Last Updated August 16, 2019

Alternate picking is when you pick strings in alternating directions. You’ve probably done this yourself automatically to some degree, as you’ve probably found some faster single note passages are too difficult to play by picking in one direction only. In theory picking in two directions has twice the maximum speed limit of only picking in one.

Generally speaking, when reading guitar tablature, you won’t be told what direction to pick each note in. That will normally be left to your own discretion. However there are symbols used in tablature to tell you which direction to pick, even though you’ll often only see them as learning tools. As in this lesson! Let’s take a look at an example.

Looking under the tab we can see flat arrows and pointy arrows. Flat arrows tell us to down stroke, meaning pick towards the floor. The pointy arrows tell us to up stroke, meaning pick towards our faces. In both bars we are playing the same C major scale run. In the first bar we are using strict alternate picking, and in the second bar we are using economy picking. We’ve arranged the C major scale as three notes per string so that we can see the difference.

In strict alternate picking, we start with a down stroke and follow with an up stroke. And then we continue this pattern through the whole run.

But have a look at the first three notes. After these three notes we move down to the A string. But following strict alternate picking we need to play the first note of the next set of three using an up stroke. This can feel unnatural. We are moving our hand down wards to the next string, but we need to pick up wards. So we end up moving our hands down to the next string, hitting the breaks and then coming back up again to pick the string.

This can pose no problem to some players, but to many this can feel awkward and unnatural. Since we are moving down to the next string wouldn’t it be more comfortable to start using a down stroke again? Well this is what we do in the second bar. That’s called economy picking. We still use alternate picking, but when we change strings we start again using a picking direction matching the direction we are moving our hand. That may still continue the alternating pattern, or it may break the alternating pattern.

Chances are you’re already using economy picking. However some players swear by using strict alternating pattern at all times. An example is Paul Gilbert. An idea of why strict alternate picking may be better than economy picking is that it’s easier to keep consistently in time. As for what you should do, try them both out and decide which is more comfortable for yourself.

Don’t try learning both of them. Since they are in opposition, you will end up contradicting your own efforts and practice. Try to decide on one and stick to it.

Key points to remember!
  • Strict alternating picking means we always alterate between up and down strokes.
  • Economy picking also alternates, but when changing strings we pick in the direction of travel.
  • Both methods are used by players who prefer them, choose which you prefer.
  • Dont try to master both, choose one.