One-page explainer on playing scales with alternate picking — overview of what we know!

Was speaking to Justin Sandercoe on email who is incorporating more picking-specific stuff into his courses. Justin is great and has always been super supportive of what we’re doing here. If you found your way to us through him, many thanks!

Anyway, he asked what he prefaced as a “stupid question” for teaching students to play three-note-per-string scales, since doing so obviously involves both upstroke and downstroke string changes. How can you do that with single escape motions? Well, not a stupid question at all. And in fact, basically ties together everything we’ve been working on for the last 6 or so years.

My response to him was the following overview, which also pretty much encapsulates what we know about scale playing and moreover what we know about learning complicated physical skills like picking technique. This will all make its way into lessons in the Primer at some point down the line. But here’s a potentially helpful quick and dirty overview in textual form:

Playing Scales With Alternate Picking

Three note per string scale playing with alternate picking is an interesting question. It’s sort of universally regarded as an “important” thing to do, and yet, when you film great players, very few of the famous players we grew up listening to can actually do it fast. Very quicky, here are the options:

  1. Don’t play scales at all (Eric Johnson, many others)
  2. Only play scale patterns where the last note always fits your escape motion (John Mclaughlin, Gypsy guitarists, George Benson, Shawn Lane most sequences, most people in general)
  3. Use single escape motion and “swipe” / hit the string every other string change. Only works in one direction, makes swiping noise. (Di Meola descending, Michael Angelo Batio descending, and many, many bedroom shredders)
  4. Use single escape motion like wrist or elbow and make additional forearm “helper” motion every 6th note to get over the string. Most common approach among people who can actually do 3nps with pure alternate. (Vinnie Moore when ascending, Batio when ascending, Andy Wood when ascending, Shawn Lane looping descending sixes, lots and lots of others)
  5. Same as method 4, but use wrist for both primary motion and “helper” motion, just moving in slightly different directions. Works at all speeds but only works for wrist players, because wrist is the only joint that can move in multiple directions. (Paul Gilbert, Anton Oparin, Andy Wood when descending, Al Di Meola when not swiping)
  6. Use double escape motion where all pickstrokes escape. Only works up to medium fast speeds. (Molly tuttle, Olli Soikkeli)
  7. Use double escape at medium speeds, at fast speeds only escape at string change, middle note stays trapped. Motion is still “double escape”, just choosing the “above the string”, “near the string”, and “below the string” sections of the range of motion. Looks very similar to method 5 but also works with other joints like forearm-wrist. (Olli Soikkeli)

Methods 4 - 7 are the true “pure alternate” methods. As you can see, they’re all physically complicated. We used to call method 4 “two-way pickslanting”, because the use of the forearm makes the pick appear to turn. But the teaching hit rate was not high because students would hyper-focus on “changing the slant” of the pick (however they did that), instead of making the correct picking motions.

So then we started teaching them to explicitly perform the forearm motion that causes the “slant change”. This lead to overdoing the helper motion and looking awkward / slow. Players who learned this method, like Andy Wood and Vinnie Moore, don’t think about the joint motions, even when they are combining multiple motions, so the motions are graceful and fast. Further, this teaching approach was still unclear since it didn’t mention which motions to use when not doing the forearm motion. Finally, it didn’t explain method 5 at all, where no forearm is used, leading to further confusion as to how certain players like Andy Wood or Paul Gilbert were “changing the slant”, i.e. it wasn’t actually happening.

So, what do we now think is the best method to learn to pick a scale with pure alternate picking?

Don’t try to “do” any specific method of the numbered methods. Instead, make any alternate picking motion that feels smooth. Go fast and sloppy at first and let mistakes happen, to ensure there is no stringhopping. Mistakes are preferable to stringhopping. By slowing down a very small amount from the fast speeds, you can learn to feel the mistakes and make slightly different motions, while still avoiding stringhopping. This includes learning any of the numbered methods, “helper” motion to get over the string, whatever — but done by feel not consciously. It also includes hand synchronization and aiming for the correct correct notes. Everything is learned together. Ping-pong between these slightly slower speeds and fast speeds to check if the fastest ones are cleaning up as a result of the slightly slower playing. The cleaner it gets, the slower you can go while avoiding hopping, to feel and memorize the correctness of the motions.

There is not a defined phase of the process where you go super slow for many thousands of “reps” to “make it permanent”. Instead, memorization occurs as part of the ping-pong process of figuring out the joint motions. This process already involves “reps”, albeit not in the sense that traditional practice recommends. These are many repeated attempts to play correctly, with most attempts having mistakes and only a few succeeding. Staying in the “mistake zone” provides the feedback necessary for learning when the joint motion is correct. By the time you get all the mistakes ironed out, the technique is already permanent. From this point on, only minimal regular playing is required to maintain.

Note this this isn’t just the process for learning scale playing, it’s the process for building a complete picking technique with any type of motion. The reason is that nobody learns a single exercise in isolation, since there isn’t enough feedback from that one pattern. Picking technique involves a multitude of slightly different motion combinations, so a variety of phrases is needed to capture the tactile feedback. Feedback from one phrase helps the others. Ping-ponging and figuring out the motions is done by feel and can take one to two years to fill out enough motions and variations to have a full musical vocabulary.

Not the simplest answer, I know. But at this point we think this is how most all complex motor skills are acquired, and how the “natural” guitar heroes all learned complex tasks like picking technique. Knowing consciously what the correct motions are supposed to look like and feel like can speed the process because you can look at your technique or film yourself, recognize when it’s working, and not waste time on dead ends. But the learning itself still happens by feel, so even non-technical players can be guided through this process by learning to notice mistakes and slow down slightly to try and figure out a motion that avoids them.


You just put 30 plus years of research into one post, Troy. :sunglasses:


Oh god I feel so old!


You know… I’m more than thankful and grateful for all the resources we have these days at our fingertips, but the more I dive in to one technique/discipline vs another philosophy I realize most of the players we idolize around here more or less developed and got great by perfecting what worked best/most natural for them. That’s not to say we shouldn’t analyze our heroes and document technique for useage or pure academic reasons, but for me anyways I’m starting to “let go” of some of my “anger” issues when it comes to obsessing over how I play something vs how someone else does and is it right/wrong/better… Again, I’m glad I went through the process of educating myself on all that’s been taught and explained here, but I won’t be banging my head against the wall anymore!!!
NOW, where’s my darn camera mount TROY??!!! :wink:

I hear you, but the problem is when there is no particular “way that works for you” or is “natural for you”. I spent six years not knowing what is natural. Then another ten thinking the one way I had discovered was the only way. Then another ten thinking there were two ways. And so on. The more we dig, the more stuff we learn is “natural”, if only you know how to do it.

The number of people who come to us having spent years with a stringhopping motion, not being able to play faster than 110 beats per minute, it’s scary. I rank “play the way that works for you” up there with “just practice” as some of the worst advice in the history of guitar teaching, in terms of its vagueness and misleading nature. Although I should probably rank it the best since it keeps us in business.

Re: Magnets, it’s all up to the factory. They can’t figure out how to do the rubber parts. They’ll be back in the office in a week and be trying again. We’ll send another update to this effect.


I think this point, and perhaps some of the others as well, draw attention to a disconnect many students experience between what they think they need to learn (and therefore ask to learn), versus what their goal is.

I think the underlying general question people typically really mean to ask when they ask about “alternate picked scales” is: “how can I play fast picking licks in the style of guys like Yngwie and Paul Gilbert?”

I think one of the big eye-openers is understanding that even though many of the licks people want to learn are built on 3-note-per string scale shapes, the licks themselves are very often not three notes per string. And in particular, I think that when people hear Yngwie 6-note-per-string licks, they think of them as “3-note-per-string”. I really think the easiest path to scratching the “shred” itch for most people is understanding that a great many of the things they think of as 3-note-per-string are actually 6-note-per-string. That, combined with a basic understanding of single-escape picking, is probably 90% of the battle for most “intermediate” students who just “never got” alternate picking.


I spent a lot of time on Justin’s site in the past. Forging a connection there is an exciting development for CTC, for sure. It also revives a question I’ve included in other threads…

A lot (I’d guess most) of the players at that site, at least when they first show up there, are pretty new to guitar. With that in mind, is it worth also talking about the left hand - viz. how you burn in a fretting pattern…? (Worth it for Justin I mean?)

Obviously, you can’t pick faster than your left hand can fret, and the processes for gaining dexterity seem to be quite different for each hand. I can already trem pick way faster than I can fret, which I would think is pretty common.

(Having so much great info on what to do with the right hand, while being in the dark about developing the left, has been a big source of frustration for me. I’m betting for a lot of Justin’s crowd it will be the same.)

You summarize it so well. Thanks again Troy!

You know, I was wondering about method 5 with the helper motion the other day, and I realized I don’t fully understand how it works without the infamous “garage spikes” issue occurring.

Let me explain.

Say you play with a downward slant (DWPS) and an upstroke escape (USX) motion primarily, where the path of motion is perpendicular to the pick. For the sake of numbers, let’s say the pick is slanted exactly 45° from neutral. Now let’s say you want to add wrist extension to “help” achieve the required downstroke escape on runs ending in downstrokes.

By itself, this seems fine albeit a bit awkward: you’ll end up almost dragging the pick against the string during that final downstroke since the direction of motion is no longer perpendicular to the pick, but that’s manageable.

Here’s my problem: What happens on the following upstroke? Your pick is in the air, your pick is slanted downward at a 45° slant, and you need to do an upstroke. How is that doable in a strictly linear path without the pick getting jammed underneath the target string? Or is the solution to not use a linear path, and use some other motion like rotation to handle it?

Related to this, I recently found a post from @adamprzezdziecki where he manages to do a fast DSX motion with a supinated wrist, which is an even more extreme version of where this problem arises. How is he doing the upstroke without his pick getting stuck? Is it just the pick angle?

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I guess it’s like this: pronated DSX - slant takes care of smoothnes (trigger grip + pronation will most likely give you upward slant autmatically), supinated DSX - edge picking takes care of smoothness. I know you are referring to my own technique but to be honest I’m not sure how some elements of it work.

If I had 3 arms, I’d give one for an USX picking motion like Eric Johnson’s instead of being able to play 3nps scales on mid speed.

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Something I’d like to add from my own experience. For USX guys - economy picking when ascending, using fingerings that facilitate upstroke changes when descending, mixing 4 and 2nps. DSX - reverse, alternate picking ascending, economy descending.

3 notes on the first string, 4 nps by position shifts on every other string and 3nps descending using economy.
Of course you can purely alternate pick scales in any direction by mixing 2/4nps (starting with 1nps/3nps if DSX).


This is the problem. When you look at players like Andy Wood that play this way, he has no or very little pickslant. He is a downstroke escape player, which is where you see this most commonly. The most common method for downstroke escape uses a supinated arm position, like Andy and Al Di Meola, where there is very often no appearance of pickslant.

We cover shallow escape with little / no pickslant here:

…and here:

Great playing, as always!

I intentionally left out any approaches involving even numbered fretting, economy, legato, hybrid etc. There are of course a world of ways to play scales. But the point here was to address the way that playing 3nps fingerings with alternate picking is seen as almost “mandatory” even though paradoxically lots of great players don’t or can’t do it. And more broadly, how one goes about learning complex physical skills for which the correct motions are non-obvious, even to the player doing them.

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Ok, I misunderstood. I guess that ascending scale from the first vid could fall into this category, it still uses 3nps fingerings (halfstep-whole step/whole step-whole step/whole step-halfstep) just with a position shift. Are these ways supposed to be stationary and move only in vertical plane?

@adamprzezdziecki From the way I understood it, once you position shift for that 4th note, you’re breaking away from “true” 3 notes per string (I’m assuming the intent is to stay in the same position as much as possible).

I knew a guy that used to do those high up on the neck (scales with 4 notes per string) because the narrower fret spacing allowed him to stay in the same position, but that’s totally dependent on your finger flexibility / length and obviously only works way up there.

Not a problem, always happy to look at examples of your awesome playing. Your 2:00 wrist motion is among the best examples of that I think we’ve seen on here.

Sorry for the confusion here. What I was getting at in the post is the “problem” of mixing downstroke string changes and upstroke string changes inside of an alternate picked phrase. That’s what Justin was asking about, since he likes to teach scale shapes to beginners so they can learn the fretboard. I wasn’t really thinking about anything beyond that, as far as what fingerings someone would use. However, yes, Justin mainly teaches single-position fingerings, presumbly for simplicity of memorization.

But mainly I was just thinking about the complexity of the mechanical solutions that we have seen in filming experts doing this supposedly beginner-level task. Which of course is not beginner-level at all but a rather sophisticated technical challenge with equally sophisticated solutions. Exactly how one learns to do something like this, especially when the player themselves might not be conscious of the motions they’re learning, is one of the big questions in instrument technique learning.

Wow I’m always in awe of your great playing. Your attack is so amazing! It has such a satisfactory confidence to it.

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