Metal Riff Bootcamp 2: Alternate Picking

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What Is Alternate Picking?

In the last lesson, you learned about downstrokes, which is just picking in that one, downward direction. Now you’re going to pick in both directions, back and forth.

Simply put, alternate picking allows you to play faster riffs and notes. But this method also gives you different sounds and textures as you’re playing (it’s not just about speed).

There’s also more room for playing unique patterns and timings with alternate picking. We’ll talk more about that below.

The Role of Alternate Picking for Metal Guitar

Alternate picking is where you go from classic heavy metal to styles with more intensity like thrash, speed, and death metal. It can give the song more edge and aggression.

Alternate picking and downstrokes are almost always combined, meaning rarely will an entire song consist of alternate picking. Even in the most extreme (in regards to speed) metal, there will be downstrokes.

Like downstrokes, it’s also common to pair alternate picking with palm muting, making it another core method of metal guitar.

For certain styles, alternate picking is also called speed picking (though this term is usually reserved for guitar solos).

This style is prominent in metal subgenres like speed metal, death metal, black metal, and some power metal. But the core of fast-alternate picking for rhythms probably goes back to the first generation of thrash metal bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, etc.

Examples of Songs that Use Alternate Picking

It would be difficult to name a metal band (beyond classic metal) that doesn’t use alternate picking in some of their songs.

Below are some notable metal songs that highlight alternate picking rhythms:

  • ‘Disposable Heros’ by Metallica
  • ‘Holy Wars’ by Megadeth
  • ‘Destoyer of the Universe’ by Amon Amarth
  • ‘Nemesis’ by Arch Enemy
  • ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ by Dragon Force
  • ‘Left for Dead’ by Death Angel
  • ‘Blank File’ by Sonata Arctica
  • ‘Beneath Dead Leaves’ by Skeletonwitch
  • ‘Give Me Liberty…Or Give Me Death’ by Havok
  • ‘Speed of the Strike’ by Exmortus
  • ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer
  • ‘Caught Somewhere in Time’ by Iron Maiden
  • ‘Puritania’ by Dimmu Borgir
  • ‘Arise’ by Sepultura

The list of songs that use dominating alternate picking in their songs are endless. And you can see that there are multiple subgenres of metal here.

You’ve got everything from earlier heavy metal songs from Iron Maiden as well as countless songs from Metallica and Megadeth. And then you have songs from melodic death metal bands like Arch Enemy and Amon Amarth.

And somewhere you have some non-extreme metal bands like Sonata Arctica using the alternate picking method in their songs.

What does this mean? It means that alternate picking is a crucial method for you to master!

Best Way to Practice Alternate Picking for Rhythms

Beginners: Start out slow and simple. One of the best ways to do this is to just steadily alternate pick one note.

For example, you can pick the open E string while giving that string a light palm-mute. Just pick back and forth for a period of time, let’s say 20 seconds. This will help you grasp the repetitive nature of the method.

The next step would be, and you knew this was coming, break out a metronome or even drum machine (or drum program) and practice to that. Start with a modest BPM, maybe 140 (which isn’t fast at all for alternate picking).

Once you feel like you have the timing down, start adding more notes, chords, and riffs.

Intermediate: Focus on combining your alternate picking with multiple techniques (not just alternate picking throughout the entire riff).

For example, alternate downstrokes with your alternate picking. This is how the majority of complex metal riffs are written anyway.

Also, try palm muting those alternate picked notes with parts where you down-pick and hold out a power chord. Then go back into the fast alternate picking regimen.

I strongly encourage you to add some single-note riffs. You can play those riffs using downstrokes in between the alternate picking parts of the riff. You can also practice alternate picking those single-note riffs.

Once you become proficient at alternate picking, you play almost any metal rhythm. However, as you already know what I’m about to say, start focusing more on writing your own riffs with alternate picking.

***If you’re ready to go to that next level now, click below to learn more about my course Metal Riff Master:

Jason Stallworth

About the author

Jason is a hard rock and heavy metal recording artist, songwriter, and published author. Primarily a guitarist, he's known for his melodic style and positivity. He also enjoys helping other guitarists and musicians excel. When he's not writing music or filming YouTube videos, he's helping others build muscle and get in shape on themuscleprogram.com.


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