Cracking The Code: Our History

From a chance discovery about efficient instrument technique, a decades-long journey of musical and mechanical discovery was launched. Here’s how Cracking The Code came to be.

Picks, Strings, and Videotape

The unintentional Rosetta Stone

Cracking The Code began in 1991 at, of all places, Yale University. With Yngwie Malmsteen’s infamous REH instructional video on seemingly continuous repeat in the background of a Timothy Dwight dorm room, concerted fumbling with a pick and an Ibanez Roadstar Series 240 guitar lead to a startling accidental discovery. Yngwie’s vaunted alternate picking technique wasn’t just a side-to-side motion of the pick, but rather a diagonal one. By picking along a trajectory that allowed upstrokes to move away from the guitar’s body, he could move from one string to another at any speed, with very few mistakes, so long as the final pickstroke on every string was an upstroke.

The observation solved one of the thorniest mechanical questions surrounding playing a stringed instrument with a pick: namely, how you move from one string to another without hitting the surrounding strings. Not only that, but the realization that Yngwie was almost exclusively favoring phrases with this seemingly unusual “upstroke as the last pickstroke” design flew in the face of everything we were taught about how elite guitar technique is supposed to work.

Dot Matrix Shred

An independent study outlining this discovery was soon underway. Under the supervision of Andrew Leonard in the guitar department, the result was a 48-page manuscript introducing concepts like pickslanting and stringhopping. Both were breakthroughs in understanding one of the most common solutions to the problem of efficient string switching, and neither were yet part of mainstream guitar instruction.

Same mechanics, fewer pixels!

The paper also applied the concept of chunking, drawn from psychology research on memory and learning, to the problem of hand synchronization during high-speed playing. This part was actually a coincidence. Chunking was already employed by motor learning researchers to describe how complex sequences of motions are encoded and recalled. But we didn’t find that out until years later, in our interview with Pietro Mazzoni from the Motor Performance Lab at Columbia University.

Filming The Impossible

THE SHREDCAM: The Basler a602fc color Firewire camera observes the fearsome Rusty Cooley.

The paper raised more questions than it answered. If players at Yngwie’s level were doing things like this, what else might they be doing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to get a close-up look at real, live expert players, to see what other tricks they might have up their sleeves? But that would have to wait for technology to catch up. It eventually did, in the early 2000s, with the advent of affordable high-speed digital cameras.

The idea was simple enough: build a system that could film picking motions which are too fast or too small to see with the naked eye. After two years of after-hours coding and testing, the initial rig, affectionately referred to as the “ShredCam”, was born. It was a computer-controlled FireWire camera intended for industrial and scientific applications. It attached to the guitar body pointing at the player’s picking hand, and could output high-quality uncompressed Bayer pattern video at hundreds of frames per second. This was way beyond the speed of consumer cameras of the time, and fast enough for the most terrifying human guitarists.

The incomparable Steve Morse gets suited up with the first version of Cracking the Code’s high-speed camera rig.

Somehow, an array of incredible players agreed to attach this crazy contraption to their guitars while playing impossible phrases. This series of interviews included picking pioneers like Michael Angelo Batio, Rusty Cooley, Steve Morse, and Albert Lee. The rig even traveled all the way to Winfield, Kansas, to film bluegrass virtuoso Carl Miner at the famed Walnut Valley Festival National Flat Picking Championships.

The footage we captured was nothing short of amazing. It marked the first systematic attempt to film elite players up close, to understand and categorize the different escape motions they make. This focus on fieldwork continues to be a defining element of what we do today. To share clips of the interviews, the project also gained its first web site, and a placeholder name which ended up sticking around: Cracking The Code.

The Motor Learning Mystery

One of the most surprising things we’ve learned in our interviews is how self-taught virtuosos learn complex picking techniques.

For example, the sequence of upstrokes and downstrokes that elite players choose is not random, and not purely a matter of personal preference either. It’s based on fundamental differences in their mechanics. A player with one type of picking motion might need to terminate each string with an upstroke, like Yngwie did. Among our early interviewees, Mike Stern turned out to be one such player. But other players might only reach maximum efficiency when finishing each string with a downstroke. Michael Angelo Batio was one of those.

The amazing Michael Angelo Batio as seen from the Basler 602fc scientific camera

Prior to Cracking The Code, it was not widely known that choosing a different type of joint motion might require a different sequence of pickstrokes on each string to avoid awkwardness and errors. The technical explanation for this, and advice for what to do about it, were simply not part of mainstream guitar teaching.

But the players we interviewed were different. Their vocabularies contained a high proportion of picking patterns that could be played efficiently with their core mechanics — more so than you’d predict from random chance alone. How did they know this was necessary, and why weren’t they talking about it? Was it a conspiracy, to keep the rest of us from learning their secrets? The interviews answered that question clearly too: Amazingly, they were mostly doing this subconsciously.

Subconscious Streamlining

The incredible Mike Stern in his original Cracking The Code interview

Over years of practice, the best players learn to gradually weed out problematic picking patterns in favor of ones that feel the smoothest and sound the most accurate. Eventually, their vocabulary becomes dominated by phrases that match their motion type, even if they’re not aware of developing these preferences. This subconscious feedback loop is the core of how complex motor skills are learned, from throwing a ball to riding a bike.

Listening to Mike Stern’s famously inventive blend of rock and bebop, it is hard to imagine there is anything he couldn’t play with a pick. It’s even harder to believe that his accuracy is based in part on unconsciously avoiding phrases that are likely to be inaccurate with his mechanics.

Mike’s upstroke escape picking technique from ShredCam perspective

And yet Mike’s lines contain an unusually high percentage of picking patterns which can be played with what we call “upstroke escape”, or USX picking motion. Rather than being limited by this, Mike is simply a great example of a world-class player whose technical skills evolved to complement his musical choices.

The power is knowing this. When you realize that a beginner can dramatically speed up the learning process by doing something similar — intentionally avoiding specific phrases that can’t be played efficiently with their current technique — well, that would have blown minds in 1986.

Technique Taxonomy

When Cracking The Code began, the terminology we use now didn’t exist yet. So we introduced our own vocabulary for things we were seeing with our cameras. The terms we created, including escape motion, pickslanting, stringhopping, edge picking, swiping, and more, describe things players have always done, and either haven’t had a convenient way of explaining, or were simply unaware they were doing. This eventually grew to so many concepts that it amounts to a new, more structured way of thinking about guitar playing skills. Odds are good that if you’ve searched for information about developing effective picking technique, you’ve already run across players discussing their playing using our Cracking The Code terminology.

Evidence-Based Teaching

Modern camera gear offers a quantum leap of clarity in viewing Andy Wood‘s awesome technique

Here’s the problem with teaching: good advice isn’t good because it worked for one player, or because a famous person said it. It’s good if it reliably produces better results than you can get by accident.

And the only way to know that is to test it.

So we didn’t stop at research. We’ve taken everything we’ve learned and combined it with extensive testing and round-trip player feedback in our community. We’ve reviewed thousands of user-submitted video clips of their own playing to weed out which of our advice produced good results and which didn’t.

We then turned around and used this information to create simple and effective methods for diagnosing your own technique and learning new ones. Our core instructional product, the Pickslanting Primer, is updated constantly as our knowledge improves. We’re continually adding to our in-depth seminars on specific musical subjects. Our goal is to make learning effective picking technique as painless and approachable as possible.