Picking Patterns Part II

In the last lesson, we started breaking picking patterns down to their basics and evaluated both alternate- and economy-picking strategies. While many of the patterns were circular, they had a decidedly ascending bent to them. In this lesson, we’ll do the same breakdown, but we’ll focus on descending patterns.

My approach to economy-picking/sweep-picking is to treat is as an optimization of an alternate-picked pattern. Obviously this depends on the lick you’re trying to play. A big arpeggio across all six strings is much trickier to play with strict alternate-picking than using sweep-picking. But let’s leave the obvious examples aside.

The Burst

The decision to use alternate-picking vs. economy-picking only matters when we’re crossing strings. You can’t sweep-pick a single string, right? So let’s start with a simple four-note “burst”: three notes on one string, one note on another. This gives us our first descending cross. Here are the two alternate-picking versions. The first pattern (measures 1-2) begins with a downstroke, the second pattern (measures 3-4) starts with an upstroke.

The only meaningful string-crossing we might want to economize is the descent from the 4th fret of the 3rd string to the 7th fret of the 4th string. The rest before the cycle starts again should give us enough time to get our pick ready to hit the 7th fret on the 3rd string. If we want to attack that descent with a single upstroke, we can play it like this:

The key is starting the descent with an upstroke. If we start with a downstroke the math doesn’t work out correctly. The two “rules” of economy picking are:

  1. For an odd-number of notes on a string, start with the same stroke you want to finish with on that string
  2. For an even-number of notes on a string, start with the opposite stroke from the one you want to finish with on that string

The 4-Note Cycle

Let’s move from the “burst” to some circular patterns. Let’s extend our basic four-note pattern into an down-and-back cycle of sixteenth-note triplets. Here’s how you would play it with strict alternate-picking:

The first pattern (measures 1-2) start with a downstroke. The second pattern (measures 3-4) begins with an upstroke. There shouldn’t be anything surprising here—just strict alternate picking. The tricky part with both of these is handling the two cross-string transitions between the 4th fret on the 3rd string and the 7th fret on the 4th string. 

Can we optimize some of those string-crossings with economy-picking? Here are two patterns that attempt to solve that problem:

The first pattern (measures 1-2) focus on economy-picking the descent from the 4th fret of the 3rd string to the 7th fret of the 4th string. The second pattern (measures 3-4) focuses on the ascent between the same two notes. Because of the number of notes in the cycle, we have drop a pick-stroke somewhere along the way to make the math work out, which is why there’s a pull-off in the lick.

We could put the legato note on any note that is between two other notes on the same string. For me, the pull-off to the fourth fret on the third string seems to feel the best. You may feel more comfortable hammering-on or pulling-off to another note.

The 5-Note Cycle

Let’s add another note to our cycle. Here are the two alternate-picking ways of playing this:

Start with a down-stroke, start with an up-stroke, it doesn’t really matter. Once you get into the cycle, the effort is the same. If we want to economize the cross-string motions, we have two ways we can use economy-picking to do it:

Just like the four-note cycle, we need to drop a pick-stroke here to make the math work out correctly. Again, I’ve chosen to pull-off from the 5th to the 4th fret on the 3rd string. You may find that you prefer a legato note somewhere else in the lick.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the economy-picked versions of the four and five-note cycles are any easier than the alternate-picked versions. To me, my picking hand feels like it has to keep changing what it’s doing all the time in the economy-picked versions. While my picking hand is in perpetual back-and-forth motion in the alternate-picked versions, at least it’s consistent. Once I get that alternating motion going, it’s pretty easy to lock the entire cycle in.

Surely economy picking is good for something?

The 6-Note Cycle

Let’s forge ahead and extend our cycles by another note. This time we’ll use a six-note cycle, three notes per string. I show these as 32nd notes, but you can play as any evenly-divisible note duration (16ths, 8ths, quarter-notes).

Here we have both alternate-picked versions, and a “max economy” version (which sounds like a cheap hatchback). The last version focuses on maximizing the economy-picking in the string-crossing so it has two sweeps: down from the 4th fret on the 3rd string to the 7th fret on the 4th string and back up.

Like many of the other economy-picked cycles we’ve seen, this one also needs a legato-note to make the “pick math” work out correctly. Remember that in all of these cases it’s only necessary because we’re trying to work out a consistent repeating cycle. If we were simply descending, this would be less of an issue.

With this cycle, we finally get a lick with more than a single sweep in it, which feels like it should make the lick easier to play. But, I still find the introduction of the pull-off forces this weird interruption in my picking motion. What does it feel like to you?

The 7-Note Cycle

Let’s move up to a seven-note cycle. If we’re sticking with the three-notes-per-string approach, a seven-note cycle means we’re going to be playing on three different strings.

The first two patterns are the strict alternate-picking versions. The third measure is the economy-picked version. Like the six-note cycle, this version has multiple sweeps, but it also requires the legato note to make the cycle work out correctly.

The economy-picked version of this cycle has to make some trade-offs here. The end of the cycle (from the 7th fret of the 3rd string to the 5th fret of the 2nd string) has to use an “outside-in” alternate-picking motion. We can’t sweep here, or we’ll throw off the other sweeps in the cycle. But maybe that’s a trade-off we’re willing to make. But because of the number of notes in the cycle, we can’t sweep every string-crossing.

The Big Drop

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the consistent pattern we’re seeing here is that these circular licks aren’t particularly well-suited to economy-picking. While they might make certain parts of the cycle easier to play, there always seems to be a price to paid elsewhere in the lick.

But what if we aren’t cycling back and forth, up and down? If we just have a big descending run, economy-picking really starts to make sense:

The first two patterns, as usual, are strict alternate-picking. The third version is the economy-picked version and it’s the first one we’ve looked at that has no “legato compromises”. Playing this with three notes per string and starting it with an upstroke makes it easy to handle each string-crossing with a single upstroke.

I find the economy-picked version the easiest to play of the three. Each string-crossing is a smooth glide of a single pick-stroke. But my ears like the sound of the alternate-picked versions a little more. There’s something sort of…well…mushy about the economy-picked version. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, it’s just a different tone to use.

The Takeaway

In all of these circular patterns we’ve seen how, despite it’s apparent inefficiency, alternate-picking edges out economy-picking. The necessity of dropping pick-strokes really makes the economy-picked versions trickier. In these cases, your picking hand has a much wider variety of movements it needs to execute, which can be tricky to do at-speed when you’re in the heat of battle.

But that doesn’t mean that economy-picking doesn’t have a place in your arsenal. We’ve just seen licks where they are, for lack of a better word, compromised. Obviously, there are lots of other licks and patterns you can (and should) play that may not have the same compromises. So in the next lesson we’ll start looking at patterns that start to take advantage of economy-picking.

Until next time, keep rocking!