Escape Motion

Escape motion is a type of picking motion that moves away from the body of the guitar along a diagonal or semicircular motion path. This allows the pick to break free from in between the strings and escape, avoiding the surrounding strings, and making clean string changes possible.

The good news is that most joint motions used in picking technique already possess some type of escape. The trick is simply knowing which type you’re using, and which phrases you can play with it. In this section, we’ll take a look at how this works.

Getting In the Zone

You can think of the area around the strings as two zones, a trapped zone and an escape zone:

The trapped zone is the space below the strings, near the body of the guitar. This is where you position the point of the pick when you want to play a note. The escape zone is the area above the strings. This is where you have to be when you want to switch strings, to avoid hitting something.

So a pickstroke that can switch strings would need to move through both places. It would need to spend at least part of its travel in the trapped zone between the strings to play the note, and part in the escape zone above the strings, where it can move around more freely and switch strings.

The Four Motion Styles

And if you think about it, there are really four different picking motions you can make based on which zone the pick is in when it starts the pickstroke, and which zone it’s in when it finishes:

Upstroke Escape Motion: The downstroke starts in the escape zone, hits the string, and ends in the trapped zone, creating a diagonal alternate picking motion with an escaped upstroke
Downstroke Escape Motion: The downstroke starts in the trapped zone, hits the string, and ends in the escape zone, creating a diagonal alternate picking motion with an escaped downstroke
Double Escape Motion: The downstroke starts in the escape zone, hits the string, and ends in the escape zone, creating a semicircular motion where both upstrokes and downstrokes are escaped
Trapped Motion: The downstroke starts in the trapped zone, hits the string, and ends in the trapped zone, creating a motion running parallel to the strings where downstrokes and upstrokes are trapped

Implications of escape motion

Of these four possibilities, three include an escape, and one is completely trapped. And all of them have their place in efficient picking technique, because each one can handle a specific type of string change.

Since all picking motions have to fall into one of these four categories, we arrive at a collection of amazing realizations about how picking technique actually works:

1. Alternate picking is not one motion

Instead, it’s a family of motions. They each share the characteristic of moving back and forth and playing notes in both directions. But what differentiates them is something even deeper: the shape of their motion. Of the four types of core alternate picking motions, one is a semicircle, one is parallel to the strings, and two are slanted to the strings in opposite directions. The motion shape you choose determines which pickstroke will escape and which will trap. And this determines which phrases you can play with that motion.

2. Not all picking motions work with all phrases

In order to play multi-string lines cleanly, the picking motion you choose must be carefully matched to the phrase you want to play. If you’re picking across the strings with alternate picking, then the last note on every string in the phrase must be an escape stroke. Which means that the motion you use must actually have an escape stroke at that moment, or you’re going to hit something.

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

For example, if the final note on every string in a phrase is a downstroke, then a downstroke escape motion is ideal for that. The reverse is also true. If the final note on every string of your phrase is an upstroke, then an upstroke escape motion would work best. Believe it or not, many of the world’s most famous players rely primarily on this type of “always upstroke” or “always downstroke” phrase organization, because it allows the picking hand to pick smoothly and quickly without worrying about efficiency.

For phrases which involve both upstroke and downstroke string changes, you can use double escape motion, or even more commonly, mixtures of motions. For example, the amazing Andy Wood relies primarily on a sophisticated combination of two motions — downstroke escape (DSX), and double escape (DBX) — to play a wide variety of phrases on both guitar and mandolin. Andy generally performs this mixing and matching at a subconscious level, refined over years of trial-and-error-based practice.

3. Elite players subconsciously match motions and phrases

That’s right. For years — decades, even, since Django and probably long before him — the world’s best players have strategically matched their phrases to the type of picking motions they know how to make, weeding out lines that don’t work and replacing them with phrases that work better for the motions they use.

Not only that, but they do so subconsciously, through a process of trial and error that relies on motion feel and smoothness, until their entire vocabulary is populated by phrases that match their motion type. It may be hard to believe that such a process could be conducted without overt awareness, but over the course of many interviews with some of the world’s best players, we’ve learned that this is actually pretty common.

Great players learn by feel, and are often not aware of the specific motions they are making, even when those motions are pointed out to them. This is not a criticism, but a compliment. The ability to learn complicated things without overt teaching or awareness is a superpower that highly skilled players rely on to build their techniques. The good news is that the rest of us also possess this ability, because it is how our motor system works.

Origins of Escape Motion

Like most aspects of efficient instrument technique, escape motions have likely been used for as long as plucked instruments have been played. However, since great players are frequently unaware they’re doing anything specific to get from one string to another, there is little mention of them in the historical record. Mandolin instructional guides as far back as the middle of the 19th century include detailed descriptions techniques like sweeping, but no specific mention of how string switching works when using alternate picking.

Prior to Cracking The Code, it was not widely known that different joint motions might require different sequences of pickstrokes to maintain clean string changes, and 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. The specific terminology we created to describe it — including the phrase “escape motion” itself — didn’t exist yet. Our classic interviews with picking pioneers like Michael Angelo Batio, Steve Morse, and Albert Lee was the first systematic attempt to directly film players to understand and categorize the different motions they make. For more background on these breakthroughs, you can read about them here.

In the next sections, we’ll take a closer look at these four fundamental categories of picking motions to understand what they can do, and who’s using them.