Escape Motion Concepts

The ingenious solution to the string switching problem is embedded in the picking motion you use. It turns out that effective picking motions don’t only move side to side — they also move toward and away from the body of the guitar.

The trajectory along which they do this is what we call the escape motion, and it influences the types of phrases that can be played cleanly while moving from string to string. 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.

Escape Types

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 escape type you use is determined by the joint motion you know how to make. Since most players use only one joint motion for fast playing, they can only play cleanly and smoothly when they play phrases that match that escape.

2. Not all picking motions work with all phrases

In order to play multi-string lines cleanly, the picking motion you choose must actually have an escape stroke at the moment of the string change, 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 your primary joint motion creates a downstroke escape, then this motion can only move from one string to another without mistakes when the final pickstroke on every string is a downstroke. The reverse is also true: If your primary joint motion creates an upstroke escape, then the final pickstroke on each string must be an upstroke in order to get into the escape zone without contacting the surrounding strings.

For phrases which involve both upstroke and downstroke string changes, escape motions can be combined in sophisticated ways. For example, the amazing Andy Wood relies primarily on a 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

Believe it or not, many of the world’s most famous players rely primarily on this type of “always upstroke” or “always downstroke” string change organization for faster playing, and have tailored their entire musical vocabularies to fit this requirement. This is not a matter of personal preference or physiology. It’s because the simplest and fastest joint motions you can make all work this way, and most players have one primary motion they rely on when tempos increase.

Not only that, but they perform this phrase matching subconsciously, through a process of trial and error that relies on smoothness of motion feel, 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.

Musical instrument motor learning happens primarily by touch and sound, and players 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, the subconscious matching of escape motions and phrases has likely been performed 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 of techniques like sweeping, but no specific mention of how string switching works when using alternate picking.

Some picking styles implicitly address escape motion issues by teaching semi-standardized joint motion and musical vocabularies which already match. For example, the playing posture and joint motion type used in Gypsy Jazz create USX alternate picking motion, and the style’s many Django-inspired signature phrases have all evolved to require this. This provides a non-technical, hands-on way for players to internalize the style’s “escaped upstroke” rules, and the sophisticated process of curation needed to select matching phrases. Similar approaches exist in bluegrass and classical styles, where a standardized repertoire has lead to the de-facto adoption of double escape alternate picking motion, often without overt awareness on the part of teachers and learners.

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.