How To Learn Acoustic Guitar Picking Patterns

A solid picking pattern is essential for any guitar player’s trick bag.  But fear not: good picking styles need not be complicated.  In fact, the simpler the better.  The trick is to play them neatly and cleanly.

One of the most useful picking patterns is a technique that Johnny Cash dubbed “Boom-Chick-a-Boom.”  And it sounds just like that: Boom-chick-a, Boom-chick-a.  It’s simply a down-up stroke played between alternating base strings.  Listen to "I Walk the Line" if you need more guidance.

  1. Take an A-chord, for example.  Play the open-A note on the 5th string (“boom-”).  Then brush the pick or your index finger across the remaining five strings of the chord (“-chick-”).  Then immediately sweep the pick back toward you (“-a”).
  2. Now repeat this pattern with the open sixth sting (the low E).  And, again, sweep the pick down all five strings of the A-chord.  And then quickly sweep the pick back up.
  3. If you're tapping your foot in 4/4 time, the alternating bass stings (A and E) will be plucked on the down beats (one, two, three, and four).  The up-down strokes across the rest of the chord will fall between those down beats.  Note: the technical term for playing between the beats is called “syncopation.”
  4. Start playing this rhythm slowly and then gradually speed it up.  When it reaches speed, it will sound like a freight train.  And voila, you’re a one-man band with base, snare, and guitar all rolled into one picking pattern!

A good follow-up to this picking style is to learn to sing along with it.  The trick is to keep that picking/rhythm hand steady.  It may seem like a juggling act at first.  But if it’s practiced slowly and steadily, it will feel quite natural before long.

A companion style to the boom-chick-a-boom pattern is called Travis picking, which is named after Merle Travis.  This classic finger-picking technique sounds like the boom-chick-a-boom pattern.  But the base strings are plucked with the thumb on the down beats, not with a pick.  And the index, middle, and ring finger play the individual notes of the chord one at a time in between the alternating base lines.

The best way to learn Travis picking, or any pattern, is to practice it slowly with a metronome and then to gradually increase the speed.  If Travis picking seems confusing at first, there are many videos online that give great visual demonstrations of this popular pattern.

These two picking patterns serve as great springboards for a developing guitarist.  By learning disciplined picking techniques, the other elements of guitar playing—such as lead guitar or songwriting—become easier to learn.  This is because once an effective picking pattern has been established, the lead guitar parts and rhythms fall into line easier.


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