April 16


Alternate Picking for Faster Metal Riffs and Rhythms

By Jason Stallworth

April 16, 2024

You already know how challenging it can be to play fast downstrokes but you can only go so far. To play even faster and more aggressive metal guitar riffs, you need to get proficient at alternate picking.

In this post, I’m going to share everything you need to know to master alternate picking. Of course, you’ll be able to apply this to leads but we’re going to cater this to the most important parts of the song: the riffs and rhythms.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Getting Started with Alternate Picking for Metal Rhythms
  • Hand Positioning, Motion, and Picking Angle
  • Basic Alternate Picking Riff Exercises
  • Developing Accuracy First, then Speed
  • Applying Alternate Picking to Riffs and Songs
  • Troubleshooting Common Alternate Picking Problems
  • Tips for Practicing Alternate Picking Rhythms
  • Recommended Resources for Further Learning

Getting Started with Alternate Picking for Metal Rhythms

Simply put, alternate picking is a downstroke followed by an upstroke. Or vice versa but the technique is picking back and forth.

The core purpose is to allow you to play faster. However, you’ll also notice the slight tonal difference you get with alternate picking versus downpicking.

Try this (you can do this slow or at a moderate speed; it doesn’t matter):

  1. Pick the open E string with only downstrokes (you can palm mute these note so that it sounds cooler)
  2. Now pick those same notes but use alternate picking (down, up, down, up, etc.)

Can you hear the subtle difference in sound and tone? Did you notice a different feel to the notes you played with both techniques?

Alternate picking isn’t just about speed. There are other elements that will come out in your guitar playing and riff writing when you’re using this method.

Hand Positioning, Motion, and Picking Angle

Alternate picking metal guitar

There are a few things with alternate picking that are similar to downpicking. And there are some that are complete opposite.

With both alternate and downpicking, you’ll start by placing your palm just over the bridge of your guitar (where the strings go in). This gives you an advantage with accuracy and control.

It also allows you to easily combine alternate picking with palm muting. This is common when playing metal riffs.

The general motion for alternate picking is similar as you’re involving the wrist, not your full arm.

The biggest difference is the angle and path of your picking. When alternate picking, you may notice that your pick has a natural tendency to be angled towards the bridge. This isn’t extreme, but it’s not straight up and down.

You may notice the opposite with downpicking metal riffs where your pick flows more towards the neck. In both cases, this is ok. Allow your hand, wrist, and pick to gravitate naturally.

TIP: What’s the best pick gauge for alternate picking? There isn’t a best; there’s only what works best for you. Some prefer thin picks while other prefer thicker gauges. I personally prefer 1.0mm (I play many years prior with .60mm and .88mm). Try different picks to see what feels most natural to you and go with that.

Basic Alternate Picking Riff Exercises

Now get’s play some alternate picking riff exercises that will help you master this technique. We’ll start with a basic riff and gradually move up in speed and complexity.

Alternate Picking Exercise 1

You’re going to play a combination of simple palm muted alternate picking notes on the open E string mixed in with some power chords. This is an example of a ‘real world’ scenario meaning this could be a riff in an actual song. It’s perfect to start with at a modest BPM of 135. It’s a classic heavy metal style riff.

Heavy Metal Alternate Picking Riff Exercise 1

Alternate Picking Exercise 2

We’re stepping the tempo up a little to a BPM of 145. This isn’t substantially faster but there’s more movement in this riff and the added complexity of going from alternating picking on one string to another (from the A to the E string in this case). This is more of a thrash metal style riff.

Heavy Metal Alternate Picking Riff Exercise 2

Alternate Picking Exercise 3

I’m going to throw you for a loop on this one. It’s much faster at a BPM of 171 and it’s straight-forward alternate picking, or what is also called tremolo picking. There’s no palm muting involed here although you can lightly palm mute this as you go through the riff (this is more of an advanced strategy – don’t worry about that quite yet as we’ll get to that in other advanced lessons). This style is common in death metal and black metal sub genres.

Heavy Metal Alternate Picking Riff Exercise 3

Developing Accuracy First, then Speed

Because alternate picking allows you to play faster, increasing speed is the goal of most metal guitarists. However, I want to encourage to not focus on speed right away.

Let accuracy and clarity of your notes be your number one goal. If you do that, the speed with come a lot faster (no pun intended!).

How do you play fast riffs with accuracy? Play riffs that involve alternate picking that you love and that are fun to play.

If you’re just practicing things like scales or riffs that you really don’t care for, you’re not going to be as motivated to practice. So why not learn a few simple riffs or parts of simple riffs that you captivate and move you? After all, that’s what metal music is to people like us (I’ll give you some examples of riffs to learn later).

Even better, start writing your own riffs with alternate picking. And these riffs, whether learning riffs or writing your own, don’t have to be complicated. In fact, if you’re just getting started, they shouldn’t be.

With that, I encourage to do at least half of your alternate picking practice with something that will help you with timing. A metronome may sound obvious, but I’m going to recommend something that’s going to motivate – get a drum program or drum machine. Practicing to a beat, especially metal-sounding drums, will keep your desire for playing metal running hot.

Lastly, allow yourself the freedom to gradually build up. You can challenge yourself but don’t overwhelm yourself. Remember, accuracy and precision over how fast you can play. Speed doesn’t matter if the notes are sloppy.

Once you get to a certain level of accuracy, you’ll want to start playing what’s called galloping riffs. There’s a complete tutorial on galloping here: Galloping for Metal Guitarists

Applying Alternate Picking to Riffs and Songs

Alternate picking riffs for metal guitar

Let’s talk about some songs that have some killer yet attainable alternate picking riffs that you can learn. I’ll also list the time of the riffs I want you to focus on below.

  • ‘Whiplash’ by Metallica – 00:29 – 01:17
  • ‘Angel of Death’ by Slayer – 00:00 – 01:36
  • ‘F’n Brutal’ by Jason Stallworth (Heavy Metal Workout II) – 00:00 – 00:40
  • ‘The Dream Calls for Blood’ by Death Angel – 00:19 – 00:38
  • ‘Head Crusher’ by Megadeth – 00:00 – 00:53
  • ‘Weak Fantasy’ by Nightwish – 00:00 – 00:45
  • ‘In Metal We Trust’ by Primal Fear – 00:33 – 01:01
  • ‘Firestorm’ by Sabaton – 00:18 – 01:04
  • ‘One Man’s Fight’ by Siren – 00:24 – 00:46
  • ‘Blank File’ by Sonata Arctica – 00:02 – 00:37
  • ‘The Pale King’ by Testament – 00:00 – 00:49
  • ‘One Against All’ by Amon Amarth – 00:00 – 00:29

Tip: Once you learn a riff start adding your flavor and style to it. You can do this by adding notes, taking notes away, or playing the riff in a different, uncommon key (another place on the fretboard). Start expanding on the riff and see what you can come up with. This is where your own creativity for writing riffs will grow.

Troubleshooting Common Alternate Picking Problems

As with any metal guitar technique, there are some issues you may struggle with. Especially if your like me – I played downtrokes only for the first year of playing guitar (this is back in 1989). Alternate picking was tough to grasp at first (so dive in now if you haven’t already).

Here are some common struggles with alternate picking and how to conquer them:

  • My alternate picking sounds muddy
    There are two possible reasons. One is if you’re alternate picking two notes of the power chord, it’s not going to sound as clean. Try alternate picking just the one (first) note of the power chord. Secondly, it could be an issue of your palm muting with alternate picking. Make sure your palm is places firmly over the bridge, but not too firm as you’ll be out of tune.

  • My timing is always off when I alternate pick
    You may be trying to pick back and forth straight up and down. Remember, your pick may have a natural tendency to be angled towards the bridge. There’s also a slightly curvature of the motion you may notice. Allow your pick and wrist to flow in its natural desired direction and angle. Of course, playing along with songs or a drum program/machine will help with timing, as we discussed earlier.

  • I’m just overall frustrated with alternate picking; maybe it’s not for me?
    This is where you have to start with the basics and that’s playing slower, short riffs and give yourself the freedom to gradually get better. With time and consistency, it will come.

Tips for Practicing Alternate Picking Rhythms

Let’s combine all of the tips we talked about in this post and put them into a checklist that will help you make your practice time for alternate picking metal riffs efficient:

  • First, make a practice schedule that you can stick to (the more serious you are about this, the better guitarist you’ll be).
  • Don’t worry about speed in the beginning; focus on accuracy and precision.
  • Practice along with a metronome, or even better, a drum machine or program as this will help with timing.
  • Break down riffs that you want to learn into small sections; this will help you nail them faster
  • Record yourself (both video and audio); listening AND watching yourself perform alternate picking metal rhythms on guitar will help you easily correct problems.

Recommended Resources for Further Learning

Jason Stallworth

About the author

Melodic metal solo artist, songwriter, acoustic performer, and co-founder of Metal Mastermind.

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