstrokes.

What is Alternate Picking? 

Alternate picking is when a player alternates between downstrokes and upstrokes. The resulting picking pattern is then obviously down, up, down , up.

Why use Alternate Picking?

As I said early, most people start out using nothing but downstrokes.  This is appropriate in some instinces because downstrokes can create a heavy, thick sound.  If thats what your going for, you might want to play with all downstrokes. But for passages which are faster, you might not be able to pick fast enough with only downstrokes.  The solution to that problem is pretty easy to solve if you analyze it.  When you use multiple downstrokes in a row, you must bring your pick back above the string to execute another one. If you do an upstroke as you bring it back up, you will in essence double the speed at which you pick at.  Also, apart from doubling your picking speed, alternate picking produces very clocklike, ticking-sounding riffs.

What is outside the string alternate picking? inside the string alternate picking?

Alternate picking is pretty simple if you are staying on the same string. When you move from string to string is where problems start to arise.  There are two basic situations when you change strings with alternate picking, outside the string and inside the string.  In both you must remember to keep the down, up, down, up pattern that makes it alternate pickinig.  The situations are tough to explain with words, so first try it on the guitar to make the explanations more clear.  We’ll start with outside the string since it is thought of as easier.

Outside the String Picking

An example of outside the string picking is shown below. Start on a downstroke and use a down, up, down, up pattern.

pick: D U D U D U D U    

D= Downstroke U= Upstroke

Watch the motion of the pick as you do this. Notice that the pick stays on the outside of the two strings. It never goes between them. That is why it is called outside of the string picking.

Inside the String Picking

An example of inside the string picking is shown below. Start on a downstroke and use a down, up, down, up pattern.

pick: D U D U D U D U

This time, notice that the pick stays contained between two strings at all times. That is why it is called inside the string picking.

Exercises to Improve Outside/Inside the String Picking

Exercise 1 

This first exercise is from a Mark Tremonti lesson.


                                  Outside the String        |    Inside the String

The exercise has two parts. In the first part you can practice outside the string alternate picking. In the second part you can practice inside the string picking.

Exercise 2 

This next one can be used to practice either outside or inside. If you want to work on outside alternate picking, start on an upstroke. If you want to work on inside alternate picking, start on a downstroke.



More Information

For more information on alternate picking and for more exercises, check out my article on alternate picking riffs by John Petrucci. If you have any questions, please email me at mdguitarteacher@gmail.com

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3 Responses

  1. Ok That Parts Easy How Do You Strum Up And Down When Playing Two Strings?? When I Try It……. Well It Just Dont Work

  2. Strumming is not the same as alternate picking. Strumming is a technique for sounding chords. Alternate Picking is a technique to play single note passages with more precision. Alternate Picking is very difficult to learn and can only be mastered after hours and hours and hours of hard work. Start off as slow as it takes to be able to control every movement. Then work your way up.

  3. this might not be acoustic, but check out the intro (first two riffs) to “walk with me in hell” by lamb of god, its fairly easy on the left hand, and repeditive enough to practice picking with, if u wanna play an actual song so it doesn’t feel so much like studying for a test (plus it sounds cool)

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