Tremolo picking is characterized by a quick movement of the right hand, alternating up and down strokes. Basically you pick up and down as quickly as you can. It’s that fast picking you hear in Spanish guitar styles, country “chicken pickin,” twangy surf, mellow jazz and from rock players like Eddie Van Halen.
Here’s the technique behind it:
Use SMALL alternating up and down strokes with your right hand. Pick from your fingers or wrist. NOT YOUR ARM! The smaller the pick stroke the faster you can alternating through the string. This comes from movements that have their root in the smaller muscle groups.
Practice manipulating the pick through the string with just your fingers using up and down strokes. If you need to, use your wrist like a pendulum, swinging smoothly back and forth when you need a little extra momentum, but when you practice, focus intently on the smaller muscle groups.
Whatever you do don’t use your arm to pick quickly.This will cause your smaller muscle groups to tighten and your pick strokes to become larger. As a result, a sloppy picking style characterized by hitting extra strings and a harsh percussive, abrasive tone will result.
Use the string’s momentum/vibration to work WITH the pick. As the string vibrates, try to pick “into” the momentum of the string. For example, after you do a down stroke, the string will be bouncing back up.
Brush through the string as it bounces back up. I see a lot of players that try to tremolo pick by using the pick to “bully” the string, trying too hard to push it back and forth. Ultimately the pick will either get caught in the string after a few strokes or it will sound choppy. Let the string and pick work together to get the quickest, smoothest sound.
Pick rhythmically. No matter how fast you can pick, you will need some rhythm to stay in sync with whatever you are playing along with. Even if you are just soloing without accompaniment, good rhythm always helps. Without rhythm things begin to sound choppy and awkward, which is a pretty abrasive to listen to.
If you are a beginner, start out by just focusing on an open string. I tell my students to start on the G(3rd) string because it is a medium thickness and in the middle of the string set. This way you have to keep your pick strokes small enough to not hit the B (2nd) or D (4th) strings. In addition you can transfer the technique you develop to the other strings by making small adjustments for the other string’s thicknesses.
In the beginning, using a metronome to practice your up and down strokes can be helpful. Be careful though. If you focus too much on playing right on the beat, you may become tense and you lose the momentum that I spoke of earlier. Keeping that momentum and staying on the beat simultaneously is quite a challenge for some students.
Playing just on open strings can be pretty boring. As soon as you feel comfortable, try throwing in the left hand. Start with your index finger. Just slide it up and down the string you are picking and listen to the pitches change. Slide it fast, slide it slow. Keep just enough pressure to keep the string ringing clearly as you go. Too much pressure will slow you down. Too little will cause a muted sound and may even cause the pick to get stuck.
Finally, start applying your new found picking skill to the style you like best. From here it’s just adding in the left-hand techniques and choice of notes or scales that suit your favorite kind of music the best. But the left hand stuff is a whole new set of lessons and a whole lot more difficult. So let’s call it a day and let the right hand take it away!