Generalizing Guitar Picking

When using a plectrum to pick a guitar riff it is best to organise your downward and upward picking for the most efficient and rhythmically consistent way of playing. Let’s take a repeating 2 bar riff…

It may help to know that it’s the same rhythm as the opening guitar riff for “Jailbreak” by the band Thin Lizzy. If playing each note with a consecutive downward and upward picking motion you would get the following inefficient and trickier way of playing it…
fig. 2

By the time the riff repeats on the 3rd bar you are starting with an upward pick stroke, making it different to the how we started the first repeat of the riff at the very beginning with a downward pick stroke. It would be simpler to start all repeats of the riff with a downward pick stroke. Next, Let’s look at how to do this.

Below is the riff with the first note of the 2nd bar started with an upward pick stroke, meaning that by the time you begin the 3rd bar you are using a downward pick stroke.

This keeps the guitar picking organized and is simpler because you have the same picking pattern for all repeats. Also, a downward picking motion tends to feel stronger and therefore can fit better with the stronger first beat of a bar.

It’s a bit like how if you tapped your foot to a piece of music: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” you might tap the foot down on the 1, 2, 3 and 4 while raise the foot for the “ands” in between. Likewise the picking has been generalized to downward pick strokes on notes that occur on beats 1, 2, 3 or 4 while while notes that occur on the “ands” in between are played with upward picks strokes. The following diagram, which represents 2 bars, shows this with a constant underlying down / up picking motion; down for beat 1, up for the “and” after beat 1 (indicated with +), down for beat 2, up for the and (+) after beat 2 etc. The “blobs” surrounding some of the beats are where the notes from the above guitar riff occur and are therefore picked accordingly.

This is what is meant by generalizing picking; the pick strokes occur as downs or ups dependent on an underlying generalization of down up down up down up down etc. Often it is good to have a constant underlying down and up picking motion like this. There are exceptions dependent on the situation but this is a good rule of thumb.

It works the same for strumming, in that you go down and up consistently with the beat and strum the chords when they occur, whether that be on a downward strum or an upward strum. Although initially it may be easier to play with picking that is consecutive to the actual notes (as in fig. 2 up above), in the long term you will be better served to generalize your guitar picking to an underlying down up down up etc. where appropriate for the reasons given above. The more complex the music the more important this simplification can become.

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