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Tal Farlow's USX Motion

By January 31, 2020 Lessons

Today we’re going to take a look at one of the pioneers of bebop guitar: the amazing Tal Farlow.

Along with Jimmy Raney, Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, and a small handful of others, Tal was among the first cohort of players post Django and Charlie Christian to display what we might think of as a modern level of virtuoso picking technique in jazz guitar. Given how little there was to learn from, it’s perhaps no surprise that Tal sounded like no one before him and arguably like no one since. What’s more surprising is the picking style he used to do it:

USX Motion

As you can see in slow motion, Tal was a USX, or upstroke escape player. The USX system is the family of techniques that encompasses players as diverse as Django and the Gypsies, George Benson, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, and Marty Friedman. Its characteristic trait is the escape trajectory of the picking motion, where only upstrokes escape the strings and downstrokes remain trapped:

This imposes certain constraints on fretting possibilities, namely, that for maximum efficiency, only upstrokes or downstroke sweeps can be the final note on the string.

Taken to the logical extreme in Tal’s playing, you’ll see lots of occurrences where the upstroke is the only note on the string:

Tal's Rhapsody

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Much like Yngwie’s three-string arpeggio, the use of a single note on a string requires the use of an upstroke to maintain string switching efficiency. This forces legato on the immediately preceding string, which in turn forces more than one note on that string.

Arpeggio Up, Arpeggio Down

Working backwards like this, we arrive at many of Tal’s signature upstroke-slide and upstroke-pulloff combinations. These amazing descending lines frequently involve wide intervals, interesting arpeggios, and daring position shifts. Contrary to the old saw of “arpeggio up, scale down”, this results in the uniquely Tal sound of “one mechanical approach to arpeggio up, another mechanical approach to arpeggio down”. Amazing stuff.

Often, when we present the USX playing style and its attendant rules, jazz players especially object. Such a restrictive rule set couldn’t possibly work for jazz, and especially not for bebop. A truly free improviser would need to be a master of pure alternate picking, to be able to play anything that comes to mind. Or so the objection goes.

But as Tal shows us, what comes to mind is the key. Pure alternate players don’t often go for the kinds of lines Tal did, because when you can pick anything, it’s easy to fall back on the straightforward shapes that are right in front of you, instead of the unusual ones that are just around the corner. Part of the reason for this is that some of the combinations that Tal employed, which intermingle downstroke sweeps and alternate string changes, are arguably less idiomatic for a pure alternate player than for a USX player. As a group, USX players like Tal tend to be masters of one-way economy picking, and don’t hold themselves too strictly to the rule of always maintaining downstrokes on downbeats. This, again, opens up fretboard possiblities that a pure alternate player might simply not think of.

So for a shot of creativity, try transcribing a few of Tal’s unorthodox leaps of fretboard fancy, and inject some novel thinking into your vocabulary no matter your picking style.

Top Comments

  1. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    Are you stuck in a rut and looking to inject some creativity into your vocabulary? Try some Tal Farlow:

    Amazingly, Tal was an upstroke escape, aka “downward pickslanting” player, but you’d never know it. He came from a time before pentatonic licks and Yngwie six note patterns, so he had no baggage. The stuff he played was adventurous for jazz, then, and arguably even now. Free tablature in the linked blog article for this one.

  2. Avatar for geoffk geoffk says:

    Troy - congrats on getting a hollowbody guitar! What is it?

  3. Worth remembering that Jazz players like Farlow, McLaughlin and Holdsworth (if you want to call him that), were particularly influenced by non-guitar players. If you’re copying sax runs, you’re likely to develop a ‘not-typically guitaristic’ technique. Phrasing will be part of it.

  4. After a little googling, I may have jumbled up my Tal Farlow history. But he did start learning guitar in an unconventional way, playing on a mandolin tuned like a ukelele.

    And I’m pretty sure his first “real” guitar was homemade, either by him or with assistance from his father. And at least one source says he dabbled with electronics like his father did, and from hearing Charlie Christian on the radio, was inspired to build his own guitar pickup from coils of wire and an old pair of headphones.

  5. This is cool. I can’t find the link for the tablature though?


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