If you’ve seen my lesson entitled The Best Guitar Exercise, Period, then you know that I am a big fan of keeping the technique drills simple but effective. I don’t need lots of exercises; I just need a few that do the job well.
A great guitar exercise can hit a number of important points at the same time, and the finger combinations found in the aforementioned lesson do just that. They primarily help to develop the following left hand qualities in any six-stringer:
– Finding the “sweet spot” on each fingertip
– Finger independence
– A legato line (or connected quality from note to note)
But many guitarists seem to think that playing technique starts and stops at left hand development. They will treat the right hand as an afterthought, often picking at notes with all downstrokes or in a haphazard manner. Frankly, we can do better.
To that end, I developed some exercises that get the right hand in on the action, synchronizing with the left and working as a team. There is a strong focus on alternate picking, which IMHO should be the foundation of any single-note work, and I also incorporated a critical picking concept that eludes many guitar students: inside and outside strokes.
If you feel like your picking technique is in need of a tune-up, then this lesson is for YOU!
Alternate Picking and Rhythm Review
On the surface, alternate picking is simply a strict down/up motion of the pick, but in practice, it’s much more than that. Good alternate picking should work within the rhythmic structure of the music, matching the pick strokes to the correct subdivisions of the beat – that is, down on the strong parts of the beat and up on the weak parts of the beat.
[DISCLAIMER 1: Although I’m sure some fantastic guitarists execute their alternate picking without regard to this, I would bet that the majority try to match the pick strokes to the beat as their default method.]
[DISCLAIMER 2: Additionally, I realize that not all phrases benefit from strict alternate picking. There are plenty of examples where consecutive downstrokes or upstrokes work best, or where some random pick moves make sense. But IMHO, alternate picking should be our focus the vast majority of the time. It will keep your movements and rhythm tight. Bottom line: use it as your default method and make your adjustments as necessary.]
If you want to develop a professional picking technique, my strongest recommendation is to approach your melodic phrases in the following way:
1 – Match downstrokes to quarter notes (counted “1, 2, 3, 4”).
The quarter note – where we count the number, or start, of the beat – is the strongest part of the beat. Since you tap your foot to quarter notes, your pick stroke should mimic your foot tap.
2 – Match down/up to 8th note subdivisions of the beat (counted “1-and, 2-and”, etc.), where downstrokes play the number of the beat and upstrokes play the “and”.
This keeps the heavier downstroke on the stronger part of the beat and creates a natural emphasis. By contrast, the lighter upstroke is on the weaker part of the beat. This is similar to how a drummer typically keeps time on a hi-hat or ride cymbal. If you’d like to think of it in terms of foot taps, the “and” is where you raise your foot.
3 – Match down/up to 16th note subdivisions of the beat (counted “1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a”, etc.), where downstrokes play the number and the “and” of the beat, and upstrokes play the “e” and “a”.
This keeps the heavier downstrokes on the stronger parts of the beat, while the upstrokes play the “in-betweens”. The end result is down/up/down/up – the same as 8th notes, but twice as fast. Another tip: really lean into the downstroke on the number of the beat in order to keep the rhythm strong and stable. This is where you tap your foot, so coordinate the downstroke with the tap.
4 – Match the correct stroke to a pickup, depending on which subdivision of the beat the pickup is located.
This is often the most difficult concept for guitar students to grasp, because many of them automatically associate the first note of a phrase with a downstroke.
[THEORY NOTE: The terms “pickup” or “pickup notes” (or classically, anacrusis) are traditionally used to denote an incomplete measure of melody that leads into the first complete measure. Guitarists will also often use the term to refer to incomplete rhythmic groupings that lead into complete groupings or strong beats, no matter where they occur in the melody. Check out this page for definitions and examples.]
If the first note of a rhythmic grouping is played on the strong part of a beat – the number of a beat (for 8ths or 16ths) or the “and” of a grouping of 16th notes – then the downstroke would be appropriate. But if the first note is on a weak part of the beat – either the “and” of an 8th-note group or the “e” or “a” of a 16th-note group – then you must start with an upstroke.
To do otherwise would turn your picking movements around, placing all your downstrokes on weak parts of the beat and all your upstrokes on strong parts of the beat. This is contrary to our natural movements and will screw you up royally. But if you keep your picking hand moving constantly through space, you’ll play phantom downstrokes where any rests are located, which should keep your upstrokes intact for the pickup notes.
Another way to look at pickups is by even and odd numbers. If the pickup has an even number of notes, start with a downstroke. If the pickup has an odd number of notes, start with an upstroke.
Just about anybody can learn to alternate pick on one string. But ever notice how your picking can become a random assortment of downs and ups once you start changing strings? We’re going to do our best to solve that today.
When moving from string to string, there are two fundamental movements to consider: inside strokes and outside strokes.
In any two-string combination, an inside stroke is achieved when you play down on the higher string and up on the lower string. Your pick is effectively “inside” the two strings, hence the name.
By contrast, an outside stroke is achieved when you play down on the lower string and up on the higher string, placing your pick “outside” the two-string combo.
Although there are probably a thousand different picking variations we could come up with, I’ve developed a few that I think are relatively easy to wrap our brains around and, most importantly, useful for most styles of music. I’ve written all of the exercises in 8th notes to facilitate reading.
Although inside and outside strokes are always essentially performed the same way, where they are placed in the phrase makes a big difference in how you feel the accents and, therefore, how you control the picking. So I’ve mixed up the location of the insides and outsides to give you a variety of possibilities. This also mimics how you will encounter these types of phrases in the real world.
The following exercises use two notes across two strings, giving us either inside strokes or outside strokes. I’ve demonstrated the exercises with fingers 1-3, but they should be practiced with finger combinations 1-2, 1-3 and 1-4. This will give you a comprehensive idea of their most practical applications in melodies and guitar solos.
Other finger combos (2-3, 2-4 and 3-4) can certainly be used, but their practical application is a little more limited than the ones that lead with finger 1, especially in pop styles. Because of this, I think of them more as dexterity exercises for the left hand.
Inside Stroke Variations
These exercises include a preparatory alternate picking phrase, the basic inside stroke, and 8 exercises that combine single string picking with inside strokes in various combinations. There are also two exercises that feature pickups.
Outside Stroke Variations
These exercises include a preparatory alternate picking phrase, the basic outside stroke, and 8 exercises that combine single string picking with outside strokes in various combinations. There are also two exercises that feature pickups.
These exercises use three notes across two strings, so the end result is a mix of inside and outside strokes. This more closely reflects the reality of alternate picking: your phrases will not typically line up nice and tidy, only requiring one type of stroke or the other. Most of the time, we’re mixing and matching techniques.
I’ve demonstrated the exercises with fingers 1-2-3, but they should be practiced with finger combinations 1-2-3, 1-2-4 and 1-3-4. As stated in the two-note exercises above, this will give you a comprehensive idea of their most practical applications in melodies and guitar solos.
At first listen, the exercises can sound almost identical, but there are subtle differences throughout that force you to adjust your technique. Some exercises strictly alternate inside and outside strokes (1, 2), while others have two inside followed by two outside, or vice versa (3 to 6). Some exercises begin with two notes on the same string (3, 4), while others start with a string change (1, 2, 5, 6). The last two (7, 8) are challenging combinations of some of the previous exercises.
Finally, some exercises (3 to 8) employ the rhythmic concept of hemiola, where odd numbered groups of notes are pitted “against” even numbered groupings. That “3 against 4” phrasing is common in virtually all musical styles and requires that the guitarist have a strong command of the inside and outside strokes.
As a bonus, I’ve also included some classic riff examples so you can see the benefit of these exercises in the context of real world music.
Troy Stetina and the “Five Mechanics”
The exercises contained in this lesson owe a great debt to the work of Troy Stetina, who wrote the excellent Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar in 1992. That book influenced me greatly and I continue to reference it to this day. His chapter on the “Five Mechanics” opened my eyes to inside and outside strokes and how important it is to master the concept. Highly recommended!
Any exercises or books that you particularly like and recommend? Let me hear it in the comments!
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