This section covers various methods of picking the strings of your guitar with a plectrum (pick), namely downstrokes, alternate picking, economy picking, hybrid picking and sweep picking. Basic guitar strumming is covered elsewhere but there will come a time when you pick notes on individual strings and it’s important to note that there are various methods of picking the strings, each of which will give subtly different sounds to your guitar playing.
When you first begin playing guitar, you will inevitably be playing all notes as downstrokes (you pluck each string in a downward direction). Many guitarists play that way for their entire career (James Hetfield of Metallica is reputed to play mostly downstrokes and his rhythm guitar playing is hard to fault). In fact downstrokes, with their strong bold sounds, lend themselves well to particular guitar/music genres. Most guitarists are unlike James Hetfield, in that downstrokes will probably limit their speed of play. Most newbie guitarists should try exploring different picking methods early in order to avoid falling into the “all-downstrokes” trap.
Alternate picking is a fairly common picking method, particularly amongst the guitar shredders and the speed guitar players. Alternate picking means that each time a guitar string is picked, it will be in the opposite direction from the previous stroke. In other words, if you play a downstroke, the next note, regardless of whether the same string ius being played or not, will be played as an upstroke. A number of guitarists favour this picking method (for example, Paul Gilbert and Zakk Wylde) but many more will use whatever type of picking suits a particular piece of music, since some parts will sound smoother and more fluid with alternate picking whilst others will sound better with economy picking. Here’s a YouTube video featuring Paul Gilbert to demonstrate:
Economy picking is another picking technique that is actually quite similar to alternate picking (in that you try to alternate with down then upstrokes when playing on a single string) with one major exception, when switching between strings, if the switch is to a string that is below the string you are currently playing on, then the first stroke will be a downstroke regardles of whether the preceding stoke was an upstroke or a downstroke. The opposite is also true – if the switch is to a string above the current string, then the first stroke will be an upstroke regardless of the preceding stroke. The idea is that if you have to travel down to the next string to be picked, you’d be as well to pick it as soon as your plectrum arrives there, rather than to travel past it, then pick it on the way back. Savvy?
This economy of movement can help your guitar playing sound much more smooth and fluid, particularly when playing across the strings. For example, the A minor pentatonic guitar scale (on standard guitar tuning) is played on the strings as shown above right (note the notes in blue are the A notes, which give this scale part of its name).
In guitar tablature format, part of this scale would be played using economy picking as follows:
Here’s a video from Andrew Wasson to demonstrate sweep picking technique to get you started. Note the sweeping motion of Andrew’s right hand which is why it’s called sweep picking in the first place. Savvy?