Getting Started with Alternate Picking and the Long Road to Speed

Alternate Picking & Patience: Speed Will Come

Getting Started with Alternate Picking and the Long Road to Speed

As a teacher, one thing I get asked a lot by students as they get to the point of starting to learn lead guitar, or even more complex riffs, is how do I go FASTER?

So, by this point you’ve been playing a few months, you’re confident with your rhythmic playing, you can play a few scales and you’ve learnt a few easy songs or guitar solos, now you’re ready to start training to hang with the big boys, the speed demons.

There are a few key elements in hitting your speed targets.

Alternate Picking: Sure, you can play some riffs and some slower lead guitar licks with all downstrokes, but if you want to get your notes flowing then it’s time to become acquainted with alternate picking. This may be a new and frightening term, but we’ll be bringing in that all important upstroke to reduce the load on our hands and make our playing more economical and, you guessed it, faster.

Patience: Be realistic, you’re not going to go from playing Smoke on the Water to playing like Paul Gilbert overnight. This is something that takes time. This is the start of your speed journey, it’s a long road with many bumps and obstacles on the way. It’s not for the faint hearted, but those who arrive at their destination are welcomed into a wonderful new world of technical mastery.

Commitment: As with patience, there is the acceptance that speed and technique are not going to happen overnight. You have to WANT this. This is your goal, you have to commit and work hard to make this happen.

Metronome: There are many bumps, but through this battle you will have an allied force standing beside you, the metronome. I would suggest becoming friends. The metronome will be your timekeeper, your personal coach and your constant source of encouragement. It will push you to go faster and harder than you’ve gone before.

For this lesson we’re going to use the A Major scale in 2 different shapes, both originating at the 5th fret of the Low E string:

Shape 1: This will differ slightly from what you’d usually see as a major scale shape because we’re going to also utilize the 7th degree of the scale before the original root note (In this case that’ll be our G# note (4th fret) of the Low E string)

 Shape 2: This is a stretched-out version of this scale using 3 notes per string all the way from root to the top.

Along with these 2 scale shapes we’ll also be using some open strings and a selection of single notes.

Exercise 1:

The first step is to get comfortable with the idea of down and up picking. This exercise will also allow us to get comfortable with a metronome. We will only be using open hits on the low E string for this. You can palm mute the notes or leave them ring out, the focus is on your pick and your coordination between what timing your metronome sets and how you pick the strings.

Depending on your technical ability, I’d recommend setting your metronome to 70-80BPM for each of these exercises. You can start lower if that feels too fast or you can push the tempo up if you feel you’re finding that speed too easy.

Quarter Notes

When playing open strings as quarter notes you want to make sure each note corresponds to a beat of the metronome. For this grouping, stick to only downstrokes. This is just to get a feel for the metronome and start to lock your timing into the beat. Once you get comfortable with this, we can start dividing the length of each note to fit more in.

Eighth Notes

An eighth note is half the length of a quarter note, meaning we can now apply 2 notes to each beat we hear. You can vocalize the count of these as “1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +”. This is where we will start to use upstrokes. For each open string that falls on a beat you’ll use a down and each note that falls on an “and” we’ll be using an upstroke.

Sixteenth Notes

Much like the theory behind dividing quarter notes to get eighth notes, we can keep that going. If you divide the length of eighth notes, you get sixteenth notes. We can now apply 4 notes to each beat we hear.

To vocalise this, we’re going to use “1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a”.

Each note that corresponds with 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + will be downstrokes and everything that falls on an “e” or an “a” will be an upstroke.



Exercise 2:

For this exercise we are going to take the concept of eighth and sixteenth notes on the low E string but add a fretted note every 4 notes. This will increase your coordination between your left and right hands. As with exercise 1, start with the metronome at a comfortable pace. The focus at first is getting the part clean and tight.

Eighth Notes

You’ll still be counting this as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + but this time you’ll be introducing fretted notes on the + of beats 2 and 4 of each bar.

Sixteenth Notes

This will be counted as 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a, but now introducing a fretted note on the “a” of each beat. Start slow, this this and build up the speed gradually. The most important thing when it comes to playing faster is to ensure your coordination is correct and you are playing each note in a clean and clear manner.


Exercise 3

Now we are going to look at making the left hand busier. For these groupings, we are going to focus on the E to G strings doing notes in triplets (3 notes per beat). The count vocalisation for this will be 1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3

We will be taking both the scale shapes starting at the lowest note and working up as follows:

Shape 1 Ascending:

Shape 2 Ascending:

Then, we can start to work on these same note groupings but descending. For these descending runs, I’d always recommend starting on an up stroke.

Shape 1 Descending:

Shape 2 Descending:

This exercise will be a good coordination builder between both hands and it will also allow you to start to focus on building some speed in both hands. Set the metronome at a comfortable pace and focus on getting the triplets to link up with the beats. Once you’ve got that clean and you are comfortable, you can start to increase the speed.


Exercise 4

The following patterns are also triplet based and the counting of 1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3 still applies.

The first 2 examples are 6 note groupings which move up 4 notes in the scale and back again. The 12 notes are divided into 2 triplets. You’ll be sticking with the 12 notes per bar idea from the previous exercise but this time you’ll be moving both ways within one passage.

Shape 1:

Shape 2:

These groupings can be repeated with the metronome. This will increase your finger coordination with your picking coordination. Start slow to ensure all the fretted notes are ringing true and you’re not muting any. Once the patterns are clean, start to boost the tempo.


Exercise 5

Now we’re going to take the groupings from the previous exercise and start to move these up the strings. These type of major scale patterns are influenced by Paul Gilbert and how he utilizes the major scale shapes in a shred guitar context. You don’t have to play these at the blistering speeds of Gilbert, but it’ll set you on the track to fretboard glory!

Once again, we are sticking to 3 notes per click and a count of 1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3

Shape 1


Shape 2

These exercises are the most demanding of all the ones covered in this lesson. You’ll be alternate picking while moving up and down the strings. Pay close attention to the order of the notes and how the triplets flow into each other. Once again, focus on clarity over speed.


Practise Tips

All these exercises are designed to fit with a metronome. Start at a slow tempo. I recommend about 60-80bpm when working on each idea for the first time. Practise each tempo for a 30-60 second burst and rest for the same length of time between each burst.

For consistency, pick a tempo and play it for the 30-60 second burst, then rest for the same time. Repeat the burst and rest until the exercise is clean and tight.

Once you are ready to push the speed, apply the same practise routine but in the break, put the metronome up 10bpm. For example:

60 bpm = 30/60 seconds

Rest = 30/60 seconds

70 bpm = 30/60 seconds

Rest = 30/60 seconds

80 bpm = 30/60 seconds

Rest = 30/60 seconds

90 bpm = 30/60 seconds


When working on speed practise of increasing the metronome in 10bpm increments, when you reach a speed that you start to get messy, stop. Repeat the next day from the slowest tempo. After a few days, the previous tempo you stopped at (Let’s call it 110bpm for now), will now be comfortable. Then you can carry on increasing the metronome in those increments. Be patient, speed takes time. Be sure to warm up before attempting speed building exercises and keep yourself loose and fee of tension in both your fretting and picking arms.

Be sure to keep your note lengths consistent and be conscious of not speeding up/slowing down. The metronome will help you keep in time and sticking to this will ensure your picking and coordination develops.



About the Author

Leigh Fuge is a guitar tutor and professional guitarist from the UK. If you don’t  find him on stage or in the studio with his band, you will find him all over the internet providing guitar lessons and content for MGR Music and it’s partners. He has taught hundreds of students face to face and online and have provided guidance and help to countless others.

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