By Tom Hess
Want to learn how to improve your picking technique so you can play faster? You don’t need to look up brand new exercises for guitar… you’ll only need to make one simple adjustment. Use this simple concept from now on to improve your picking technique, and enable yourself to effortlessly play faster on guitar:
1. Whenever you ascend while playing strings on guitar (go from a heavier string to a lighter string), ALWAYS use a downstroke – regardless of the notes that came before or after what you are playing.
2. While descending strings (moving from a higher string to another string below), play with an upstroke.
(…you can still use alternate picking while playing several notes on a single string).
This idea is referred to as “directional picking”. I teach this to all my correspondence rock guitar students to help them become faster players. Many guitarists would (falsely) refer to this technique as “economy picking”. However, this term is a name for a separate technique (more on this below). The main thing to understand here is, of the three most known picking techniques (alternate picking, directional picking and economy picking), directional picking is by far the easiest to learn and master in order to develop insane guitar speed.
Here are four main reasons why directional picking is the best way for you to become a faster guitarist:
Reason #1: You use much less movement – this translates into FASTER guitar picking speed
As you play scales with three notes on each string it’s not necessary to skip over strings (as you would need to with alternate picking). Rather than doing this, you simply move directly to the next note by picking in its direction (as described above).
Here is an example of an ascending scale that displays this (the symbol means “downstroke”, while means “upstroke”):
In the diagramsabove, the red indicators surround two downstrokes in a row when the scale is changing strings with directional picking versus alternate picking.
Notice: to develop incredible guitar speed using directional picking, you have to properly complete string changes with two consecutive down/up strokes and avoid a frequent mistake guitarists make when they initially use this technique. If you do it incorrectly (like most people when they begin), your guitar picking speed will not achieve its greatest potential. Check out the video below to see a demonstration of this idea to one of my guitar students who is just learning it for the first time:
Reason #2: You guitar practice become more efficient so you can build speed faster
After checking out the video above, you observed how directional picking uses similar picking motions used in sweep picking lead guitar technique. In other words, while practicing directional picking, you are also working to improve sweep picking. By practicing sweep picking, your directional picking becomes more clean and articulate.
Certainly, this does not mean you can neglect sweep picking practice altogether just because you are working on it with directional picking – it merely means that practicing each technique in isolation (directional picking and sweep picking) carries over to the other technique. Study the sweep picking video below and observe how the string changing motions from directional picking translate directly into sweep picking:
Watch the rest of the killer sweep picking video above.
With this in mind, practicing exclusively with alternate picking will NOT help you master sweep picking (and sweep picking will not help you master alternate picking). So you must invest additional practice time into mastering both guitar techniques separately.
All of the concepts discussed above make directional picking a great technique to work on when you feel like you don’t have time to practice guitar and/or want to play faster as soon as possible.
Reason #3: Directional picking vastly IMPROVES your accents and picking articulation
You may have heard the claim that alternate picking enhances the accents of your downstrokes while directional or economy picking are more quiet and limit you to playing with weak articulation. Fact is, accents and articulation come through better control of your overall technique, NOT by using downstrokes versus upstrokes. This is one reason why the claim above is wrong.
Here is some reasoning to show you why this false claim is TOTALLY misguided and why reality is the opposite:
*You can articulate any note using either an upstroke or a downstroke, whenever you want. To see for yourself, choose any note on guitar and play it with a downstroke… then immediately play that same note using an upstroke (but played with additional force). Chances are, you could easily do this. And if you could, then you already know that you don’t need to use a downstroke to have the note be accented. Accents and articulation are accomplished by having good control over your overall picking technique, NOT by focusing on downstrokes vs. upstrokes.
*The concept of alternate picking (strictly making ALL downstrokes be heavily accented and ALL upstrokes not accented) is very restricting. Since any note can be accented with any type of pick stroke, there is no true advantage to forcing yourself to play in the same manner all the time. On top of that, whenever you need to pick a different way (by articulating an upstroke or having the accent fall anywhere other than the downbeat), your playing will feel very awkward.
However, if you practice using directional picking (where accents can fall on any pick stroke), you won’t run into the problems above. You will learn to articulate notes either on downstrokes or upstrokes and will not be limited to doing so only on the downbeat. So directional picking provides more options for articulating notes in any manner you desire…IF you master control over BOTH downstrokes and upstrokes. After helping tons of students become killer electric guitar players, this has been the case for every one.
The main reason why guitarists who exclusively use alternate picking make the claim above is their upstroke articulation is weaker than their downstroke articulation. Therefore, when they try directional picking, it feels weird to them to use upstrokes for accents, and they have to come face to face with the weaknesses in their guitar picking technique. Instead of taking on their technical weaknesses to improve their technique, many merely choose to move back to their comfort zone and claim that “directional picking limits one’s articulation”.
*When you make string changes with directional picking, by playing two notes going in the same direction, these notes are more accented, due to the momentum and follow-through of the picking motion (watch the video above to see this).
Think about this motion in terms of boxing. Boxers are told to throw punches that go THROUGH their opponent in order to get maximum power in their punches. This is the same thing that happens with directional picking when you switch strings by playing two continuous upstrokes or downstrokes. You pick using momentum from a previous note to follow THROUGH the next note. This makes it much more loud and articulate (when you choose to make it this way).
When you only use alternate picking during string changes, you must go around the next string, kill all momentum and then reverse the motion to perform an upstroke. This is a complete waste. Additionally it keeps you from taking advantage of the momentum from the previous note because of the inefficient picking path.
Reason #4: Directionalpicking is a powered-up version of alternate picking
Most people who are against directional picking defend alternate picking, while ignoring the obvious: in most guitar playing scenarios, directional picking and alternate picking are completely the same. Whether you are playing on a single string or using two or four note per string scales, your pick will usually move in PRECISELY the same manner with directional picking or alternate picking.
The only scenario where directional picking separates itself from exclusive alternate picking is during 3 note per string scales, where it is logical to do so for the reasons stated above. As a result, directional picking has ALL the advantages of alternate picking, with none of its disadvantages.
Directional picking is NOT a separate picking technique and doesn’t require learning new picking patterns or relearning the way you play guitar. The only adjustment you must make in your guitar picking technique is what I talked about at the beginning of this article. With a little practice, you can apply this change into your everyday technique and build your guitar picking speed fast.
That said, even with all this information in front of them, many people decide not to take advantage of this technique, because of several false rationalizations…
False Rationalization #1: “I’d like to get good at alternate picking first and then change to directional picking”. This argument makes no sense because it makes no sense to practice a technique that 1. is less efficient and 2. you must unlearn/change later ANYWAY. It makes much more sense to simply begin using directional picking – gaining all the advantages of alternate picking, without any drawbacks.
False Rationalization #2: “Directional picking means you have to figure out picking patterns before you play them.” If you believe this, then you are conflating “directional” picking with “economy” picking. Economy picking is a technique that requires switching strings using a sweep picking motion at all times – thus causing you to plan how many notes per string you must play in every phrase.
Directional picking is not like this – you simply use the 2 rules I gave you at the top of the article. Then, you will alternate picking notes when it is the most efficient path to the next note, OR use sweep picking on string changes when it is the most efficient path to the next note.
False Rationalization #3: “Directional picking makes it harder to perform string skipping/inside picking because the pick has increased chances of hitting the string being skipped.” This argument is not valid in the same way that the argument that directional picking has weaker articulation is invalid.
Directional picking is not to blame for making anything more difficult, it only exposes the weaknesses in your ability to play cleanly in some situations. These situations include continually picking inside a pair of strings and playing specific styles of string skipping that exclusive alternate pickers stay away from. When you understand weaknesses, you have a decision to make – you can master them and gain control to play how you want OR you avoid them and continue the lie about directional picking supposedly making string skipping harder.
Consequently, correspondence rock guitar students who learn directional picking from me, always have an easier time learning string skipping/inside picking than strict alternate pickers.
False Rationalization #4: “My favorite guitarist plays very fast with only alternate picking, and I want to play like him. Therefore, I will continue using only alternate picking”. If you think this way, know that:
*Directional picking is precisely the same as alternate picking in just about every scenario…only made MORE efficient when possible. So it only makes it faster and easier for you to increase your guitar speed.
*There is no doubt that many people play guitar fast while exclusively using alternate picking… however, you also can’t deny the obvious inefficiencies of this technique. So while you definitely CAN learn to pick fast on guitar while exclusively using alternate picking, you will build the same degree of guitar speed much faster, with little effort and frustration if you use directional picking.
False Rationalization #5: “Directional picking is only for rock/metal guitar players, it won’t work for my playing style.” Think again. Just because directional picking makes it simple to develop insane guitar speed, this does NOT mean it is unusable in non-rock/metal styles. Its most critical benefit is that it makes your overall picking more efficient so you can play better in any musical genre.
Now that you understand why directional picking is a crucial technique to add into your guitar playing, I want to teach you HOW to master it so you can reach your guitar playing goals in the quickest, least difficult and most straightforward way possible. Check out this page about effective guitar lessons and get started reaching your musical goals.
About The Author:
Tom Hess is a highly successful guitar teacher, songwriter and a pro guitarist. He uses the best online guitar lessons to train guitar players to reach their musical goals. Go to tomhess.net to get more guitar playing resources , guitar playing eBooks, and to read more guitar playing articles.