How to: pick triplets

Every month, Guitar Techniques attempts to answer guitarists' playing posers and technical teasers with expert and practical advice. This time we look at playing triplets...

The question

Dear GT

I have a question regarding triplets: how do you pick them? Is there a commonly accepted way that this should be done?

When picking a whole bar where each beat has been split into three, which one of the following should I play? Down up down, down up down, down up down, down up down or down up down, up down up, down up down, up down up?


The Answer

In theory, both ways are acceptable, Jeremy; what it comes down to in the end is a matter of putting the accents in the right places.

If we take a bar of eighth-note triplets in 4/4 time (example below) you'll see that the accents belong on the first eighth note of each triplet group, giving you a counting regime that would go: 1 & a - 2 & a - 3 & a - 4 & a, etc.

Picking these the 'down up down, down up down' way would automatically place a strong downstroke in the right place (below) even though it might be a little difficult for you to get your pick around initially. Practice, however, solves most concerns!

Using the alternate picking method would also be fine, but it would place the accent on an upstroke every other beat. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, as long as you can still make the triplets sound even and well defined.

All this said, it depends on the tempo you play these at - if it's pretty fast (eg 3 notes at 180 or more bpm), you're probably best off with strict alternate picking.