Guitar Lessons: Your New Favorite Picking Exercise
By Craig Winston of guitar lessons in Boulder
If you’ve ever taken guitar lessons then you’ve probably had a moment to obsess over your picking technique it will eventually occur to you that you have a lot less control over the up stroke than you do over the down stroke. The main reason things are uneven when we alternate pick is because we never take the time to focus on upstrokes, generally we only practice them as the return portion of our alternate picking technique, yet we never try to isolate the movement. …WAIT! before you run off and go trying to playing the chromatic scale up and down the neck for the next 5 hours using only up strokes, hear me out: Your intentions are good, but there’s more to it than that. While it’s important to really work on the right hand technique, we don’t realize that lacking synchronization with the left hand and lacking coordination in the left hand can lead to everything sounding a bit like a warped record. The following four examples are meant to do many things, primarily build picking speed and left hand coordination and dexterity, but they take it even further and add in some great minor arpeggios to teach you some new shapes and train your ears, and also train you to use pull offs in an interesting way. The picking pattern we’ll use is up-up-down across strings 1-2-3 in triplet eighth figures. Practice it and lock it in, because we’re about to go even further beyond! So for starters, just to get an idea of how this feels for the picking hand:
Secondly, we want to make sure it sounds cool, maybe learn some shapes and get both of our hands synced up while we work. My favorite key is E Minor…yours too? Great! Then let’s paint it black with some minor arpeggios in the key. So here’s step two. Only play these arpeggios using fingers 1,2 and 3. Some of these will create a bigger stretch than you’re used to, but all this will be useful later. Notice that the arpeggios are all really close in shape and the only big movements are in the arm rather than in the hand or fingers. We’ll be arpeggiating different inversions and qualities of Am triads and Em9 triads.
This riff, right now, sounds very power metal. It’d go great with operatic vocals about a classic gothic novel. This is not completely uncool, but I want to give you a riff that might inspire some ideas, and maybe take your whole approach in a new creative direction. So first, let’s add another phrase to give the left hand more to do (still, only use fingers 1-2-3):
Now put together both figure 2 and figure 3 to make up the whole “riff.” If your left hand is still jumping around, imagine it is a spider suspended over the fretboard with just it’s long legs moving carefully to weave a web. There should not be a ton of movement in the palm or wrist to play these parts. Like I said, we want both hands to really sync up. Plus, we want to get even more from the exercise, so maybe we can use it to improve another neglected skill (or learn something new) on your left hand and that is playing pull offs in time. Try setting your metronome to play (at very slow tempo) eighth note triplets. You should be picking (up-up-down) exactly with the click. Next the pull-off should sound on the up-beat between the triplets creating the following sixteenth note triplet figure:
Remember the goal here is to play evenly before we play fast. As you get faster at the movements you’ll understand that you are still really only playing eighth note triplets but now the open strings are sounding to add in the sixteenth triplets. Smoke and mirrors making this exercise now sound extra shreddy. Ultimately, what I like about this is that it actually sounds like a riff, it’s challenging, but it’s also cyclical or boxy enough that you can turn it into a lesson, accelerate it to 1000bpm if you need or slow it down enough so you can focus intently on those really small triplet subdivisions. It also helps to ingrain those minor 9th arpeggios into your muscle memory. For further exploration try taking this a step further and practice these licks using heavy muting or letting all the strings ring out after every pull-off.
What creative guitar lesson exercises have you found or invented to help build speed picking technique, hand synchronization or musicality?