Sometimes when I have a few minutes of downtime, I toy around with trying to do the Eddie Van Halen tremolo technique. This is the awesomely beautiful and deservedly famous pure forearm rotation motion Ed uses for the famous Kreutzer etude section in Eruption, and for the mesmerizing tremolo section in the acoustic “Little Guitars” intro.
Gaming The System
I say “toy” because I never really sat down to figure out exactly what Ed’s anchor points and wrist offsets were, and to copy his motion precisely, in the usual Cracking the Code fashion. I mean, I know what we’ve always known, which is that Eddie’s motion is an amazing example of forearm pronation and supination, where the radius bone rotates rather magically around the stationary ulna anchored to the body:
And that was as much as I cared to look into it. Instead, attempting to do this was more of a fun time-killing game. Every few months, whenever it occurred to me, I’d give it the old college try for five or ten minutes before getting bored and going off to do the laundry.
What was tantalizing about this is that I could always do something that looked like the motion in the air, as a mime. I’ve done this several times in lessons while discussing picking motion. But I could never do it on an actual guitar, with a pick in my hand, while playing a note. Something about the coordination would always feel strangely off, and I couldn’t even get the motion going.
Then one day about three or four months ago, I picked up a guitar, and for whatever random reason, it clicked. But only briefly. And just as soon as I could do it, I couldn’t. The hands just seized up and stopped. This is usually how it goes when you’re learning a new picking motion. Some attempts you’ll get it, but only for a few seconds. Other attempts just crash. Some days you won’t be able to do it at all. It’s like a TV signal cutting in and out. On the days when I’m simply not getting the reception, I just stop. I put the guitar down and do something else.
Thanks to these initial successful attempts, I’ve incorporated more of these spontaneous “hey let’s try the tremolo today!” moments. And because I now have something to go on, a reference point for what the correct smooth version of the motion feels like, the hit rate is improving rapidly. In fact, I’ve even begun attempting to use the motion to play coordinated lead lines. Here’s some practice with that:
Common wisdom sometimes suggests that “tremolo motions” can’t be used this way, but there is no such thing as a tremolo-only motion. There are just picking motions, and they can be used for anything you like, once you are aware of their string-switching capabilities.
In the specific case of the EVH forearm rotation technique, it’s an upstroke escape motion, which means that string changes can only happen when the final note on the string is an upstroke. This is how Eddie changes strings in the “Little Guitars” intro, so right away you know that this motion actually can be used to play lines that move cleanly across the strings. The evidence was right there all along.
Falling Off The Bike
My attempts at this are a little sloppy, of course, as you can see in the second clip above. I bang into strings I’m not intending to play, sounding random noises. The rhythm is off. The fretting is sometimes even off on the ascending sixes phrase, even though I’ve played that line a million times. After all, you only have one brain and everything is connected. When the picking hand is disorganized, everything gets a little broken.
And indeed, you can see that the motion still stops and starts in occasional fits of freezing. This is what motions look like when you’re still learning them. They’re uncoordinated and a little wild, and the whole thing doesn’t feel uniformly smooth. Your brain is still figuring out how to wire the connection for longer durations and greater consistency and smoothness.
This “realistic speed but sloppy” phase is a critical stage of the motor learning process. It means that you’re zeroing in on what it feels like to actually do the motion correctly, which is the most important first step you can take. The accuracy of the actual notes doesn’t matter as much at this point. What matters is that you can feel the “click” of the motion kicking into high gear, that you have some kind of visual confirmation of the motion being correct, and that you can hit at least some of the notes, some of the time, so that you can verify that they sound good and realistic. A good-sounding pick attack is one piece of evidence that you’re doing the motion right, and the motion is really what we’re trying to evaluate here. These three criteria are how you know you’re getting somewhere with a new motion.
Tension As A Test
As you search for that realistic and sloppy zone, you may still feel “tension”. That’s normal. You don’t yet know which muscles you’re supposed to use, or if you do, you don’t yet know what it feels like when you use only those muscles. So you’re probably going to overcompensate by using… them all!
You can see in the infographic above that there is some bicep involved in the supination phase of the motion — those are the muscles labeled in red. But the muscles responsible for the pronation phase of the motion, labeled in green, are all forearm muscles. So that’s where you’re going to feel the muscular effort, if anywhere, when you do this right.
So, for example, if you feel the tricep contracting hard, you’re either doing the motion wrong, or over-doing it. So you stop for a minute, adjust your arm position, and try again. Maybe try doing the motion in the air as I initially did. That was the precursor in my case to being able to do it on the guitar, and it always felt nice and smooth. I often describe the process of learning a picking motion as the relentless “search for easy”.
With repeated attempts to find the “easy”, I am now likely to get the motion going smoothly at least half the time I sit down to try it. In fact, during moments like the first studio clip, above, I can actually do the motion at approximately the same speed as Eddie’s famous “Live Without A Net” guitar solo, a section of which I’ve included in the clip.
For reference, Ed is picking at about 210 beats per minute sixteenth notes in that section. While that’s certainly fast, I was surprised it wasn’t even faster, because it sounds blazing. The likely reason is fluidity. Ed is butter smooth. The motion appears effortless for him. When Eddie’s on, he can seemingly do it all day. By contrast, I always feel like I’m on the verge of falling off the bicycle just as I get going. What this tells me that I when I really figure out how this works, I’ll probably be able to do it a touch faster, and like Eddie, with even less effort and for longer durations.
And that’s just it. When it comes to learning motions, I have never, in decades of guitar playing, worked a motion up to speed in small increments. Instead, most technical breakthroughs were instant and unexpected, close to the realistic speed at which you would actually use the motion in real-world playing, just much sloppier and briefer until I figured out how to smooth-ify and accurize them. I made those words up!
Have you ever experimented with Eddie’s legendary forearm-rotation picking movement? I’m pretty sure there are lots of Cracking the Code viewers who can do it faster and more smoothly than I can. Get on the forum and show us your Eddie!