The Secret To Picking Fast

Posted: March 30, 2010 by Paul H in Tips & Tricks

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 1.25.15 PMWhen I learned to play guitar, very few rock guys alternate picked 16th notes at 160 bpm or faster. Then Yngwie Malmsteen landed on the scene and guitar was changed forever. Fast alternate picking was in vogue so I set out to do it. I practiced scales, scale sequences and I learned a bunch of Paganini and other classical pieces and alternate picked every note. But I just had a lot of trouble getting that stuff fast. 

After a year of not much progress in my speed I thought about how my scale sequences and classical pieces involved a lot of difficult picking moves. My pick was moving from string to string and was constantly changing from inside to outside to inside string crosses. Let me explain. Back in the day, Paul Gilbert, down the hall from me at GIT, started talking about what he called: “outside picking” versus “inside picking”.

This concept describes crossing from one string to another. If you play the B string with a downstroke, then the high E string with an upstroke you are playing on the outsides of the strings. Conversely, if you play a downstroke on the High E and an upstroke on the B you are playing on the inside of the strings. Most people, including me, find it easier to outside pick. If you find it easier to inside pick, that’s okay, but sorry you’re not normal. (I have done several surveys with guitarists in my classes at MI to find this out, I think it’s due to physics.) 

Back to what I was practicing. Because of the fact that my scales and classical pieces had difficult picking moves, it made them harder to play fast. So, I reverse-engineered and designed some short picking phrases that were as easy as humanly possible. One phrase I practiced a million times over and over had no string crosses at all, it was simply on the G string, 5th, 7th, 8th and 7th frets, four notes completely alternate picked repeated over and over. Also, for my streamlined phrases, whenever I changed strings I made sure it was always an outside string cross. It worked! After a while, maybe a few months, I could pick a bunch of short licks really fast. When you can do short licks fast, then all you have to do is connect a bunch of them and now you have a long lick.

So, that’s the secret! If you want to pick fast get a bunch of simple, small exercises like the ones I link to below, and repeat them massively. Also, I think you should practice with a metronome so you can keep track of your progress. A great exercise is to set the metronome faster than you can play and furiously try to catch up. I can’t stress enough though, how important it is to also slow down the metronome, and play the same thing perfectly in control! Each note perfectly clear. You don’t want to get in the habit of playing sloppy. 

There are lots of exercises to build picking speed but here are a few of my favorites:

Downhill Picking

  1. DaveRegio says:

    Great post.

    I signed up for these lessons so I could very much learn how to speed pick and get the mechanics and theory down, and my experiences, albeit brief seem to confirm that doing very short exercises (a few notes and no more than a minute or so of practice at a time doing the same thing before taking a brief break), has helped get my picking speed up.

    It used to be that I would hit a wall at 100 beats per minute in 16ths. Now, I have those fleeting moments where I can play a short exercise in speeds in excess of 120 bpm (maybe closer to 130 bpm if it is a single string exercise). The exercises I have to work on between the website lessons and the Shred Guitar book are helping push that envelope (although I’ll stress that my goal is to play them clean slowly before raising the speed).

    Great stuff so far. I don’t expect a magic overnight solutions and know that I have to keep repeating the exercises over and over and that’s it a slow process.

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