We thought you’d enjoy some Frank Gambale this weekend! We’re still working on tablature for the 100+ examples we’ve pulled out of the conversation, and we should have that by the middle of next week or so. But the interview itself is ready to roll on the Cracking the Code platform, so we figured we’d turn it on for those who’d like to get a look at it now. You can find it right here:
Frank Gambale Interview
It’s a thrill and a privilege to get this kind of closeup view of what is arguably one of the most unique and influential guitar techniques of the last thirty years. And what hits you right away is just how thoroughly inseparable Frank’s improvisational style and his mechanical style really are. And I’m not just referring to what Frank calls the “most obvious sweeps” – the big, six-string movements that even non-guitarists could identify.
Perhaps even more “Frank” are the unusual melodic figures and rhythms that pop up when he’s freely orchestrating lines that flow across musical time. The guy has serious groove, even when he’s just tapping his foot on the floor to demonstrate a concept as he does at several points in our talk. As he does this, you can hear the basic pulse of the line, ornamented with blazing in-the-pocket triplet figures, but you can’t tell where all those notes are coming from. The clip we called “Mixolydian Changes Tk2” is a totally great example of this at work:
Switching over to slow motion makes things clearer and it’s really amazing. The intricate interplay of alternate and sweep motions that he’s using to get the syncopation and subdivisions working together makes you realize just how unlikely it would be for anyone to write these kinds of lines if you didn’t have precisely these mechanics to play with.
At Cracking the Code we don’t have a soapbox to stand on with any technique. They’re all great, and we want to know how they all work. Frank has taken this particular approach and built on top of that a style uniquely his own, to the point that you always know when it’s him playing, sometimes just from the tone alone. And that’s maybe the most powerful lesson here.
You may have heard the term two-way pickslanting in discussions of picking mechanics, particularly when it comes to scale playing. It may even be what brought you to Cracking the Code in the first place. Indeed, the discovery that elite players actually make changes to their picking motion on the fly, right in the middle of a phrase, was groundbreaking. It explained a lot about why exercises like scales are considered fundamental, and yet paradoxically, only the best of the best players seem to be any good at alternate picking them.
The Antigravity Breakthrough
Our first technical investigation of this topic, the Antigravity Seminar, was recorded several years back. It’s nearly four hours long and surveys how a collection of elite players, from John McLaughlin to Paul Gilbert, actually use this technique to play fast scalar style lines. Since that time we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the motions actually work, and this has made things both simpler and potentially more confusing at the same time.
Antigravity details the process of “discovering” two-way pickslanting. The eureka moment was when we noticed that the amazing Michael Angelo Batio was making a sudden forearm motion during scale playing, right at the moment of one of the string changes. We soon discovered that this motion was actually part of the way he was making those string changes so clean, as he is legendarily famous for doing. So we thought, ok, that forearm motion isn’t something random, it is the technique.
I started practicing this, got good at it, and was finally able to play three-note-per-string scales across all strings smoothly and with perfect accuracy. We named it two-way pickslanting based on the way the pick appears to change its orientation in space, by rotating to one side, and then rotating back. We started teaching it that way in features like the popular original Cracking the Code episode Conquering the Scale on YouTube. It’s also why Chapter 8 of Antigravity is called “Down, Up, Rotate”:
Chapter 8 - Down, Up, Rotate
So yes, in the Antigravity way of doing things, the “rotate” movement is accomplished by a combination of wrist and forearm adjustment. The Pickslanting Primer goes into a little more detail on the forearm and wrist changes necessary to do this. The Chapters are pretty short, I’d just watch them in order:
Michael Angelo Batio
Lay Down Your Arms
Now here comes the “gotcha”. After a few more years of doing interviews, we discovered there are players who can do these same types of lines with no (or very little) forearm movement at all. Here’s the incredible Andy Wood playing the ascending sixes pattern in our live workshop with him. Forearm movement is almost non-existent:
It turns out that Andy does this by switching between two different picking motions – one for the downstroke string change, and another for the upstroke string change. These motions are angled with respect to the strings, so the pick can escape in both directions. This is how Andy avoids hitting the surrounding strings when he makes high-speed string changes. And indeed, that’s the same way we’ve always known things to operate, and as we describe in Antigravity. What is new here is that both of these motions are performed almost entirely with the wrist. This is possible because the wrist is capable of 360 degrees of movement.
It’s also extremely stealthy.
If you trace the path of Andy’s picking motions in the slow motion version of these clips, you’ll see that the pick is indeed changing its direction of motion at various times. In other words, there really are different wrist movements happening within the course of this line. However without the telltale forearm turning that we saw in Batio’s technique, it’s really not possible to see this from the typical “audience” camera perspective. It just looks like Andy’s hand is moving back and forth the same way all the time.
Moreover, because we’re just switching between different axes of the same joint motion, it’s hard even for the player themselves to perceive that this motion path switching is happening. If you’ve heard players tell you they “don’t use a pickslant” or “don’t pick on an angle”, and those are wrist players, this may very well be why. I can pretty much guarantee you that if I had stumbled across these kinds of movements by trial and error as a teenager, when I was first learning, there’s pretty much no way I would know I was using them. And I would probably think everyone else who couldn’t play a simple six-note ascending scale phrase was crazy for not being able to do something so straightforward.
It Takes Two
So we then realized that there is a more general meaning of the “two-way” in “two-way pickslanting”. It means having two different picking motions, and using one of those motions for the downstroke string changes and the other one for the upstroke string changes. And further, we learned that it doesn’t matter what type of arm or hand motion you use for that. Like Andy, you can even do it with only pure wrist motion and still get a similar result. If you use the pure wrist approach, the pick doesn’t “rotate” any more – at least not in the sense of “the forearm is turning”. But it definitely does trace a curved pathway, same as the arrows we draw on the screen in the Pickslanting Primer. And anatomically speaking, wrist motion is indeed often referred to as “rotation” even if that’s not exactly what we had in mind when we first started using the term.
The final piece of this was realizing, hilariously, that not only are there players out there that do this, but I myself am one of those players! If you compare the descending sixes example from years ago in Antigravity, with the same example more recently in the Pickslanting Primer, you will see the difference right away.
The Antigravity example uses a more vertical pick path, so there needs to be more forearm turning during the string changes:
In both examples, I’m doing the same thing Andy is doing – I’m using different wrist motions depending on the string change. I’m just getting a little help from the forearm in the process. I’m using more forearm in the Antigravity example, and less in the Primer example, but in both cases the concept is the same.
Amazingly, what was happening over the several year gap in between filming these two lessons, is that I was learning subconsciously how different wrist movements work, and learning to switch between them without help from the forearm. Eventually, in 2018 a few years later, I got all the way to Andy Wood’s approach of using the wrist by itself, with almost no forearm movement at all:
There’s still a touch of forearm adjustment happening here and there, but it’s super minimal. And more importantly, it’s not enough to account for the different motion paths we’re seeing. The real work is being done by the wrist here, and it’s nearly imperceptible. It’s only when you examine closely in slow-motion that it becomes clear that the upstroke string changes are escaping the strings at a different diagonal than the downstroke string changes.
Where do you go from here?
What this means is that there are different ways to achieve the same or similar result. The Antigravity method of two-way pickslanting uses a more vertical but still wrist-oriented picking motion which is helped out by the forearm at the point of the string change. The Pickslanting Primer version of this is similar, just flatter, so less forearm is needed. And the Andy Wood version of things uses the flattest picking motion, and very little to no forearm turning most of the time. All these methods work, and you can practice any of them.
If you want to try the Antigravity style, you can watch Antigravity, and also the Pickslanting Primer which goes into a little more detail on how to do the wrist and forearm adjustments when you make the string change.
If you want to try the Andy Wood style of two-way pickslanting, I recommend the recent “Crosspicking With The Wrist” Talking the Code broadcast, which explains how the two different wrist movements work, and how Andy is able to switch between them.
So we’re all one big happy family of picking movements now, right? Right?? Ha. I’m sure we’ll learn something else down the line that causes us to re-think what we thought we knew all over again. But if you’re truly committed to understanding that big, complex world out there, that’s just how it has to be.
It’s time to enjoy the spellbinding sounds of an amazing musician who also happens to be an internet pioneer.
Mika Tyyskä is the creator of the Guitar Shred Show, an ingeniously inventive Flash animation that took the incipient guitar internet by storm over ten years ago. In the Shred Show, intrepid Web 2.0 surfers could use their keyboards to control a shredding avatar named Mr. Fastfinger. Armed with a battery of ’80s-inspired licks, the sensei-like Fastfinger waged musical warfare against an accordion playing demon who had possessed a horde of finger-tapping dwarves. The concept was clearly insane.
And insanely fun.
The game’s cartoon sensibility and musical sophistication was instantly endearing. And thanks to some clever Flash h4x0ring, its surprisingly responsive controls made it addictive to play even with the more limited connection speeds of the day.
Spiritually, the Shred Show was both cutting-edge and unabashedly nostalgic. It was filled with musical references to a golden age of heroes that had continued to inform guitar stardom even among those who were too young to have a wardrobe stocked with Spandex leggings. In other words, the Guitar Shred Show had all the ingredients of an internet phenomenon. And succeed it did, taking root in the nascent social media landscape during a fertile time after broadband but before YouTube.
More importantly, it served as the launchpad of a musical career for the Finnish art student and polymath wizard who was its creator. In our interview with Mika, we talk about the origins of the Fastfinger project, and his musical evolution since that time. He graciously performs two of his awesomely lyrical compositions, Be Wind My Friend, and Effortless. In fact, Effortless is complete with the same synchronized visuals you’d see at a Fastfinger show. Mika also gives us a tour of the truly inspiring sounds on his pedalboard, affirming that his artistry extends to the brushes and colors he uses, and not just the subjects he paints.
Molly Tuttle’s take on the Townes Van Zandt classic “White Freightliner Blues” has quickly become a signature tune, and a showcase for her astonishing flat pick skills. Watching her switch effortlessly between rhythm comping and high-velocity single note lead lines is like listening to at least two guitarists at once. In this clip from her Cracking the Code interview, she gives us a closeup look at the way these two awesome techniques intertwine:
Molly Tuttle’s right hand technique is a melding of several uniquely virtuosic picking approaches. For traditional bluegrass “boom chuck” rhythm playing, Molly uses what we might commonly call a “floating” approach. In truth, this is a bit of a misnomer:
As we can see in the closeup shot, Molly almost always employs a solid forearm anchor against the body. This body anchor acts as a pivot point for the forearm movement, allowing her to quickly cover large distances from bass to treble strings.
Perhaps less obvious is how this anchor promotes accuracy. Even though the body anchor is located relatively far away from the strings she is playing, it still provides a strong kinesthetic sense of where each string is located in space. This is because the forearm length acts like a multiplier, so that only fine muscle activation at the elbow joint is necessary to move the comparatively larger distance across the strings.
Great bluegrass players we have interviewed, like Molly and also the amazing David Grier, develop the ability to finely tune those elbow movements to target any string they want. Over the three-plus minutes of Freightliner’s bustling tempo, we can see just how controllable this seemingly untethered approach really is. In the vast majority of Molly’s bass and chord exchanges, the bass downstrokes land squarely on their intended targets.
For high-speed single note lines, Molly switches to an anchored wrist mechanic. In the closeup shot, you’ll spot it right away:
Now this is really interesting. Molly rests the hand directly on the strings, using the meaty pad where the thumb attaches to the palm as the contact point. In anatomical terms, this is the “thenar eminence”, or more simply the “thumb heel”. The muscles located in this part of the palm are responsible for our famously opposable thumbs. They are also responsible for our ability to grip a guitar pick. And that’s a great start!
But there’s an even more critical reason Molly chooses this anchor point for fast alternate picking. Although it might not be obvious while watching Molly play from typical audience perspective, in wrist anchor mode, Molly’s forearm is actually “pronated”, or rotated inward, toward the guitar’s body:
This rotated forearm orientation is what brings her thumb heel in contact with the strings. But this tilted orientation of the arm also completely changes the way Molly’s wrist operates:
See that air gap between the knuckles and the strings? That triangular slice of space is what the forearm rotation is doing to the hand. Because of this tilt, Molly’s downstrokes now take off at an angle to the guitar, launching right up into the air along the path of the magenta arrow in the snapshot. Conversely, Molly’s upstrokes also launch upward, in the opposite direction, along the green arrow.
You can see Molly make these angled picking movements clearly in the slow-motion sequences in the clip. If you’re not used to filming bluegrass players in slow motion, movements like this might seem unorthodox. But “escaped pickstrokes”, as we call them in Cracking the Code analysis, turn out to be critical to bluegrass guitar. If you don’t make escaped pickstrokes, you’ll hit the surrounding strings, especially during complicated string switching techniques like roll playing. It is Molly’s use of escaped pickstrokes that is the secret sauce of her amazing crosspicking fluency. And it all derives from her pronated arm and thumb heel anchor. Amazing.
In the interview we discuss the origin of these interlocking mechanics, and amazingly, they were mostly intuitive. In other words, Molly figured all this out through a kind of elite-level trial and error. This type of mechanical intuition is rare. Relatively few players will make these kinds of discoveries without very specific guidance, let alone finely hone them into precision musical tools like Molly’s.
That Molly was able to learn these motions mostly on her own is amazing enough. That she is able to switch between them so effortlessly, even while singing, is another. That she can do all this while making music we actually enjoy listening to — well, that’s the greatest skill of all.
The complete Molly Tuttle Cracking the Code interview includes tablature for “White Freightliner Blues” along with 41 other slow motion examples that offer an in-depth look at Molly’s astonishing flat pick fluency. Watch it here!
Our second interview with Andy Wood is a spectacular showcase of acoustic prowess, and a treat for aspiring multi-instrumentalists.
The comprehensive two-hour conversation covers the mechanical differences between guitar and mandolin picking technique, with a comparison of three bluegrass standards on both instruments, along with over 140 slow motion examples with tablature.
When we first met Andy, we didn’t know what we were going to see, and after getting a look at the wide variety of things he does mechanically, we wanted to ask him some more pointed questions. At two hours, the new interview is filled with targeted discussion of Andy’s killer array of movements.
On both electric guitar and acoustic guitar, Andy is probably the most textbook example of two-way pickslanting we have filmed. He is the archetypal “primary pickslant” player: he uses a default orientation, in this case upward pickslanting, but effortlessly reels off sequences of rapid-fire rotational movements to get in between two strings when the phrase requires it. You’ll see him do this for blazing country-style open position riffing, as well as mid-fretboard “shred style” mixolydian scale playing. Cross compare with the selection of scalar examples from the first interview, and you can see this movement adapt from the big box Martin D28 acoustic to the smaller, slab body Suhr.
Likewise, we thought it would be informative to watch Andy play the same pieces on both acoustic guitar and mandolin. The body shapes are so different that Andy does indeed have somewhat different techniques on each instrument. We discuss Andy’s mandolin crosspicking technique in detail. He uses a supinated setup and the resulting movement, what we call in the interview the “smiley-face” movement, might be obvious to us as viewers when we’re watching him, especially in slow-motion. But to Andy, the distinction between this and the two-way pickslanting approach he uses when he speeds up is apparent only as a difference in rhythmic feel.
The various cross-comparisons we do in this interview are useful to players interested in both instruments, sure. But they are of general interest to anyone looking to understand how instrument layout, arm setup, and pick grip affect picking technique. We talk about all of these things in detail. You’ll see some good closeups of Andy’s grip and how it affects his ability to use finger movement for string changes, and to perform alternate picked arpeggio sequences.
Andy and Andy: The Duets!
Finally, we’ve assembled a selection of duets, guitar and mandolin, from three of the standards that Andy played:
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Red Haired Boy
We didn’t intend to combine the tunes this way, and these were not recorded to a click. But the tempos were so close that only minor edits were necessary to get them to lock up. Even in the one case where more deliberate tempo mapping was required to make the match, the resulting blend was such an awesome look at how a great player improvises that we included it anyway.
Check out our “Behind the Scenes” feature on Andy’s always musical sense of time that allowed us to sync up the duet performances!
If all goes well, we will be boarding a plane for Los Angeles tonight to meet with a duo of guitar awesomeness!
First up, a mechanics pioneer who many have requested: the amazing Frank Gambale! Frank was one of the original Cracking the Code interviews an eon ago with the original camera rig. As part of editing that material, we got back in touch Frank recently about filming an update with our more modern gear, and we’re excited to be sitting down with him again.
In the original meeting, we address core questions about sweeping and how Frank’s innovations took shape. We discussed a battery lick examples plucked from Frank’s instructionals and album recordings, and it’s amazing how many of them he was able to recall. The camcorder died during a particular favorite – a blazing lydian run from “Centrifugal Funk”, the Mark Varney record he did with Bret Garsed and Shawn Lane. Hopefully Frank remembers the lick since we’ll be requesting it again!
We’ll also try and get to the bottom of Frank’s arm setup and grip. And when it comes to applications of mechanics, we want to talk about his simply astounding vocabulary. It’s one thing to hatch a playing style based on a novel mechanical approach. But the reason we still listen to Frank is all the awesome playing. Sweeping aside, the guy is just one of the most original and immediately identifiable soloists out there. He has a seemingly endless supply of cool things to say on the guitar, and a mechanical foundation for doing so that is as reliable as anyone could want.
Brendon Small is the creator of the absolutely hilarious, trippy, and profane animated series Metalocalypse, recounting the travails of the world-famous fictional metal band Dethklok. The show works as a kind of Spinal Tap for the digital age. And like Spinal Tap, the virtuosity of the musical parody is part of the joke.
Here’s a satirical guitar instructional video starring the band’s lead guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf, both voiced and played by Brendon:
Everything about this is so awesomely on point: the name checking of all the endorsements, the “instruction”, the blazing playing, the hand animations…
Brendon is the musical force behind Dethklok’s album releases, and also his own solo projects under the moniker “Galaktikon”. We’ll be talking about Galaktikon tunes and asking him to lay down some of his trademark blistering downstroke rhythms. This is a topic we’ve discussed on the forum and which he can hopefully help us continue to get our minds around.
Get your questions ready!
Have questions / topics you think we should cover in either interview? Let us know on the forum! Head here and send us your suggestions by the end of the day:
The Cracking the Code Mike Stern interview is here! In this intimate chat, the genial jazz master shares a wealth of improvisational insights, delivered in an extemporaneous fashion as effortless his playing.
Mike is a great interview: friendly, discursive, and wholly unguarded about his process as a technician and musician. If you’ve ever wondered how an expansive and usable improvisational vocabulary is built, this conversation is a valuable window into how that job is accomplished. From the opening minutes, Mike’s abundant and continued curiosity in seeking out uncharted areas of his well-worn Yamaha Pacifica fretboard quickly becomes apparent.
Mike outlines technique after technique for pulling new ideas out of familiar scales and shapes. This includes using patterns and sequences thought-provoking brainteaser-style experiments, adapting lines from other instruments, and more. He fearlessly demonstrates a number of “work in progress” phrases he’s still figuring out how to incorporate — on the spot in the talk, flubs and all.
In the 65 musical examples that accompany the interview, we’ve transcribed almost all of Mike’s brain-busting and finger-twisting harmonic explorations. But the idea is not that you’ll learn these, wholesale, as stock phrases. Instead, these are the seeds of future music, bits and pieces of which may hopefully emerge in surprising ways in your playing later on.
It’s this procedural aspect of what Mike shares that is particularly exciting. Thinking beyond the pentatonic box is hard work, for sure, but the term “practice” doesn’t really capture it. It’s really vocabulary building. And what Mike shows us here is that it’s not just the desire to grow as a musician that matters. It’s that, in order to actually experience that growth, you need to fight back against complacency with specific, hands-on methods to generate originality. It’s a stealthily subversive and powerful message, delivered in signature affable style by one of the nicest cats around.
The complete Mike Stern package includes the one-hour interview, 65 slow-motion examples with tablature, and six chapters (20+ minutes) of analysis chapters on Mike’s technique.
As we guitarists are so often caught up in the technique rat race, it’s important to remind ourselves once in a while that so much of the personal style of the players we admire is actually a function of limitations. Let Mike Stern explain:
“Sometimes people’s styles and their voice is defined in as much by what you can’t do as what you can do.” As he does so many times in our interview, Mike really hits the nail on the head with this pithy encapsulation of musical personality. And it relates to challenges we think about all the time here at Cracking the Code.
A lot of players who come to Cracking the Code may initially have a hard time with the idea that the “sound” of great players is often the result of avoiding phrases that don’t fit their technique. After all, Eric Johnson is a rare talent who can play anything right? And related to this is another question we get all the time: How can you really improvise if you have to work out all your lines ahead of time to fit some formula of lines you can play versus ones you can’t? In other words, if you have limitations, how you can be truly free to improvise?
Well, I don’t know every word in the English language, even though you wouldn’t know it by the length of some of our lessons and blog posts. But when I talk extemporaneously, particularly when the cameras are rolling, there is this illusion that I experience, where I feel that I am free in my ability to communicate.
The truth is, musical expression isn’t just about attaining all-powerful skills and limitless vocabulary. It’s also about whittling down the vast universe of everything to some manageable set of elements you can manipulate: “Some people have great technique so they sound more technical,” Mike explains. “And some people don’t have such great technique, so they find some other stuff.”
If our limitations can be a catalyst for that narrowing down, as we search for Mike’s “other stuff”, we at Cracking the Code embrace that.
The Mike Stern interview is coming to Masters in Mechanics later this week! In the mean time, we may post a few cool excerpts as we see them while we’re editing.
Molly Tuttle’s prodigious songwriting chops, ethereal voice, and physical command of the guitar make her one of the most exciting new players in bluegrass. She’s the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year for 2017. And she is the subject of the latest Masters in Mechanics interview here at Cracking the Code.
If you’ve seen Molly play, then you’re already familiar with her unstoppable flatpicking chops. Like many of the greats, from Tony Rice to Eddie Van Halen, Molly’s technique is really several techniques in one: it’s an anchored upward pickslanting technique, an anchored pronated crosspicking technique, a floating forearm rotation rhythm technique, and different combinations of the above postures with sophisticated thumb/index articulation thrown in for extra string-switching dexterity. That she switch instantly between all these approaches, while singing, is nothing short of amazing.
In the interview, we cover flat pick rudiments and roll patterns, gymnastic bass/chord rhythm techniques, and take a quick look at her very cool banjo-inspired clawhammer fingerstyle technique on her original tune Save This Heart. We talk about fretboard mapping for playing through the changes, and discuss how her time at the Berklee College of Music helped her polish all these abilities.
Or head over to our download store and grab your own copy. Either way, we’d like to thank you for watching. And of course, we’d like to thank Molly for being so generous with her time and so open about her artistry.