We guitarists often spend so much time trying to learn the intricacies of fretting technique that years may go by before we bring our attention to the picking hand. Once we do, though, we find that alternate picking occupies a primary place in most quick-pickers' techniques. Simply put, alternate picking is the technique of using alternating down and up strokes to maximize picking motion, particularly when playing single-string lines.
Let's imagine for a moment that all you can do is pick down-down-down-down, sort of like the continuous rhythm style of many metal players. While the resulting sound is extremely successful in some applications, it is quite limiting when quickness and string-to-string agility is needed. Think about the picking motion for a minute: if the pick hits the string on a down stroke, then passes by the string to come swooping in for another down stroke, well, why not pick the string again while moving upwards instead of passing it by? Adding an up stroke for every down stroke could effectively double your playing speed.
Of course it's never as simple as that. Even if you use down strokes and up strokes in equal measure, the fine points of alternate picking can prove daunting. But not impossibly so. Remember that whenever you choose to study a technique in depth, the best guide is a fellow human being with experience, so look long and hard for a good instructor. Anyone with a well thought-out approach to picking will probably agree on the following points:
The pick should be held between the thumb and first finger. The pick should be perpendicular to the plane of the strings and parallel to the strings themselves. In other words, don't angle the pick. The picking motion should come from the wrist, and should be as concise as possible. Good alternate pickers make it look effortless. Use a firm pick that is also thin and with a fine point. The crook of your elbow should lock with the body of the guitar. Beyond that, your arm and hand should be totally free of the guitar. You will progress most consistently if you apply yourself to a couple of good exercises, and accept the metronome as your guru.
The all-time classic exercise to get your alternate picking up to speed is a simple but effective one. Begin with your first finger on the first fret of the low E string. Starting with a down stroke, and always alternating between down strokes [V] and up strokes [^], play four notes per string as you climb up the strings. The pattern shown here turns you around on the high E string with an extra note and sets you up for comfortable alternate picking on the way back down.
Be sure to alternate! Keep steady time--don't set a pace you can't maintain--and start over at the beginning when you flub a note. It looks something like this, in tablature:
This gives your fretting hand a pattern that is easy to play so you can focus on your picking. The picking for this pattern simply consists of down stroke, up stroke, down stroke, up stroke in a consistent and even rhythm.
When I show this pattern to beginners, I like to start at one note per beat with the metronome at a leisurely 60 to 80 beats per minute (BPM). Once the speed enters the 120 BPM range, the player can continue to increase the speed by cutting the metronome setting in half; i.e., setting the metronome to 60 while playing 120 notes per minute, and gradually increasing from there. Again, when the metronome approaches the 120 mark, it can be cut in half again. This seemingly simple process can take most dedicated beginners a year or more to accomplish.
Good luck, and in the words of speed-picker extraordinaire Paul Gilbert: "May your notes sound like baseball cards in bicycle spokes!"
Douglas Baldwin has studied with John Scofield and Robert Fripp and has played every kind of gig imaginable. He currently heads the Coyote Music instructional studio in St. James, New York.