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, making clean string changes possible.

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 Pickstrokes

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

Of these four possibilities, three include an escape, and one is completely trapped. And all of them have their place in efficient picking technique.

For example, if you intentionally want to hit more than one string, such as when playing double stops, you might choose a trapped motion. But if you need to play a single-note line that moves from one string to another, you might choose an escape motion, to avoid hitting unwanted strings. And because the pick can only move to a new string during the escape pickstroke, you need to choose a motion where the escape stroke matches the string change pickstroke in your phrase. Phrases with downstroke string changes require downstroke escape motion, upstroke string changes require upstroke escape motion, and so on.

So 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 alternate 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 offer an escape stroke at that moment, or you’re going to hit something.

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 picking motions to the types of phrases they play, 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 in the course of the many interviews we’ve done, we’ve learned that most players are simply not aware of the motions they are making, even when those motions are pointed out to them.

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