Identifying Wrist Motion
The wrist joint connects the forearm to the hand and allows 360 degrees of motion.
Perhaps the single most common motion mechanic in picking technique is wrist motion. One of the reasons for its popularity is its 360-degree motion capability, allowing it to create any escape type: USX, DSX, or DBX.
The wrist can function alone or in concert with other joints, like the forearm or the elbow, to create even more variations. Even if pure wrist motion isn’t your primary motion mechanic, there’s a good chance you still use it in some capacity.
The most visually distinctive characteristic of wrist motion is that when viewed from audience perspective, only the hand appears to move, while everything above that point, from the watch band area all the way to the shoulder, remains mostly still. Andy Wood’s DSX wrist motion is a great example of this:
It may be tempting to imagine that Andy’s forearm and upper arm are locked in place, but a more accurate description is simply that they aren’t moving. The muscles doing the work are only moving the hand back and forth. Andy’s technique is similar to the techniques of Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paul Gilbert in this respect, who appear to generate most of their picking motion from the hand and not the arm.
Axes of Operation
One of the things that makes wrist motion tricky to understand is that even though the forearm joint doesn’t move during the picking motion, its static position still influences which of the wrist’s 360 possible degrees of motion you choose. The end result in all cases will be that the hand moves while the rest of the arm doesn’t. But that hand motion won’t necessarily be the same.
For example, Steve Morse uses what we call a supinated forearm position, resting the pinky side of the arm on the guitar body, and exposing the underside of the forearm to our view:
At the other end of the forearm spectrum we have pronation, where the forearm rotates in the opposite direction, so that the thumb side of the hand contacts the guitar and the pinky side lifts off the strings. Here’s bluegrass great David Grier’s pronated setup:
David’s pronated form is super obvious here, creating an air gap beneath the pinky. This is the inverse of the way Steve orients his arm.
Now here’s the tricky part. What if we asked both players to make a DSX wrist motion from their respective positions? Here’s what that actually looks like:
Amazingly, they can do it. But look at how different the motion looks. David is essentially making a deviation wrist motion, which is a side-to-side motion of the wrist, from the thumb to the pinky. But because David’s arm is rotated, the deviation motion doesn’t really move side to side any longer, but up in the air. This is how he generates the downstroke escape.
Steve is a totally different story. He can’t use David’s deviation motion because the pinky side of his hand is tilted toward the guitar — he’d hit the body. Instead, he has to use an extension wrist motion, which is the motion that moves the wrist toward the knuckles, like you would when revving a motorcycle. This is a different wrist motion entirely, 90 degrees away from the motion that David is making. And yet, watching from strings perspective, the end result is the same: a diagonal picking motion where downstrokes escape.
So wrist motion isn’t one technique, it’s many techniques in one, depending on the arm position you’re using, and the type of escape path you’re trying to make from that position.
No matter which arm position you start with, wrist motions usually generate a shallow escape path between 10 and 15 degrees. For example, unlike the curved path created by USX forearm motion, Mike Stern’s USX wrist motion appears to move almost parallel to the strings in Magnet perspective:
Andy Wood’s DSX wrist motion is similarly flat, generating a 10 to 15 degree escape, just on downstrokes instead of upstrokes:
Even though Andy’s escape is the inverse of Mike’s, both motions are so close to parallel to the strings that it’s hard to spot the difference without closeup video like this.
Because of this nearly parallel orientation, you might not always see any pickslanting when you look at wrist players up close. For example, when you look at Andy’s DSX form, it’s hard to determine which way the pick is slanted, if at all:
One of the reasons for this of course is that Andy is using an escape of only ten degrees. So any pickslanting would be slight to begin with. But in addition to that, Andy is using edge picking, which can assist in smoothing out the motion even if he holds the pick perfectly vertically, as he appears to be doing here.
So when the escape is shallow, you can avoid the garage spikes problem with very little pickslanting if you throw in some edge picking. This trick also works in reverse, letting you perform Mike Stern-style ten-degree USX motion with almost no pickslant at all:
Conversely, if you use a more vertical escape angle, and especially if you use very little edge picking, you will need to dial in some pickslanting to correct for the attack. In this respect, David Grier’s form is obvious. Thanks to his pronated forearm, David’s deviation wrist motion escapes at around 30 degrees. And he uses almost no edge picking at all, preferring to play the pick flat against the string. So he requires an equal amount of upward pickslanting, about 30 degrees, to ensure smoothness:
So looking for a pickslant is not a reliable way of knowing what kind of wrist motion a player is making. We saw this with elbow motion, and the same is true again with wrist motion. If you do see pickslanting, that is often a good indicator of escape motion. But if you don’t see pickslanting, that doesn’t really tell you anything, since most wrist players use motions with shallow escape.
USX and DSX motions like Mike’s, Andy’s, and David’s are single escape, so they move along a diagonal where only one pickstroke escapes. But the wrist can also generate curved DBX motions where both pickstrokes escape, and it can do it with no assistance from other joints.
The amazing Molly Tuttle uses a pronated form similar to what David uses, except this time, she uses the wrist to generate a double escape picking motion:
Molly’s motion escapes at each end of the picking motion, but not by much. As with other wrist motions we’ve looked at, the escape is shallow, maybe only 10 or 15 degrees. In a sense, you can think of Molly’s DBX motion as simply the escape part of Andy’s downstroke glued together with the escape part of Mike’s upstroke. Neither of those motions escapes the strings by very much, so even when stitched together to create Molly’s motion, it’s really not obvious that the motion is curved until you slow it down and watch for the escapes.
In general, when you don’t see any motion in the forearm or upper arm, and only motion in the hand, then it’s a good bet you’re looking at some form of wrist motion. If you can recognize the subtle differences in form that we’ve looked at here, then you may be able to guess which escape type you’re seeing, even without close-up video. Of course, knowing what phrase someone is playing also helps. If you hear arpeggio picking patterns like Molly’s, and you don’t see any motion in her forearm, you can be pretty sure that a double escape wrist motion is what’s responsible.