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The Art of Fast Guitar - An Alternate Picking Masterclass

Jun 10, 2008
For many guitarists I meet and talk to being able to pick at super speeds through runs and scales seems like an impossible task. Let me assure you right now that it isn't, it is just a matter of practising often, and practising well. By following a few simple guidelines and exercises you'll be shredding away like Herman Li in no time. Well maybe not no time, but certainly not as long as you might think.

Many people associate fast alternate picking with terrible 80s hair metal and too many guitarists playing mindless solos just going up and down scales showing off how fast they can play. While this was certainly true for a good number of players, playing fast and controlled is actually a vital part of having good all round technique, and it has been overlooked in recent years.

It seems to have taken nearly 20 years to start to become more acceptable to play fast and there have been a large number of bands rise in popularity recently that have virtuoso guitar performers at their forefront.

So in this article I'd like to point out some steps that can help out with your alternate picking, giving your solos that speed boost just when they need them. Of course, the benefits of learning the technique isn't only evident in solos as the methods carry across into many other aspects of guitar playing. You'll be able to play more complex rhythm sections a lot more easily which is especially useful in a lot of heavy metal, jazz and flamenco playing.

First things first, what is alternate picking?

Alternate picking is simply a technique where you pick the notes in a continuous up and down motion with your plectrum. For example; first note is played with a downstroke, second with an upstroke, third is down, fourth is up, and so on. Usually the downbeat is played with a downstroke, and the upbeat with an upstroke. This allows you to synch up your hands to the beat and pick accurately and in time. I usually find it is best to synch up your downstrokes to the beat, if you keep the fluid up and down motion then the rest of the notes will look after themselves.

So where to start?

They key to playing really fast is to start really slow. By repeating the actions very slowly but accurately you're programming the actions into your hands and eventually they will become part of your muscle memory. Once learnt slow it becomes much easier to take the same licks and build up the speed. The most absolutely necessary thing you must have is a metronome. Without a metronome to synch up your picking it'll be near impossible to get good technique.

Start off by choosing an exercise or lick that you'd like to learn. Just a simple 1234 chromatic pattern is good, or three notes per string ascending and descending a major scale is also good. Once you've found the run that you'd like to play make sure it goes all the way up, and then back down as well. A key mistake many players make, myself included, is to play the run very well one way but to skip out playing the other way. For a long time I could play ascending scales quite well but it took me quite some time to learn to descend to the same standard.

Play your run up and down very very slowly. Make sure you use the metronome to keep time. Synch up your downstrokes to the clicks of the metronome. The easiest way to get started is playing four notes per string and changing string on each beat. Start very slow, around 40-50bpm and just move in small increments as you feel comfortable. Eventually you'll be flying along at 200bpm, just be patient and never move on until you pick each note cleanly and in time.

I would do these exercises for around an hour each day, focusing on staying clean and keeping the time. Now admittedly playing up and down to a click for an hour isn't the most interesting thing to be doing on the guitar but it pays huge dividends later.

I found it useful to watch some TV or a film whilst practising these kind of exercises. Keep picking through a couple of Simpsons episodes and you've done a really useful practise workout, just make sure your metronome is louder than your TV.

The point of this article really is that I want to push home that seemingly difficult techniques are accessible for everyone, you just need to practise the right way.

Think of playing guitar like driving a racing car. The fretting hand is the steering wheel, and the picking hand is the accelerator. The two elements must work together or you'll crash off the track. In a similar way of looking at things, how many Formula 1 drivers race around a track the first time they go there? The answer is none. They take it very slowly and learn the track inside out before they even think about racing round it. The same applies with guitar and learning alternate picking. Learn it solidly and slowly and the speed will come with time.

Be patient and good luck!
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