Picking Patterns Part III

As we continue our exploration of picking patterns, it’s time to look at some variations of the basic circular patterns we looked at earlier. For the most part, the patterns we’ve looked at so far revolve around a three-notes-per-string approach. When we vary the number of notes played per string, it opens up some interesting sounds and picking motions.

Two-Notes Per String

The simplest variation we could try is reducing the number of notes played per string. A two-notes-per-string approach is perfect for pentatonic scales:

This might not be the most interesting lick in the world, but it does reveal a few interesting things about our picking hand. First, with a strict alternate-picking approach the first note on each string starts with a down-stroke as we ascend. This is different from a three-note approach where the starting note will alternate between down-strokes and up-strokes as you ascend.

The three-note turn-around at the top inverts the picking order so that we conveniently start our descent with an upstroke for each pair of notes. It might not seem like much, but if you invert the pick-stroke order, this up-and-back lick has a much different feel to it:

If you play these phrases and pay close attention to your picking hand you should notice the difference in picking motions. As we ascend, the down-up-down-up pattern uses the pending down motion for the third stroke to play the first note on the next string. In short-hand, the repeating pattern is down-up-(cross).

When we flip the picking order around we get up-down-up-down and in this case the direction of the stroke we just completed is where we want our picking hand to go. In this case though, the down-stroke motion has to carry past the next string to start the next two-note sequence with an upstroke. In the same short-hand notation we would describe this as up-down-(cross). See the difference? It’s all about whether the stroke-direction and string-change direction match based on the previous note, or the subsequent one.

At first glance, I assumed that the down-up-(cross) pattern was going to be the “logical” way to play this. But after trying it the other way, I think either approach is okay. The difference is really in the feel of the pattern. Starting with an up-stroke makes me really want to pop each starting note after a string-crossing which could be an interesting musical effect.

Let’s look at a more complex example. Here’s an A minor pentatonic lick that climbs the neck. It’s the same basic pattern applied as we move through each scale pattern:

I find these kind of patterns a great way to break out of playing in a single scale pattern. Not only do I get more comfortable moving up and down the neck, but I find that my ears and fingers get better synchronized. Sometimes I don’t consciously know which pattern I’ve switched in to, but my ears know what the next part is supposed to sound like and my fingers seem to find the notes.

Each cycle of the patterns starts with a descent, so we begin with upstrokes, which gets our picking-motion started with the general direction we want our picking hand to move. As we turn around for the ascent, the three-note pattern at the bottom of the cycle inverts the stroke-order and each pair of notes on a string starts with a downstroke.

Just like the last pattern, we can just as easily play this starting with a downstroke:

Again, the second picking pattern may seem slightly less efficient because of the “outside-in” motion we have to make for each string-crossing. I’m not sure that the difference is that big unless you really crank up the speed. The second approach has the advantage of starting off with a downstroke on the down-beat. Synchronizing those two seems to make playing the lick in-time a little easier. Obviously the picking order turns around mid-phrase, but starting off in-sync seems to make a slight difference.

Mix and Match

Variety, as the say, is the spice of life. Many of the examples we’ve looked at have an admittedly academic sound to them. There are several ways we could add some variation and make these a little more interesting. One way is to vary the number of notes we play per string.

The key to making this sound interesting is include the variations but stay within a particular scale pattern. This will force you to skip some notes in the pattern which deviates ever so slightly from what the listener may be expecting.

3’s and 2’s

Let’s start by mixing three-note and two-note per string approaches. This down-and-back lick alternates between three-notes and two-notes per string in an A Dorian pattern:

Here, the lick is played entirely with alternate-picking. There are several places where we could use economy-picking to cross strings but for me, it’s not enough to make up for the stop-start motion you would have to use to get a handful of sweeps in the lick.

3’s and 1’s

Where economy-picking (sweep-picking) really shines is when we try some three-note and one-note combinations together. These start to sound more like very wide arpeggios:

This lick is essentially the A minor pentatonic with the ninth thrown in for a little jazzy sophistication. Normally we play pentatonic patterns with two notes per-string, but by moving one of them to an adjacent string we get the advantage of a three-string crossing which we can perform with a single up- or down-stroke.

This lick works because of the large stretches the fretting hand is making. If your hand can’t play this lick at the fifth fret, try moving it up the neck where the frets are smaller. You’ll feel a world of difference moving the starting point up to, say, the tenth fret instead.

We don’t have to be quite so predictable with our 3-note/1-note alternation. Instead, we can just sprinkle a couple of 1-note strings in with our usual 3-note approaches like this:

There are a couple of ways to play this lick. In this first example I show it exclusively using alternate-picking. I actually find this pretty comfortable to play. But there is one three-string series that we could play with a sweep like this:

The pull-off in the second measure is a necessary artifact of trying to get a single up-stroke to handle the three-note sweep across the third, fourth and fifth strings.

So Now What?

We’ve looked at a lot of different picking patterns in these last few lessons. In some cases alternate- or economy-picking makes a lick easier to play, but in several other there’s no significant difference. Big deal. Who cares? Why look at this stuff?

In my experience, once a mechanical skill is mastered, it’s very tempting to use it over and over it again. It makes sense. It just feels so good when you do it right. But it can also be a reflex—something that just happens even if you don’t want it to.

By breaking all of this down to its essence, we really lay bare our own tendencies. One way we can break out of our own creative rut is expressly doing something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But you can’t do this if you aren’t already aware of exactly what your “rut” is.

As I sat down to work out these examples, I found myself starting to play new things I had never tried before. Those experimentations led to other ideas which, in turn, snowballed into other ideas. It’s amazing how quickly this creative burst can build up.

I suggest playing through these examples to help you generate some of your own ideas. Playing with different numbers of notes per string is just one way you can force creative thinking by varying one aspect at a time.

Until next time, keep rocking!