Let’s take a look at some relatively simple picking patterns that can be surprisingly challenging to play. We’ll start with the tried-and-true triplet groups in a scale. These sound like exercises because, well, they are exercises. But they’re also a fantastic laboratory to break down your picking motion.
So let’s start with the basics. What, you might ask, is a “triplet group”? It’s simply a collection of three notes. In this case we play three notes in a scale starting with each successive note in the scale, like this:
OK, it isn’t the most exciting thing you could play, but there’s a lot to examine if you pay close enough attention. Start out by just getting the timing down. Don’t worry about the picking details yet. Find a speed you can play this at which you can tap your foot along with. Each foot-tap should line up with the first note of each triplet group.
The Alternate-Picking Approach
Once you have the basic rhythm down, it’s time to examine how you pick it. As I’ve said in previous lessons, if you’re only playing on one string there are no decisions to make: you simply alternate-pick everything. But when you cross strings you have a choice: you can either keep the alternate-picking motion or try to align your pick strokes to go in the same direction as your string-changes.
Let’s look at the alternate-picking approach first. Let’s look at the first example and pay particular attention to where the pick crosses strings. Because there are only three notes in each group, a given string-crossing will occur in two consecutive groups like this:
The other thing to notice is that, due to the way the math works out, the stroke-direction changes for each string crossing. The first string-crossing (sixth to the fifth string) is played with a down-up motion, but the next crossing (fifth to the fourth string) is played with an up-down stroke order. These stroke-pairs alternate as you continue to change strings.
In all honesty, I’m not sure being aware of that fact is all that helpful for playing this. At any reasonable speed it becomes difficult to consciously think of those stroke-pairs as you cross strings. But it is helpful for grooving the mechanical motion at lower speeds so that it feels automatic. Once you get it down at lower speeds your hands should already be familiar with the motion as you ratchet up the speed.
Try playing this while just looking at your picking hand. Whether you’re crossing strings or not, the pick should be going back-and-forth with no interruption of the down-up cycle. When you break up the alternate-picking pattern with an inadvertent sweep (as I sometimes do), it looks pretty obvious. If you find yourself breaking the cycle up, bring the tempo down a bit until it’s painfully easy to play it correctly then work your way back up.
The Economy-Picking Approach
Because we have string-crossings, we have the opportunity to economize some of our picking by using a single pick-stroke to play two adjacent strings. When going from a lower to a higher string we use two consecutive down-strokes, and when going from a higher to a lower string we use an upstroke. Here’s the same pattern using economy-picking:
While our first string-crossing gets to use two consecutive down-strokes, the quick repeat of the same string-crossing has to be picked a with a different strategy. The first of the string-crossing pairs gets the advantages of economy-picking, but the second crossing has to use the alternate-picking approach.
Now you might be wondering if there’s any reason why you can’t just repeat the same stroke for each string-crossing pair, like this:
Honestly, I’ve never invested any time into this approach. When I tried to play it this way the pick-movement felt awkward. Take the first string-crossing as an example. Using this approach, the first string-crossing ends with a down-stroke which means the pick is between the fifth and fourth strings. To play the same down-down sweep again I have to get the pick over fifth and sixth strings:
Contrast that with the alternate-picking approach where the note of the fifth-string is played with an upstroke. My pick is already heading in the right direction and it only needs to clear the sixth string for the downstroke:
The two consecutive down-strokes repeated felt like a big pick movement to get from the bottom-side of one string to the top-side of another two strings away. This is very different from the normal string-crossing we’d have to do with alternate-picking which only requires us to cross a single string.
Could a person do it this way? With enough practice I’m sure you could. Human beings are amazingly adaptable. But I can think of a million things I’d rather be good at than this one picking trick.
So if we’re only getting an economy-picked stroke for half of our string-crossings and the other half use alternate-picking anyway, is there anything to be gained with this approach? Certainly if your goal was to play this entire scale up and back like this, the argument for economy-picking doesn’t seem very compelling. But for much shorter phrases it might be a very handy little approach:
Here we have a quick little triplet burst, but we don’t go far enough to deal with all that troublesome string-crossing. If you were trying to play this really fast, economy-picking might be just the trick to pull it off.
A Philosophical Detour
So, like most things in life, the answer to the question of which is better is an unsatisfactory it depends. I should say that it’s “unsatisfactory” until you spend some time with both approaches and really internalize the differences between them in feel and sound.
The first step is becoming aware of your current mechanics. Just acknowledge what they are without any sort of judgement. Neither approach is necessarily bad or good, they just…are. To evaluate either approach in a given situation comes down to two simple criteria:
- Can you play it?
- Does it sound good?
Not much matters beyond that. Strongly-held beliefs about the “right way” to do something are very limiting. All that matters is what works, and what sounds good.