Guitar Picking Techniques

You will encounter many new names for guitar techniques and it helps to have a reference to what they all mean, so this is a small glossary of the main terms used in guitar notation and in tutorials for various different picking techniques for the guitar.

Alternate picking

Alternate picking is a guitar playing technique that employs strictly alternating downward and upward picking strokes in a continuous run, and is the most common method of plectrum playing.

'Good' alternate picking involves a continuous down-up or up-down motion of the picking hand, even when not picking a note (except when the gap lasts longer than one full up-down motion). In this manner, an up-beat (such as an even-numbered eighth note or, at faster tempos, sixteenth note) will always be played with an upward picking stroke, while the down-beats are always played with downward picking strokes. This allows for fluid incorporation of legato-based notes such as hammer-ons and/or pull-offs in the middle of picked phrases.

The technique has many advantages and some disadvantages, largely depending on the licks the guitarist is attempting to play. For example, during fast passages, alternate picking is necessary in keeping the picking arm from tiring out. At very high tempos, alternate picking is virtually required, since techniques like down picking are infeasible.

Most scalar runs are most easily played using alternate picking. Similarly, the complex, syncopated rhythm guitar patterns found in death metal require a good alternate picking technique to play fast and accurately.

On the other hand, large arpeggios (especially those spanning more than one octave) are very difficult to play using pure alternate picking and almost impossible to play at great speeds, which is why many guitarists choose to employ sweep picking to play these arpeggios . Similarly, some kinds of licks are easier when played using such specialized techniques as legato, economy picking (a hybrid of alternate and sweep picking) or tapping.

Despite some of the well-known disadvantages of the technique, some guitarists (such as Al Di Meola, Steve Morse and Paul Gilbert) emphasize the near-exclusive use of alternate picking, even in situations where another technique would be easier, claiming that pure alternate picking leads to a more consistent sound and allows for greater control of tone.If this technique is performed on a single note at a high speed, then it may also be referred to as tremolo picking.

Tremolo picking

Tremolo picking or double picking describes the musical technique of picking on a guitar or other string instrument in which a single note is played repeatedly in quick succession. It can be achieved either with the fingers or with a pick. In the latter case, the pick is moved up and down rapidly to hit the intended string of the guitar evenly.

This technique adds sustain to a melodic line where the notes would otherwise decay rapidly. If picked fast enough, the note sounds constant. All notes in this picking style are even, and there is not commonly a note in a tremolo sequence that is accented. It sounds as if the player is letting one note ring, but that note is broken up in a staccato sequence. The technique is frequently used in Bluegrass mandolin playing, Russian balalaika playing, black metal, flamenco, and Turkish folk music.


Finger vibrato is also routinely used by classical guitarists on longer notes, to create an impression of a longer sustain. Vibrato is produced on a guitar by cyclic hand movements. Despite the name, normally the entire hand moves, and sometimes the entire upper arm. In its pure form, vibrato is usually achieved by twisting the wrist rapidly to bend the note slightly, moving to and from the root note. However, the same techniques are applied at a slower speed to get pitch alterations.

Axial vibrato is produced by moving a stopped (held down) string with the left hand in a direction parallel to its axis, which increases or reduces the tension on the string and thereby alters the pitch. This type of vibrato is typically used by classical guitarists, but can be performed on any kind of guitar, and is frequently used on steel string and electric guitar, as well.

Radial pitch-shifting (also referred to as "string bending" or "bending") is produced by moving the stopped (held down) string with the fretting hand in a direction perpendicular to its axis and parallel to the fingerboard. This type of pitch-shifting is associated with blues, rock, country and pop music. The effect generally shifts the pitch over a wider range than axial pitch-shifting.

It can be used to produce vibrato per se, that is a cyclic variation in pitch;or a single up-and-down swoop; or a shift from one pitch to another which is then held. If the stringing and action of the guitar are light enough, it is possible for the extremes of a string bend to be a semitone or more apart: thus, it is possible to use string bending as a way of making a legato transition between notes, and not just as a decoration on a note.

Leo Fender, who did much to create the electric guitar, also created much confusion over the meaning of the terms "tremolo" and "vibrato" by the naming the "tremolo" unit on many of his guitars and also the "vibrato" unit on his "Vibrolux" amps. In general, vibrato is a variation in pitch, whereas tremolo is a variation in volume, so the tremolo bar is actually a vibrato bar and the "Vibrolux" amps actually had a tremolo effect. However, following Fender's example, electric guitarists traditionally reverse these meanings when speaking of hardware devices and the effects they produce.

Economy picking

Economy picking is a guitar-playing technique for a guitarist who uses a pick. A hybrid of sweep picking and alternate picking, economy picking involves using alternate picking except when changing strings.

In this case the guitarist changes to sweep picking, picking in the direction of travel: an upstroke if changing to a lower (pitch) string, a downstroke if changing to a higher (pitch) string. The aim is to minimize movement in the right hand, and avoid the motion of "jumping" over a string prior to picking it, as often occurs in alternate-picking. Thus the picking pattern of an ascending three-note-per-string scale would be: D-U-D-D-U-D-D-U-D, and the descending pattern would start just like alternate picking (up stroke first): U-D-U-U-D-U-U-D-U-U.

Hybrid picking

Hybrid picking is a guitar-playing technique that involves picking with a pick and one or more fingers alternately or simultaneously. Hybrid picking allows guitar players who use a pick (plectrum) to perform music which would normally require fingerstyle playing. It also facilitates wide string leaps (e.g. from the sixth string to the second string, etc) which might otherwise be quite difficult.

The technique is not widespread in most genres of guitar playing, but is most often employed by country and bluegrass flatpickers who play music which occasionally demands fingerstyle passages.


Hammer-on is a guitar playing technique performed by sharply bringing a fretting-hand finger down on the fingerboard behind a fret, causing a note to sound. This technique is the opposite of the pull-off.

Guitar Lesson: Hammer-On Exercise

Passages in which a large proportion of the notes are performed as hammer-ons and pull-offs instead of being plucked or picked in the usual fashion are known in classical guitar terminology as legato phrases. In musical notation the Italian word legato (literally meaning "tied together") indicates that musical notes are played or sung smoothly and connected.

The sound is smoother and more connected than in a normally picked phrase, due to the absence of the otherwise necessity to synchronize the plucking of one hand with the fingering on the fretboard with the other hand; however, the resulting sounds are not as brightly audible, precisely due to the absence of the plucking of the string, the vibration of the string from an earlier plucking dying off.

This guitar technique also facilitates very fast playing because the picking hand does not have to move at such a high rate, and coordination between the hands only has to be achieved at certain points. Multiple hammer-ons and pull-offs together are sometimes also referred to colloquially as "rolls", a reference to the fluid sound of the technique.

A hammer-on is usually represented in guitar tablature (especially that created by computer) by a letter h. Watch the next video for learning Guitar Tab for Hammer Ons & Pull Offs


A pull-off is a stringed instrument technique performed by plucking a string by "pulling" the string off the fingerboard with one of the fingers being used to fret the note.

A pull-off is performed on a string which is already vibrating. When the fretting finger is pulled off (exposing the string either as open or as stopped by another fretting finger lower on the same string) the note playing on the string changes to the new, longer vibrating length of the string.

Pull-offs are used to sound gracenotes, in part because since the string is not picked to produce the sound of the second note, the transition from one to the other sounds gentler and less percussive.On most acoustic instruments, this means the second note has little sustain. As a result, in acoustic music, pull-offs are primarily used as an embellishment.

In a variation of the technique, often called a "flick-off", the pulling-off finger is dragged slightly across the face of the string while performing the pull-off. This results in the string being gently sounded, either by the player's finger callus or by their fretting-finger fingernail. This increases the volume and sustain of the pulled-off note, although the sound of the fretting finger dragging over the string may be audible on both an amplified instrument and on a brightly-strung acoustic instrument.

Sweep picking

Sweep picking is a technique used on the guitar in which a 'sweeping' motion of the pick is combined with a matching fret hand technique in order to produce a specific series of notes which are fast and fluid in sound. Despite being commonly known as sweep picking, both hands essentially perform an integral motion in unison to achieve the desired effect.

Animation of a sweep picking played on electri...
Image via Wikipedia

The technique is almost exclusively applied for arpeggios, with a common shape being the one- or two-octave stacked triad; or in scalar terms the first (tonic), third (mediant) and fifth (dominant) of a scale, played twice with an additional tonic added to the highest point in the shape. For example, an A minor stacked triad would notate as A-C-E-A-E-C-A. When these series of notes are played quickly up and down as an arpeggio, they are notably classical-sounding as opposed to more blues-based progressions.

However, as with all guitar techniques, each individual player can integrate sweep picking into their existing repertoire and make use of it in an individually stylistic manner. Some guitarists may use legato whereas others have a natural tendency to double-pick multiple notes on a single string.


Tapping is a playing technique generally associated with the electric guitar, although the technique may be performed on almost any string instrument. There are two main methods of tapping: one-handed or 'ordinary' tapping, and two-handed tapping. Tapping may be considered an extended technique, in that it is executed by using one hand to 'tap' the strings against the fingerboard, thus producing legato notes, often in tightly synchronized conjunction with the other hand.

Tapping usually incorporates pull-offs or hammer-ons as well, where the fingers of the left hand play a sequence of notes in synchronization with the tapping hand.

For example, a right-handed guitarist might hammer down on fret twelve with the index finger of the right hand and, in the motion of removing that finger, pluck the same string already fretted at the eighth fret by the little finger of his/her left hand. This finger would be removed in the same way, pulling off to the fifth fret. Thus the three notes (E, C and A) are played in quick succession at relative ease to the player.

Some guitarists may choose to tap using the sharp edge of their pick instead of fingers to produce a faster, more rigid flurry of notes closer to that of trilling, with a technique known as pick tapping.

One-handed tapping (misleading in name, because both hands are used), performed in conjunction with normal fingering by the fretting hand, facilitates the construction of note intervals that would otherwise be impossible using one hand alone. It is often used as a special effect during a shredding solo.

Two-handed tapping can be utilized to play polyphonic and counterpoint music on a guitar by using eight (and even nine) fingers. For example, the right hand plays the treble melody while the left hand plays an accompaniment. Therefore, it is possible to produce music written for a keyboard instrument, such as J.S. Bach's Two-part Inventions.

The method increases the flexibility of the instrument, in that it makes it possible to play more types of music on a guitar. The main disadvantage is the lack of change of timbre. As it produces a "clean tone" effect, and since the first note usually sounds the loudest (unwanted in some music like jazz), dynamics are a main concern with this technique, though Stanley Jordan and many Stick players are successful tappers in this genre. It is common to use a compressor effect to make notes more similar in volume.

Guitar Harmonics

Harmonics are when the finger fretting merely touches the string while picking and the result is bell like tone from the guitar.

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The descriptions were sourced from wikipedia and links to the whole article on these guitar techniques on wikipedia are included for more information. The videos are from You Tube, mostly from user name beefcakejcc who has over 200 excellent guitar videos, well worth subscribing to if you are a you tube member.

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