Despite having different names, all guitar picking styles are mostly very similar to one another. When played with speed and efficiency they all appear to be quite complicated. However, once you break them down and start slow, it is obvious they are rather simple! The key is to spend a lot of time practicing in a proper manner.
The kind of pick or plectrum you use can vary based on the music you play. It is best to buy a variety of picks in different sizes, weights, and materials. The more you experiment the better chance you have of finding the perfect flat or even slightly curved plectrum that suits your picking needs.
And you can hold it between two or three fingers, it will all be based on what you are comfortable with and the style of playing.
Guitar picking styles is a topic that often sparks discussions and flames: "this style is faster/better/more accurate/whatever than the others because bla bla bla".
The important thing is to be aware of all these styles and use what works best for you.
Even the great Al Di Meola has fallen into this trap:
Alternate picking, loose wrist, chords, scales and arpeggios. Sweep picking is for cissies! Al Di Meola
It even seems that Al Di Meola has something personal against sweep picking, as this comment thread found on Facebook would suggests:
But,as we don't have the alien alternate picking skills of Al Di Meola, let's be open-minded and experiment with all picking styles.
This is the basic term for using a pick with a guitar and one of the most common picking styles. In fact, if you want to be technical many other styles below still fall under flatpicking, but usually the term alone is associated with folk and bluegrass styles. Generally open voiced chords are played with this picking method.
Because the left hand is playing easy chords, most of the focus will be on your right hand striking the correct strings. Flatpicking often incorporates fingerstyle movements but hitting the string with the pick instead of your finger.
This is the hardest part for beginning guitarists, striking only a single string with precision.
Before you dive into more complicated picking, focus on playing simple chords and picking out individual arpeggios.
Before the guitar was popular the banjo was the dominant instrument in the US and the early innovators were mostly bluegrass musicians like multi-instrumentalist Don Reno. Some other notable flat pickers are Doc Watson. Tony Rice, George Shuffler, and more recent artists like Molly Tuttle.
2) Cross Picking
Another banjo picking method used on the guitar is cross picking which is still a style of flat pick playing. Three fingered rolls are common in banjo and the same technique can be used on the guitar. These patterns of three may come in a few different patterns like down-up-up, down-up-down, or maybe down-down-up.
The important part is to play these banjo-like rolls in a steady and consistent way, this is what gives bluegrass and folk that vibe. If done correctly it can sound just the same as a fingerpicked roll, but louder thanks to the pick. Like all other methods of picking you start slow and build until you have a smooth roll going.
Many of the same flatpicking names above were prominent cross pickers along with The Stanley Brothers, Clarence White, and even Robert Fripp of progressive rock found a use for this very old style of picking.
3) Alternate Picking
When you flatpick you often mix it in with strumming chords. A bass line or melody is played on single strings, and then some chord strums are added along with it. As you strum you will often be moving up and down, and the same goes for picking out individual notes.
When you alternate pick you are moving in a down-up-down-up motion, sometimes the pattern changes, but the key is to include a back-and-forth motion.
When played slower this style can give us the boom-chick sound that is common in country and folk. When we alternate really fast it creates a tremolo effect and is known as tremolo picking. If you want to shred on guitar it is important to master your up and down alternating technique and speed.
When we mix our flat picking and alternate movements together we get styles like Travis Picking, which is essentially adding in an alternate bass line along with higher melody on the treble strings. And Clawhammer (another banjo holdover) is where we pick upwards on the melody and brush down on the strings for the rhythm.
4) Sweep Picking
Alternate picking is not always the most efficient way of playing large arpeggios, in that case we can use sweep picking. When your fretting hand is moving up and down the entire fret board you need to focus on keeping the picking hand in sync.
And often because we are moving so fast we want to use as few strokes as possible.
This means we will use our hammer-ons and pull-offs and be as efficient as possible to get across the entire fretboard. Sweep picking often can be more frustrating to practice because both hands must move together, or it will not sound correct. It has a large initial learning curve to get that proper fast sweep sound when you play.
Early guitarists like Les Paul and Chet Atkins started the style and it later became popular in hard rock with Ritchie Blackmore.
In the shred guitar era one of the most popular sweep pickers ever was Yngwie Malmsteen and another great player and teacher is Frank Gambale. Many students study his methods and lessons on sweep picking.
5) Economy Picking
Economy picking is all about mixing your alternate and sweep picking styles to play as efficiently as possible. When you want smooth movement, speed, and beautiful sound these two picking styles will both be used. The most basic rule for economy is that an upstroke is for moving lower in pitch, while a downstroke is used to move up.
Another rule is when staying on the same string stick to alternate picking, once you move to another string use the sweeping technique. Also make use of any legato techniques to keep the notes flowing.
The less picking you must do the better in economy picking.
When you want to develop real guitar speed you need to think every picking movement through.
Many of the same artists who sweep pick are also economy players with the most famous being Eddie Van Halen. He would use any picking method available to play at the fastest speed possible.
Other economy pickers are Michael Angelo Batio, Jeff Loomis, Zakk Wylde, and Bruce Bouillet.
6) Gipsy Picking (Rest-stroke Picking)
This style of jazz was pioneered by Django Reinhardt and incorporates elements of sweep and alternate picking along with some other unique movements.
Reinhardt had injured his hand, and this affected his playing style, leading to the entire genre of Gipsy Jazz and picking style.
Besides the economy picking involved there are also finger style movements like the rest stroke where you rest your finger on the next string right after a pluck.
You also have finger movements where you flourish up and down and it has a similar picking rhythm to the country and bluegrass boom-chick style, except in this case it is called "La Pompe".
Besides the founder of the style, other gipsy jazz pickers to study are Andreas Öberg, John Jorgenson, and Bireli Lagrène. This picking style is one of the more complicated to learn as it involves both picking and fingerstyle methods.
7) Down picking
So far most of our picking has been alternating, but of course we can't leave out the hallmark of heavy metal music, only down strokes! This may seem easier than alternate picking, but it feels a little less natural. When you pick downwards you want to move back up.
But with down picking all your strokes need to get back up fast enough to repeat the motion over again, especially with power chords.
This style of picking is so important in punk, metal, and any kind of hard rock as it creates the musical drive. Just like the other picking methods here this heavy vibe takes a lot of practice, as you are not just constantly moving downward, it needs to be in rhythm.
As always start slower than you think when trying this picking out and only build speed as you perfect the slow BPM's
James Hetfield is one of the best examples for down picking, as thrash metal is dependent upon that movement. It was also used by heavy metal guitarists Dave Mustaine, Scott Ian, and even punk extraordinaire Johnny Ramone. When you want to rock, it helps to keep a steady rhythmic stream of heavy down picked bass notes.
Tapping is not done with a pick but it is still a popular playing style that you will encounter. Especially if you play music that involves alternate, sweep, or economy picking there is a good chance that tapping will be a part of your practice.
All tapping really consists of is fast hammer-ons and pull-offs, but without plucking the string with a pick first.
You must hit the string hard enough with your finger to make it sound and then use legato to stretch that tap out if possible. Or be a speed demon and tap out every note in a short and sweet staccato fashion.
Most students find tapping to be easier than they realized, that is the easiest part to play of Van Halen's "Eruption" solo. Steve Hackett used it in progressive rock and Cliff Burton even used it on the bass guitar. There was also an amateur guitarist and radiologist from Italy, Vittorio Camardese, that used tapping a lot. When you want to add a different sound to your picking styles you can try tapping the strings hard or even lightly for beautiful harmonics.
And of course we can always pick and pluck a guitar with just our fingers. There are dozens of patterns and techniques that involve using different fingers or even different parts of your fingers. Sometimes a hard pull is needed, other times you will use light as a feather touch for flourishes and quick passages.
Even if you plan on playing music that will mostly involve a pick it is important to practice plain old fingerpicking. Be sure to work on all your fingers, this will allow you to get a better feel for the strings and how to manipulate them.
And fingerpicking goes great when mixed with the styles above.
Because fingerstyle picking is so intertwined with other genres, you can almost name any slow folk, country, blues, or pop rock song and there is a good chance some fingerpicking is in the song.
Besides the clawhammer and Travis picking ones mentioned above there is also percussive, funky, and even ambient fingerstyle picking. There are just so many ways to pluck a guitar string!
10) Hybrid Picking
Hybrid picking, or chicken picking as it is also called, is a mixture of flatpicking and fingerstyle. You may have already noticed while practicing country, bluegrass, or rockabilly that these styles incorporate both picking and finger plucks. The mixture of both styles provides for an extra bit of rocking syncopation.
It also uses bass notes similar to Travis picking and clawhammer style for the pick and often the fingers may play the melody on the higher strings. When you first start playing this method, stick to easy patterns as it may be hard to hold the pick and pluck at the same time for beginners.
It's hard to play as fast this way compared to pure fingerstyle or with just a flatpick.
The list of famous hybrid pickers is as long as the flat pickers above! So many musicians across the spectrum mix these styles of guitar picking. Across all genres with artists like Glen Campbell, George Harrison, Alex Lifeson, and even Buckethead is known for this mixture of hybrid picking.
If the guitarist is in the early rock era they likely called it chicken picking at the time, but it is the same concept.
Guitar Picking Styles - Conclusions
If there is one style you want to master on this list, it is wise to practice it constantly, but don't forget to learn other picking patterns. When you train your muscle memory in a specific manner for so long, it can be helpful to change it up and challenge it.
If you try different picks, picking patterns, and genres you will become an all-around better guitar player. Just remember for every style to start super slow at first and only advance in BPM as you perfect your current speed.
The biggest mistake most guitarists make is jumping in too fast and failing to sound like they.
Our guitar picking adventures end here for now, to stay updated on new learning stuff subscribe here