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Do you like guitar? Do you like free stuff? Do you like free guitar stuff? Should we feel ashamed at asking such obvious questions?
Well, to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend, and because we appreciate you, the entire PTG Kindle library will be up for FREE downloads for four days, August 29th through September 1st!
You know the drill — grab ’em all, tell your friends, drop some reviews on the Amazon pages. Most of all, play hard and have fun!
When it comes to getting the hang of alternate picking, two fundamental questions frequently come up with newer players. The answers, such as they are, may surprise you.
How Should You Hold Your Pick?
When building or improving any technique, and this is certainly true of alternate picking, efficiency and control should be your main goals. But you also have to take into consideration intangibles such as comfort and feel. As long as a motion or position isn’t inefficient or causing any discomfort, it’s worth trying out.
So the short answer is “whatever works”, but you do want to make sure that the way you hold your pick doesn’t create an unnecessary “ceiling”, a point at which further improvement is difficult or impossible.
Ideally, the pick should be gripped with the thumb and index finger, though some players will include the middle finger in tandem with the index as well. The thumb (on top of the pick) should run parallel to the strings, and the index finger (on the bottom of the pick) should be directed perpendicular to the string. The other three fingers can be curled into a loose fist, or splayed out, you can find plenty of examples of each among famous players. Again, the key is whatever’s comfortable, so long as it doesn’t affect your control and efficiency.
Keep your wrist and forearm loose; your grip on the pick should be just enough to not lose control of it or let it slip. Experiment with single-note playing as well as strumming chords across all six strings.
What Type of Pick Should You Use?
This will probably take as much experimentation and practice, if not more, than observing how to hold the pick. Most picks are made of plastic, and some have cork for easier gripping. Some players use metal picks, which are great for artificial harmonics. Players such as Brian May and Billy Gibbons famously use coins (English sixpence and Mexican peso, respectively), which again make artificial harmonics very easy, and have a built-in grip from whatever is embossed on the faces of the coin.
Aside from material, a huge consideration for what pick to use is thickness. A very thin (less than .50mm) will give you less resistance as it meets the string, thus greater speed and flexibility. But you may have to compensate more to strum full chords or get a full dynamic range (such as artificial harmonics or palm muting). Conversely, thicker picks (over 1.00 mm) will give you more control in accurately targeting notes, and getting full strums and dynamics. But you also have to train your wrist for the greater resistance from a thicker pick.
Try at least one of each along the way, until you find what works best for you. I used coins for several years early on, but most of them produce a good deal of metal dust that clings to your fingers. Thin picks give you more freedom and flexibility, but you have to work more at dynamic control. Thicker picks will dial in your wrist and give you more dynamic control, but you have to work at it.
I ended up somewhere in the middle, as I suspect most players do, and I’ve used Dunlop Tortex green .88mm picks for about 20 years or so. Once you find something that works well for you, you’ll probably stick with it for good, but definitely try a few different materials and thicknesses before settling on one particular type. Think about the style(s) of music you play, and what works best for that.
So many of these basic areas of playing boil down to a matter of personal preference, but it’s important to try a few different options before settling on one.
A great way to build technical chops and musicality, and get a break from running the same old scales and patterns over and over, is to take a song or riff that can be used to highlight a certain technique, and use it as warm-up material. Let’s take a look at a few quick and easy riffs from classic (if lesser-known) songs, that will build finger independence and picking technique.
The first example is very similar to the melodic riff from the beginning and end to Rush’s ’70s epic Xanadu.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice here is that it’s in a 7/8 time signature. If you haven’t played much outside of 4/4 or 3/4, this is a good opportunity to try out a fairly simple odd time signature. It’s as simple as counting out a beat.
In 4/4 time, you would count “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” to play a single bar, with each counted beat being a 16th note. For the above 7/8 bar, you simply drop the last “4-and”.
So, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and”, repeat. It takes a little bit of getting used to, like anything else, but time signatures such as 7/8, 9/8, or 5/4, where a single beat is added or removed, are easier to adjust to.
(Using the above counting example, you would count out a 9/8 beat as “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and“. Stick with nailing the feel for 7/8 for now.)
The next thing you’ll see is that the riff is simply the same 7-note pattern played twice, and because of the odd number, in strict down-up alternate picking, the picking pattern for the second time is exactly reversed from the first. So the first note, E (9th fret, G string) is played with a downstroke the first time, an upstroke the second time. This is a really handy riff for practicing “inside” and “outside” picking, for adjacent and skipped strings.
Finally, all four fretting fingers are used to play the riff (which is a sequenced E major scale), and in patterns you may not have practiced before.
So in one mighty little riff, you get to work on:
- Odd time signature
- Inside and outside picking
- String skipping
- Melodic sequencing
- Finger independence
The next riff is similar to the late-’80 Yngwie Malmsteen song, Déja Vu.
The first two bars of the riff are played four times, before shifting to the third bar. The best way to go about learning this riff is one bar at a time, putting the first two together before moving on to the third bar. Make sure you can play the first two bars together, repeated in a continuous loop (at least 4-5 times without stopping) at a modest tempo (at least 96-100 bpm) before working on the third bar.
The riff and song are in F#m, a good key for rock and metal playing. The first bar is simply a four-note ascending sequence, moving up the F#m scale (F# G# A B C# D E) one step at a time. Before getting to the E (7th degree) in the scale, the second bar of the riff shifts to a nice descending pedal-point sequence, which requires a tricky shift toward the end of the bar. Take it slow, work it up to speed, and pair it up with the first bar, before moving on to the third bar off the riff, which is an extended F#m arpeggio.
Notice that the suggested picking for the third bar mostly involves sweep picking. The fingering is only a suggestion, try different fingers, depending on where and how you decide to shift as you go through the arpeggio. The main thing, as far as the picking and fretting suggestions go, is to keep it sounding smooth and effortless.
It will take some doing to get any or all of this riff up to the tempo that Malmsteen plays in the original song, but the primary goal is just to highlight some specific techniques:
- Alternate picking
- Sweep picking
- Melodic sequencing
- Pedal point
- Position shifting
The final riff we’ll look at is similar to one of the main riffs from Dream Theater’s The Root of All Evil. John Petrucci is a master of fast, tricky, melodically sequenced riffs, and this is actually one of his simpler ones.
Simple is frequently more effective than complex, as far as writing songs and riffs goes, and this riff is a good example of that principle. And yet every finger is utilized, and there’s some position shifting, and the beats on which you cross from one string to the other may be a bit unpredictable at first. Melodically, Petrucci incorporates chromatic notes to nice effect.
- Alternate picking
- Position shifting
- Finger independence
Have fun with these riffs, and try to think of others from songs you enjoy, that help pinpoint specifics techniques you want to work on.