I often get asked about picking when teaching a student a lick. As in “what is the best way to pick that?” Many times the answer is, “it depends.” I know that sounds like side-stepping the question like any good politician facing a controversial subject! But it’s really true!
It depends on a couple of things. Number one, what way are you the most comfortable with. Two, what is the most efficient or common sense way to look at it, and three, what else is going on around the lick.
I will alternate pick (down, up, down, up) on most things. That is my “go-to” kind of picking when I learn something new or improvise. However, having the ability to play with hybrid picking (using the pick and right-hand fingers) or sweep/economy picking (using a series of consecutive down and/or up strokes) when it makes sense or feels right is an important skill to develop. Once you get all of these in your toolbox, you might find yourself giving the same elusive answer of, “it depends,” when someone asks you how you pick something, simply because you are not sure! For me, I don’t consciously think of which picking style I am using anymore, I just do what my brain determines in a split second is the best way to pick a part.
So sometimes I have to go back and play it slowly in order to show it to someone, just so I can figure it out myself. That is actually one thing I think trips up newer players when they try to learn an exact lick from someone. They are trying to forcefully incorporate a particular picking sequence to a lick, but they may not have the actual foundational technique of that way of picking under their fingers yet. So it seems awkward and cumbersome – but it’s not the lick – it is the underlying technique that needs the work.
Here are a couple of examples of playing a lick, first with alternate picking, and then with economy picking in the first example and alternate and then hybrid picking in the second example.
The first lick is simply playing through a Bm7 arpeggio. It is a pretty easy lick to alternate pick through, but it can really be sped up if you use economy picking. Economy and sweep picking are very similar. With sweep picking you are playing a series of down strokes, and then possibly a series of up strokes. Economy picking is a little more involved and has to do with playing alternate picking when you are on the same string, but then going down or up when you change strings, dependent on whatever is closest. For the way we are playing the second bar of the first example, we are using 3 consecutive down strokes, followed by 1 up stroke. So it is “economy” but that little 3-note down stroke “sweep” can make it work to be called a “sweep picking” lick as well. It is a fairly fine line between them.
For the second example, we start in the first bar with alternate picking again, but then in the second bar we use hybrid picking. Basically we are playing the first note with a down stroke of the pick, and then playing the second note with our middle finger of our right hand. This pattern continues; pick, middle finger, pick, middle finger. This can allow you to skip strings with minimum motion.