Alternate picking: What Is It And Where Did It Come From?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 20, 2022

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Alternate picking is a guitar technique that involves picking the strings in an alternating up-down motion using a guitar pick.

Alternate picking is a very efficient way of playing and can help to make your playing sound clean and precise. It is often used when playing fast passages of music or when playing complex rhythm patterns.

It’s so efficient because you don’t have to think about how to pick, just keep the speed consistent and you can easily fret the notes at the same tempo as the speed of the pick.

What is alternate picking

When moving from one string to another, you might find that keeping the alternation of up and downstrokes might become cumbersome, which is why a lot of guitar players opt for economy picking, which accommodates the changes of strings to sometimes do several up or downstrokes in a row when moving from string to string.

There are many different ways to practice alternate picking, but one of the most effective ways is to use a metronome. Start by setting the metronome to a slow tempo and pick each note in time with the metronome. As you get comfortable with the tempo, you can gradually increase the speed.

Another way to practice alternate picking is to use a guitar backing track. This will help you to get used to playing with a consistent rhythm. Start by picking along with the track at a slow tempo. As you get comfortable with the rhythm, you can gradually increase the speed.

Alternate picking is a essential technique for any guitar player. By practicing this technique, you can develop your speed, accuracy, and precision.

Alternate picking is a guitar technique that allows you to play more than 1 note at a time. It’s used in almost every genre of guitar music, but it’s most popular in shred and metal. Alternate picking allows you to play more than 1 note at a time. It’s used in almost every genre of guitar music, but it’s most popular in shred and metal.

It’s a very challenging technique, but with practice, you can use it to play faster and more accurately.

The Basics of Alternate Picking

The Symbols

Ever seen those funny looking symbols when looking at guitar tabs? Don’t worry, it’s not a secret code. It’s just the same notation used by other string instruments like the violin and cello.

The downstroke symbol looks like a table, while the upstroke symbol looks like a V. The downstroke symbol (left) has a downward opening and the upstroke symbol (right) has an upward opening.

The Types

When it comes to alternate picking, there are three main types:

  • Double picking: playing a downstroke then an upstroke (or vice versa) on a single string. When you double pick the same note multiple times, it’s also called tremolo picking.
  • Outside picking: playing downstrokes on a lower string and upstrokes on a higher string. Your pick should travel from the outside edge of one string to another.
  • Inside picking: playing downstrokes on a higher string and upstrokes on a lower string. Your pick should stay in the space between two strings.

The Tips

Most alternate picking licks and riffs start with a downstroke. But it’s still helpful to get comfortable with starting on an upstroke too –– especially for syncopated rhythms.

Most guitarists find outside picking easier, especially when string skipping. That’s when you pick one string, then cross over one or more strings to pick another.

But with the right technique, you can conquer both styles like a pro. So don’t be afraid to give it a try!

Alternate Picking: Technique

Left Hand Technique

If you’re just starting out with alternate picking, the left hand technique is the same as with any other style. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Press your fingertips just above the fret, straightening your wrist and relaxing your shoulder.
  • Make sure both hands are moving in sync. Start with slow, simple exercises and gradually increase the speed.

Right Hand Technique

When it comes to alternate picking, your right hand technique is a bit more complicated. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Choose the right type of pick for your style of playing. For beginners, a standard pick with a slightly rounded tip is a good choice.
  • Make sure you’re holding your pick at the wide end, just above the point. This will give you more control of your picking motion.
  • Keep a relaxed but steady grip. Don’t tense up your hand or you’ll slow down your picking speed.
  • Hold your pick at a slight angle, so the tip just barely grazes the top of the string. Imagine it as a pendulum, swinging back and forth from one side of the string to the other.
  • For an even steadier hand, try anchoring the heel of your palm against the bridge of your guitar.
  • Practice with a metronome to keep a constant rhythm. Accuracy is more important than speed.

Hand, Wrist and Arm

To get the perfect pick pendulum, you’ll need to twist your hand each time. Here’s what to do:

  • When you flick the tip of the pick down, your thumb joint should bend slightly and your other fingers should swing out, away from the strings.
  • When you flick up, your thumb joint should straighten and your other fingers should swing in, towards the strings.
  • Move your wrist instead of your elbow for maximum efficiency.
  • Anchor the heel of your palm against the bridge of your guitar for extra support.

Alternate Picking: A Guide for Beginners


It’s essential to stay relaxed when you’re learning to alternate pick. So take a deep breath, exhale, and get ready to shred.

Alternate Each Note

Focus on alternating between upstrokes and downstrokes. Once you’re comfortable with the movement, you can add extra downstrokes or upstrokes to make certain licks easier. But for now, keep it consistent.

Record Yourself

Record yourself playing for a few minutes each practice session. This way, you can listen back and judge your speed, accuracy, and rhythm. Plus, you can make adjustments for your next session.

Listen to the Masters

If you want to get inspired, listen to some of the greats. John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, and John Petrucci are all famous for their alternate picking. Check out their songs and get ready to rock.

John McLaughlin’s “Lockdown Blues” is a great example of his signature rapid-fire alternate picking.

Alternate Picking Exercises for Guitarists

Double and Tremolo Picking

Ready to get your picking hand in shape? Start with double and tremolo picking. These are the basics of alternate picking and will help you get a feel for the technique.

Outside and Inside Licks

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can move on to outside and inside licks. Start with the pentatonic scale and work your way up to more complicated scales and arpeggios.

Walkups and Walkdowns

One of the most popular alternate picking exercises is the single string walkup to the 12th fret. It’s a great way to practice shifting your index and pinky fingers up and down the fretboard.

Here’s how it works:

  • Position your index finger on the 1st fret, middle finger on the 2nd fret, ring finger on the 3rd fret and pinky on the 4th fret.
  • Starting with an open string, walk up one fret at a time to the 3rd fret.
  • In the next beat, walk up one more step to the 4th fret, then down to the 1st fret.
  • Slide your index to the 2nd fret and walk up to the 5th fret.
  • Slide your pinky to the 6th fret and walk down to the 3rd fret.
  • Repeat this motion until you reach the 12th fret with your pinky.
  • Walk down to the 9th fret, then slide your index finger to the 8th fret for your next walk up.
  • Repeat this backward motion to your open E.

Tremolo Shuffle

Tremolo picking is a great way to add some flavor to your playing. For a bluesy sound, try the tremolo shuffle. It involves an open A tremolo gallop and a doublestop barre on the D and G strings.

Outside Picking

Want to take your outside picking to the next level? Try the Paul Gilbert exercise. It’s a four-note pattern in two triplet patterns –– the first ascending, the second descending.

Start at the 5th fret and work your way up. You can also substitute the second note with your middle finger instead of your ring finger.

Inside Picking

Inside picking is a great way to practice shifting your fingers up and down the fretboard. Anchor one finger in place on one string and use the other to walk up your fretboard on an adjacent string.

Start by barreing the B and E strings with your index and fretting the E string notes with your other fingers. Then, play the B string upstroke before the high E downstroke.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, try shifting it to another set of strings (like E and A, A and D or D and G). You can also use this exercise to practice both inside and outside picking.

Alternate Picking: A Curved Motion

Down and Up? Not Quite.

When it comes to alternate picking, we like to think of it as a simple down-and-up motion. But it’s not that simple! Whether it’s because your arm is at an angle, the guitar is tilted, or both, the truth is that most alternate picking motions actually trace an arc or semicircle.

Elbow Joints

If you alternate pick from the elbow joint, you’ll get a semicircular motion in a plane close to parallel with the guitar’s body.

Wrist Joints

Alternate picking from the wrist joint gives you a curved motion in a similar plane, just with a smaller radius because the pick and the wrist aren’t as far apart.

Multi-Axis Joints

When you use the wrist’s multi-axis motion, the pick moves toward and away from the body along a semicircular path. Plus, the wrist can combine these two axes of motion, creating all kinds of diagonal and semicircular motions that don’t move strictly parallel or perpendicular to the guitar.

So What?

So why would you want to do something like this? Well, it’s all about the escape motion. It’s a fancy way of saying that you can use alternate picking to make your playing sound more fluid and effortless. So if you want to take your playing to the next level, it’s worth giving it a shot!

The Benefits of Alternating Muscle Usage

What is Alternating?

Have you ever wondered why a back-and-forth motion is called “alternating”? Well, it’s not just the pick’s direction that changes, but also the muscle usage. When you alternate pick, you’re only using one group of muscles at a time, while the other group gets a break. So each group only works half the time – one during the downstroke, and the other during the upstroke.

The Benefits

This built-in rest period has some pretty awesome benefits:

  • You can play long sequences without getting tired
  • You can stay relaxed while playing
  • You can play faster and more accurately
  • You can play with more power and control

Take metal master Brendon Small for example. He uses his elbow-driven alternate picking technique to play long tremolo melodies without breaking a sweat. Check it out!

Alternate Picking vs Stringhopping: What’s the Difference?

What is Alternate Picking?

Alternate picking is a guitar technique where you alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes with your pick. It’s a great way to get a smooth, even sound when playing fast. It’s also a great way to build up speed and accuracy.

What is Stringhopping?

Stringhopping is a whole family of picking motions that have a bouncy appearance. It’s a bit like alternate picking, but the muscles responsible for the up-and-down motion don’t alternate. This means that the muscles tire out quickly, which can lead to arm tension, fatigue, and difficulty playing fast.

So, Which One Should I Use?

It really depends on what kind of sound you’re going for. If you’re looking for a smooth, even sound, then alternate picking is the way to go. But if you want something a bit more bouncy and energetic, then stringhopping might be the way to go. Just be aware that it can be a bit more tiring and difficult to master.

Alternate Picking vs Downstrokes: What’s the Difference?

Alternate Picking

When it comes to guitar playing, alternate picking is the way to go. This method involves using a picking motion that alternates between upstrokes and downstrokes. It’s fast, efficient, and produces a nice, even sound.


There are times when you might want to use a picking motion that doesn’t alternate, either in direction or muscle usage. This is usually done when playing rhythm parts. Instead of alternating between upstrokes and downstrokes, you just use downstrokes. This creates a slower, more relaxed sound.

The Pros and Cons

When it comes to picking, there are pros and cons to both alternate picking and downstrokes. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Alternate Picking: Fast and efficient, but can sound a bit too “even”
  • Downstrokes: Slower and more relaxed, but can sound a bit too “lazy”

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide which method works best for your style of playing.

Maximizing Your Speed with Alternate Picking

Scale Dorian

Jazz maestro Olli Soikkeli uses alternate picking to play a scale that moves across all six strings. This type of scale playing is often used as a benchmark for alternate picking skill.

Arpeggios Four-String

Fusion pioneer Steve Morse is known for his ability to play arpeggios across four strings with speed and fluidity. Arpeggio picking often involves playing only a single note on a string before moving to the next one.

If you’re a guitarist looking to up your game, alternate picking is the way to go. It’s the perfect way to get your fingers flying and your speed up. Just remember to alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes and you’ll be shredding like a pro in no time!


Alternate picking is an essential skill for any guitarist, and it’s easy to learn with the right technique. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to play fast, complex licks and riffs with ease. Just remember to keep your pick at an angle, relax your grip, and don’t forget to ROCK OUT! And if you ever find yourself stuck, just remember: “If at first you don’t succeed, pick, pick again!”

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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