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There are a lot of advocates of absolutely strict alternate picking, like Chris Thile (dead YouTube clip removed). I've been practicing that for a couple of weeks now, and I'm at the point where I can play just about anything without slipping into economy picking by accident. There's one thing I keep getting stuck on, though: when I start a new phrase, I want to start with a downstroke, even if I just played a downstroke. It feels so much more natural, particularly if it's been more than a measure since the last phrase; but it takes away from the big benefit of alternate picking, which is that I always know which direction to go next.

So, do hardcore alternate pickers actually alternate through the whole song? Like, what if you end a phrase on a downstroke and your next phrase is 30 seconds later, at the beginning of a verse? Where's the limit?

I know each instrument has its own norms about picking. I play guitar, but I'd be interested to hear what mando players and others do as well.

Thanks in advance!

Edit: This has turned out to be a pretty popular question (almost 1k views) and I've put a lot of thought into it since, so I've given my own answer below.

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

No, once you have a significant rest you don't need to alternate, and I'd still think of it as "strict alternate picking".

Note: I tend to think of alternate picking as down on the beats and up on the 8th notes between beats (or the same idea with respect to 8th and 16ths); not necessarily that every string attack come from an alternate direction. If the next phrase starts on the "and" of a beat, then strict alternate picking would mean to pick upwards on that note.

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Alternate picking should only be utilized of for the duration of 1 phrase. The first note of the next phrase should then be picked in a manner that best serves the phrase itself...be it an upstroke or downstroke.

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When doing strict alternate picking, is it OK to play a downstroke twice in order to start a new phrase on a downstroke?

Absolutely yes, if this is what you feel, this is fine. You have to play your way. If your way is zelously strict alternate-picking then feel free to do that instead, but right-hand technique is not a religious doctrine.

It feels so much more natural...

Exactly! You can train yourself into finding strict alternate-picking more natural if that's your bag, but this is for you to decide. Do what you feel is right. Right-hand technique is not a religious doctrine.

do hardcore alternate pickers actually alternate through the whole song?

Some do, some don't.

I imagine Chris Thile espouses this technique because it works for him, if it works for you too then great. If you want to learn this technique go for it. If you find it more natural/expressive/fun to slip in the occasional economy-pick then that's great too because right-hand technique is not a religious doctrine.

Where's the limit?

Wherever you choose.

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I don't understand the how "strict alternate picking" is useful. If you have to focus on every stroke, and even go against your natural tendency sometimes, it's probably a bad idea. Economy picking is considered bad sometimes because it's harder to play the correct durations with it, but strict alternate picking can feel confusing an unnatural sometimes.

Also note that if you play two consecutive downstrokes or upstrokes it doesn't necessarily mean that you're economy picking. Economy picking is when you hit one note, then another one within the same upstroke or downstroke. If you use two downstrokes in succession it's not economy picking.

The technique that feels the most natural for me is to keep a steady 16th note up and down motion with my right hand, and only hit the string with the pick when I need to. It's like tremolo picking but, but you keep the pick away from the strings on rests or in the middle of notes longer than 16ths. With this method it's hard to mess up the rhythm, and it feels extremely natural. The hard part is learning not to hit the strings by mistake when you don't need to.

So to answer your question, sticking to alternate picking 100% of the time can be bad. It's ok to break up the pattern on rests or any note longer than a 16th if it makes you comfortable. Ultimately you want a technique that maximizes your accuracy and speed. A confusing picking technique (like pure alternate picking) doesn't help much in this area. While economy picking can help with speed, it doesn't help with accuracy. So it's ok to use it in a short lick that would be a bit too fast for alternate picking. You need to experiment with every possible picking technique and understand it's advantages and disadvantages. You've tried economy picking, strict alternate picking; now try to play alternate picking your way (break it up whenever you want but do not hit two consecutive note with the same motion), also try the technique I recommended above (players like Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan use it a lot). You probably should combine these techniques depending on the scenario, instead of constraining yourself to the same rule the hole time.

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Partly inspired by this answer, I now follow your approach almost exactly (see my answer), though I follow the predominant subdivision of the phrase I'm playing, which in popular music is usually eighths. With most music if you try to alternate pick with a sixteenth note pulse you'll end up with ghost strokes all over the place and playing most notes with downstrokes, Johnny Ramone style. But I bet either you like that sound or you play more sixteenths than most people. – Alex Feb 24 at 2:01

Since I wrote this question in '13, spurred on by the excellent answers of Dave, Anthony and user5785, I've become a hopeless alternate picking nerd and can give a definite answer here.

Yes, you can start a new phrase on a downstroke no matter how you left off with the last one, and you usually will, because alternating every note is not really the rule.

Truly fundamentalist alternate picking--playing every note with alternating strokes--is rare. When people perform what is called "strict alternate picking", almost without exception, what they're really doing is synchronizing the right hand to the musical pulse. So if you're playing a run of eighth notes, you play downstrokes on the 1, 2, 3, and 4, and upstrokes on the "and" beats in between.

If you have a "missing" note (i.e. a rest), you play a "ghost stroke" so you're ready to play the next stroke in the right direction. Even players who specifically say "I alternate every note" are often actually doing this. This flavor of alternate picking might be the single most common way to play guitar, yet it doesn't have a name.

This more rhythmic method automatically makes you accent the downbeats (you almost can't help it), plus the steady movement of your right hand helps keep you in time. As I recall, Chris Thile recommends alternate picking mainly as a way to stay in time (though the video I originally linked has been taken down).

Most players who try alternate picking end up falling into this approach, consciously or not. By the time I wrote this question I was already doing it, but I didn't notice because the exercises I was using to practice were mostly runs of eighth notes without any phrases that started on offbeats or other tricky scenarios.

Many players, especially in the bluegrass world, take the ghost stroke thing to its natural extreme and keep their right hand bouncing all the time. This helps you feel the beat even when you drop out for a while, and makes sure you come back in with the right stroke.

Like any technique, this is not to be followed as a mindless dogma, but it does have a clear definition, and if you stick to it "by the book" it creates a certain sound and helps fully realize its technical advantages. It's certainly helped enrich my playing, and after three years of following it without exception, I'm only now starting to work economy picking and sweeping back into my technique.

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