Good picking is the driver of good guitar playing.
What you do on the fretboard matters. A lot. That defines where you are going, but picking is how you get there.
In this lesson, I’ll share 5 fundamental picking exercises that will help take you where you want to go.
Timing is Everything
Picking sets the pace of what you play.
While speed is fun and a worthy goal, keeping a steady pace is much more valuable.
It doesn’t matter how fast you play if you can’t keep the beat. If you can’t keep the beat, everything else suffers.
Later, we’ll get into the specific exercises to help you build accuracy and keep your hands in sync. But we need to make sure that you have a rock solid sense of timing.
Simply put: you need great timing to be a great player.
The good news is there is a clear and simple path to improving your timing.
The exercises below will help. But just about any exercise can help you improve your timing if you do two things:
1. Practice with a reliable timekeeper.
2. Practice with rhythmic awareness.
What is a reliable timekeeper?
Any device or track that can consistently delivers a steady pulse. Enter the metronome.
The sparse click-click-click-click sound from a metronome is a perfectly reliable timekeeper. It’s an indispensable tool for improving your timing. Practicing along with a perfect timekeeper helps you find tempos where you just can’t keep up. Really, It helps you lock in with the beat at any tempo.
Some prefer to avoid the metronome which I can understand. It can feel a bit lifeless and sterile to practice with. Feel free to practice along with a drum track or backing track. Or when learning a song, play along with the song. The key is that you practice with a reliably in time timekeeper.
Do that with each exercise in this lesson. But just turning on a metronome, backing track or record won’t help.
You need what I call rhythmic awareness.
What is Rhythmic Awareness?
Having a click playing while you practice is one thing. Syncing your playing with the click is quite another. You have to be equally aware of the click as you are what you are playing.
It’s easier than you think to get stuck into the exercise (or song) and completely ignore the click. This is especially so if you’re focused on what your hands are doing. You may have a tendency to tune out the click in favor of the sounds you are making.
This won’t do you much good if you’re training your sense of timing.
So be aware of that click!
If you find yourself drifting from the beat, try these two simple tips:
Count out loud.
Accent the beats.
Both of these ideas are simple to use, but extremely effective.
Hit the Right Strings by Training Your Accuracy
I can’t overstate the importance of accurate picking. It’s one of the cornerstones of good guitar playing.
Even though many picking lessons – including parts of this one – focus on building speed – keep this in mind:
Good clean picking sounds good at any tempo, bad picking sounds bad at any tempo.
Speed isn’t the enemy though. I enjoy watching fast pickers as much as anyone. But aim for speed through accurate picking, not the other way around.
This first set of exercises will help you train your accuracy across the strings.
Exercise 1: Get Comfortable with Big Jumps
This exercise will help you get comfortable picking big jumps across the strings. Play each of these with a down stroke.
This may seem basic to non-beginners. But, you may find it challenging if you’ve never trained these big jumps.
Exercise 1a has you filling in the gaps a bit on the second half of the pattern. Be sure to pick the off beats with an upstroke.
The picking in the second half of **Exercise 1a** is alternate picking – alternating down and up strokes.
Alternate picking will help you build both speed and accuracy and it’s not just for shredders. You’ll find plenty of quick alternate picking runs in Country and Bluegrass.
Let’s train this skill with a few targeted exercises.
Exercise 2: Alternate Picking Through the Strings
Use alternate picking (down-up-down-up) throughout Exercise 2 to improve accuracy across the strings.
Exercise 3: Alternate Picking with Odd Groups
If you really want to test your timing and your alternate picking, try Exercise 3.
Notice the picking pattern is a group of three notes. This odd grouping causes you to start every other group with an upstroke. This can feel uncomfortable but it will improve your timing as well as your picking technique.
Conquer this banjo roll sound and you’ve done something.
Get Your Hands in Sync
The first group of exercises has you holding a static chord shape. This is a great way to isolate your focus to your picking. But we need the ability to pick well while playing different chords or melody.
We need to move!
The thing is, we need to move the pick at the same time we move our fingers. Otherwise, your notes won’t sound clearly.
We need to synchronization both hands.
The next two exercises help to train your hands to synchronize and stay in sync.
In these two exercises, your fingers are moving with each note you pick. You’re never standing still.
Try to pick the string at exact moment that you fret the note. This may seem easy at slow tempos. But as things heat up, you’ll likely have a tendency to drift out of sync.
That’s ok, we can tweak these exercises to sync back up with the beat. More on that after we cover the basics of the exercise.
Exercise 4: Controlled Single String Picking
This exercise requires you to change frets every single time you pick. Plus you will change positions often.
Because of the constant movement, if you’re hands are out of sync, you will miss notes.
If that happens consistently, repeat the exercise at a slower tempo. This time, accent each beat. Make the beat stand out. It should be louder than the rest of the notes. In our 16th note example, you’d accent the 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 and play each e-&-a with a normal attack.
This will serve as a marker for your ear and provide an obvious sync point in the exercise.
Take this exercise further by descending down the first string. Also, practice doing this on each string. You can either play the notes of the E Major Scale on each string or just play the major scale of the note that you’re tuned to. For example, play the B Major scale on the 2nd string.
Finally, incorporate the open strings in the exercise.
Exercise 5: Switching Strings
The previous exercise gets you in the game when it comes to hand sync work but limited to a single string.
But, one of the most difficult things to do is switching strings while alternate picking. Especially at high speeds and especially when playing an odd number of notes on a string.
Check out Troy Grady’s excellent YouTube series on Cracking the Code for more on this.
Exercise 5 will help you get used to switching strings with a less complicated two notes per string pattern. This pattern comes from the minor pentatonic scale so you’re sure to get a lot of real-world use from it.
As with Exercise 4 go slowly to memorize the finger pattern. Then play up to speed and when you feel yourself missing notes, slow down a bit and accent the beats.
This signals to your brain that this note is important. It serves as a spot for you to self-correct any sync issues every single beat.
It takes focused effort to build good picking technique.
These exercises will help you practice a few of the fundamental movements the right way. These are movements that you’ll use nearly every time you play with a pick. That’s what makes them so important and critical to get right.
Improve your timing by practicing these exercises with a backing track or metronome.
These exercises work. They will help you pluck the string you want to pluck. No small task!
They will help you get your hands in sync.
They will help you play better overall.