On the use of downstrokes vs. other picking techniques

I made something of a breakthrough in my playing recently thanks to Dave Mustaine. Megadeth has always been my favorite metal band and a few years ago I saw them play at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. When they played my song “Tornado of Souls” Dave launched into the opening riff and I was absolutely amazed to see he was playing the whole thing with downstrokes. 

I’ve played that song for a long time, and even covered it with one of my bands, but I’d always used alternate picking. And this worked fine, but, as I’ve talked about previously, I changed the way I hold the pick a few years ago and this adjustment made my tone better, but made some thrash rhythm stuff a little awkward to play. Lately when I’ve played “Tornado” I’d switch back to that old technique I’d used to make things work. But when I saw Dave play that riff… 

I made a few attempts to play like him, but for the past several years had put my focus on improving my alternate picking and economy picking. Both of these are really effective means of playing leads but I’ve definitely felt that my rhythm chops and my riffing chops have sort of become a bit lax as a result, especially since economy picking and legato (in the metal sense) can be very reliant on the left hand. 

But I wanted my riffs to sound brutal, precise, and a lot like Dave Mustaine’s. So lately I’ve been putting a ton of focus on incorporating downstrokes as much into my playing as possible. I think it started with me teaching some kids how to play “Welcome to Paradise” and the alternate picking sound just always implies a little bit of swing, no matter how good you are at it because the upstroke is always going to be just a touch lighter than the down strokes…especially on power chords. Plus, in the context of that song, the upstroke also has a different sound because you hit the higher pitch string first so that return stroke just sounds like a lighter chord anyway. 

I emphasized to these kids to play the whole song, all three minutes of it, with downstrokes. We worked on this for about three lessons and I started to notice my own rhythm chops getting better. So I applied the same thing to my own repertoire with Thy Shade and The Union. But eventually I started hitting a speed barrier, and still just marveled at how fast someone like Dave Mustaine could play downstrokes. 

“Tornado” clocks in at 196 bpm and he’s playing eighth notes. Plus, at the live show I’m sure he played it more like 205bpm. 

So the other day I took out my metronome and began practicing. As with all things guitar, the goal is to release all tension from your body as you play. While it may look like a guy has his arm flexed like he’s posing for a bodybuilding competition, in order to play fast, you absolutely must let go of tension otherwise you will fatigue really quickly. And with that in mind I set the click to 60bpm. I’ve been spending 15 minutes a day practicing downstrokes, using the opening riff from “Tornado” as a blue print, and if I am able to release all tension I can execute the riff now at 200bpm. 

The first time I did this it occurred to me that eighths at 200bpm is the same as sixteenths at 100bpm, which is sort of my awkward range for alternate picking. So I applied downpicking to a solo from one of the Thys Shade songs and voila, all the swing and missed notes were not occurring and my tone on the solo was actually worlds better. And I tried it on another solo where I’d had similar troubles, and the same magic happened. 

The lesson here is that when we learn a more advanced technique, it’s level of difficulty doesn’t always make it the best option for our playing. By applying essentially the most basic of picking techniques at a high speed I found I was able to execute solos much more precisely than if I used alternate picking or economy picking. 

This is not to say that downstrokes are the ultimate, but I’ve started to think of these picking styles for their different applications and their different sounds. Downstrokes sound far more powerful and consistent than the other two and up to a certain point can actually be fast as hell. Alternate picking can also have that really cool shreddy sound because we hear so many pick attacks but I find that I’m much better with it at higher speeds. I know that sounds strange because we often think the opposite is true, but like I said 100 – 120 is my danger zone with that technique. And economy picking can be great in certain applications vs the other two when you play more lateral than linear…plus emphasizing downstrokes can really make your economy picking technique sound pretty astounding.

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