Picking Patterns Part I

It’s amazing that after 25+ years of playing the guitar, I can still find new things that fundamentally change how I play. I guess this shouldn’t really be that surprising—learning to play music and, in particular mastering and instrument, is a well-known life-long challenge.

What’s intrigued me lately is my own personal picking patterns and habits. Like Tiger Woods breaking his swing down and building it back up, I’ve spent considerable time in the last few months completely re-evaluating how I pick.

When I was about five years into playing the guitar, I read about Frank Gambale and his revolutionary “sweep-picking” (aka economy picking) technique. For the next 20+ years, that was pretty much my M.O. That is, until this summer. Something kicked off a desire to change my game up and switch over to a stricter form of alternate-picking.

After considerable study, I’ve concluded that I don’t have to choose sides and that I’d like to have both techniques in my arsenal. A fine idea indeed, but it begged the question when is the right time to use each technique? 

This is the question that has been spinning in my brain for the last month. My instinct tells me that there isn’t a simple, hard-and-fast rule to apply here. Instead, I think it takes some exploration to develop significant experience. Eventually all of that will turn into well-honed instinct.

What follows here are some of the explorations I’ve made in breaking picking down to its most elemental, atomic parts. I should say that all of the picking patterns we’re going to look at in this lesson involve crossing strings. Frankly the debate or alternate- vs. economy-picking is meaningless unless you’re changing strings.

The “Burst”

Let’s start with this simple four-note “burst”:

Two ways to pick “the burst”—alternate-picking and economy-picking

The first two measures are the strict alternate-picking way of doing this. If this is new to you, the tricky part will be getting from the downstroke on the 7th fret of 4th string, to the upstroke on the 4th fret of the 3rd string. I think of “snapping” that top note which helps me with pick-traversal.

The second two measures use economy-picking. In the previous pattern the tricky string-crossing maneuver is what we would call “outside-in” alternate-picking. In this version, we go from the 4th to the 3rd string with a single downstroke.

The rest after the last note in the group of four gives us time to move our pick back above the 4th string and prepare it for the next “burst”. This is important because in the economy-picking version the pick is now below the 3rd string. To start the next burst with a downstroke on the 4th string requires us to get the pick across two strings.

The 4-Note Cycle

We can fill the space caused by the rest and turn this fingering into a “circular” pattern that goes up-and-back. We can repeat this until our fingers fall off, the audience runs screaming for the door or both.

Here are two versions of the same pattern, both played with strict alternate picking:

Sixteenth-note triplets in a circular pattern

The difference is which stroke starts off the cycle. The first two measures lead with a downstroke while the last two measures start off with an upstroke.

I’m not convinced that good picking requires you to be able to play this look both ways. Typically licks that start on a downbeat will begin with a downstroke—especially licks that ascend. I think I would stick with the first way of playing this.

Could we play this with economy-picking? Yes, but the math doesn’t quite work out to restart the cycle with a downstroke unless we drop a pick-stroke somewhere along the way:

The “math” of this lick requires some legato playing when using economy-picking

This is not “cheating”. I think it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of judging particular techniques. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” approaches, just ones that work well and ones that don’t. Does it sound cool? Yes. Is it easier to play this? Yes. Okay, that meets my minimum criteria.

The 5-Note Cycle

Let’s extend this circular pattern by another note and see how the two approaches differ. With the extra note, the timing of this pattern changes from sixteenth note triplets to even sixteenth notes:

The five-note circular pattern

The first two measures show the strict alternate-picking approach. Because we have an even number of notes in the cycle, it works well with alternate-picking. The first note of each four-note group starts with a downstroke.

The last two measures show how the string-crossing can be done with economy-picking. Again, we have to drop a pick-stroke to make the picking cycle repeat correctly.

The 6-Note Cycle

What if we add a sixth note to our circular pattern?

A burning 32nd-note pattern

Because of number of notes involved in the cycle (13), the last note is played as an eighth note. The first measure shows the pattern being played using alternate-picking. The rest on the last note gives us time to play two consecutive down-strokes between the last note of the cycle and first note of the repeat.

The second measure adds a little economy-picking to the string-crossing from the 4th to the 3rd strings. Because of the number of notes we have on the 3rd string, we have to drop a pick-stroke and play one of the notes with a pull-off in order to set up our pattern to repeat.

The 7-Note Cycle

If we extend our circular pattern by another note, we get this:

A seven-note pattern across three strings

In the first measure, it’s all strict alternate-picking. The second and third measures are two versions of economy-picking. Notice that the second measure shows a pattern that has two economy-picked string-crossings and no legato notes.

I included the third measure because, as I was trying these out, I noticed a tendency to play it with the legato note. I suspect that this is the result of two decades of ingrained picking habits. Is it bad? I don’t necessarily think so. But I am glad I noticed it.

Of the circular patterns we’ve looked at, this is the first one where economy-picking really shines. We don’t have to include any legato work to make the pattern repeat correctly. This isn’t to say that the legato notes are bad, just that at a high-tempo it’s one less thing to worry about.

The Quick Ascent

If we take a step back, the real reason the economy-picked versions have this “compromise” is that we’re descending back in order to get the pattern to repeat. But if we just play a series of ascending notes, we don’t have to deal with this:

Economy-picking really shines when you’re only headed in one direction

The first measure shows the lick played with strict alternate-picking. The second version is the same thing, but uses economy-picking to cross the strings. Because we aren’t worried about any descending notes and we have an odd-number of notes on each string, economy-picking works really well here.

On the face of it, it would seem that the economy-picked version must be the easier version to play. But economy-picking introduces subtle interruptions to the simple cycle of alternate-picking. More than anything else, what I’ve noticed is that the economy-picked version sounds a little softer to my ears. This is interesting because it means that my choice of one technique over the other is more about the timbre and the sound I’m going for and less about the athletic execution of the lick.

The Big Climb

Let me leave with you one last shred-o-licious lick which is one big spidery ascent up the fretboard in A Dorian. Here it is with strict alternate-picking:

A big ol’ spidery lick, played entirely with alternate-picking

The underlying pattern to this lick is a series of six-note groups played in alternating ascending and descending patterns as you move up the neck. When we play this with strict alternate-picking the ascending patterns always start on a downstroke and the descending patterns start on an upstroke. There’s a nice symmetry to this so that once you get the motion down, your picking hand doesn’t vary much while your fretting hand does all the work getting up the fretboard.

Here’s the same lick with economy-picking:

Same spider, different picking

This version has its own kind of symmetry. The ascending patterns get a nice little economy-picked string-change between the third and fourth notes via a single downstroke. While the descending patterns get a similar economy-picked upstroke between the third and fourth notes.

Both approaches give the picking hand a single, consistent cycle to play as you work your way up the neck. I don’t think there’s a clear winner here in terms of efficiency. I think I like the sound of the alternate-picked version a little better.

The Takeaway

What does this all mean? To be honest, I’m not quite sure yet. But I believe that this process of taking the most atomic, fundamental movements (the four-note “burst”) and building on them is the key to mastering these larger chunks.

We should take a step back and remember that what we’re looking at here isn’t necessarily music. It’s related to it, but it’s more like how taking batting-practice isn’t the same as playing an actual baseball game. Mastering the mechanics is just the first step. The real fun comes from mining this territory deeply to unearth your own licks and your own sound.

There is a lot more to say on this topic, so stay tuned!