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Cracking the Code is Back! (What Took You So Long?)

A great idea becomes something even greater: Cracking the Code, the series

By November 2, 2013codenews, News

One Thing Leads to Another

Practice

50 SHADES OF GRADY: Why do we guitarists inflict the pain of practice upon ourselves?

Did you ever get out to the parking lot, realize you forgot the milk and the eggs, and have to go all the way back inside? It’s just like that time you had that killer idea to film those guitar players in slow motion, and print it up on a DVD. But then you realized you left out the truckload of technical research necessary to understand it all, and, on top of that, the historical backstory explaining why anyone even cares about this stuff in the first place. Totally — happens all the time!

And so it is that a simple idea born in the era of spinning optical discs grew into the most detailed investigation of picking technique ever put to internet video: Cracking the Code, the series.

Across three seasons, and more than five hours of in-depth historical and mechanical analysis — and, for that matter, five hours of plain old fun — the puzzle of plectrum dominance is expounded, unraveled, and finally mastered.

Season 1

Cracking the Code, Season 1

MUST-SEE TV: Fire up the Orville Redenbacher’s for Thursdays at 8 — Cracking the Code begins.

We had always intended to do a few free episodes as a fun introduction to the history of guitar technique in the ‘80s. After all, to the uninitiated, the mad quest for virtuoso abilities can seem a little like tilting at windmills. And we wanted to tell that story in the personal and utterly non-quixotic way that guitar players embrace it. Well, a few years and a few thousand hours of wrist-busting, carpal tunnel-inducing work later, those free episodes have become something much bigger.

Season 1 of Cracking the Code charts the central problems of fast playing as experienced by anyone who’s ever attempted valiantly to surmount them. At almost an hour and a half of tightly integrated live action, animation, and soundtrack, Season 1 grew well beyond our initial plans of a simple free teaser. At the same time, it gave us an intensive opportunity to craft our visual and sonic presentation for the hard-core technical explorations that lay ahead. It was an insane guerrilla raid down the rabbit hole of animation design and rendering, composing, recording, and mixing, and cinematography.

Piano Keys Motion Project

PIXEL PALIMPSEST: Refining and re-refining the keyframe contortions of a typical Cracking the Code Motion project.

But we made it out alive — and now it’s your turn.

The first episode of Season 1 streams for free on November 7th at 8pm. New episodes air Thursdays at 8, every two weeks thereafter. (Why Thursday at 8? Just ask Cliff and Clair.) You can watch previews of every episode in Season 1 — all eight of them — on the Season 1 page of the site.

And if you really dig what we’re doing, you can actually download the entire season in HD for five bucks. You’ll get each episode a week early, so you can be the first kid on the block with a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle — or at least the guitar show equivalent, in terms of sheer awesomeness.

Doing the math, that means Episode 1 is actually ready to download and watch, in its entirety, right now. Just be careful not to shoot your eye out.

Season 2

Season 2

RESEARCH AND DESTROY: The most comprehensive investigation of picking mechanics ever put to video.

Hacking together a high-speed laptop camera in the era of flip phones and SD camcorders was one thing. Convincing a collection of the world’s greatest players to sit for such an investigation was another. Interpreting that footage was another still.

In fact, the journey toward a more comprehensive understanding of advanced picking technique had actually begun long before. The first breakthroughs had taken shape as a research project at Yale University in the early ‘90s. This was followed a decade later by a second round of insights specifically targeting the multi-string scalar alternate picking techniques on display in features like the Amp Shopping shootout on my web site.

REFINING THE MODEL: Alternate picking mechanics start to come together.

The result of all this was a new model for understanding plectrum technique, built from a kind of standardized mechanical language employed at an intuitive level by master players in all genres. Clocking in at nearly twice the length of the first season, Season 2’s many investigative twists and turns unfold over the course of 16 episodes and nearly three hours of screen time. The sheer quantity of forensic examination is such that, like a classic spool of magnetic polyester tape, we’re splitting Season 2 into two phenomenally detailed halves:

Side A recounts the unraveling of perhaps the most fundamental concepts in efficient picking, utilized by a wide swath of guitardom from rock to jazz. Along the way, we take a more detailed look at the structure of string changes, the paradoxical challenges of partial picking, and the unlikely mechanical similarities of guitarists as diverse as Yngwie Malmsteen and Eric Johnson.

Side A and Side B

A STORY IN TWO PARTS: The technical investigation of Season 2 spans 16 episodes, 3 hours, and 2 incredible miniseasons.

Side B extends the model to enable fretboard- and direction-independent picking of arbitrary quantities of notes per string. It elaborates the basic framework necessary for tackling the impossible scalar excursions of famed alternate pickers like Michael Angelo Batio, Vinnie Moore, and Paul Gilbert. We take another look at the age-old dilemma of elbow and wrist motion mechanics. And just when we thought we knew what we were doing, we run up against some mysteries we simply can’t solve with the analog tools of the day.

Awesome. So how do I get it?

Go Ahead, Order Us Around

[preordercounter]

We rolled out the red carpet in making Season 1 as accessible as possible: free to stream, and cheap to download. It was a ton of work, but it was also an opportunity to tune the engine of our visual style and production process. Now that we’re firing on all cylinders, we need your help to make Season 2 a reality. We’re taking preorders to begin production on the first half of Season 2, called Side A. And we’ll get cracking (cough) as soon as we hit 3,000.

With a completion target of summer 2014, production on the 8-episode Side A miniseason will take a month per episode. But if we can fast-track our preorder goal, we’ll begin releasing bi-weekly episodes midway through that schedule. Spring forward indeed!

Season 3

Season 3

THE MYSTERY OF MASTERY: Season 3 translates the theoretical to the practical and completes the puzzle of practice and perfection.

If Season 2 was about discovery, then Season 3 is all about mastery. And what better way to attain it than by example? Armed with a detailed understanding of the mechanics of picking, and outfitted with a cutting-edge weapon in the form of a 120 frames-per-second, raw Bayer-pattern FireWire camera that records directly to RAM, we hit the road to take a close-up look at some of the world’s most celebrated picking techniques in action.

Along the way, we learn that a few things don’t work the way we thought. And much like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, we also discover a few amazing things we could previously neither see nor hear. In fact, with so many secrets to uncover, you might immediately assume, as I initially did, a sort of gentleman’s agreement among professionals — the way only other magicians know how to saw the assistant in half.

But to film and analyze a dozen or more players at the highest level of technical achievement, totally unguarded and often unaware of their low-level mechanics, is to come face to face with the beauty and power of intuitive expression. What is ‘understanding’ if not the ability to employ a skill to total creative end? It is, in a way, the highest kind of zen. And most of us musicians are shooting for precisely that.

Season 3 arrives in 2015.

Troy Grady

About Troy Grady

32 Comments

  • Jon says:

    I’ve often wondered what happened to this project. I’m totally surprised and excited to see it coming back. I’ve struggled with picking technique for 35 years, somewhat fast but never blazing and also incredulous at those who can blaze so effortlessly. I’m really curious to see what you’ve come up with.

    • JLD says:

      Glad you are back, and happy to support but a 2 year wait to get to the good stuff (2015)? “Speed” it up! If you fade to black again, please give your supporters a heads up next time. Glad you are still alive, I was worried that you died. Great work by the way!

      • Troy Grady says:

        Thanks guys for your continued interest in the project. Indeed you should be hearing a lot more from us this time around. In fact, in consideration of the nearly three-and-a-half years it took to put this all together in its current form, we were emphatic that we would not launch the site until we actually had something concrete to deliver. We knew the wait was a long one, and we wanted Season 1 pretty much ready to go as soon as we turned on the lights.

        As to the “good stuff”: The reason for the serialization of the show by season is the sheer quantity of its technical content. Season 2 represents all the background research and preparation I did in the decade leading up to the interview project, and it is why, in many cases, I already knew — or could guess within a narrow range of options — what I was going to see when I switched on the camera. To be clear, this detracted not the slightest from the impact of interviews themselves. Quite the contrary, it was precisely that preparedness that drove them. And despite the analytical mindset, it was always a thrill and a privilege to see this level of playing up close.

        To be even clearer: Season 2 comprises sixteen solid episodes of non-stop pick mechanics nerdfest, the likes of which has never really been done before — especially not in the narrative / investigative format we’re using here. By the time we roll into Season 3, we’ll already understand the foundational techniques employed by every player profiled, and many viewers will likely be a good way toward executing them. This journey begins not two years from now, but as soon as six months from now if we hit our preorder goals.

        Thanks again for sticking with us. There’s a ton of good stuff coming down the pike.

  • Oh Troy. Welcome back, you bastard.

    You show up years ago, radiant as a lighthouse, above a sea of dim fools who think telling people what number frets to press is teaching them how to play guitar. You absolutely convince me that you are the one who has captured, deciphered, and will pass on the secret of picking, the physical secret no one talks about, get me out of a rut that seemed to be endless, up the last flight of stairs to the penthouse of shred. I am ready.

    All I’ve ever wanted to do is make that popsicle in the spokes noise of clean, efficient picking. I’ve slowed everything down. I’ve isolated both hands. I’ve scrutinized. I’ve been tricked into watching Tom Hess videos. I’ve done everything Paul Gilbert has said. I’ve blown up the hands of George Bellas to enormous proportions to try to see what’s going on. Is it pick angle? Is it thumb position? Is it muscle relaxation? Is it actually all down to muting? It never comes. Troy knows the answer. I’ll get this DVD he’s making. I’ll watch it however many times it takes, thousands of times. I’ll finally be able to make this blissful noise.

    You vanish. The promising world of Troy Grady freezes. I check the website. I check the website again. I give up checking. I check back again, because there it is in my bookmarks, and now it’s been a long time, surely long enough, I can pay my $20 and get woodshedding. I’m left in torment. The only man with the vision to guide the ship has disappeared. I draft open letters like this one in my head. The phrase “I’m not getting any younger” features in them.

    Tonight you explode back into existence amid a multicolored maelstrom of new information: slick graphics, expanded scope, a pathway to illumination. The dream is not dead. The dream is more alive than ever.

    Yet I’m told it’ll be another two years (and, less importantly but still surprisingly, between sixty and eighty bucks) before I can have all the information at my disposal to even evaluate, let alone learn. Furthermore, I’m told there had better be another 3,000 people like me, or the crowd-source-fund-start thing will fail and the knowledge will slip once again into the ether!

    So help you God:

    1. The series better complete
    2. I better be amazing at the end of it

    The new clips look outstanding. It’s going to be digestible and entertaining. The production level is a real surprise. Don’t leave again. I will find you.

    Gray

    • Troy Grady says:

      Ok, everybody go home, the internet has been won. No topping this one, we’re done here. Will somebody unplug the Coke machine on the way out, please?

      Thanks for the note, for the consistency of your maritime metaphors, and kidding aside, for your continued support of the project! It’s clear you’ve been paying attention, and despite our lengthy internet silence, we are in fact super appreciative of this.

      To the point of your questions: There’s nothing dim about physical genius. In fact, I will admit to similar thoughts, facetious or otherwise, about the stack of VHS tapes I’d acquired over the years. But having spent quite a bit of time observing masters do what they do, my thoughts on the topic have been more or less completely reconfigured. I now actually think — completely unironically — that it’s too much to ask of world-class performers to also be world-class analysts.

      It’s not Mariano Rivera’s job to explain how his fastball works. It’s his job to throw it. Similarly, it’s actually quite rare that incredible players are cognizant in a conscious way of the operation of their guitar technique — in the same way that I am not at all articulate about what I do to balance a bicycle. And I’ve been doing it almost my whole life.

      This lack of awareness is not a detriment to intuitive genius — it is an underscore. There is tremendous value in those old instructional videos. And we’ll see this almost immediately in Season 2. Cracking the Code does not supplant these valuable time capsules — it unlocks them. Once you know how the fastball flies, your appreciation of the control and finesse involved in launching it only deepens.

      Paul Gilbert’s technique, to use your example, is beautiful in its lack of theatrics, its utter uneventfulness. There’s no three-finger pick grip a la Van Halen, no propped fingers a la Batio. It’s the kind of technique you’d have if you asked someone who knew nothing about guitar to envisage perfectly clean picking. That this makes its active ingredients that much harder to suss out, even to its practitioner, is not a knock. It is a testament to how natural this ability must be, and by extension, how attainable it must ultimately be for the rest of us.

  • Clint Green says:

    Holy crap!! When I saw the update e-mail for this in my inbox I nearly broke my mouse, I clicked on it so freakin hard. In the immortal words of Butthead to his old pal Beavis: “Uhhhhuhuhuh…Beavis….uhhhhuhuh. This is going to be the coolest thing we have ever seen…uhhhhuhuhuhuh!”

  • Tom says:

    Is “cracking the code” no longer going to be -fretcam- footage of all those players that were featured here before?

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Tom. The slow-motion footage is indeed part of the show. In fact you can still see those clips on the “Season 3″ page from the menu up top. However Cracking the Code the series now includes a whole bunch more stuff. See my response in the comments above regarding the amount of technical material we have to cover. But to boil it down, the basic structure is this:

      Season 1 – Historical documentary + the roots of the problem: Why is guitar picking so difficult?
      Season 2 – Intensive mechanical breakdown of picking technique, including solutions to many of the problems outlined in Season 1.
      Season 3 – Interviews with players, including slow-motion footage analyzed using the system we develop in Season 2.

      Thanks for watching!

  • Michal says:

    Glad to see it back, I thought it was killed by secret society of shredders not willing to give the secrets away ;). I’ll be buying all the episodes for sure, just for entertainment, code cracked or not. By the way, Paul Gilbert has his own guitar school online now where he explains everything about his technique in great details during many hours of instructions (he also gives feedback). I can spoil it for you – there is no secret in his playing, it’s just having a very solid melodic and rhythmic (especially this one, seems to be missed by many players) foundation and listening to how your playing sounds like.

  • Michal says:

    By the way, any chances for PayPal payment option? I think your current payment processor doesn’t use secure connection.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Michal. We use Gumroad, which does indeed use an encrypted connection between your browser and the Gumroad payment processing servers. If you click the link at the bottom of the purchase window, you can click over to the “security” section of Gumroad’s site. Here’s that link directly:

      https://gumroad.com/guide/basics/is-gumroad-for-me#security

      Basically, because the purchase window is a popup on our site (an “iframe”, to be specific), it functions like a site within a site. The Cracking the Code trailer pages on Troygrady.com are not encrypted because you’re not actually sending any information to us — you’re going directly to Gumroad.

      Incidentally, a music software developer we share office space with used Gumroad to sell a concert video for a popular Irish singing group, and it went off without a hitch. He sits two desks down from me, so we were able to follow that process closely. That’s one of the reasons we ended up going with the service for Cracking the Code. That, and the nice options they offer for integrating store functionality directly into our web design.

      More generally, Gumroad has been used by Bon Jovi, Eminem, Sara Bareilles, and bunch of other high-profile artists. We should be in good hands.

  • Dalton says:

    Glad you’re back Troy – now let that Genie out of the bottle!

    Dalton

  • Peter Chapman says:

    Hi Troy!

    Ive been waiting for this for a bloody long time so seeing the e-mail in my inbox made my day! Are these shows going to be available to buy on DVD? If so, when will they be available? Cant wait to get stuck into these mate … super excited!

    Regards,
    Pete

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Peter. Since we’re releasing relatively short episodes every couple weeks, we’ll probably be internet-only for a while. Once we get enough of them out there to actually fill a disc, a DVD release might make more sense. We’ll definitely play it by ear. Thanks for watching!

  • Peter Chapman says:

    Thanks for the reply Troy!
    I was just wondering, and forgive me for being dense … But it says free to stream? Are these episodes streamed at certain times? Or can they be accessed after they have already been shown? I just cant seem to find anywhere on this website where i can play the 1st episode.

    Thanks 🙂
    Peter.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Peter! Thanks for the note and sorry for the delay in responding — been a little swamped around these parts getting the next episode in order.

      You’ve probably figured this out by now, but as new episodes become available for free streaming, they’ll appear on the Season 1 page, and also on the Episodes page, in place of the preview. The episodes which haven’t aired yet will still have their previews enabled. This is true even when episodes are already available for season pass download — since this happens a week before they go live as streams.

      Thanks for watching!

  • Justin Armstrong says:

    It’s good to see you back. Maybe we’ll finally find out what amp you bought six years ago. 🙂

  • Nasos Dag says:

    Troy! You’re back!

    It’s been years mate, I’m really glad to hear from you. Hope everything has been ok for you during your absence!

  • Jennifer Ramesch says:

    I came by to have a look and this is so cool! I have little to no musical talent and I’m clueless about the guitar, but just wanted to say how awesome it is that you have done this amazing work. I’m going to send everyone I know to your website!

  • Darius says:

    Great stuff Troy , documentary is extremely inspirational, I can’t wait to slow motion analysis. Thanks a lot

  • Justin Armstrong says:

    Have you considered using kickstarter to meet your funding goals? I can’t help but notice the number of side A preorders is stuck on 18…

    • sirsyko says:

      Kickstarter has a time limit though. I don’t think this preorder system seems to have that. Whether kickstarter or gumroad, the word needs to get out about the project so everyone share!

  • NoSecrets says:

    there are no secrets fellows, so stop searching for secrets and pick up your guitar, that’s the only way we are going to become great players!

    • Marcelo says:

      I wouldn´t call it secrets, but proper picking technique after years of researching. Nobody took care of electric guitar because it is not a “classical instrument”. So, “picking strings up and down and up and down” does not seem to be a serious analysis of how to pick strings efficiently.

      Troy is the first guy I found to take this subject further than others instructors

  • Itzfast says:

    I’m still trying to figure out how significant pick slanting is with regard the upstroke leaving the plane of the strings and being able to more easily continue on the next string. Perhaps I’m not pick slanting properly or I am over estimating just how much of a slant is needed to achieve the optimum results. Is it minimal? But even with these concepts you discuss I believe you are neglecting the one thing that absolutely needs to be addressed but almost never is and that is one’s ability to control how to grasp of his pick between two fingers and keep it stable. It is the the hang up that drives me crazy. In order to achieve the kind of precision you discuss there has to be a very consistent hold on the pick. For some that might be easy but I personally struggle with it and the older ai get the harder it gets. Having your thumb push down on the lateral joint of your index fingers after 10, 20, 30 years can cause some damage and even arthritis so that the only way I can pick now is to marry my index finger to the rest of my fingers while they are curled. Anyway, thanks for the insight. Hope fully it will get me out of the land of 120-140bpm and to the 200bpm sphere.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi! Thanks for the note. Re: holding the pick, it’s not a thing we talk about mainly because it doesn’t seem to be problematic. Of the handful (pun intended) of common ways that most players do this, they all seem to work pretty well. For example, if you check out the Rusty Cooley code archive clips here on the site, you can see he does a fist-style grip against the side of the index finger. I’ve experimented with this and it’s very powerful. At the other end of the spectrum, in the Mike Stern code archive, you can see how loosely he holds the pick. It very visible flops around, and that’s one of the places his delicate sound comes from. I’m somewhere in the middle with a firm fingertip style grip. If you’re having trouble with dropped picks, you can give the Dunlop Jazz III carbon fiber picks a shot. They have a diamond plate emboss on them which is crazy frictional. It takes some getting used to, actually, because the pick simply will not slide at all in the fingers.

  • Jeigh says:

    Hi Troy. I’ve got a question about your surprisingly impressive video production. I work in video production as a live/studio audio engineer and as a composer (as well as being a semi-pro guitarist), so I’m naturally engulfed by the visual side of video production. Your production team did an outstanding job taking you back to your youth in your flashback shots. Though in most of the shots you are far enough back in the frame to simply allude to youthfulness with the 80’s wardrobe (still laughing about your choice to go with a bandana at the shred-off) and your hysterical but apt portrayal of your hormonally driven rocker self; however there are a few pristine close-ups where you truly do look seventeen. You have a youthful face, and there appeared to be diffusion gels or filters on the shot as well, or perhaps added post production; however these alone wouldn’t do the trick. So what are you using to achieve that effect? I haven’t noticed a special effects team in the credits, though I haven’t looked that hard either. I’m assuming it’s some brilliant post production software and good make-up. Nonetheless, the results are great and I’d love to know the equation used to achieve that result. Thanks for such an entertaining and informative video series. Though I’m a few years younger than you; it felt like time traveling back to my youth as you hit on many of the same feelings I had as a kid growing up in the shadow of the greats.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Jeigh. Thanks for the note and glad you’re enjoying our stuff! We don’t really do any post-production on these shots other than minor color correction, and there are no gels or filters on the camera. We pretty much just drop them in the timeline. There are likely two ingredients in our secret sauce: hair color, and time. My friend’s kids, who are actual teens, took one look at the show and said “Ew why didn’t you get a real kid to do this?” So there you have it. The illusion only works on adults. We’re officially old!

      • Jeigh says:

        Haha, thanks for the reply, I’m still laughing. I suppose I was just seeing what I wanted to see. That darn brain is so tricky sometimes! Although some of that illusion is due to your massive acting chops 😉 thanks for the great material, keep up the great and refreshing work!

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