How much technique do you need to be a world-class player? To play convincing bebop, for example, with its signature twists, turns, and arpeggiated ornaments, you’d surely need the ability to make any string change at any moment, at any speed, preferably with alternate picking.
But what if the best jazz players don’t really play that way? What if, like the rest of us, they too must contend with the things their techniques both do and don’t do? And what if the difference between their workarounds and ours is that they don’t think of them as workarounds?
For a great example of creative workarounds in action, look no further than one of the most revered picking techniques in guitar: John McLaughlin. John has spent decades instinctively building a vocabulary that maps specifically to the downstroke-escape picking motion he uses. And rather than curtailing his musical creativity, this fascinating and largely subconscious process has instead empowered it, resulting in a vocabulary all his own.
To understand how John’s technique works, we need a little mechanical background. When you’re alternate picking, you can only switch strings cleanly when the pick escapes, or moves away from the guitar’s body:
The orientation we’re using in this infographic mirrors the way we film players during interviews. In this landscape orientation, the “escape zone” is the sky, or the upper half of the image. To move to a new string without hitting any of the others, this is where your pick needs to be.
When you use a single-escape picking motion, you’re essentially tracing a diagonal path as you play. Like a seesaw, one end of that diagonal motion remains buried in between the strings. That’s the trapped end of the motion. The other end of the motion, the escape stroke, aims above the strings, up into the escape zone.
In other words, the reason single-escape motions can’t “play anything” is because they only escape half the time. If you’re downstroke-escape player like John, string changes don’t even really work unless the pick is in the escape zone, and that only happens on downstrokes.
Downstroke Escape Jazz
In order to capitalize on the power of a downstroke-escape picking motion, you must arrange your lines so that the final note on every string you play is a downstroke. This lets you move effortlessly to a new string during fast playing, because the airborn trajectory of the pickstroke takes you over the top of the string that’s in the way. And when you watch John play, these kinds of escaped string changes are precisely what you’re seeing:
Watching John’s blazing Tonight Show performance of the jazz standard “Cherokee”, it’s hard to imagine that the lines he’s playing might have been engineered down to the level of assigning specific pickstrokes to specific string changes. But indeed that is the case. Examining the transcription of even a short section of his solo reveals the hidden support structure of John’s ingenious, downstroke-powered string changes:
In this two-bar section, nearly every single high-speed string change occurs when the final note on the string is a downstroke. And that’s not unusual. In the first 33 measures of the solo — the entire verse, before the bridge kicks in — there are 49 string changes that occur during fast single-note playing. Only 4 of them are upstroke string changes. The remaining 45, representing a staggering 92% of the fast string changes, are downstroke escapes.
If John’s note choices were unrelated to the mechanics of switching strings, we might expect the final note on any given string he plays to vary randomly between downstrokes and upstrokes. But that’s not what we’re seeing. The sheer preponderance of downstroke string changes is no accident, but instead the result of a concerted process of curation.
These downstrokes escapes aren’t just a statistical inference either. They’re actually visible. The Carson clip includes several revealing “down the strings” camera angles similar to what we use in our interviews. Here’s an excerpt of one of those shots that captures the escape trajectory of John’s picking motion:
The sequence begins with a downstroke escape that moves away from from the instrument body, and follows up with five more pickstrokes, each of which alternates between trapped and escape strokes. The clip freezes on the seventh note, an escape stroke, with the pick poised away from the instrument body, in the air adjacent to the strings. Amazing.
Secret or Subconscious?
Just to be clear, the link we’ve noticed between John’s picking motion and his fretboard choices is not optional, and not open to personal interpretation. If you use the motion he uses, you must arrange lines this way or they won’t be playable at these speeds. If you change the motion, then you either need to flip the order of downstrokes and upstrokes, or rearrange the fretboard shapes, to make the string changes work out.
When I was a teenager, and first learning guitar, this link between picking mechanics and fretboard arrangement was never discussed. As far as I am aware, it was simply not known. (Stumbling across these links is, of course, how Cracking the Code got started.) Moreover, the idea that one of the most purely capable picking technicians of all time might be in any way beholden to mechanical constraints on his creativity would have been positively heretical in the ’80s. But here we are, seeing it and transcribing it.
At this point you might justifiably be asking yourself if this sophisticated and statistically highly improbable method of organizing his lines is something John performs consciously. After all, it’s something that, to my knowledge, he has never spoken about. Given how integral it is to his style of playing, why wouldn’t he mention it?
I certainly wondered this. So when I first began conducting Cracking the Code interviews as an evenings-and-weekends hobby years ago, I of course emailed John with an interview request. He graciously replied — and graciously declined. In his note, John explained his experience teaching technique to other players:
With all my students I have shown my right hand technique in detail, but in every case my students found the need to find their own right hand techniques. […] It is my personal experience that picking techniques need to be discovered by the individual players. Thank you very much and best regards, John McLaughlin
In light of what we know about the mechanical necessity of downstroke escape string changes in John’s playing style, what are we to make of this? He’s either part of a vast illuminati-style conspiracy of jazz masters, working together to conceal the mysteries of picking technique from the rest of us… or he’s simply not aware he’s doing these things.
I’m kidding about the conspiracy theory, but not about the supreme intuition. More than a decade and dozens of interviews later, one of the things we’ve learned is that players at this level are indeed being genuine when they describe not thinking much about the mechanics of their picking techniques. Most of them learn technique by feel, without explicit awareness of the motions they’re making.
If that sounds like a tall order, it is. The ability to teach yourself world-class guitar technique is impressive. The ability to teach yourself a technique you don’t even know exists, and then to organize an entire musical vocabulary around that technique, while being largely unaware of doing so, is positively super-powered. That’s what separates the greats from the rest of us.
Learning to Escape
While it’s unrealistic to expect every guitar player to reinvent the wheel of picking technique on their own, we no longer need to do that. It may have taken John years to gradually hone a working vocabulary using his sixth sense for mechanical efficiency. But because we’re now explicitly aware of the technique he’s using, and how to organize our fretboard layout to support that, we can turbocharge the process by actually composing a few lines with his mechanics right now.
So let’s give it a try. Here’s a quick bop-style phrase specifically written in McLaughlin mechanics, aka downstroke-escape picking motion:
The idea isn’t to sound lke John, and to my mind this phrase, with its use of chromaticism, really doesn’t. One look at the short “Cherokee” tablature excerpt above makes clear several of John’s more signature stylistic elements, like two-note-per-string motifs, which we’re not trying to copy here. Instead, the idea is to take his relatively simple and straightforward mechanics and implement a musical style — in this case, an old-school swing type vibe — that on the surface you might think would require more technique to accomplish.
To that end, without leaving a comfortable four-fret position, we’ve created a dominant-flavored line that descends by way of chromaticism, and includes a tasty enclosure figure in the middle that approaches the third of the chord from underneath. The line ends on the flat 7, leaving the fingers in place to outline a comfortable dominant 13 grip.
Getting The Wrist Of It
There’s a lot going on in this short phrase melodically, but the mechanics are blessedly simple. This is pure alternate picking, and all string changes occur during downstroke escapes, so there’s no need to do anything but move your wrist back and forth.
If you’ve seen or read any of our previous work on pickslanting, then you may have already noticed that these lines are played to varying degrees with a slight upward pickslant. That is indeed what John himself also does. But… try to not worry about that right now. Instead, focus on the path of the picking motion as it travels from trapped to escaped and back again. Creating that linear, slightly tilted pathway using just the motion of your wrist, with no forearm, elbow, or fingers, is your first order of business.
If you get stuck, refer to my forearm orientation, anchor points, and pick grip in the accompanying video clips for reference, and try to duplicate them as closely as possible. If you’re still stuck, you’re might consider checking out Cracking the Code’s Pickslanting Primer for more detailed instructions on doing precisely this.
Sweeps and Slides
Now that we’ve got a handle on the basic motion, we can also employ some legato and even a little sweeping to expand the kinds of string changes that we can make at high speed. As a bonus, this will introduce some more bop-style dynamic variation to our sound:
Of course now we have even more variables to engineer. In addition to downstroke-powered alternate picking string changes, we’ve included upstroke sweeping. That’s because, once again, in the downstroke escape picking style, the upstroke is the trapped pickstroke. In other words, it’s the pickstroke that’s still stuck in between two adjacent strings.
If the word “trapped” sounds overly dire, fear not, because we can turn this trapped position to our advantage. Like the greats, we can even do it by feel. By simply pushing that upstroke a little farther upward, we can send it right through the next lower string to play a note with a sweep:
In combination with legato notes, this simple addition to our mechanical toolbox now affords us alternate picking in both directions and sweeping in the upstroke direction. This gives us quite a degree of flexibility. We can not only play a wide variety of fretboard shapes with no loss of motion fluidity, even at blistering speeds, but we can do so with a wide range of articulations, from accented pickstrokes to “barely there” slides and pulloffs.
Combine these possibilities with the kind of lifelong experimentation done by highly creative players like John, and it’s like filling up a sonic laboratory. A known set of equipment goes in, but what comes out reflects the genius of the inventor.
Limitation as Possibility
There is no doubt that picking technique exerts a profound influence on the kinds of lines great players choose to play. There are rules, yes. But those rules don’t feel restrictive thanks to the organic, hands-on way that great players feel their way through them.
From our interviews with Mike Stern, Frank Gambale, Jimmy Bruno, Albert Lee, Oz Noy, and many others, we know that amazing improvisers don’t consciously sense any limitation on their musical expression imposed by their picking mechanics. The same way that native speakers of a language don’t feel constrained by the rules of grammar, the feeling that you can say anything on your instrument just means that you’re so fluent in its mechanics that you are no longer conscious of them.
So no, you don’t need all the picking techniques in the world, or even most of them, to build a full vocabulary. At minimum, you really just need one motion. And like the downstroke escape pickstroke, that motion can even be one of the simplest motions you can make. That simplicity, with its seemingly restrictive rules about when you can and cannot move to a new string, may at first seem like a creative impediment. But as John’s relentlessly inventive playing shows us, creativity doesn’t come from, or stop with, your mechanics — it comes from you.