Beginner Guitar Lessons: Alternate picking

You know how to play a few chords, but what's next? TG's beginner guitar lessons are here to walk you through the essentials. Here we look at alternate picking.

Assess yourself

TG's going to take an educated guess here and say that if no-one's told you how to pick it's likely that you use downstrokes exclusively. This tends to be the default technique for new guitarists. Try this: play one note eight times while looking at your picking hand. If you're picking all downstrokes then we need to get to work on your picking technique. If you're picking down and upstrokes then you're on the right track, but there's probably still some work to refine your technique...

Why alternate pick?

Open the 'Alternate picked riff' tab (Right-click to download)

The best technique for picking single notes is alternate picking. As the name suggests, you alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes. This is considered optimum technique by nearly all lead guitarists. When you play all downstrokes you pick the first note and then move back past the string without playing it, before playing the next note. A more efficient way to play is to pick a downstroke followed by an upstroke because this doesn't waste any motion and allows you to play more fluently and more quickly.

Tip: This riff starts on a downstroke and then uses alternate picking from then on. Make sure you don't slip into downstrokes.

Give yourself options

Open the 'Alternate picking exercise' tab (Right-click to download)

There are some situations where all downstrokes are a good idea. Lots of heavy riffs and heavy rhythm guitar parts use down picking. However, it's not in your best interests to do this all the time. It's hard to down-pick at very high speeds and you may struggle as you attempt to play harder material. It's much better to be proficient at both techniques (ie, down picking and up picking) and then choose which one you want to use rather than playing all downstrokes just because that's all you can do.

Tip: this is a simplified version of a classic alternate picking exercise. It only uses two strings and you should use strict alternate picking throughout, otherwise you're wasting your time.