How to pick with precision and power

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Let's turn your axe into a machine gun

Alternate picking is, in my experience, one of the hardest techniques to perform with precision. But it is also the most aggressive sounding technique I know. The consistent up and down motion with the pick, produces a machine gun like sound, that I can't seem to produce with any other picking technique. I'm also going to cover all other picking techniques on this website, so please don't assume that I'm recommending on type of picking, above another. Every technique has different advantages, so you should really consider learning all of them. It's not such a daunting task, because the better you are at one technique the easier it gets to learn another.

Let the picking hand do the work

Alternate picking is also what I prefer, when I have to accent certain notes over others, in a rhythmical context. Because the picking motion is so predictable it's very suitable for this. A good example of this is the basic theme of the Racer X song "Scarified". Of course you can play this kind of thing with economy picking or legato, but it's hard to get the same sound and feel to it. Alternate picking is the technique that's the most stressful to the picking hand. All the other techniques like sweep picking, economy picking and legato (hammer-ons, and pull-offs) takes some of the challenges away from the right hand. This is, of course, why many players aren't very good at it. You should not rely solely on alternate picking when you play, but it is a vital part of your tool box.

The most useful run I know

In this article, and the next to come I'm going to take you through a simple process of building the skill of alternate picking. Instead of starting of with boring exercises, we're going to jump straight to learning one of the most useful and coolest alternate picking runs I know. We'll break it down into small parts, which we can learn pretty quick, and then we're going to put the parts together. When you practice the licks in this article it's important that you use every single practice technique describe in the category "Get more out of practice." Neglecting to use these principles will make this article a solid waste of time. I cannot stress enough, how important it is to play the metronome game, not to mention how much faster you'll progress when you use the principles described in the article "How to gain an extra 4 hours of practice time a day"

How precise are you really?
It's important to note, that you can take this lesson if you have no experience with alternate picking what so ever. And if you do have some experience, challenge your self to do the exercises anyway, to see just how much precision you really have. - By the way, if you want to hear a real life example of sublime alternate picking in action, listen to Paul Gilbert. This guy is an alternate picking monster! His level of precision is not of this world. Also, John MacLaughlin has been a great inspiration to me in this area. Alright! enough chit chat, let's get into it. Here's the run that I talked about once again:

Now before we break the run down please make sure that:

1. Your right hand is placed correctly
2. You hold the pick correctly
2. Your picking motion is robotic and minute

Though there are no wrong or right way to do alternate picking, there are some things that seem to work more often than not. When I write "Correctly" I'm referring to the things that works, in my experience. Place the bone of your right hand, at the top of the bridge, - right where the low e-string meets the bridge - and have it stay there.

1. Find the bone in your hand 2. Place it where the low e-string meets the bridge
3. Leave it there while picking the top two strings

Then be sure to move your hand while the bone remains in close contact with that same spot.
Then place the pick so that is points directly to the left when you hold up your thumb in front of you. Then place your index finger so that it points in the same direction.

How to hold the pick

When you pick, be sure not to use "circular" hand movements. Only go up and down. Do not "Strum" the strings like you would an acoustic guitar. Imagine how a robot would "engage the string". The string should move as a result of your pick moving "through" it. In other words: the picking motion shouldn't be influenced by the fact that there's a string in it's way. Just stroke up and down and use minute movements. Do not move the pick more than necessary! You increase the volume by moving the pick a little closer to the body, not by using larger movements of the picking hand. You can see what I mean here:

Now let's break the lick down into one challenge at a time. I've created four parts that you can practice and learn individually.
The first challenge belongs to the picking hand. In this exercise (I hate exercises! but in this case it's vitally important to do it) you mute the strings with your fretting hand, while picking the strings with your picking hand. The most important thing to focus on here is what notes you accent. Don't skip this part of the exercise! Accenting is vital. When we speed things up, the accented note is your "home base" It's your measure of where you are in the lick. Notice that you have to play the accented not with both a down stroke and an up stroke.

Most people can't do this exercise and get the accents right. That's why most people aren't very good at alternate picking... Do it, do it, do it! And you'll be one of the select few that doesn't need a machine gun to sound like one...

A thing to remember: Being able to play this, and play it with ease, is the very foundation for alternate picking. Don't go on before you have this one down. If you do, everything will seem very difficult to play. If you do go on to the next exercise be sure to come back to this one and work on it until it's as easy as sitting down and getting up.
Then let's move on and look at the left hand now. Your right hand is going to do the same thing but your left hand is going to fret the notes E, F# and G. It looks like this:

If you can do just this one simple lick. A whole world of licks opens up to you as you'll se in the next articles.

Be very aware of what's going on with your picking hand in the process. Keep it in the same place and stick to those minute movements. Practice this until it's effortless to you.

The next step brings in another element: Going from one string to another. You practice this by being very aware of the last note you hit on the string you are leaving, and the first note you hit on the new string. The awareness alone will help you develop amazing precision. Listen very closely for how clear both of them are - and keep focusing on those notes when you increase the speed on your metronome. (You are using a metronome right? :) Keep the right hand where it is, even when you change strings and keep using small movements.

Remember to relax in your picking arm. The more tense you are the more difficult it will be for you to play fast in the end. Remember: it's the hand that does the job, not the arm.

Two movements in one

The run in it’s entirety contains one final, and very important challenge for you: Moving your picking hand upwards while picking. Now your hand has to perform two different movements at the same time. Notice what happens in the video. When you play two strings only, there’s no need to move the entire hand up and down, every time you shift strings. But when you have to cover all the strings, it’s another story. Every time you go from one string to another, practice moving your hand up accordingly – so that the hand will be positioned perfectly for each string. If you asked God whether or not he had intended humans to be able to do such complex and fast movements I’m sure he would have said no. So be a little patient with your self. And remember: Repetition is the mother of skill.

Make one upward move with every string shift you make. As you do the upstroke on the next string, move your hand upwards a little bit also.

In the next article I'm going to show you in just how many ways you can use what you have learned. Happy picking!