We’ve traditionally been taught that instrument technique practice is about repeating things correctly until the movements sink in. But it’s hard to do that when you don’t know how to do the movement correctly in the first place. That’s never more true than with crosspicking technique.
The Crosspick Conundrum
If you’ve ever sat down to try and alternate pick an arpeggio, you probably know that the ability to do this slowly with note-for-note accuracy doesn’t always translate into the ability to do the same thing quickly. Lots of us, myself included, hit a speed limit the first few hundred (cough, a thousand, cough) times we tried this. Despite the accepted wisdom about slowness and correctness, that speed limit never really improved by piling on the repetitions.
That’s because efficient one-note-per-string alternate picking has specific mechanical requirements, namely that the muscle chain used for the downstroke must not overlap with that of the upstroke. If it does, you’ll hit that speed limit, and your arm will venture quickly into repetitive strain territory as it performs twice the work it’s used to doing. In a sense, this type of muscle reuse, which we call “stringhopping”, is not even really alternate picking, because the mechanics of your picking hand aren’t fully alternating.
Instead, what you need to solve the puzzle of crosspicking is a tilted forearm, so that when you’re targeting a particular string, the pick can approach it on an angle, and also leave it at the opposite angle. Like a barnstorming biplane, you’re essentially swooping in to hit the strings and launching back out again just in time.
The trick is that the optimal method for achieving this curved trajectory is so mechanically efficient that when done properly, it’s hard to perceive that you’re even doing it. Very often, great crosspickers aren’t even aware either.
On the one hand, this raises the question of how we’re supposed to learn something if elite players only do it subconsciously. On the other hand, this bit of information tells us something important that we can actually use. It tells us that the end result, however we get there, must feel invisible. In other words, we can use this feeling of effortlessness as a test to see if the motions we’re practicing are actually working the way they’re supposed to. If they’re not, we can change our approach and try again. This is the crux of the kind of intuitive trial-and-error practice that works best for motor learning.
A cool way you can attack this is something we stumbled upon by accident during a filming session. While looking for a convenient way to get a good closeup view of crosspicking technique, we placed the guitar on its back on a monitor stand at about chest height. This made it easy to line up the camera at the exact height where it contacted the strings.
I didn’t really expect to be able to play this way much less film anything useful. But the result was the exact opposite. It was surprisingly comfortable, and you can see the cool shot that resulted from this right here:
Oddly, this approach was even easier than the typical seated playing position. Why it would be any different wasn’t initially clear. After all, my arm position hadn’t changed, I just placed the guitar horizontally and contacted it the same way I always do. As you can see in the clip, the hand contacts the string in a more or less typical fashion.
But after thinking about this further, we realized that appearances can be deceiving. A forearm orientation that would be supinated in playing position is actually highly pronated in laptop position. Relative to the strings, it is still supinated – which is why it looks the same under the camera. But when you turn your guitar 90 degrees with your arm attached to its typical anchor position, it only makes sense that your arm must also turn.
Lucky for you, your forearm was designed to make precisely this kind of rotational movement. So it’s a happy accident that it can do so and still maintain a functional picking position. This works so well that you can go from your typical playing position, to your lap, and back again, and you really cannot feel the arm rotating while you do this. But take away the guitar in laptop orientation and look at your forearm, and you’ll see that it has actually rotated to a motorcyle handlebar-style grip.
Hacking Your Motor System
Why does this motorcycle orientation make the crosspicking movement easier? Unclear. With the arm resting on the guitar top, your forearm makes easy and tension-free contact with the instrument. Your wrist rests comfortably on the bridge and strings. So you’ve removed the need to hold it in place. You have gravity working with you to maintain this setup. The whole arrangement feels like having your arm resting on a desk or table top.
Here’s what it looks like on a Martin D28 acoustic:
Once you’ve achieved this orientation, the only sensation you need to focus on is the left and right movement of the picking motion itself. As you can see in the closeup slow motion view, the technique has a vertical component to it which allows the pick to clear the strings, barnstorming style. However because of the efficiently alternating nature of the muscle chain, it looks much more noticeable than it feels to do it.
In fact, unless you grew up playing bluegrass, and developed this technique early in your playing career, this is not a picking motion that many of us have experienced. Specifically, the technique we’re looking at here is what we call a “902” crosspicking technique. It’s similar to what the amazing Andy Wood uses, and also to its inverted counterpart, the “1003” approach, used by the equally amazing Molly Tuttle and David Grier. In our two-hour crosspicking workshop, we cover tips for achieving both of these systems, and we take a look at slow motion footage of Andy, Molly, and David. You can find that workshop here:
In the mean time, if you’d like to experiment with this, mimic the form in the clips above and see if you can get the leftward and rightward motion of crosspicking happening. Don’t do this slowly. Instead, just go for it at a faster speed until you feel something that feels like, well, not much! The first step is focusing on motion feel, and not note-for-note correctness. It’s ok if you hit ringing strings or even multiple strings. If it feels smooth and fast, and the motion appears somewhat semicircular in a mirror or on video, then you’re on the right track.