What Is Alternate Picking?

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. In fact, many 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:

The actual orientation of this semicircle can vary based on a number of factors. In this illustration, the forearm approaches the strings at approximately a 45-degree angle, which is a general but more or less accurate approximation of elbow technique. This allows the joint to trace a correspodingly diagonal path with respect to the strings, such that the bottom of the downstroke approaches the electronics, while the top of the upstroke approaches the upper bout of the guitar’s body.

By comparison, 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.

Efficient Muscle Usage

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:

Gears Trem Melody Tk2

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics