Editor's note: Why is alternate picking important? Beginning guitar players have a tendency to strum or pick the guitar strings by using a series of either all downstrokes or all upstrokes.
Although this is OK when first learning, it is important to increase playing fluidity and efficiency by using a technique called alternate picking, which is the process of using a guitar pick to strike the strings using a pattern of alternating downward and upward motions, or downstrokes and upstrokes. This has the advantage of minimizing wasted motion and results in faster, smoother playing.
Below is an article written by Ben Edwards of Jamorama offering practical advice in improving this important skill:
Q: Ben, I'm having trouble "alternate picking". What can I do?
A: The main problem with alternate picking comes when you are
picking a note in the opposite direction of the next string that
you're going to play. For instance, if your last note was a
downstroke on the G string, and your next note is an upstroke on
the D string, then your pick has to travel a more complicated path than if you are picking up on G and down on D. What to do?
Some people just refuse to let their picking hand do the more
difficult move, by trying to put a hammer on or a pull off to time the direction of the pick to a more favorable direction. Others might just be using the pick to start the string in motion, but are doing all hammer or pull offs other than the first note on a string.
But let's concentrate on what to do if you are using the versatile alternate picking method. Since we don't want to limit the note choices, or string choices, in any way, we have to just get good at dealing with the problem.
Practice going back and forth between two strings picking in the
opposite direction just like the example: For example, in 2nd
position, play a C on the 3rd string with a downstroke followed by an E on the 4th string with an upstroke. Repeat the C and E one more time.
Next, bring the C down to a B on the 3rd string with a downstroke, followed by the same E on the 4th with an upstroke. Repeat the B and E. Just to make a slightly musical pattern, do the same thing, but change the B down to an A, doing the same pattern. To make the pattern symmetrical, return the A back up to a B and play B,E,B,E, just like the second pattern.
It will take a lot less time to play this than to read about it, so try to muddle through this explanation to get to the actual notes, it's not hard to play this as long as you don't try to play it too fast.
As with all exercises, do it slowly and as accurately as possible at first. Doing this exercise addresses one of the most important points about practicing and improvements.