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Blues Guitar Lessons: Alternate Picking

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In the last lesson we talked about
tremolo picking, which is a very rapid
yet still controlled form of
alternate picking.
So in this lesson we're talking
about alternate picking.
Well, what's the difference?
Isn't it the same thing?
Yeah, kinda, but
when we talk about alternate picking we're
talking about picking phrases where
you pick every note in tempo,
as opposed to just sort
of creating an effect.
It's actually a rhythmic quality.
I said way back at the beginning,
talking about blues technique,
that almost all classic blues players
concentrate primarily on legato technique.
In other words,
the hammer on
Right, so the phrases kind of flow because
you slide, you hammer on, you pull off,
you bend, use the vibrato.
The whole idea is that you kind
of create this greasy quality
that the phrases flow
from one to the other.
Now, picking every note,
That's sort of a blues
version of shred right there.
I actually picked every note.
That's not a technique that I use
particularly often because when I was
learning to play blues and blues rock,
none of the guys that I idolized did that.
So I thought, why would I bother?
Times have changed.
And a lot of players today that combine
the traditional blues sound with
their own influences as rock players have
found ways to apply alternate picking,
picking every note in a row,
to the blues style.
Now, I cannot pretend that it's something
that I do with any great authority.
And I'm not gonna try to show you licks,
like here's a fast-shred lick and
[SOUND] pick it like that.
I don't do that, but
other people, you know,
great guitar players can
show you how to do that.
However, alternate picking is a way of
developing confidence in your right hand.
And what I mean by that is that you want
to have the ability to hit the notes
with authority, using whatever
technique is appropriate to you.
And I find from time to time it is
important to be able to pick every note.
Now I don't play fast licks up and
down using three notes per string or
any of that.
But I do stuff
like this
Why on earth would I want to do that?
Well, the band I play in, we do like a
really fast blues at the end of the night.
It's the last song and I'm usually
completely exhausted, but you gotta go for
it, right?
And it has that groove
Now, that's a groove we're going
to study in more detail later on.
It's essentially kind of an amped
up version of jump blues.
The bass pattern
goes like that.
We know that pattern from many moons ago.
that's a variation that
we'll look at later on.
But what I do as
a rhythm guitar
part is I combine
I combine the bass pattern, doubling
what the bass player is playing and
I pick twice.
For every note that he picks once,
I pick twice, and
then I use sort of a horn section style
rhythm to bounce off of that part.
And in that way,
because I'm the main guitar player,
I'm trying to create the effect
of two instruments in one.
I play the fundamental underlying
timekeeping rhythm, and
then I play the color
rhythm as an answer to it.
Now what this leads me to is an exercise,
this is a technical exercise
that I discovered in a way.
And this is a funny place to discover it.
I was looking for
a way that I could kind of develop
my right hand a little bit more.
And so I wanted something where
I would kind of test myself
on a technical level with picking.
And I came across it in a recording by
a guitar player named Big Bill Broonzy.
We've talked about Big Bill before.
He's a guy who was a monster
guitar player and singer and
songwriter and all-around personality that
spent a lot of his career in Chicago.
And before even I think he was in Chicago,
he did some recordings back in 1930,
I mean, way back, on the acoustic guitar.
Now, he was best known as
an acoustic guitar player for
his finger style blues, but
suddenly out of nowhere
he picks up a pick and
he plays this crazy flat picking
Right, all by himself playing the acoustic
guitar, you know, it's like, what?
That's an astonishing level of technical
skill for a guy that you think of,
he's a down-home blues guy.
It's 1930,
nobody knows anything back then,
or so we imagine,
which was completely wrong.
But it's a surprising place
to find something that has
that kind of a picking level
of sophistication to it.
It's called How You Want It Done.
And this
That's sort of the instrumental
answer to the vocal that he sings.
Really cool song.
You want to check it out.
Anyway, long story short or
short story long maybe,
I took that thing and
I turned it into a picking etude.
All right, getting real official here.
And I recorded a rhythm track for you,
and we can play this along with the band.
And it follows a 12-bar format.
Now the useful quality that I
find in this exercise is that
it's a pattern that I actually use.
I play that bass pattern when
we play this fast song, and
I've gotta have the confidence and
the skill to be able to play it and relax.
Now just as with tremolo,
when I'm picking, if I tense up,
I'll never be able to keep up with
the rest of the guys in the band and
they'll leave me behind,
I'll be exhausted and
I won't be able to make it
to the end of the song.
So I have to figure out how to pick
that fast at the end of the night and
still have some reserve.
And the way that I came
across it is I have to relax.
I have to really relax all my muscles.
And if I relax enough, I can do it.
If I tense up,
it's not gonna happen, right.
So this is an exercise in relaxation,
even though it pushes you kinda
to the limits of your skill.
If you haven't done a lot of flat picking,
this will kind of drive you crazy.
Now let me play it for you really slowly.
And it's kinda long, but once you learn
the pattern and learn the melody and
the flow of it and relate it back to
your 12-bar blues in the key of G
it makes perfect sense and
it's easy to hear.
And then you can think of this as just
sort of a meditation that you can do as
you're getting warmed up.
Now, the best way to approach an exercise
like this is play it very slowly,
and you're going for perfection.
So before we play with the band,
here's what it sounds like.
And I'm not gonna set a tempo,
I'm just gonna play it for you,
a piece of it at least.
a deep
at the
Now [COUGH] that combines open strings and
fretted notes.
It's all in the open position essentially.
I'm double-picking every note except for
a couple of spots in there where I
hit a single note and give myself
a second to get the pick to cross over.
Right, you have to cross
over three strings.
So this exercise covers a couple
of different aspects of picking.
One is dynamic evenness.
I want the downstrokes and
the upstrokes to be exactly even.
I don't want louder and
softer, but very even.
Also, I'm double-picking some
of the notes, in other words,
hitting the same note twice
And then in other cases,
each note is a separate pitch
Now, we look at picking and
we say it's a right-hand thing.
It's not really.
It's a coordination thing.
It's getting the two hands
to cooperate precisely.
And if the pick hits the string before
the fretting hand frets the note,
it's dead, it doesn't work.
If the pick hits the string after
the fretting hand has already
released the note,
it's dead, it doesn't work.
They have to be precisely
coordinated with each other.
So that's why you play this
sort of exercise slowly, and
even the way I just demonstrated it might
be way too fast until you memorize it.
And I mean take it down
to as slow as you want, and
for example,
Now that could even be too fast
as you're learning the phrases.
So you take one phrase at a time and
you learn it.
You surround it, you get the feel for
it, how it flows,
how you get into the front end and
how you get out of the back end.
How you connect it to the next phrase,
etc., etc.
It's just like we do with all of our blues
soloing as thinking about the transitions,
making sure everything is smooth and
taken care of.
Meanwhile, in my right hand,
I'm picking with authority.
Up and down, I'm taking a nice bite
out of the string on each stroke, and
keeping the strokes exactly
even with each other.
And in learning this thing, I talked
a long, long time ago about practicing.
And there's what I call the 21 day rule.
I didn't make that up.
The idea is that if you develop a certain
level of skill, physical skill, and
you can maintain it for
three weeks, you own it.
And I started practicing this
thing not that long ago actually.
This is something where I kinda looked
at what I was doing and said, man,
I can do that better and I wanna
learn a way to do it better, and so
I created this for my own benefit.
And so I was practicing it everyday.
Man, it was driving me crazy cuz
I couldn't remember the notes and
then I would make mistakes
all over the place.
But eventually I got it to a level where
I could play it pretty consistently, and
I kept doing it everyday and
not for a long time.
I'm talking 5 minutes.
But everyday just keep it up,
keep it up, keep it up, keep it up.
And then I put the guitar down for
a while.
I was doing other stuff.
I was going here, going there, and
I picked up the guitar again and
it was pretty much right there waiting for
So that's proof in my
mind of the 21 day rule.
And if you build it up,
if you get up to this tempo
and so on, and it's perfect, and
you maintain that level,
you will own that lick forever.
Right, and then building speed.
Speed is a by-product of accuracy.
If I play it like this
I'm ripping, right?
No, I'm not.
Just sounds terrible, right?
That's no good.
That does me no good whatsoever.
My hand is moving fast, my left hand is
moving fast and they're not together.
It's a waste of time, right.
So build it up one bit at a time and then
lock it in, and once you get it to each
level and hold onto it, bring it up,
bring it up, bring it up.
And the net result is it just makes
your hands better coordinated,
makes your sound better.
And even if you don't pick much,
and I don't pick much really,
you'll sound like a more
complete musician.
All right, I'm gonna play this for you
with the rhythm section so you can kind of
hear how it works, and then you can use
this track as kind of a target to aim for.
But don't rush into it.
Work your way up and
use this as kind of a proof positive that
you got this thing nailed tight, okay?
Here we go.
Mm mm mm mm!
Now there's one note in
there I didn't hit right.
Did you hear it?
That's the challenge of this exercise is
you wanna be rock solid 100% of the time.
But that's kind of a cool
rhythm pattern there and
it's one that actually has
some musical sense to it.
So it isn't just running up and
down a scale,
which I could never make myself do
that for extended periods of time.
So have fun with that one.
As I say, whether you pick a lot in your
natural style or not, it will have lots
of benefits for your overall coordination
and sound, so well worth the effort.
All right, I'll see you next time.