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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!

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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
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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.

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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

Albert Lee: Fun Ranch Boogie

By | Lessons | 2 Comments

If you’ve ever been humbled by the effortless speed and harmonic fluency of our string-slinging siblings south of the Mason-Dixon line, you’re in good company. So universal is the admiration among shred masters for their flatpickin’ and fingerpickin’ brethren that country-inflected radio rock tunes like Van Halen’s Finish What Ya Started comfortably share iPod space with the striking industrial-country fusion of players like John 5. Then there are the bona-fide switch hitters like Eric Johnson and Steve Morse, whose dual citizenship in roots and rock essentially moot the question. Suffice it to say that a healthy fear of country skillz is an integral part of the shred psyche. Read More