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The Four Fundamental Pickstrokes - Can You Spot Them?

By | Lessons | 25 Comments

Did you know there are different kinds of pickstrokes? These pickstroke types have different capabilities, and profound implications for what you can and cannot play with them. As with anything mechanical, you have to use the right tool for the job. Here’s a cool comparison we filmed to highlight the differences:

The Problem of String Switching

You’ll notice from the video that we’re choosing to highlight the string-switching capabilities of these pickstroke types. In order to make string switches clean, you must ensure that your pick doesn’t come into contact with any wrong strings, and thus, wrong notes, while it makes its journey from the string you’re currently playing to the next string you want to play. To do this correctly, you’re actually going to have to make a specific motion to avoid those other strings.

If you think about it, this only makes sense. In order to play a note with a pick, you must drop the pick in between two strings to start. So you already know that the point of the pick is below the string height when it actually contacts the string, otherwise it would… miss it entirely. The problem is that if it’s low enough to hit one string, it’s low enough to hit the others too. And unless you’re strumming, that’s not what you want.

Ready, Set, Escape!

As it turns out, the stroke of genius that elite players hit upon to move cleanly from one string to another is to incorporate the string switching motion into the actual picking motion itself. And in Cracking the Code lingo, we call this string-switching-powered picking motion escaping.

For example, if the final note on a string is a downstroke, then you’ll need to use a downstroke escape technique. A downstroke escape motion is any picking motion where the downstrokes escape, or move away from the guitar’s body, as part of the picking motion itself. In other words, the picking motion itself will actually cause the pick to move out from between the strings, into the air adjacent to the guitar, and you won’t need to make a separate motion to do this.

When you perform a downstroke escape picking motion, upstrokes remain trapped, in between the strings. What this means is that you are essentially picking along a diagonal plane, from trapped to escaped, and from escaped to trapped, over and over again. Because only one side of the motion escapes, we sometimes call this a single escape picking motion.

Conversely, if the final note on your current string is an upstroke, then you’ll need an upstroke escape motion. As the name implies, an upstroke escape picking motion is one where the pick moves away from the guitar every time you play an upstroke. As with downstroke escape motions, the non-escape pickstroke remains trapped, and in this case, the trapped pickstroke is the downstroke.

If you’re playing a line where you need to switch strings every time you play a note, we have a pickstroke type for that too: the double escape pickstroke. This is the type of pickstroke bluegrass players use to perform death-defying feats of arpeggiated alternate picking, or crosspicking. Crosspicking has particular requirements because each note in a crosspicked arpeggio resides on a different string. So no matter whether you’re playing a downstroke or an upstroke, you can be sure that you’ll need to move to a new string on the very next note. So unlike the single escape pickstroke types, the double escape pickstroke has a uniquely curved shape. The pickstroke begins in the air, reaches down to strike the string, and rises back up at the end. This ensures that every time a pickstroke starts or ends, it’s safely away from the other strings and away from obstacles.

Finally, there are times when escaping simply isn’t what you want. If you plan on sweeping, or — heaven forbid! — swiping, then you’ll need to use a trapped pickstroke to make that happen. A trapped pickstroke is one where neither the upstroke nor the downstroke rises above the strings. And again, for sweeping, that’s precisely what you’re looking for. In a sweep, you’re going to push the pick through more than one string at a time, and to do that, you want to make sure it moves in a straight line through the strings. In more technical terms, a trapped pickstroke moves parallel to the plane of the strings.

Pickstroke Permutations

To make matters more complicated, each of these four pickstroke types can be generated by a wide range of physical motions, including elbow, forearm, wrist, and finger motion, working alone or in varying degrees of cooperation. The sheer variety that is possible has led to some terrible teaching advice over the years, such as the oft-repeated sentiment that “everyone picks differently”. This incorrect and unhelpful advice left many of us up to our own fumbling when it came to figuring out which motions might work or not work for a particular phrase. And that’s pretty hard to do when you don’t even know that these motions exist in the first place.

Not knowing this can be the cause of confounding unpredictability in your technique, where some phrases seem to fly along, others are impossibly sloppy, and still others won’t go at all. And that unpredictability can last years, or even decades. Most of us make these motions at a subconscious level, and it’s hard to change or improve something you don’t even know you’re doing – or not doing, as the case may be.

The good news is that any pickstroke you choose to make will fall into one of these four basic categories. And even though there are technically lots of physical motions you can use to generate these pickstroke types, most of those also fall into a relatively small number of baskets, like elbow motion, forearm motion, or the wrist motions we’re using in the comparison video above. Pairing any of these common motions with a greater awareness of pickstroke types is a great way to get started down the road to cleaner, smoother, more coherent picking technique for any kind of music you might want to play.

What is two-way pickslanting, and how does it work?

By | Lessons | 21 Comments

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. Read More

Molly Tuttle's Amazing Freightliner Precision

By | Lessons | 10 Comments

Originally published at Guitar World

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: Read More

Pentatonic Puzzle Solutions

By | Lessons | 6 Comments

What if you could take Yngwie’s mastery of sequenced ideas and apply it to Eric’s signature pentatonics using downward pickslanting? Well, now you can!

Yngwie and Eric

Yngwie’s mastery of sweeping and Eric’s alternate picking approach give us two great solutions to ascending pentatonic fours!

We recently gave Cracking the Code viewers a cool homework assignment: find a way to play ascending fours, against the pentatonic scale, using the Yngwie Malmsteen and Eric Johnson downward pickslanting system. It seems simple enough, but it’s something we don’t see very often on guitar, and for good reason — the picking and fingering can both pose challenges.

With a basic understanding of downward pickslanting mechanics, though, we can design a couple of really nice solutions to this problem that pay fantastic creative dividends.

In this lesson, we explore solutions to the daunting challenge of pentatonic fours — utilizing the DWPS system that you already know — that will help unleash your creativity with pentatonic, whole tone, and diminished sequence ideas.

Check out the complete lesson — including tablature — on Guitar World!

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Eric Johnson's Pickslanting Pentatonics

By | Lessons | No Comments

The cascading waterfall of sound that is Eric Johnson’s lead playing has captivated players and listeners for thirty years.

Sonically, it’s an almost formless wash of sunshine. In Eric’s ethereal soundscape, all the edges are smoothed away.

Even the distinction between scales and arpeggios seems to blur. His patterns tumble imperceptibly through positions, like falling through clouds. And his limitless supply of sparsely voiced diatonic chord substitutions only enhances the vertigo. And it’s the seemingly imperturbable precision of Eric’s right hand that makes it all possible.

And now, armed with a modern understanding of picking mechanics, we can actually begin to understand and recreate Eric’s wondrous style. Read More

pickslanting vs edge picking

The Difference Between Pickslanting and Edge Picking: An Explainer

By | Lessons | 37 Comments

Here’s a question we get all the time: what’s the difference between pickslanting and edge picking?

This seems to be a source of frequent confusion. The two are very different, and do completely different things, but since both involve pick angles and rotation, this can be hard to intuit without a direct visual comparison. The above image is from an animation coming up soon in Episode 3, “Eric the Right”, and is designed to make the difference as clear as possible. Read More

Down Around the World

By | Lessons
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Bruce Lee’s famous exhortation to be like water may just as well have been directed at guitar players. The first of Season 2’s revelations, downward pickslanting, is shapeless and formless. It becomes Yngwie. It becomes rock. It becomes music. It’s one of the most universal and adaptable mechanics in picking — and for guitarists, the root of many of the most celebrated techniques in history. Read More

Steve Always Wins: The Crossroads Intimidation Breakdown

By | codenews, Lessons | 47 Comments

In 1986, Steve Vai was having one of those years. March saw the debut of the film Crossroads, for which Steve wrote and performed both the rock and neoclassical sequences of the now-famous guitar duel, and in which he also landed a starring role as the devil’s swaggering henchman, Jack Butler. Trailer clips of the film’s climactic musical showdown, with its mesmerizing cascade of diminished arpeggios, had just begun to explode adolescent minds across the country when David Lee Roth stepped into the studio with Steve to record his highly anticipated post-Van Halen grudge album.

Read More