How To Make Fast Guitar Playing Easy Using Directional Picking

by Tom Hess


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Your guitar speed improves faster when your picking hand technique becomes more efficient. Using directional picking makes fast guitar playing feel easy. Your motions become smaller and faster - leading to more guitar speed with less effort.

Watch this video to see why directional picking helps you master guitar speed more easily:

Important: watch the entire video to understand the rest of this article!

Question: “Tom Hess, does directional picking only work for 3-note-per-string scales? What if I want to play pentatonic scales or other scales that don’t have 3 notes on every string?”

Answer: Directional picking works for everything you play (with zero exceptions). The principle of directional picking is to use the shortest possible path to the next note you need to play. Sometimes the shortest path to your next note is to use alternate picking. Other times, the shortest path is to use sweep picking to change strings and NOT use alternate picking. Integrating both mechanics achieves maximum efficiency and speed with the least amount of effort.

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The principle of strict alternate picking is to alternate your pick strokes no matter what…even if doing so forces your hand to make larger and inefficient motions. This forces you to work much harder (and practice a lot longer) to achieve the same amount of speed.

How To Master Directional Picking

Directional picking is identical to alternate picking when you play an even number of notes per string (such as 2-note-per-string pentatonic scales or 4-note-per-string chromatic scales).  

The key to directional picking mastery is integration between alternate picking and sweep picking. Practicing 3-note-per-string scales forces you to isolate this element of playing and master it quickly. You alternate pick the notes on each string and sweep pick to move from one string to the next. 

Here is an example of a 3-note-per-string scale:

Directional Picking Exercise

Note 1: Pay attention to the picking markings shown in red. They illustrate the differences (and advantages) of directional picking over strict alternate picking.

Note 2: you should learn 3-note-per-string scale fingerings all over the guitar. This gives you more practice with directional picking and helps your fretboard visualization improve.)

Below are 5 steps that help you master directional picking with 3-note-per-string scales. Practice them and download this free directional picking cheat sheet with a summary of the steps (you don’t have to enter an email address). Print it out and keep it in your practice area to review the steps when you practice.
 

Guitar directional picking cheat sheet

Download free guitar technique cheat sheet

1. Isolate The Picking Motion

Mute all the strings by laying your fretting hand across them. This prevents them from making sound when you pick them.

Doing this helps you focus only on the picking motion and programs the correct muscle memory into your picking hand.

  • Play an upstroke on the muted high E string.
     
  • Play a downstroke on the high E string.
     
  • Play another upstroke on the high E string and pull the hand back towards the B string in ONE sweep picking motion. Play an upstroke on the B string.

Common mistake: Avoid stopping the pick between strings (after the last upstroke on the high E string and the first upstroke on the B string). Pull your hand back in a continuous motion.

  • Play a downstroke on the B string.
     
  • Play an upstroke on the B string again, pulling the hand back towards the G string in one motion.

    Play an upstroke on the G string. Then continue this pattern to play the rest of the scale.

Common mistake: Do not stop the pick between strings (after the last upstroke on the B string and the 1st upstroke on the G string). Pull your hand back in a continuous motion.
 

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Think of the picking motions like this:

Descending:

Up – Down – Sweep (Pull the hand back) – Down - Sweep (Pull the hand back) – Down - Sweep (Pull the hand up) – etc.

Ascending:

Down – Up - Sweep (Push the hand through) – Up - Sweep (Push the hand through) – Up - Sweep (Push the hand through) – etc.

Watch the video (starting at 0:50) to see a demonstration of these picking hand motions (so you know how to practice them correctly).
 

2. Transition To 3-Note-Per-String Chromatics

After you learned the string change in isolation, begin to play 3-note-per-string chromatic patterns. Example: use fingers 1, 2 and 3 to play frets 5, 6 and 7 on every string.

Question: “But Tom Hess, I don't like the sound of chromatic patterns. Why do I need to practice chromatic runs?”

Answer: Chromatic patterns allow you to focus 100% on your picking hand. Your fretting hand can go on autopilot, so you don't have to worry about playing wrong notes. At the same time, you also get to practice your 2-hand synchronization by training both hands to move together for every note.
 

How To Keep Hands In Sync While Playing Guitar3. Solidify The Picking Motion Through Many Focused Repetitions

You must train the correct motions into your muscle memory to form a new habit. Practicing with a focused mind helps you go through this step quickly. Focus your mind on:

  • Correct Pick Position: Don’t play with just the tip of the pick. Hold the pick higher up and dig it deeper into the strings. This gives the notes more volume with no additional effort.
     
  • Correct Pick Angle: Slice the pick through the strings at a 45-degree angle. This makes picking easier and gives you better tone.
     
  • Articulation: Pick with more force to give the notes more articulation and help you hear inconsistencies in your 2-hand synchronization.
  • String Noise Control: mute the lower (in pitch) strings using your picking hand’s thumb. This helps you to play guitar cleanly (even at loud volumes).


4. Integrate Directional Picking Into Context With Scales

Begin to practice all scales you know using directional picking. Mastering string changes on 3-note-per-string chromatics enables you to play any 3-note-per string scale smoothly and fast.
 

5. Use Effective Speed Building Strategies To Build Your Speed Even Higher

Building your technique foundation is the first step towards playing guitar fast. You also need effective speed building strategies that help you reach your guitar speed potential.
 

Another Cool Benefit To Directional Picking:

Directional picking helps you play scales and arpeggios easily and fast. Using elements of sweep picking on string changes makes it easier to play 1-note-per-string arpeggios.

Practice directional picking when your practice time is limited. This helps you maintain a high level of technique without practicing scales and arpeggios separately.
 

Question: “Tom Hess, why do so many great guitar players use (and advocate) strict alternate picking?”

Answer: Directional picking is a relatively new guitar technique. Alternate picking has been around a lot longer. Most guitar players from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000’s did not have anyone to teach them directional picking when they were beginners. They developed their speed in spite of the inefficiencies of strict alternate picking… not because it is a superior technique. They had to work much harder (and longer) to reach their goals.

Now that you know why directional picking makes fast playing easier, the next step is to learn how to practice guitar to build lightning speed with all your techniques. Download this free guitar speed guide and learn how to play guitar as fast as you’ve always wanted.


Tom HessAbout Tom Hess: Tom Hess is a guitar teacher, music career mentor and guitar teacher trainer. He teaches rock guitar lessons online to students from all over the world and conducts instructional live guitar training events attended by musicians from over 50 countries.

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