My girlfriend is a violinist who has been playing mandolin the past couple years. So we have a very nice-sounding bowlback classical mandolin sitting in the living room which I will pick up once in a while — maybe every couple weeks. And the technique does seem to be coming along despite very little specific focus on it. Here’s a section of the presto from Bach’s first violin sonata in G minor:
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Have you guitarists tried cross-training on mandolin? If you want to level-up your alternate picking, I recommend trying it. When you play the same gear the same way, day after day, you're not really giving yourself enough variety to accidentally do something right that you've consistently doing wrong. With mandolin, the movements are essentially the same, but the whole setup feels different enough to introduce some natural variety that your motor system needs. We can thank the always-amazing @andywoodmusic for graciously sharing his thoughts on this subject in our interviews together, as he is the OG switch-hitter between these two intruments. This is of course a short bit of the Gm Presto from Bach's first violin sonata. #mandolin #bach #gmpresto #alternatepicking #pickingtechnique #crackingthecode
So you might reasonably ask, why is this low-effort practice working? Well, for one thing, when it comes to picking technique, guitar and mandolin are not that different. The motions are, essentially, identical – so guitar practice translates well to mandolin practice, even when you’re not actually holding one. This is especially true when it comes to the motion you’re seeing here. This is what we call the “double escape” pickstroke, and it’s the motion that bluegrass and classical players appear to use as their “base” picking motion.
Bluegrass and classical repertoire often contains passages that require playing only a single note on a string before moving along to another string. As you can see in the slow motion segment of the above test clip, the double escape pickstroke starts and ends in the air above the strings, and only descends to pluck a note at the lowest point of its arc. This means the picking motion cleverly avoids the surrounding strings while still retaining mechanical efficiency, thanks to the shallowness of its curvature.
Even more interesting is the fact that the double escape pickstroke is a motion that players in these genres learn semi-consciously when they’re just starting out. I say semi-consciously because, while experts like flat picking authority Steve Kaufman have detailed the double escape motion in instructional books and videos, many current elite-level players were essentially self taught, or given only minor guidance, when it comes to the developing the actual mechanics of their technique.
As a result, great players are often unaware that they are even making a double escape motion at all. The great David Grier graciously shared his legendary technique with us in our interview with him:
As we got deeper into his mechanical setup, including the gentle bridge anchor he uses for his fastest playing, we learned that while David tends not to focus on the “airborn” aspect of his motion, it’s certainly happening during bluegrass trademarks like the forward roll. We happened to set up an overhead camera for this interview, and as David played several improvisational segments, we got a bird’s-eye view of what it looks like in action.
We had a similarly detailed conversation with always-amazing Andy Wood about this aspect of his picking technique on both mandolin and guitar in our two-day workshop:
In fact, we jokingly coined the term “pendulum of death” to refer to the signature swoopy — and, apparently, deadly — curvature of his picking motion. When Andy plays a repeated note at a moderate speed on both mandolin and guitar, he makes the double-escape movement, which he describes in our talk as his “vanilla” movement. When he accelerates to shred speeds, he switches to linear “single-escape” movements, more similar to what you might find in fast rock and jazz lead playing. This shift from double- to single-escape movements at high speeds isn’t just a thing among players like Andy who grew up listening to heavy rock in addition to bluegrass. It’s also something we’ve seen before with mandolin masters like Chris Thile, who appears to make the same modification when kicking into high gear.
Doubling Up On Double Escape
Players who use the double-escape motion appear to learn it early-on, and as a starting point from which other picking motions emerge in specialized situations. But don’t worry, it’s not too late to try some mandolin cross-training. As in my case, I don’t spend much time on the instrument, but the technique is certainly improving. Why does this work?
Well, again, the two instruments are certainly similar. This is especially true at the level of the motions themselves. Even the double courses of strings doesn’t exert as much of an effect as you’d think, given how alien the concept seems on the surface. Speaking anecdotally, I would say it’s mainly the size of the box and aspects of the setup that are different. In fact, when we spoke to motor learning researcher Dr. Pietro Mazzoni, one thing he explained is that learned motions have the ability to scale, without necessarily re-learning the entire motion:
This makes a mandolin in some respects like a tiny guitar. And it’s just different enough in feel to maybe cause you to do something differently than you would on the larger instrument.
In other words, when you play the same gear the same way, day after day, you’re not really giving yourself enough variety to accidentally do something right that you’ve consistently doing wrong. So it’s easy to get in a rut where you think you’re practicing, but in reality you’re just hammering away at the motions you already know, and which may not be working for you.
With mandolin, the picking movements that work on the instrument is essentially the same, but the whole setup feels different enough to introduce some natural variety that your motor system needs. So if you feel stale on six strings, try switching to eight! You may just give your motor skill learning another shot at breaking through troublesome plateaus.