I'm new to guitar and have been fingerpicking some songs (e.g. playing each bar: thumb - finger 1 - finger 2 - finger 1 - finger 3 - finger 1, holding the chord) which sounds nice. Now I just got a plectrum and would like to play the same melodies. I heard of alternate picking and if I understand it correctly it means picking every other note upward and every other downward, i.e:

string 6 up, string 3 down, string 2 up, string 3 down, string 1 up, string 3 down
string 6 down, string 3 up, string 2 down, string 3 up, string 1 down, string 3 up

My question is simply: which one of these two alternatives is preferred? What does it depend on?

If I've misunderstood something so that my question makes no sense, please point me in the right direction! Unfortunately I don't have a teacher.

  • You might want to read the answers to this: music.stackexchange.com/q/9760/2639
    – Dave
    Jan 26, 2018 at 20:22
  • What do you mean by "base" in the title? Do you mean the lowest sounding string (which would be spelled "bass")? Jan 26, 2018 at 20:59
  • yes @todd, thank you for your correction! in my mother tongue base and bass are homonyms
    – Anna
    Jan 26, 2018 at 21:27

2 Answers 2


Down then up is generally what is used.

Although it can also depend on the where the rhythm starts in relation to the beat. If you are starting on the beat then use a downstroke:

alternate picking starting with downstroke

But if there's a rest first and you are starting on an upbeat, then some players and some methods would recommend that you start with an upstroke so that your next downstroke will fall on the beat.

alternate picking starting with an upstroke

Some methods may also suggest only using alternate picking when the beat is subdivided. That is, if you were just playing quarter notes, you'd always play downstrokes. But I'd say use what feels good at the given tempo.

alternate picking quarter notes

Besides that possible sticking point, with "alternate picking" you just always alternate down then up for the sake of consistent motion even if it seems like it might be more efficient to use a different stroke depending on what string you are switching to.

It's generally a good idea to learn alternate picking first and have it as the basis of your technique. But once you get a grasp on it there is also "economy picking" which is basically alternate picking if you are staying on the same string but when switching strings you use the stroke that is most efficient. Or to put it another way, you if you are switching down a string you use a downstroke and vice-versa.

  • There is one? The second line starts with a rest and an upstroke. That was the point.
    – user37496
    Jan 26, 2018 at 20:58
  • My bad, I'm sorry,
    – Dave
    Jan 26, 2018 at 21:16
  • No problem. I've separated the examples for clarity.
    – user37496
    Jan 26, 2018 at 21:25

Alternate picking has been covered in the other answer, but 'economy' picking needs explanation.

When the note being played is on, for example, the third (G) string , and the following note will be on the 2nd (B) string, it's sometimes better to play the 3rd string with a downstroke, effectively moving in the direction of the string that next note is played on.

If the 3rd string note is followed by a note on the fourth (D) string, then that 3rd string would be played with an upstroke, the pick moving in the direction of the next string (4th, D) to be played.

In some cases, it's necessary, using this method, to jump over the string played second - as in when the next note after is on the (in this scenario) third string.

It all sounds quite complicated, and I remember, many years ago, working out note for note which pick direction to use. Not easy, but the concept has stayed with me, and still works, alongside alternate picking when needed. It's a bit like running - after a while, it becomes so natural you don't think about it - and if you do, you fall over...

Another very useful method is hybrid picking where pick and some fingers get used. To me this is very useful, as the pick can often stay on one string, while another is played, often alternately, with a finger. Hold the pick between thumb and index, which leaves the three other fingers free to do all sorts of clever things!

In direct answer to your question - the bottom E (fat 6) is generally played using a downstroke. It's often playing a root note, and on the beat, and the next note is often on a thinner string, so playing it with an upstroke becomes counterproductive. When you used your thumb for the same, I expect that moved towards the floor - a downstroke.

  • @DavidBowling - we're not all designed to do everything. How about catching a bus instead...?
    – Tim
    Jan 27, 2018 at 7:51

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