I get a lot of requests for guitar lessons from students who are desperate to improve their right hand picking technique. This is an area on guitar that many players struggle with, and not addressing it will mean that you are unable to execute lead lines and riffs effectively. Even if you have no desire to be a monster shredder on Instagram, it is still worth honing a decent right hand picking style to improve your sound and fluidity on the instrument. From personal experience, I found this was an area that I lacked for a few years in my development as a guitarist, until I decided to sit down and practice my picking technique until I was happy with the results. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of 6 picking exercises that really helped me to improve my technique, and I think if you can master each one, you will find them helpful too.
I have covered the three of the four main picking styles that feature in my technique in this lesson. These are alternate picking, economy picking and sweep picking. I have decided not to include hybrid picking in this lesson as I have a full article planned for that particular technique in the future. Listed below are two exercise for each picking style; one slightly easier and then a more difficult variation of the previous example. Each exercise should be practised slowly at first, with all notated articulations and picking directions strictly obeyed, until sufficient fluency and speed has been achieved.
Alternate Picking Exercises
Alternate picking is simply using a different picking direction with each new stroke. This would mean that your picking sequence would either be down, up, down, up etc or up, down, up, down etc. The exercise below is inspired by Paul Gilbert, and starts on an upstroke. Remember to hold the pick lightly and try to minimise the movement you make when crossing strings.
Below is a variation on the exercise above. I have deliberately made this exercise harder by moving the highest note to a new string every two passes. This increase in distance is hard to navigate, particularly when you are skipping two strings by alternating between the D and high E strings. By making this exercise harder to play, you will improve your technique and ability to cross strings more effectively on the guitar, as you will have to make lighter picking movements in order to properly play this passage. Although this lick sounds rather unmusical and you probably won’t use it in a lick, it will build your technique to a good level in this style. You may also want to vary this sequence by changing the highest placed note every new pass around, in order to increase the difficulty. Finally, you could also try starting on a downstroke and alternate picking the whole thing from there, rather than an upstroke.
Economy picking is especially useful for playing 3 note per string runs. Instead of using an alternate picking approach, you alter your picking directions in order to match the natural direction of travel of your right hand. This results in a sequence that can be described as down up down, down up down, down up down etc. When I first learnt this picking style, I found it most useful to practice it across 4 strings to begin with, before moving onto all 6 strings. Here is a portion of the C major scale as an economy picked sequnce:
Here is the full 6 string version of the scale above. Once you reach the highest note, a double picked note is placed on the 13th fret of the high E string, in order to properly set up the sequence to be reversed. When descending the scale, the picking pattern is now up down up, up down up etc. This means that your right hand is effectively sweeping this scale, and your movement on your right hand is significantly reduced.
Sweep Picking Exercises
Sweep picking sometimes gets a bad rap among guitar players, but I still think that when applied and used tastefully, it can create extremely musical sounding patterns. I found that learning how to sweep pick actually improved other areas of my lead guitar playing, as the general mechanics of the technique can be applied to other areas that require technical proficiency. As with economy picking, I found it useful to start with a simple 4 string pattern to begin with. The exercise below is actually a Cmaj9 arpeggio starting on the 7th degree, and I think it sounds quite interesting.
The next exercise is a full 6 string sweeping pattern. This one is similar to the pattern above, but because it also contains an Am7 arpeggio at the start, you actually generate an Am9 chord. It’s crucial that you practice this one slowly, as well as including all of the hammer ons, pull offs and slides that are notated, as this will make it significantly easier on your right hand as you progress through the lick.
I hope you have found this free guitar lesson useful today. As mentioned above, I will most likely be doing a series on hybrid picking, as well as a general picking tips article, so watch out for those in the future. If you need anymore help developing your technique, then don’t hesitate to contact me in order to arrange an online guitar lesson.
Until next time,