Alternate Picking is the general term for any picking motion that moves back and forth while playing a note with each change in direction.
When it comes to playing a sequence of notes on an individual string, alternate picking is the most mechanically efficient way to do it. And because playing more than one note on a string is so fundamental to playing guitar, almost all guitarists who use a pick eventually learn one or more alternate picking techniques.
Down And Up
The two directions of an alternate picking motion are arbitrarily referred to as the downstroke and the upstroke. This is true even when the motion itself doesn’t move strictly down and up, either because your arm approaches the guitar on an angle, the guitar itself is tilted, or both:
On top of this, most joints of the arm and hand generate curved motions, so most alternate picking motions actually trace an arc or semicircle rather than a straight line, even if we don’t always think of them that way. For example, alternate picking from the elbow joint generates a semicircular motion in a plane close to parallel with the guitar’s body:
Alternate picking from the wrist joint generates a curved motion in a similar plane, just with a smaller radius because the pick and the wrist aren’t as far apart:
But the wrist is a multi-axis joint. If we keep the arm in the same position and simply change the direction the wrist is moving, we can actually generate a curved motion in a plane perpendicular to the guitar’s body:
When we use this motion, wrist flexion and extension, the pick actually moves toward and away from the body along a semicircular path. Not only that, but the wrist can actually combine these two axes of motion, creating all kinds of diagonal and semicircular motions which don’t move strictly parallel or perpendicular to the guitar. We’ll learn more about why you’d want to do something like that when we get to escape motion.
It may seem obvious why we would describe a back-and-forth motion as “alternating”, but there’s a deeper reason. In a true alternate picking technique, it’s not just the pick’s direction that alternates, but also the muscle usage. During each direction of the alternate picking motion, only one group of muscles is active while the other group rests. So each group in the pair only works half the time — one during the downstroke, and the other during the upstroke.
This built-in rest period dramatically improves recovery, allowing trained alternate pickers to play prolonged sequences without fatigue. For example, metal master Brendon Small uses his awesome elbow-driven alternate picking technique to play long tremolo melodies while remaining relaxed:
Alternate vs Stringhopping
But not all picking motions use alternating muscles. A common example of one that doesn’t is stringhopping, a whole family of picking motions with a bouncy appearance:
In this stringhopping example, the muscles responsible for the side-to-side motion are alternating, but the muscles responsible for the up-and-down bounce do not. Those muscles, the flexors and extensors, are used on every pickstroke, and quickly tire out. So even though stringhopping looks like alternate picking, it really isn’t. Players who inadvertently learn stringhopping instead of a true alternate picking technique typically complain of arm tension, rapid fatigue, and an inability to play fast.
Alternate vs Downstrokes
There are times when you might intentionally use a picking motion that doesn’t alternate, either in direction or muscle usage. One of those is rhythm playing. Here’s Brendon Small again:
Rhythm parts like this one are typically played with an all-downstroke approach, in which the upstroke phase of the motion is bypassed. When viewed in slow motion, we can see that the motion actually creates a circle, so the pick doesn’t hit the string on the way back:
So Brendon is actually still performing both directions of the motion, but only one of them, the downstroke phase, is actually making any sound. The resulting notes are half as fast as the alternate picking approach, even though he’s making approximately the same number of motions.
In other words, when you do the downstroke motion correctly, it’s roughly similar in effort to doing high-speed alternate picking — more or less. And considering how long rhythm parts can be, this is no small task. But as long as this provides the sound you’re looking for, the relative lack efficiency of this method compared to using alternate picking is worth the trouble, as many rhythm players will attest.
Given that it uses both directions of your picking motion to play notes, alternate picking is really the only way to maximize your speed when picking on a single string. But it can also be used to play lines that move across the strings too. In that case, the alternating sequence of downstrokes and upstrokes is simply maintained as the picking motion itself is relocated from string to string:
In this example, jazz maestro Olli Soikkeli uses his effortless alternate picking technique to play a scale that moves across all six strings. Scale playing is often presented as a benchmark of alternate picking skill, and indeed, when many players attempt this, they find that they hit wrong notes, or can’t do it quickly, or both — sometimes even after years of practice.
The most distilled version of this problem is presented by arpeggio picking, which frequently involves playing only a single note on a string before moving to the next one. Fusion pioneer Steve Morse is famous for his ability to do precisely this while mainting a level of speed and fluidity typically associated with simpler phrases that have more notes per string:
Alternate vs Sweep
In response to the rarity of developing Morse-level arpeggio picking skill, alternate picking is sometimes compared to sweeping or economy picking. These are catch-all terms for a collection of picking styles where some pickstrokes play across multiple strings at a time, strategically eliminating the need to alternate pick during string changes.
But this is a little misleading. A sweep is a type of string changing motion. It’s not a complete replacement for alternate picking because it can’t be used to play multiple notes on a string. And everyone needs to do that occasionally, even sweep pioneer Frank Gambale, who still uses and excels at alternate picking, including while changing strings.
So even the world’s best economy pickers have also figured out something about alternate picking that allows them to do it across the strings without difficulty. And in the next section, we’re going to start to understand what that is.