Guitar Picking Lesson for Beginners

There are two main guitar picking strokes:

  • Downstroke
    The plectrum strokes a string or strings only when it moves downwards. Notes played by this stroke have more 'attack' and 'weight'.

    This article is focused on the downstroke technique.

  • Alternate Picking
    The plectrum strokes the string(s) when it moves downwards as well as upwards. This stroke is more preferable when you need to play fast passages, because you can significantly increase the speed playing two notes per one picking circle.

Downward motion is called downstroke and upward is upstroke.

Use your wrist to create the guitar picking motion and not the fingers as you might expect:

* I deliberately made broad picking strokes for better visualization, you don't have to go this far with your pick to make a string ring.

You can also add your arm and forearm to the motion if it feels more comfortable to you. The thumb and the index finger that hold the pick must not move.

Using the fingers to move the pick might seem an easier way to play at first, but it will only limit your speed and accuracy of your playing in the future. Once again: use your wrist instead.

Downstroke Technique

Now let's focus only on the simple downstroke technique. Mastering this technique will allow you to play really cool stuff and in the very near future.

This lesson assumes that you already know how to hold the guitar pick properly, if you don't, take your time and read 'How to Hold the Pick' article so things will flow correctly from the start.

It's important to learn to play rhythmically and accurately. You can use a metronome or any drum track to synchronize your playing with the beat.

If you do not have a metronome, click here to get free metronome software on your computer.

or use these online drum tracks:

Online Drum Tracks

Track 1

Very Slow - 60 BPM Slow - 80 BPM Moderate - 100 BPM

In Pace - 120 BPM Fast - 160 BPM

* BPM stays for Beats Per Minute

Track 2

Very Slow Slow Moderate

In Pace Fast

OK, now when you're ready, let's make some sounds.

Exercise 1

All you have to do here is to pick the low E string using a downward motion. The accuracy is paramount, watch how my picking is in sync with the beat and manage to do the same:

Each new note you play in this exercise should be a clone of the previous one with about the same volume.

Try to minimize your moves, the plectrum does not have to go far away from the string after the hit. The less distance you take, the more agile you'll be able to be.

After you're doing well on the low E string, play it on the other strings as well.

Exercise 2

Now it's time to add your fretting hand to the action.

The numbers at the fingering line on the tab show you which fingers I recommend you to use to press the strings with your fretting hand. The 1st is the index, 2nd is the middle, 3rd is the ring and 4th is the pinky finger.

In the video I have doubled my speed.
You don't have to do this right now. Go quicker only when you manage to play accurately and with confidence in slower tempo.

Now let's hit a couple of strings simultaneously in order to get the E power chord. Play the low E string open and the A string at the 2nd fret.

In the beginning of this video I deliberately hit the strings very slowly to clearly illustrate the motion for you. In reality though it takes less than a fraction of a second to reach the 2nd string after hitting the 1st one, so the sounds from these 2 strings become solid (as from the 4th second in the video).

Exercise 3 - Getting Some Music!

Now let's create a simple guitar riff consisting of the G and the E power chord that you just learned to play.

Play simultaneously the low E string at the 3rd fret and the A string at the 5th fret 8 times (the G power chord), then switch to the E power chord and play it 8 times too. Repeat this progression a few times.

Here's the guitar tab:

Listen to what you should get:

While practicing over this riff polish the smooth transition between the two chords, the transition should take minimum time, and the chords be in sync with the beat.

You can make this riff sound more interesting by adding the following part after its end:

The extended riff will sound like this:

Reducing undesirable noise

When switching from the first part of the riff to its extension:

we need to cross over from the lower E and the A string to the A and the D string but still ringing the open low E string after the last chord from the first part will interfere and make noise. The easiest way to mute the low E string in this situation is to slightly touch it with your thumb of the fretting hand as I did in this pic:


Moreover you can also prevent the noise caused by accidental picking through unused nearby strings by slightly touching them with any part of your available finger(s).

For an instance in the picture below I play the riff on the A and the D string, I mute the next upper G string with the side of the spare pinky finger and the lower E string with the spare middle finger.

Right now it might seem that making the picking and the fretting hand work together is difficult, both your hands are out of control and do not want to listen to you. Pause for a while, relax your hands, switch to a slower tempo you feel comfortable with and practice some more.

It will take some time while the hands are getting used to synchronising, after that you won't even think how and where to pick, the hands will work on autopilot.

Return to Guitar Positioning Lesson

Return to Fretting Hand Position Page

Return to How to Hold the Guitar Pick Page

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A Man with a Guitar - photo by Michael_N
Photo by Michael_N

You can learn about alternate picking in this lesson and work it out over the special alternate picking exercises. If you're a beginner to guitar picking, stay on this page and learn the downstroke technique first.