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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.

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 arm 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 arm 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 Antigravity way of doing things, the “rotate” movement is accomplished by a combination of wrist and arm adjustment. The Pickslanting Primer goes into a little more detail on the arm and hand 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) arm movement at all. Here’s the incredible Andy Wood playing the ascending sixes pattern in our live workshop with him. When he speeds up, the arm movement is almost non-existent:

Ascending Sixes Positions

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

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”, “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 doing it. 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 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:

First Sixes

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

The Pickslanting Primer example uses a flatter picking path to begin with, so less forearm turning is necessary. It’s not quite gone, but it’s much less pronounced:

Descending 6 - The Scale Chunk

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

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, all the way 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 arm is needed. And the Andy Wood version of things uses the flattest picking motion, and very little to no arm 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.

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:

Anchor’s Away

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.

Pronation Precision

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.

Early Intuition

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!

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!

To grab the slow-mo video and tabs, just sign up for our mailing list and we’ll send you a free download!

Eric Johnson's Pickslanting Pentatonics

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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
[masterslider id=9]

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.

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Lesson: Inside Eddie's Arcade

By | codenews, Lessons | 5 Comments

The Cutting Room Floor

Not all great ideas make the final cut, and the overly ambitious scene “Eddie’s Arcade”, from Season 1, Episode 1 of Cracking the Code, is a great example of that. An over-the-top homage to Tron Legacy and Back to the Future, it was a tour de force of cinematic animation whose demands on my personal time were ultimately at odds with the exigency of actually getting things finished.

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Shawn Lane: So What?

By | Lessons | 8 Comments

Centrifugal Funk was supposed to be just another one of those guitar compilations.  Released by shred pornographer Mark Varney in 1991, it featured a trio of hired guns laying down silicone-enhanced solos over processed covers of trad jazz tunes.  This was the era of Nirvana and Pantera, and the infomercially polished karaoke numbers on the disc were already dead on arrival.   But the formidable talents of the help bordered on necromancy. Read More