Let’s take a look at a simple but effective exercise that will develop kick-ass alternate-picking chops for you, and synchronize your picking and fretting hands like you won’t believe.
The cool thing about this exercise is how simple the premise is, and that it can be plugged into just about any scale formation you like — chromatic, major, minor, etc. For this post, we’re going to use our old faithful basic pentatonic box. The only rule is strict alternate picking, you can start with a downstroke or an upstroke. Of course, you should definitely use a metronome.
Easy enough, right? Okay, now let’s play through the scale again — but this time, play each note twice.
Play the entire pattern, and observe throughout how your picking motion changes from playing each note once to playing each note twice.
You can see where this is going now, but let’s throw in rhythmic variations to keep it interesting. Play the sextuplet figure shown below:
Now play the same thing in a “straight four” rhythm. Notice how it affects your sense of picking and rhythm, even though it’s the exact same sequence of notes.
Let’s move on to playing each note four times.
Finally, the same 4-note figure played in triplet/sextuplet rhythm. Check it out:
The possibilities for this idea are practically infinite — you can (and should!) do this with all five pentatonic boxes, as well as any scale, any pattern, any melodic sequence, any number of strings. You can of course keep going in terms of numbers, repeating each note five, six, seven times or more.
Pay close attention to how your picking motion changes, from odd numbers of notes to even numbers, and at points where you go from one string to another. Refining the picking and string-crossing motions are the most important part of developing a solid alternate-picking technique.
Here’s the printable PDF for all parts of this exercise:
Refer back through the various scale and pattern exercises here if you need ideas to work through. At the very least, you can work through major, minor, harmonic minor, and chromatic scales, in all the various positions and string combinations (3-note-per-string; 4-note-per-string; single-string; etc.). Melodic sequencing patterns, string skipping, and arpeggios are also fair game.
Definitely use the metronome to keep your rhythm tight (especially for the 3-on-4 and 4-on-3 variations) and track your tempo and progress. Work toward minimizing picking-hand motion and distance moved for alternate picking and string crossing. As simple as the idea is, you can see how applying it everywhere and anywhere will keep you busy for some time. Have fun!