How to Strengthen Your Picking Skills Through Efficient Patterns

In this guitar lesson you'll learn economy picking, which includes alternate and sweep picking styles, as well as legato techniques for your fretting fingers.

Some of my favorite guitarists—whether acoustic or electric or both—have very different picking styles. Pat Metheny plays using quite a bit of legato technique, letting his fretting hand carry the heavy load. John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, by contrast, articulate almost every note using alternate picking, while Les Paul and Barney Kessel were known for their sweep picking.

Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.

I personally prefer combining all of the above styles in an approach known as economy picking—an amalgamation of alternate and sweep picking, along with legato technique. You can look at economy picking as the best of all worlds. In this Weekly Workout, you’ll work on the basics of alternate and sweep picking, as well as legato techniques for your fretting fingers. You’ll then combine these approaches to take your picking to a higher level.  

Week One: Picking Exercises and Warmups

This week I’ll introduce some rudimentary picking exercises, which can also serve as great warmups. I suggest using a metronome, starting at a slow tempo and gradually building up speed. The first few examples are based on an open C chord, so be sure to hold down that shape throughout while you concentrate on your picking hand. 


Examples 1a–b are designed to get you accustomed to alternate picking—downstrokes (remember, toward the floor) followed by upstrokes (toward the ceiling). As you play through these figures, try to keep your wrist relaxed and pick as close to the strings as possible, while picking all of the notes evenly. 

It’s a little more difficult to alternate pick consecutive notes on adjacent strings, as shown in Example 2a. This is where sweep picking—using a single downstroke or upstroke to play across two or more strings—comes in handy. Example 2b shows just how efficient sweep picking can be. You can play the C chord in just two strokes: Use a downstroke from strings 5–1 and then an upstroke from strings 2–4. After picking each note, try resting your plectrum on the adjacent string, so that you’re ready to play the next note immediately—great practice for building speed! Try using the same approach to play Example 3, but with three-string sweeps in eighth-note triplets. 

The focus shifts to the fretting fingers for the next pair of exercises, involving slurs. Example 4a features some chromatic hammer-ons, while Example 4b incorporatespull-offs. Use downstrokes throughout, and play as smoothly and evenly as possible, with the slurred notes sounding at equal volume with those that are picked. For an added workout, try practicing these examples up the neck and on other strings as well. 

Beginners’ Tip #1
Experiment with a variety of picks in different materials, sizes, and thicknesses to find the one that works best for you. 

Week Two: Economy Picking in G Mixolydian

This week you’ll be working towards economy picking the G Mixolydian mode (G A B C D E F) in one octave. Begin with alternate picking, as shown in Example 5. For an added workout, try switching the order of the pick strokes, starting on an upstroke. Next, play the scale mostly in downstrokes, bringing hammer-ons and pull-offs into the mix (Example 6). 

Move on to sweep picking across two adjacent strings, as notated in Example 7. Remember to angle your pick slightly for the sweeps, which will make them a little easier to play. End the week with Example 8, featuring economy picking. Practice these figures until you can play them with ease, and if you like, transpose them to other modes or scales as well. 

Beginners’ Tip #2
Though picking approaches can vary widely between players, try angling your pick about 45 degrees, and playing straight on the string. 

Week Three: Economy Picking in A Minor Pentatonic

This week you’ll explore picking approaches on the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G). I chose this scale because it’s so common in guitar music as the basis of many blues and rock tunes, and because it really lends itself to economy picking. Begin by playing the scale in fifth position, starting with strict alternate picking (Example 9). 


Once you have a firm grasp on the A minor pentatonic scale in both hands, try playing it with hammer-ons and pull-offs, using only downstrokes, as depicted in Example 10. Note how the two-notes-per-string configuration makes it feel natural to add these slurs. To play the scale with sweep picking, it’s best to shift to second position, then to fifth (Example 11). 

This week’s last exercise, Example 12, involves economy picking in four-note groups. Note where you sweep on adjacent strings—like between 4 and 3 on beat 1, and 3 and 2 on the “and” of 1—and use slurs where possible, like beats 2 and 4 of bar 1, etc. For an added challenge, transpose these exercises higher up the neck; for instance, moving each note up three frets for the C minor pentatonic scale (C Eb–F–G–Bb).

Beginners’ Tip #3
Always remember to maintain an even volume between picked notes and those articulated with hammer-ons and pull-offs. 

Week Four: Economy Picking a Jazzy Chord Progression

While the previous exercises have been largely scalar, this week you’ll focus on a jazzy line based on a I–VI–ii–V (Fmaj7–D7b9–Gm9–C7b9) progression in the key of F major, with lots of arpeggios and chromatic notes to keep you on your toes. Example 13 shows the lick with alternate picking. Work through it a few times to get it under your fingers and in your ears. Because of arpeggios like the Fmaj7 in the first measure, it’s very efficient to play the lick using sweep picking, as shown in Example 14. And by shifting some of the fret locations, you can add pull-offs and hammer-ons to ease the burden on your picking hand (Example 15). For maximum efficiency, end with Example 16, which combines all of the approaches in an economy picking exercise.

Beginners’ Tip #4
For any given lick or piece, try different picking approaches and go with the one that allows you to play the most cleanly and expressively. 

Take It to the Next Level

Here is an advanced jazz pattern based on a ii–V–I progression (Dm7–G7b9–Cmaj7) in the key of C major. The figure works well with economy picking and includes sweeps, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. As with any challenging passage, practice this one slowly at first, going for a clean and even attack, before playing it at a relatively brisk clip.


Economy picking guitar lesson music notation page exs. 1–8
Economy picking guitar lesson music notation page exs. 9–14
Economy picking guitar lesson music notation page exs. 15–16 plus "take it to the next level" example.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

weekly workout - get your fingers moving with a series of interesting technical exercises
Ron Jackson
Ron Jackson

New York City-based jazz guitarist Ron Jackson has performed and recorded in over 30 countries, with artists such as Taj Majal, Jimmy McGriff, and Ron Carter.

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