Plan Your Picking To Play Better

Often my students ask me which type of picking should be used to conquer a riff or sequence most effectively. In the beginning, there are very clear answers to this question. As you grow as a player you will find there are no clear rules to the game, especially if a piece is particularly difficult. Instead, think of picking options and techniques as a group of skills you can draw upon and utilize to conquer the difficult passages.

Let’s start with our picking options and their basic usefulness.

1) Just down picking:

Beginners usually learn this first. Although that’s not my philosophy for a lot of reasons. I always show my students how to up pick first and we’ll get into why in just a minute.

All down picking is great when you want to have a set of notes sound uniform or consistent, even if they are played very quickly. For an example of this idea, check out Metallica, which is mostly down picked. Whether it’s the medium tempo “Seek and Destroy” or the thrashing “Master of Puppets,” they are using all down picks to make the tone and rhythm sound consistent. “Master of Puppets” is a real challenge to play with all down picks. I’ve seen it played a lot (and played it myself as an experiment) using alternating picking and the rhythm, and tone suffers immensely.

For chords, either open or power chords that are meant to accent parts of a progression (as opposed to just strummed). Take for example Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” or Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” These would sound silly alternate picked or up picked.

2) Just up picking:

This is great for Reggae. In fact, it is necessary to produce the bouncy choppy characteristic of Reggae sound. Listen to any Bob Marley for examples of this. For a modern application check out Sublime or Sugar Ray. Sometimes you will find muted downstrokes between the ups, but that’s a whole other technique. The sound of the chords is coming from the upstrokes alone.

Just ups single-note picking can often be found in country picking songs. Just ups are really useful for articulating notes that are repeated but not necessarily quickly. There is some physics behind this we will explore now.

2.5) The “sound” and ease of movement of up picking vs. down picking:

The difference in sound between up picking and down picking can be attributed to the muscle movements required to produce each. With down picking both gravity and muscle relaxation are on your side. Instead of pushing through the string, you can merely relax your right hand or wrist and let gravity take over. The angle of the way the pick happens to brush the strings contributes to the ease of movement as well. The result is a smooth full sound when strumming.

Up picking is a little different. In order to up pick you must tense your muscles a bit to fight gravity. This tensing of the muscles makes it more difficult to pull off rythmically. Plus the angle of the pick tends to be a little more perpendicular to the string at the end of the stroke, making it more likely to push the string. This has the potential to result in a little more of a bright sound.

Since up picking is a little more challenging, I like to introduce it to my students first. The logic behind this is that if you cover the harder technique first, the easier one will come naturally.

3) Alternate Picking:

As its name implies, alternate picking is accomplished by alternating between up and down strokes. It is most useful in playing fast scale or sequential passages where most of the movement requires that two or more notes are played on each string, but most commonly three. Examples of this can be found in musicians ranging from Paul Gilbert to John Petrucci to Al Dimeola.

Alternate picking is also imperative for strumming quickly in any style. Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You” is a pop tune featuring this. Check out “Hole Hearted” by Extreme for a metal variation on it. Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” puts a country spin on the strumming.

Picking the quick repeated rhythms on open strings characteristic of metal is also common. Think Ozzy’s “Over the Mountain” or “Bark at the Moon.” A really fast one is the rhythm beneath the verse of Metallica’s “Four Horsemen” for an example of this.

4) Sweep picking:

If you’ve heard Yngwie Malmsteen, you’ve heard sweep picking. If you really want to dig into it, check out Frank Gambale, who in my opinion has the most command over it when compared to all other guitarists utilizing it.

Sweep picking is when you use one consistent down or upstroke to “sweep” across the strings, hitting one note at a time. Meanwhile, the left hand articulates the notes. A fair amount of muting on the part of the right hand is common for keeping the notes from “bleeding together” as well.

In order to be considered a sweep, two or more strings must be struck with the same pick stroke. Most commonly 3, 5 and 6 string combinations are found because of the way chord shapes are arranged logically on the guitar. Most strict sweep picking arpeggios with the root on the 4th, 5th and 6th strings and limited to the major and minor shapes. Other shapes such as 7th, min7th, min7 b5, maj7, and diminished can be found with 3rd string roots.

5) Hybrid picking:

This is the most important type of picking for advanced guitarists. Again look at Frank Gambale for a good reference. Also check out Shawn Lane.

Hybrid picking is when you combine sweep picking with alternate picking. This is a very necessary technique for most fusion and modern jazz music. In its simplest form it can be applied to play shapes such as 7th, min7th, min7 b5, maj7 with roots on the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings. When utilized completely it can be used to construct 9ths, 11ths and 13th along with the # or b variations thereof.

So there you have it, the breakdown of your picking choices and when to use them. If you are a beginner, start with up picks and work your way up from there. You will find the progression to be natural if you tackle them one at a time and find practice songs to learn that utilize each technique.

Go pick me a winner!