To easily play with greater speed, you'll need to use the most effective picking technique possible. This doesn't require learning many new exercises for guitar, you only need to change one thing in your current guitar playing approach. Follow this basic idea from now on to make your picking technique highly efficient, giving you the ability to play faster on guitar with ease:
1. While ascending the strings (moving from a lower string to another string above), play with a downstroke.
2. While descending the strings (moving from a higher string to another string below), play with an upstroke.
You can still use alternate picking while playing several notes on a single string.
This picking concept is referred to as "directional picking". This picking concept is referred to as "directional picking". I teach this to all my correspondence guitar students so they can quickly play at high speeds. Many guitarists would (falsely) refer to this technique as "economy picking". However, this term is a name for a separate technique (more on this below). The point is, out of the most common picking techniques (alternate picking, directional picking and economy picking), directional picking is the least difficult to master and build tons of guitar speed with.
Here are four main reasons why directional picking is the best way for you to become a faster guitarist:
Reason #1: If you don't use directional picking, you must use 30% more movement to play the identical notes (slowing down your picking speed drastically)
As you play scales with three notes on each string it's not necessary to skip over strings (as you would need to with alternate picking). Rather than doing this, you simply move directly to the next note by picking in its direction (as described above).
Here is an example of an ascending scale that displays this (the symbol means "downstroke", while means "upstroke"):
Note the red square markings in the tablature above points out when two downstrokes occur in a row while changing strings using directional picking. This is much more efficient than using alternate picking in this case.
Notice: to develop incredible guitar speed using directional picking, you have to properly complete string changes with two consecutive down/up strokes and avoid a frequent mistake guitarists make when they initially use this technique. If you do it incorrectly (like most people when they begin), your guitar picking speed will not achieve its greatest potential. Check out the video below to see a demonstration of this idea to one of my guitar students who is just learning it for the first time:
Reason #2: You guitar practice become more efficient so you can build speed faster
After watching the demonstration above, you understand how directional picking utilizes the same motions used in sweep picking electric guitar technique. In other words, while practicing directional picking, you are also working to improve sweep picking. By practicing sweep picking, your directional picking becomes more clean and articulate.
Certainly, this does not mean you can neglect sweep picking practice altogether just because you are working on it with directional picking - it merely means that practicing each technique in isolation (directional picking and sweep picking) carries over to the other technique. Study the sweep picking video below and observe how the string changing motions from directional picking translate directly into sweep picking:
Check out more of the sweep picking arpeggios video above.
With this in mind, practicing exclusively with alternate picking will not help you master sweep picking (and sweep picking will not help you master alternate picking). So you must invest additional practice time into mastering both guitar techniques separately.
This makes directional picking a good option when you seem to have too little time to practice guitar.
Reason #3: Directional picking greatly improves your picking articulation
The above headline is the opposite claim of what you hear in a lot of guitar communities and YouTube videos. What you frequently hear is that alternate picking helps you play stronger accents because downstrokes are naturally louder and that directional (or economy) picking prevents you from playing with great articulation.
Here is some reasoning to show you why this false claim is totally misguided and why reality is the opposite:
*You can articulate any note using either an upstroke or a downstroke, whenever you want. To see for yourself, choose any note on guitar and play it with a downstroke‚Ä¶ then immediately play that same note using an upstroke (but played with additional force). Chances are, you could easily do this. And if you could, then you already know that you don't need to use a downstroke to have the note be accented. Accents and articulation are accomplished by having good control over your overall picking technique, not by focusing on downstrokes vs. upstrokes.
*The concept of alternate picking (strictly making all downstrokes be heavily accented and all upstrokes not accented) is very restricting. Since any note can be accented with any type of pick stroke, there is no true advantage to forcing yourself to play in the same manner all the time. On top of that, whenever you need to pick a different way (by articulating an upstroke or having the accent fall anywhere other than the downbeat), your playing will feel very awkward.
However, if you practice using directional picking (where accents can fall on any pick stroke), you won't run into the problems above. You will learn to articulate notes either on downstrokes or upstrokes and will not be limited to doing so only on the downbeat. So directional picking provides more options for articulating notes in any manner you desire, if you master control over both downstrokes and upstrokes. After transforming tons of students over the years into great guitarists, I've seen this countless times.
The fundamental reason why most strict alternate picking guitarists make the (false) claim above is because their downstrokes and upstrokes are completely out of balance. So whenever they use directional picking, it feels strange to accent upstrokes, and it reveals the weakness in their overall picking technique. Instead of overcoming this playing weakness and developing their technique, they simply choose what feels easiest to them (while claiming that directional picking limits their articulation).
* When you transfer from one string to another using directional picking (playing two notes in the same direction, both notes are strongly accented from the momentum of the picking motion (as you saw in the video above).
To explain this better, I want you to think about boxing. Boxers are trained to punch through their target to get the most power from their punches. This is precisely what occurs with directional picking when you transfer strings using two consecutive upstrokes/downstrokes. You use momentum from the note of the previous string to push through the note on the next/current string. This makes it very loud and accented (if you decided to accent it heavily).
While using alternate picking during string transfers, you must go around the next string, ending the momentum. Then you must reverse movement to use an upstroke. This not only is a massive waste of time and energy, but it also keeps you from using the momentum of the previous note due to an inefficient picking path.
Reason #4: Directional picking is a powered-up version of alternate picking
Most people who are against directional picking defend alternate picking, while ignoring the obvious: in most guitar playing scenarios, directional picking and alternate picking are completely the same. Whether you are playing on a single string or using two or four note per string scales, your pick will usually move in precisely the same manner with directional picking or alternate picking.
The only scenario where directional picking separates itself from exclusive alternate picking is during 3 note per string scales, where it is logical to do so for the reasons stated above. As a result, directional picking has ALL the advantages of alternate picking, with none of its disadvantages.
Directional picking is not a separate picking technique and doesn't require learning new picking patterns or relearning the way you play guitar. The only adjustment you must make in your guitar picking technique is what I talked about at the beginning of this article. With a little practice, you can apply this change into your everyday technique and build your guitar picking speed fast.
That said, even with all this information in front of them, many people decide not to take advantage of this technique, because of several false rationalizations...
False Rationalization #1: "I want to completely master alternate picking, then transition into directional picking". This makes no sense because it doesn't follow that you should use a technique that 1. is less efficient and 2. will need to be unlearned later ANYWAY. It's much easier to make the switch to directional picking so you can gain the benefits of alternate picking (without the downsides).
False Rationalization #2: "My favorite guitarist plays very fast with only alternate picking, and I want to play like him. Therefore, I will continue using only alternate picking". If you think this way, know that:
*Directional picking is precisely the same as alternate picking in just about every scenario‚Ä¶only made more efficient when possible. So it only makes it faster and easier for you to increase your guitar speed.
*There is no doubt that many people play guitar fast while exclusively using alternate picking‚Ä¶ however, you also can't deny the obvious inefficiencies of this technique. So while you definitely CAN learn to pick fast on guitar while exclusively using alternate picking, you will build the same degree of guitar speed much faster, with little effort and frustration if you use directional picking.
False Rationalization #3: "Directional picking means you have to figure out picking patterns before you play them." If you believe this, then you are conflating "directional" picking with "economy" picking. Economy picking is a technique that requires switching strings using a sweep picking motion at all times - thus causing you to plan how many notes per string you must play in every phrase.
Directional picking is not like this - you simply use the two rules I gave you at the top of the article. Then, you will alternate picking notes when it is the most efficient path to the next note, or use sweep picking on string changes when it is the most efficient path to the next note.
False Rationalization #4: "Directional picking makes it harder to perform string skipping/inside picking because the pick has increased chances of hitting the string being skipped." This argument is not valid in the same way that the argument that directional picking has weaker articulation is invalid.
Directional picking doesn't make anything more difficult, it simply exposes your lack of skill while playing in specific picking contexts. Such contexts could be continually picking between two strings and using certain kinds of string skipping that strict alternate pickers find difficult. Once you become aware of your weaknesses, you can either develop them to make them stronger OR avoid them and continue claiming that directional picking makes string skipping more difficult.
Incidentally, correspondence guitar students who learn directional picking from me, almost never have issues with string skipping and inside picking like strict alternate pickers do.
False Rationalization #5: "Directional picking is only for rock/metal guitar players, it won't work for my playing style." Think again. Just because directional picking makes it much less difficult to build tons of guitar speed, doesn't mean that it is for shred guitarists only. Its most critical benefit is that it makes your overall picking more efficient so you can play better in any musical genre.
Now that you understand why directional picking is a crucial technique to add into your guitar playing, I want to teach you how to master it so you can reach your guitar playing goals in the quickest, least difficult and most straightforward way possible. Check out this guitar lessons page and tell me about the things you'd like to achieve with guitar.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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