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Max Milligan - An introduction to alternate picking

The Masterclasses

Here are some exercises you can try to get started playing alternate picking grooves. This technique is featured in many styles of music from the early Blues legends like Mississippi John Hurt to Chet Atkins to Norah Jones to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Check out Tommy Emanuel for some awesome pickin'.

Alternate picking refers to the changing bass pattern with treble notes in between. It sounds like two guitars playing at once. Lets look at some examples but first we need to know the finger names.

Picking Hand Standard Lettering

Thumb = p
index = i
middle = m
ring finger = a

Exercise 1

The first job is to get the bass pattern going using the thumb only. For our example we are going to use an A major chord. Check the hand is relaxed almost as though the picking hand is gently holding an orange. There should be a gentle curve on the fingers and the picking action is from the middle joint of the finger not the whole hand pulling away from the string.

Once the thumb pattern is correct (play slowly) put the index finger note on the G string in between each bass note. Once mastered do the same with the middle finger.

Once you have control of the finger patterns try alternating thumb and fingers ie. p,i,p,m,p,i,p,m. etc.

Download and print out the pdf file: alternate_picking_ex1.pdf

Then check out the audio example below for the exercises, each one is played twice at 80 BPM. Now that you have a pattern to play there are many ways that the music can be performed. Softly with feeling or strong and boldly. Listen to the light and shade you can create with just a simple chord and some picking patterns. Try the same patterns with an Am chord.

Max Milligan - ex1 by justinguitar


Blues For Chet

To put the alternate picking into action check out this piece - “Blues for Chet”.

Download and print out the pdf file: Blues_For_Chet.pdf

There are lots of open strings to play to add sustain to the piece. This will take some time to master so I have played at different tempo's and then I had a little jam with the idea to finish with.

Max Milligan - Blues For Chet - fast by justinguitar 
Max Milligan - Blues For Chet - slow by justinguitar 
Max Milligan - Blues For Chet - jam by justinguitar


Jam The E7 chord is played with finger 1 of the fretting hand on the 6th fret of the D string (this note is G#) finger 3 plays 7th fret G string (this note is D). This leaves finger 2 free to jump through the gap in the fingers to the 7th fret low E string to play the alternating bass note, in this case a B.

Now by moving the fingers 1 and 3 down one fret we can get chord tones for an A7 chord. The B7 features open strings too and I played that with finger 1 on the 7th fret low E, finger 2 on the 7th fret D and finger 3 on the 8th fret G.

Have fun with it. Break it down to one bar a day if necessary.

About Max Milligan LLCM (TD)

Max has been a gigging guitarist since 1972 and he has a wealth of experience in many styles. He has recently returned to his acoustic roots so to speak and plays acoustic gigs regularly with John Verity, check out . They have recently completed an acoustic R&B/Blues CD featuring some of their most popular live tunes available soon at the web site. He also composes incidental music for T.V. & film companies. He was a contributor to the Balafon book: A Complete Guide for the Guitar Player and regular columnist in Guitar Magazine. He is currently writing with U.K. singer songwriter Jayne Taylor (Liberty X, Beverly Craven, Sugababes) and playing acoustic gigs with UK R&B sensation Cherry.

Max teaches at the Guitar Institute ( in London where he teaches the new acoustic guitar course and lectures on the One Year Diploma course.

For further info and free lessons check out

Lesson ID: MA-040