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Mastering Wrist Motion

By June 20, 2019 June 25th, 2019 News

The wrist is the most commonly used joint in picking technique. It’s also one of the most complicated. At Cracking the Code, we’ve been on a mission to understand how elite guitar players use wrist motion, and to simplify the instructions that let the rest of us in on the secret. Those instructions have arrived! Check ’em out right here:

Wrist Motion

Mastering the most commonly used joint in picking motion


Sometimes, The Code Cracks You

This journey began almost four years ago with the release of our Steve Morse interview. At the time, we didn’t yet know what we didn’t know. As a result, although the feature we made on Steve is historically one of our most popular YouTube channel videos, it’s actually wrong when it comes to describing how Steve’s legendarily flexible picking motion actually works.

In our first at-bat, Steve’s legendary command of wrist motion stumped us.

As always happens, as soon as we hit “publish” on that video, the light bulb turned on. With our next interview release, the equally legendary Albert Lee, we got the essential technical answer right. But was still light on the actual “how to” of replicating Albert’s famously flexible country riffing. To answer that, we needed to know more.

Undeterred, we flew around the globe to corner a collection of great wrist players and film their techniques. Across multiple conversations with Andy Wood, David Grier, Molly Tuttle, Mika Tyyskä, and more, the picture became clearer.

That’s some serious frequent flyer miles!

Motion Commotion

At the same time, the forum opened our eyes to the obstacles players face when they sit down to actually attempt to learn new picking motions. A smart, dedicated player who hits a roadblock while attempting to play a single note on a single string with any amount of speed and fluidity? Way more common than we would have thought.

One of the things we learned from the forum is that lots of players get confused between what the pick looks like, i.e. the “pickslant”, and which picking motion they’re actually making. And it’s probably our fault. Previously, we didn’t even have words to describe these things individually. Like a baby pointing at a lamp and an open window and calling them both “bright”, we sort of pointed at everything and said “pickslant”.

What we skipped over is the important detail of whether making the pick look “slanted” is even enough to make the motions work properly in the first place. It’s not. You can have the right pickslant and the wrong motion, or the right motion with the wrong pickslant. To make matters more confusing, aspects of your form like your forearm position can influence both your picking motion and your pickslanting orientation. It’s instances like these, where changing one seems to automatically change the other, that it is tough to discern that you can control them separately.

Despite this confusion, some people still got it. This is especially true if they had been playing for a long time and were already accidentally doing certain things right. But others didn’t. We’d see “Technique Critique” posts on the forum with titles like “Critique my DWPS” that weren’t really “DWPS” at all. Just holding the pick with what looks like a downward pickslant isn’t enough. You also have to move it so that pick travels along a diagonal pathway. And you have to do it with a specific pick grip, specific arm position, and specific joint motion in order to generate the correct pickstroke.

Primed To Escape

We want to kick these troubles to the curb for everyone who forks over their hard-earned cash to watch our stuff. All that work is finally coming together in the Pickslanting Primer, with a brand new “Wrist Motion” section packed full of new tutorials, which, once again, you can find right here:

Wrist Motion

Mastering the most commonly used joint in picking motion


The first seven how chapters are up now, and incorporate everything we’ve learned over the last several years, both about how these techniques work, and about the troubles most players have in developing them. As you watch these new lessons, you’ll notice that we’re now using some new terminology to make it absolutely clear when you’re really doing all these things correctly.

We now use the term Upstroke Escape, or USX for short, to describe any picking motion where your upstroke “escapes”, or moves away from the guitar’s body. No matter which joint you’re using to generate your picking motion, whether that’s wrist, forearm, or elbow, if your upstrokes move away from the guitar, and your downstrokes move toward it, you’re using a USX motion.

Super-powered string switching with escape motion

The inverse is the Downstroke Escape, or DSX motion, where the downstroke is the escape pickstroke. This is what happens when your downstroke moves away from the guitar, “escaping” above the strings, and your upstroke moves toward the guitar, becoming trapped between the strings. If you notice your pick moving this way, you’re using a DSX motion.

Matching The Slant

Of course we still use the term “pickslant”, but it’s now much more specific. Pickslanting refers only to the way the pick is held in space. The primary function of pickslanting is to counteract the tilt of the picking motion you’re using, so your pick attack stays smooth. The relationship is inverted: upstroke escape, or USX picking motions need a downward pickslant to cancel out the tilt. And downstroke escape, or DSX motions, need an upward pickslant. When you match these up properly, the pick hits the string as if there is no slant at all — which is exactly what you want to avoid the dreaded “garage spikes” problem, where motion in one direction is smooth and motion in the other is deadly!

Mind the spikes!

But wait a minute. Why use an “escape” motion at all if you’re just going to remove its effect with pickslanting? The answer is string switching. An escape path picking motion is what lets you switch strings at high speed. Pickslanting doesn’t eliminate that aspect, again, because pickslanting doesn’t control the way your pick moves. Your joint motion controls that. But you don’t want to muff up your pick attack when you make that motion, and that’s where the pickslant comes in. By offsetting these two elements, like a see saw, you make sure your upstrokes and downstrokes are equally smooth, even when your pick is approaching the strings on a diagonal.

If you’ve ever experienced a lack of smoothness in your pick attack, a “garage spikes”-style pickslant mismatch could be one reason why. So in these new chapters we’ll show you how to match up the pickslant to the wrist motion you’re trying to use. And we’ll also show you what happens when you get this wrong.

The Why Behind The How

But we didn’t stop there. For the mechanically inclined who really want to understand the way the wrist itself actually moves, we also included an awesome new “Wrist Mechanics” section detailing some of our research on this subject.

The wrist’s amazing dual-axis motion

This includes a comprehensive overview of the core motions the wrist can make, as well as a synopsis of our intervew with the experts at the Leon Root Motion Analysis Lab at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. Researcher Aviva Wolff and lab director Howard Hillstrom sat down with us to discuss the results of their study on wrist coupling motions, and their discovery that many common motions align with what they call the “dart thrower’s motion”. Check out the lesson for more on how this works, but essentially, this motion is not only common in everyday life, but also in guitar playing, where we know it as the downstroke escape, or DSX, picking motion used by players like John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Andy Wood, and Andy James. Very cool.

As usual, it’s my fault for keeping you this long on a blog post. Head on over to the Pickslanting Primer and take control of your wrist for good!

Top Comments

  1. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    Another update to the Pickslanting Primer is up! Wrist motion:

    This is update has two parts. The biggest is seven hands-on tutorial chapters with painstakingly detailed, step-by-step instructions for getting the two most common wrist motions happening. You would know those as “downward pickslanting” and “upward pickslanting”, but their new names are “upstroke escape” and “downstroke escape”. Never fear, “pickslanting” is still a part of this lesson, and we have an entire chapter devoted to it called “Setting the Pickslant”. The goal here is to be ultra clear that the pickslant and the motion are both things you need to “do”, and just doing one doesn’t guarantee the other.

    We’ve decided to put the first of these chapters public on YouTube. The is the USX / Downward Pickslanting motion chapter. For those without a subscription or a copy of the Pickslanting Primer in your back pocket, you can find that right here:

    It’s deceptively straightforward, and not something you’d imagine was years in the making. But honestly the subject of actually how to do picking motions is way more tricky than we ever imagined when we first started doing this. The wrist is used so commonly in picking technique, and so often mixed together with other joints, that it’s actually pretty tricky to talk about how wrist motion works on its own, even though the instructions for doing so are actually pretty simple once you figure out how to do it. We hope we’ve given you the simplest presentation we can. Every post on here detailing a player’s struggles getting basic motion to work for them is a big motivator, and we really want to kick those troubles to the curb as directly as we can.

    And that’s not all. We’re also building out a second section with more mechanics-oriented explanations of how the wrist works, starting with a nice 10-minute explainer on basic wrist motions. We’re giving these their own section on the “wrist motion” page so that players looking for tutorials will know right where to go, and won’t have to wade through 20 minutes of science to get there. At the same time, we want these chapters to be fun, approachable, and easy to follow, so we’ve done our best to give these the Cracking the Code treatment of colorful animations. We’ll be including “Clock Face” here when it’s ready, along with a nice overview of what different clock face motions look like and famous players that use them.

    We’ll be building out both of these sections regularly. So stay tuned for more updates.

  2. Avatar for NTC NTC says:

    An enjoyable video.

    It made me think of this question.

    When the Eddie Van Halen picture appears, he is listed as USX and DSX, and as using a ‘Msupinated forearm’.

    Does this mean he uses alternates between pronation and supination, which I think is what Robben Ford does too?

    I have a Van Halen Wolfgang guitar with a drop D tremolo, and if I am right, what this allows Eddie to do is make sure his hand does not push down too much on the bridge which would send the low E string out of tune, so his pronation allows him to get some height over the part of the bridge with the drop D mechanism, but he can also use supination for extra reach across the strings.

  3. I watched the DSX quite a few times and have to say its a great explanation I sat down and instead of trying my pronated DSX I just supinated a little to get both the pinky side and thumb pad side contacting and then saw awesome. I can still do DSX and I like the fact for the upstroke escape I didn’t have to rotate all that much to accomplish that either. Thanks again for the great tutorial.

  4. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    Awesome. Thanks for checking those out, and hopefully the improved clarity on this will make life easier. Re: switching from one escape type to the other, I would even go further and suggest that in certain cases there may very well be no need to change grip or arm orientation at all. Here’s an example:

    In theory, the motions require the opposite pickslant to keep the pick attack smooth. In other words, the downstroke escape motion requires an upward pickslant, and vice versa, the upstroke escape motion requires a downward pickslant. But I think what we’re learning is that there is a special case of this that occurs when the escape path is relatively low, like 10 degrees or so, and you use edge picking. In this particular case, there seems to be a sweet spot of pick orientation, which you establish via grip and arm position, where the attack will be smooth on both upstrokes and downstrokes without changing anything.

    This is not true for more inclined escape paths like what you have in gypsy picking. There, I think you do need to correct for the motion via pickslanting, given how tilted the motion path really is. And to some extent you can’t really avoid downward pickslanting in that scenario anyway just given the arm position that’s required. But in cases like the Andy Wood example which we looked at in the chapters, where the escape angle is low, and you’re using edge picking, we can see that there is not an obvious pickslant one way or another during his downstroke escape motion. And that may be the special case of this.

  5. I just went through these again, you may have taught me how to ‘wrist pick’ - Might be too early to celebrate just yet but let’s see how it goes. lol I think I followed the instructions…

    Great videos Troy, it takes a bit to kind of digest the lingo but man is this ever highly detailed stuff. Thanks !

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