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Songwriting and Speed With David Grier

By March 26, 2020 News

The amazing David Grier returned to Cracking the Code for a second meeting, and that interview is now live on the platform! At just over an hour, it contains 31 musical examples, including a handful of David’s trademark beautiful full-song playthroughs. It was an awesome conversation on a sunny summer day where we learned some fascinating things about his creative and mechanical process. This includes a valuable peek into David’s higher-speed mechanics that we didn’t get the first time around.

Grass On The Field

Like many of us David is an avid user of the “TV Practice” technique, where you zone out in front of the tube with a guitar in your hands. His programming of choice? Football. “I just turn the sound off. I don’t need someone to tell me if he caught it or not!”

What’s interesting about this is the nature of the work he’s doing. While we often think of television practice as a way to hone technique, what David describes is clearly a creative effect. Without conscious focus on what he’s playing, he’ll accidentally play an improvisational line that’s new to him, even if he can’t recall precisely what it was. The hope is that this new idea will eventually bubble up again, but in a more conscious way that he can learn and incorporate into his active vocabulary of phrases or phrase parts.

Analog television on a bed with a guitar
Meet your new metronome!

So rather than technique practice, what David is talking about is improvisational practice, which sounds almost like an oxymoron. But for anyone who’s ever considered working on getting better at extemporaneous playing, David’s description cuts to the heart of an age-old and super practical question about how the ability to spontaneously generate novel ideas is actually achieved. And in David’s case, the fascinating answer is that he clearly has a process for it, even if that process is allowed to run somewhat on autopilot. Which sounds about right for the type of skill we’re talking about.

Streamlining the Standards

We arrived at the TV practice topic by way of another fascinating conversation about how David employs his masterful improvisational abilities to create different arrangements of standard bluegrass tunes for different tempos.

In the talk, we play the Monroe classic “Wheel Hoss” at four tempos, from a leisurely 180bpm eighth notes to a blazing 295bpm. And you can watch just this awesome section of the interview on YouTube, for free, right here:

As David’s internal metronome ratchets higher, his lines subtly change, incorporating more linear speed, but still retaining immediately identifiable elements of his personality, like his penchant for wide contrapuntal string skipping. His aerodynamic arrangements are still unmistakably David — just a different side of his musical personality.

Fluid Mechanics

What’s amazing about this transformation is how David’s mechanics change to enable it. At medium speeds, David uses a semicircular double escape, or “DBX” pickstroke, which starts and ends in the air above the strings:

Image of David Grier's DBX pickstroke with curved motion path overal
The double-escape pickstroke “catches air” at both ends, following a semicircular motion path. The grip and arm position he uses don’t result in a pickslant.

When you’re doing one-note-per-string arpeggio playing, or in bluegrass terms, crosspicking, you want to make sure you can avoid the surrounding strings, and the double escape pickstroke is how you do that. So when playing at these moderate speeds where crosspicking phrases are likely, David chooses the double escape motion as kind of a default, or “primary” pickstroke type.

Of course the double escape motion also works for other types of lines, but it’s not strictly necessary for those lines. And at some level David senses this, because when he changes his vocabulary to emphasize more notes per string, he also changes his primary pickstroke type. In the fastest “Wheel Hoss” take, David switches his pickstroke type to the downstroke escape, or “DSX” pickstroke:

Image of David Grier's DSX pickstroke with diagonal motion path overla, and UWPS angle indicator
The downstroke escape, or DSX pickstroke type only escapes during the downstroke, following a tilted motion path. David also matches this with an upward pickslant. But simply altering your grip to produce an upward pickslant will not automatically produce the DSX motion. That’s done with the wrist in David’s case.

In a DSX pickstroke, the picking motion no longer appears semicircular but angular, tilted in such a way that the downstrokes go up in the air, and upstrokes remain trapped between the strings. Because the pick only escapes from the strings during the downstroke, this makes the downstroke the ideal time to move to a new string. And sure enough, many of David’s phrases at these faster speeds appear to be structured specifically with this requirement in mind, containing even numbers of notes per string, and specifically positioning the downstroke as the final note.

David can still do double-escaped motions at these faster speeds, and if you watch the fastest Wheel Hoss take in slow motion on the platform, you’ll see them. The inside picking between the open G string and the third fret of the D string at the end of m5 and the beginning of m6 is a great example of this. And right after this, the outside picking between the last two notes of m6 and the first note of m7 you’ll find some outside picking double escape motion:

These tricky inside and outside picking sequences are each double escape, or DBX motion. So elements of David’s moderate speed technique persist even at elevated tempos.

This complexity is also why we’ve stopped using the term “two-way pickslanting” to refer to these types of motion combinations. As you watch in slow motion, you’ll notice that the “slant” of the pick isn’t changing in these sequences, even though it might appear to at other moments in Wheel Hoss. So looking at the slant of the pick by itself might leave you justifiably confused as to what’s actually going on.

Instead, what’s much clearer are the motions involved. David’s use of a “primary DSX” strategy, with other motions brought in on a supporting basis, is really the simplest way to understand what he’s doing here. Not only that, but it’s also precisely the same strategy we we see in the techniques of players like the awesome Andy Wood and jazz legend John McLaughlin, who also expresses a primary pickstroke preference for DSX.

The similarities between David and Andy in particular are significant, since they are both DBX players at moderate speeds, and primary DSX players at faster ones. Even the mixing and matching of forearm and wrist motions is similar, where shifts in forearm position occasionally seem to alter the “pickslant”, again, making it confusing to understand if that’s all you’re looking at. It actually took several years of interviews with both players before we even really understood what was going on with them.

Mechanics and Creativity

Why do some players switch to a mix of single- and double-escape motions at higher speed, while others, like Molly Tuttle, continue to choose double? We can’t know for sure, but we suspect it has to do with the self-taught nature of most picking technique. As we’ve learned over the years, the hardest part about picking technique isn’t actually doing the motions. It’s knowing that they even exist at all, since great players mostly learn them at a subconscious level. And for whatever reason, this hybrid approach was what David, Andy, and John stumbled across first.

But given the clearly uncanny ability that these great players have to figure out these complicated motions on their own, I have come to believe that none of them are really limited in what they can play. Instead, there is an interplay between technique and creativity, and the balance of all those forces is reflected in the lines they play. If David truly wanted to write crosspicked lines at faster speeds, I’d like to think he’d manage the technique for it, since he’s already making those motions at higher speed anyway.

Either way, as a listener, I enjoy david’s “streamlined” (to use his term) faster speed arrangements just as much as his intricate crosspicked ones. They’re all unmistakably David, and we’re always grateful here at Cracking the Code to get such an intimate look at the amazing underpinnings of their creation.

Learning Resources

Of course, you can watch the awesome new David Grier interview on the platform. David’s interview page also includes links to buy a download copy of the interview if you don’t have a Masters in Mechanics-level subscription with us. You can find all those links right here:

David Grier 2019

Songwriting and speed with the bluegrass master


For more details on how the DBX and DSX motions of amazing players like David and Molly Tuttle work, you can check out the Pickslanting Primer for the technical low-down:

Chapter 5 - Clock Face DBX

A close-up look at the double escape pickstrokes of Steve Morse, Molly Tuttle, Andy Wood, and David Grier


Chapter 4 - Clock Face DSX

Comparing the downstroke escape wrist motions of John McLaughlin, David Grier, and Andy Wood


And for tutorials on how to actually *do* those motions with the wrist, as David and Molly do, you can check out the following lessons on the platform, one in the “Talking the Code” channel, and one in the Primer:

Crosspicking With The Wrist

Demystifying a powerful and deceptively simple arpeggio playing technique


Chapter 4 - Downstroke Escape

The wrist motion used by John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Andy Wood is one of the most common motions in picking


Top Comments

  1. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    New David Grier is up! So is a good 10+ minute chunk of it on YouTube:

    What we learned on the mechanics side from this one is really interesting. No doubt astute observers will have spotted how David’s technique changes when he kicks in to high gear. He introduces both a DSX and a USX mode, by way of slight changes in forearm position, and changes in wrist motion to accompany. DSX and the accompanying upward pickslant is clearly the primary.

    This is a textbook example of the “primary pickslant” concept we introduced in Antigravity, although I think it’s now clearer to refer to this a primary pickstroke type, in this case, primary DSX. And that’s just because, as we’ve seen with players like Andy Wood, the pickslant itself can look like all kinds of things, or nothing. But the motion type is a much clearer way of seeing what they’re actually doing, and understanding why they lines they play work the way they do.

    You’ll see the USX form emerge on the higher strings in the head to the 295bpm take of Wheel Hoss, where he plays that whole part of the phrase in USX. And of course you’ll also see the Batio-style intermittent swtich between the two forms which generates, essentially, a double escape motion in the process. So there is still double escape motion happening at these higher speeds, and there are definiutely still wrist-only double escape motions happening at these speeds to, as you’ll see every time he does an upstroke string change. So it’s not all single-escape wrist, but rather and Andy Wood style mixture of single and double escape, with a mix of forearm and wrist for those double escape. That’s the most accurate and clearest way to describe what he’s doing.

    In this higher gear he’s still unmistakeably David in sound, even as “streamlines”, in his terms his signature arrangements.

  2. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    The vibe in this was one was definitely friendly and relaxed, and I’m glad that seemed to come across!

  3. I got just over half way through and decided to have another try today, went and got the guitar and had a go at Waiting on Daddy’s Money instead.

    The first bar I’m ok with…

    My fretting hand isn’t complying, just need to do some absolute basic chord shape changing exercises I think.

    I think of all the Code stuff David is among the most musical and the hardest playing style for me to get a handle on* - it’s like there’s a trio in him all playing at once and each part of the trio has an independent sense of time.

    *I don’t mean I can play everything on here, it’s just that there’s parts with DG that I can’t even play even at continental drift sort of speeds because I just can’t get the feel of it into my brain/hands

    edit: There’s no mystery to it, I just haven’t listened to nearly enough bluegrass.

  4. Seems to be working fine this morning.

  5. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    Ha, as @Tommo guessed I was really just asking about the streaming speeds!

    The polyphony thing that David does is definitely cool, where he’ll hammer onto one string while picking a different one. But you can definitely streamline and just avoid those, and play the more linear or patterny stuff that is less alien.

    My gateway to this type of playing was just roll type patterns. If you can do those smoothly in the 120bpm+ range, even while doing nothing more than just holding down a simple C chord and applying various 3- and 4-string patterns to it, I think that leads pretty naturally to eventually playing the more flowery crosspicked stuff that David does.

    Over time I noticed that as I did this, I was semi-consciously making up little variations that made things more melodic, like these little syncopated bassline type patterns that i’m doing here on the D string:

    Just suggestions. I’m still sort of finding my way with bluegrass as a style and I’ll probably never be a bluegrass player in any real sense, but I’m strating to see what kind of paths a person might take to get there.

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