Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Q&A: Alternating pick

I had an interesting email that I tried to best answer a few weeks back; it was out of my area of confidence - being specifically *not* about fingerstyle! - but I had a crack at it.  I thought it might be interesting to my fingerstyle mates here; and even better, some of my not *solely* fingerstyle mates might be able to offer up a better answer than I did! :)


Hi Jaw,

According to you, using a flat pick is not your forte :) but your experience should be able to assist me.

If I am going to learn alternate picking, should I not alternate pick all my notes/songs/scales etc ALWAYS anyway after that ? If alternate picking is so much more better/efficient why isnt it just the standard type of picking taught from the onset ? I clearly understand the benefits of alternating pick, but I am having a problem understanding why anyone would revert to "regular" picking if its inferior to alternate picking. So for example: Once I learn alternate picking and I am given 3 notes to play, I will simply alternate pick all over them, it will feel smoother/faster, why wouldn't I? What will I miss if I completely do away with "regular" picking ?

Sorry if it all sounds repetitive, its impossible to Google such a question and I'm just trying to make sure that I describe it well enough for you to understand my beginner dilemma!


Greg, you sound just like an engineer! The best way of thinking of course :)

But when we put down our technical physics based ways, and have a go at thinking about what we are trying to achieve - sound, groove, style - alternating picking shouldn't always be performed. For instance, say you were playing just four bassnotes in a bar and you wanted to accentuate the same thumping sound; you would downstroke each one the same.

And if you were playing offbeat, playing notes on the "and" (one and two and...) they will want to have that "and" sound you'll get from upstroke.

I'm not suggesting that on beat is always downstroke and off beat is up, although it's probably a good starting point to help you "feel" what the groove is doing. I'm talking from more a rhythm style than lead style, but the message is similar.

Shredding for instance would probably be non-stop alternating, you need the speed - but even then I'd suggest that occasional downstroke notes would line up on beat.

I think if you close your eyes and feel the music, and put the mechanics out of you mind, you'll know where to downstroke and upstroke. That's really easy for me to say however with a lifetime of guitar mechanics behind me that I *can* do with my eyes closed, but I could have come along a lot faster if I got more into what I can only describe as "groove", where the music is coming from "you", not through a series of optimised efficient programmed movements :)

Hope you find something in that ethereal vauge gut reaction from this 30-years-in-guitar-still-leaning, who hasn't held a flat pick for more than five years :)



  1. Hi!

    I think Greg has mistaken the fingerstyle/fingerpicking term "alternate picking" (like the Travis picking) for a solo picking method.
    There is a solo picking style where you _always_ pick down-up-down-up..., even through strings (if you go from one string to another). It is said to be the fastest method to play a solo. The other way is to pick down-up-down-up, but start with a downpick when going to a new lower string, and start with an up when going to a new upper. Gipsy-jazz solos are played like that.

    I hope I understood his mail correctly and not talking silly :)


  2. Hello,

    I think you got it right about alternate picking from what i have read in other forums, etc. I don't use picks at all but i tend to use my index fingernail as a pick sometimes. I find it waaay more comfortable than a pick. Just wondering if any of you guys out there do that.


  3. I find that using my index finger instead of a pick works well at some times in some songs. But, if I didn't suck so bad with a pick I would use it more often :) The only time I ever grab a pick is when I play with my band. As the rhythm guitarist all I do is strum some chords. I'm not sure if I could use my index all the time for that :) may hurt after a while :)

    very cool though.


  4. I am pretty sure that Greg meant hybrid picking, which is using a flat pick like non-fingerstyle playing (held between the thumb and index), and adding the second and third fingers to pick strings in a finerstyle fashion. Using this technique, it makes sense to use the pick for the bass (where you would normally use the thumb in fingerstyle), and the fingers for higher melody notes.
    This technique allows to play fingerstyle-like without dropping the pick, and switch to a pick-only playing like strumming for instance.

    Calling it "alternate picking" is fine, if alternate means alternative.
    However, to me, what alternate picking normally refers to is alternate bass picking, an all fingerstyle technique (no flat pick used) also called Travis picking, where the bass alternates between two strings while melody notes are inserted either in-between or on the bass notes.

    But I'm sure Greg meant hybrid picking, as he mentiond the flat pick.

    Now to answer his question, if a technique is considered more efficient than another, then go ahead and use it, however it is also a matter of having mastered the technique, which can be more difficult that the standart one.
    In this particular case, I think standard picking would be used for:
    - strumming-only
    - one-note soloing over an accompaniement, typically on electric guitar (although you CAN use fingers here and there, but it is normally considered not as fast...unless it is faster for you, there's no rule!)

    However this hybrid technique can be used for any fingerstyle arrangement, the point being mostly to be able to play two non-adjacent strings at the same time.