Speed Picking Mechanics


From a technical standpoint the guitar is an incredibly complex instrument to play. The sheer number of choices that a guitarist is presented with can be daunting. For someone who wants to master the instrument and develop a high level of technique; the road ahead can seem long and treacherous. This is further complicated with the amount of unclear and poor information on the internet. Its very easy to get bad advice and end up wasting months or years using the musical equivalent of cutting a tree down with a butter knife... and God forbid if you didn't do your research and you are stuck with a poor teacher!

A big problem compounding the guitarist's predicament is the fact we metal/rock players aren't playing the guitar as it's original design intended. A guitar was meant to be played with your fingers... not a plastic wedge. However, the sound a pick produces is important to the sound and tone of rock and metal styles. Without it, heavier styles wouldn't have that aggressive and snarling tone we've all come to know and love. Our pick must now do the job that was originally designed for five fingers.

So what do we do? Burn the guitar and take up the flute? You have fun with that, Jethro.

We need to distill all the information down to a more manageable size. An old samurai adage I've used before pretty much explains my approach to helping students master the guitar: "Attack the corners".

My advice to you and the topic of this lesson is take one thing: one approach, one pattern and master it! Then move on to other things.

The fact of the matter is that MOST of the professional guitarists that we listen to have their own method for approaching the fretboard: a paricular set of mechanics used to approach certain musical situations. This is what I hope to help you develop: a basic system for playing. With your own method in place you can focus more on the music and less on the technique. As you improve, you can begin to venture away from these mechanics and try other things, but they will always be there for you to fall back on.

This lesson can be viewed as complimenting my Creative Melodic Development" article, so please review that article to get a detailed explanation on the patterns used..

Understand that this is not the only approach to playing these particular scale patterns and I have had many students change and alter the basic advice given here to better suit their own styles. I encourage you to do the same.

Ascending Scales

There are pros and cons to every picking approach. The most common discussion I've seen is Alternate Picking vs. Economy Picking. While alternate picking offers nearly brain dead consistency (if one note is played with a downstroke, the next will be played with an upstroke) it can be tough to master because there is usually a lot of wasted movement in the actual execution. Sometimes a string must be passed and then doubled back on in order to hit it with the appropriate stroke. Play a downstroke on the Low E string and follow that up with an upstroke on the A string. Notice you had to pass the A-string first before executing the upstroke.

For economy picking the problem is just the opposite. It offers what is argueably the most efficient way to pick across the strings, but it's application requires some thought in order to maximize that efficiency (such as knowing whether or not to begin a string with an up or a down stroke!).

For me and a lot of other speedsters out there, the choice is economy picking:


Economy picking is just another form of 'sweep picking'. I tend to refer to the former when using the technique in a scalar context and the latter when executing arpeggios. Notice that string changes are done with consecutive downstrokes. This saves time and energy since you don't have to pass the string and double back.

This technique can take some getting use to. The picking hand will reach the next string way before the fretting hand does, so what you want to do is let the pick come to rest on the next string and then push it through once the fretting hand catches up. It's very easy to let the picking hand get 'ahead' and play the next string before the fretting hand has a chance to get ahold of it's note. You will have to 'hold back' on the picking with this technique. However, thats the beauty of it: the picking hand isn't strained in keeping up with the left hand.

Ascending Scales

I take a much different approach when descending through the scale. First, I will show you the standard 'economy picking version' and then the 'Dan Sorber version':


Playing the scale is literally a reverse of the above approach: now strings are changed with consecutive upstrokes! Remember not to rush the picking hand. It will take some practice to synchronize the two hands, but the benefit is the ability to whip through your scale patterns with little effort.

As you can see the advantage of this approach over alternate picking is that there is no wasted movement: you carry the pickstroke across the strings whenever you can. This results in a very fluid sounding picking techinque. It also looks like you are barely moving your pickhand at all. It's all about the efficency of movement when it comes to economy picking.

If you remember I told you this isn't the way that I descend scales. I use an approach I picked up from Yngwie Malmsteen:


The pull-off buys the pick more than enough time to get into position on the next string. This can be tricky to pull off and in some cases actually alternate picking the lick or using consecutive upstrokes might be the better approach. When do I use a pull-off? In any situation where I find the pick to be moving in the opposite direction I need it to.


In other words... if I alternate pick this scale the last note on the string will be played with a downstroke... which is moving the pick towards the floor. I need it to move towards the ceiling, or rather, toward the string I am actually going for. The whole efficency of movement thing just went down the toilet. In order to compensate and get the pick moving in the right direction you can do one of two things:

1) Start the string on an upstroke and use consecutive upstrokes to perform the string changes.

2) Or start the string with a downstroke and use a pull off just before changing strings.

This approach has another advantage: The slight mixing of legato into what is otherwise a picking run will make the idea have depth and sound more complex. I call it multi-textural. Ever notice how different even Yngwie's straightforward scale runs sound compared to other players? This is why.

In certain licks, such as when I have four notes per string, I will continue alternate picking instead. If the last pickstroke is an upstroke before I change strings then there is no need for the pull off: I am already moving the pick in the direction it needs to go:


The above example illustrates my approach perfectly: when descending I need to use a pull off when there is an odd number of notes per string, but alternate picking is perfectly fine when I have an even number of notes per string.

Players like myself and Yngwie Malmsteen quite often start a new string with a downstroke and we aren't afraid to mix in some legato to make that happen. The fact of the matter is that Yngwie's entire picking approach is centered around downward sweeping and legato is used to set this up. Rarely are upward sweeps used in this mechanic.

Now here's the downside of this approach. It obviously involves more thought than alternate picking to execute. When improvising changing strings doesn't usually happen on a regular basis. Rather, this decending approach takes some practice. As you become familiar with playing different licks using this mechanic you will begin to 'feel out' the string changes. With practice you will know when to continue alternate picking or when the pull off needs to be in place.

The Avenger

The next example is from my band's original song, "The Avenger" (Ferox Canorus). The main riff is played using mainly downward sweeps with a pull off thrown in to keep the picking consistent:


This should help you get your economy picking in order. Notice in the second measure there is an anomoly to the mechanic: I end up changing strings without the use of a sweep. The whole reason of this was:

1) It feels natural and that one string change isn't enough to throw me off.

2) Consistency in the riff. The picking is set up in such a way to facilitate all the sweeping done in the first measure. If I change it up I risk ending the riff on a downstroke which would cause it to begin on an upstroke on the repeat and make the sweeps in the first measure impossible to execute.

3) I'm not a frickin' robot.

Feel free to experiment with your own approach for the second measure. However you decide to pick that last measure the whole riff must start on a downstroke to set you up for the sweeps.

Realize that this is just one facet of my approach to playing the guitar. I utilize specific patterns and specific techniques depending on the musical situation.downstroke

Also keep in mind that certain scale shapes facilitate certain techniques.

The Coda

As you can see this approach is not a "catch all". No one technique is! As I stated before I have different mechanics in place for different musical situations. You will need to develop a more complete set of techniques than what is illustrated here in order to approach a wider variety of situations.

I hope you found the lesson informative and fun! Feel free to contact me through my website if you have any questions!

Below is a recap on the points discussed in this article.

Alternate Picking Vs. Economy Picking. Both have their pros and cons. Alternate is about consistency and Economy is about efficiency of movement. You need to try both and choose the one that feels more natural to you. This article focuses on Economy Picking.

Ascending is done using consecutive downstrokes. This eliminates any wasted movement and cuts the work the picking hand has to do in half.

Descending has a few different approaches:

1) You can use consecutive upstrokes to change strings, simply the reverse of the ascending motion.

2) You can utilize the mechanic I employ by starting the string with a downstroke and inserting a pull off to grab the last note. This buys the pick a lot of time to get to the next string. Since the fretting hand picks up some of the slack, you have again cut the picking hand's job in half.

When utilizing the "Yngwie" Approach, it is not necessary to use a pull off when you have an even number of notes on a string: the pick will already be moving toward the string you intend on playing.

The 'Yngwie Approach' tends to sound more complex due to the subtle addition of legato into picking-dominated run. This is more apparent with scale sequences rather than just a straight run up and down the neck.

This approach might be cumbersome with specific scale patterns. It tends to work best on positional scales that are primarily a 3-note-per-string arrangement, though with a little experimentation I feel it can work in almost any situation.

Specific scale sequences can also be cumbersome to navigate and might require a different approach.

Dan Sorber is a highly respected instructor and guitarist living in the northern New Jersey area.

His teaching approach is based around helping students achieve their goals while making it fun. Dan has been playing for 13 years and teaching for 5.

His influences include Joe Satriani, Iced Earth and Symphony X. Dan currently plays for the melodic progressive metal band, Ferox Canorus.

Dan Sorber