The Garage Spikes Problem

One of the most common problems in pick attack results from a mismatch between the way the pick is oriented, and the way it is moving.

The 90-Degree Rule

When we looked at angle of attack, we learned that orienting the pick 90 degrees to its path of motion provides the most balanced attack between upstrokes and downstrokes. This way, upstrokes and downstrokes both hit the string with the same 90-degree angle of attack, like this:

Like a city bus, the downstroke hits the string face-on, exactly perpendicular to the direction of its motion. When the upstroke comes back, it also hits the string at 90 degrees. The result is a picking motion which feels and sounds smooth, because the attack is the same on both pickstrokes.

But this is where things get complicated. If you change the picking motion so that it moves on an angle, then you need to change the pick’s orientation through pickslanting to make sure the angle of attack is still 90 degrees.

For example, let’s say you use a picking motion which approaches the strings on a diagonal. This angled motion path may seem unorthodox, but it is actually a common type of escape motion. As you do this, if you maintain the pick oriented perpendicularly to the guitar’s body, this is what happens to the angle of attack:

It increases. If you tried to alternate pick like this, here’s what would happen:

Notice how the downstrokes are getting stuck as they try to play the string. This is because the point of the pick is now digging under the string a little. We call this the garage spikes problem, named after those pointy barriers inside a parking garage that flatten your tires if you drive over them the wrong way:

In the garage spikes problem, one side of the motion gets smoother, while the other side encounters an increased resistance as the pick’s point digs under the string instead of sliding smoothly over it. This creates an imbalance in your alternate picking motion where one pickstroke, either the downstroke or the upstroke, feels sticky and sounds too loud and bright — and possibly even out of tune.

Solving the Spike

The way to fix this is to make sure the pickslant matches the picking motion. In our angled escape motion example, the correct pickslant would be this:

By orienting the pick perpendicular to its direction of motion, we’ve made a deceptively complicated change. Compared to the guitar’s body, and to the plane of the strings, the pick appears slanted, i.e. pickslanted. However, relative to its direction of motion, the pick is not actually slanted — it is perpendicular. This restores our 90-degree angle of attack, and solves the garage spikes problem, by allowing the pick to hit the string with exactly the same attack in both directions of the motion.

Garage Spikes in Practice

Garage spikes issues are the most common form of pick attack difficulty we have encountered in reviewing the techniques of beginners — much more so than the oft-discussed but much less common occurrence of using “too much pick” on the string.

In fact, minimizing the amount of pick that contacts the string is not necessarily a fix for the garage spikes problem. Even a small amount of pick contact is enough to produce pronounced spiking if the pick’s orientatation and motion are mismatched:

In this example, the mismatch between the pick’s upward pickslant and its horizontal motion path creates an angle of attack greater than 90 degrees on the downstroke, and less than 90 degrees on the upstroke. This causes visibly increased string deflection during the downstroke phase of the motion, as the pick fights to get through the string. The upstroke phase of the motion is markedly smoother, due to its reduced angle of attack, even though it exhibits more actual pick contact with the string.

This is why angle of attack mismatch is a more potent source of pick attack smoothness issues, and creates more difficulty in generating smooth picking motion, then the amount of pick placed against the string.

Form And Motion Pairing In Popular Styles

Thankfully, the most popular picking techniques evolved not just because the joint motions themselves are efficient, but also because the body positioning, pick grips, and motions used to implement them all combine to produce smooth pick attack.

Gypsy jazz technique is a striking example of this. The arm and hand are not arranged paraellel to the strings, and the picking motion doesn’t move parallel to the strings as is commonly imagined either, but instead uses a pronounced “upstroke escape”, or USX picking motion. On top of this, Gypsy players typically employ heavy gauge picks constructed from materials with enough rigidity to grab forcefully against the string. However when performed correctly, Gypsy technique produces smooth and visibly spike-free attack:

In Gypy technique, demonstrated here by the amazing Joscho Stephan, smoothness issues resulting from the pick’s diagonal motion path are avoided by Joscho’s downward pickslant. This pairing of form and motion affords the string-switching benefits of USX escape motion while maintaining 90-degree angle of attack, for fluid mechanical operation and accordingly smooth sound.