How to make alternate picking easy

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Beware of this or you'll sabotage your self

The hardest lick to play with alternate picking is just going up or down the scale, shifting strings for every third note you play. Why? Because there’s an element of alternate picking that we rarely see or focus on. But before I reveal it to you, let’s make a quick list of the challenges involved in alternate picking:

1. Picking rhythmically up and down
(Accenting every third or fourth note)

2. Going from one string to another
(The pick has to travel a longer distance within the same time frame as all the other motions)

3. Shifting right hand position to fit the string that’s being played.

And here’s the kicker:

4. The more frequent the challenges occur the harder they are to play!

This is extremely important to understand

So if you play a run that involves six notes on one string, then a string shift, then six notes on another string, then a string shift and so on. That lick would be much easier to play than a run that only involved three notes and a string shift, three notes and a string shift. Because the more often you shift strings the harder the lick becomes – Even if you master the string shifting part completely. In other words: The longer the pause between strings shifts, the easier it is. And here’s the reason why:

If you have to make a long jump over a pool of water, what are you going to do first? My guess is, you would step back a couple of meters, take a hard look at the distance that you had to jump, calculate your steps to the actual jump and then you would go ahead with it. But if you stood right by the pool of water and somebody screamed “JUMP OR DIE!!!!” you would jump right away and your one foot would get pretty wet.

The same thing happens when we have to make several string shifts without a big enough break between them. It’s not at all impossible - but the challenge is bigger.

Now imagine the same situation. You are standing by the pool of water, but now you have a heavy back pack strapped to your body. Now there’s a new element to consider in the jumping equation. It’s not at all impossible to make the jump if you have a little time to asses the weight of the back pack, and get your muscles aligned for the task. But with no time, the task is much harder. This is like taking on all of the challenges at once: Picking rhythmically up and down, going from one string to another, while shifting your right hand position. The more less pauses you have the harder it is. And in what instances do you do that the most? When playing a three note per string scale up and down, from the high e-string to the low e-string or vice versa. Conclusion: The simplest run is the hardest when it comes to alternate picking.

(Note: I'm not touching on scale shapes that has an uneven number of notes per string, because these are almost impossible to play fast with alternate picking. If you want to do fast alternate picking runs - be sure to play in patterns that has three notes per string)

Try this E-minor turnaround version of the lick from yesterday. It's the same challenge for your picking hand.

The easiest licks can sometimes be the coolest...

Now why am I wasting your precious time telling you this? The point is this: Choose the licks you practice with care. Be a good coach to yourself and select licks and runs that have the least amount of challenges in the beginning. And these licks can sometimes be the coolest!!
I used to bang my head against, what I thought was the simplest and easiest alternate picking exercise, for months. I played all 7 major scale three note per string shapes up and down like crazy. And I got very little out of it because: 1. Who want’s to hear a guy go up and down the 7 versions og the major scale? And 2. Taking on a challenge that is too big makes you loose the motivation to practice.

Do this and your progress will soar

1. Select licks that have pauses between challenge 2 and 3.
2. Expand as much as you can on those licks, so that you exploit what you have learned to the fullest.

The lick included in this article, honor both principles: 1. You have six notes on almost every string, before you make the string shift, and 2. The lick on this page is merely a variation on yesterdays lick.

If you know exactly what your challenges are and when you are aware of every single demand that you put on your self, you can structure your development in such a way that you avoid the killer conclusion... The belief that instantly kills your development and puts you on an express train to “Music isn’t about playing fast anyway”, - the monstrous thought that destroys all progress, all fun, all enthusiasm for power speed killer amazing ripper guitar shredding. The thought to avoid at all cost is this: “Maybe I just don’t have the talent and abilities anyway...” If you come to me with that belief in your head, be sure to protect your private body parts because I'll kick you in them...  

Know your challenges so you can give them to yourself in the right order and proportion and remember this: While musical ability might require a little talent, playing fast does not! - I’ve said it before and I’m probably going to say it again. You can do it if you put your mind to it. There's no question about it. It's not a matter of genius. It's matter of balls. The balls to stay the course and not give up

Note: Music is of course about so much more than playing fast - but it’s also about playing fast!... Who would speedy Gonzales be without the speed? What would Flamenco be without speed? What would Italians do if they wheren’t allowed to speak in fast staccato? Speed and distortion turns your guitar into an angry daemon... I like daemons... I like speed...