Primary Motion

A player’s primary motion is the default picking motion they choose for single-note playing. This choice may change at different speeds but is otherwise broadly consistent.

With so many picking motions to choose from, which one do players reach for first? It’s a good question, and the simplest way to learn the answer is to ask someone to play a sequence of notes on a single string.

Here’s a short clip of the awesome Andy Wood, taken from a moment in his first interview when he was picking notes on the G string with the volume knob off while answering an interview question:

One of the many advantages of modern camera technology is that you can capture spontaneous moments like this that wouldn’t have been easily visible — let alone filmable — before. Here, we’re getting a look at the picking motion that an elite player chooses subconsciously when they’re not thinking about playing any phrase in particular.

In other words, what we’re seeing here is Andy’s primary motion, which traces an escape path: Andy’s upstrokes rest against the D string, while his downstrokes point right over the top of the B string. So this is a wrist motion that moves along a diagonal where upstrokes are trapped and downstrokes escape. In other words, this is downstroke escape, or “DSX” motion.

It’s important to point out that the actual wrist joint motion Andy is making here isn’t strictly side to side but slightly diagonal, lower on the thumb side of the motion and higher on the pinky side. We call this a 2 o’clock wrist motion, using a simple clock analogy which you can learn more about in the wrist section of the Primer. The point is that if Andy attempts this motion with different arm positions, the resulting escape trajectory can appear to change. But that’s due to the position of the arm, not the motion of the wrist joint. Whenever Andy is asked to play a line that moves quickly, no matter which arm position he’s using, it is this very specific slightly diagonal “2 o’clock” wrist motion that he chooses.

Why Primary Motion?

Why have a primary motion at all? Why not just learn a bunch of different motions and use them as needed? The reason is complexity. The sheer number of variables presented by playing a guitar with a pick is what motor learning researchers call the “degrees of freedom” problem. Put simply, each joint in your picking arm is connected to the next one, resulting in practically infinite motion possibilities by the time you get down to the fingers that are holding the pick. Those are the degrees of freedom.

To learn a picking motion, your body has to sort through all these different ways of moving to find at least one method that it can reliably perform that gives you the result you want. Then you still have to spend the time it takes to master this complicated fine motor skill. To learn multiple motions, you’d have to repeat this process multiple times, only to arrive at several probably overlapping techniques. So you would still have to sort through those motions to determine when to use each one.

Instead, a much simpler approach is to choose a single motion, perhaps even the first one you discover, that satisfies the basic requirement of smooth, effortless picking, and get really good at that one. If certain phrases turn out sloppy or don’t feel smooth with that motion, your motor system may subconsciously try to tweak that motion in a way that works better — let’s say, by recruiting a helper motion for just that phrase. But this process takes time and effort. So sometimes, the simplest solution is just to avoid those problematic phrases entirely, and stick with ones that sound good with the motion you already have. This is how we think the tendency toward primary motion develops.

Primary Escape

So a primary motion is a subconscious attempt to choose a generic default picking motion that is easy to learn, easy to perform, and works for as many of the lines you want to play as possible. If so, this probably explains why, among players we’ve filmed, most primary motions tend to be escape motions.

If you know you’re going to have to switch strings eventually, it only makes sense to choose a primary motion that can do that. We’ve already looked at Andy Wood’s DSX motion, which can switch strings using downstrokes. But there are plenty of others, like Joe Stump’s forearm USX motion which switches on upstrokes:

So when we refer to a player’s primary escape, we’re talking about which type of escape is created by their default joint motion. Andy is primary DSX; Joe is primary USX.

Another reason why primary motions are frequently escaped is that there are more escape motions than non-escape motions. Just because of the way we hold the guitar, some joints like the elbow automatically create an escape motion. Short of tilting the guitar’s body, there’s really no way for it not to. The same is true for the forearm joint, which almost always creates USX motion. So even if you were to choose a primary motion totally at random, you’d be at least somewhat likely to end up with an escape motion as a result.

It’s also worth noting that there is no mechanical “cost” to choosing a primary motion that escapes. Anatomically speaking, an escape motion isn’t really a different type of joint motion. We just use this term as a way of describing how a joint moves relative to the guitar you’re holding. But the motions themselves are just joint motions. Andy’s escape motion is the simplest kind of wrist motion you can make, just the hand moving back and forth. Joe’s escape motion is similarly simple, just the forearm rotating — precisely what it was designed to do. There really isn’t a way to ask these two joints to move that is simpler or easier than the way these players are already moving them.

The one player we filmed who does not have an escaped primary motion is Jorge Strunz. Interestingly, Jorge’s primary motion is actually a trapped wrist-elbow blend:

Jorge's Trapped Motion

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Jorge’s use of a trapped motion starts to make a little more sense when we realize that his primary string switching method isn’t actually escape motion, but swiping, or playing through muted strings. This is another solution to the degrees of freedom problem. The motor system wants fewer variables, not more. Rather than having to learn a new motion for every type of string change, Jorge just uses this motion the whole time and plays through the strings that are in the way.

In other words, Jorge uses a trapped motion because he’s also using swiping. These two solutions go together because this results in the fewest number of motions to coordinate. By comparison, when we film players who use escape motion for string changes, those players are almost always primary escape players too, because that results in the fewest motions for them to manage.

Primary Single Escape

Another factor which we think exerts a strong influence on the choice of primary motion is the musical style you’re trying to play when you’re first learning.

When we film players who learned picking technique while trying to play faster styles like rock and jazz, we notice that their primary motions are frequently single-escape motions like USX and DSX. The use of Elbow motion for tremolo is a common example of this — here’s Brendon Small’s awesome elbow technique:

When your goal is playing really fast metal tremolo, elbow motion is an effective way of doing that. It’s also a simple joint that pretty much only moves one way. If we’re thinking in terms of degrees of freedom, it’s easy to imagine how a self-taught beginner who is proceeding by experimentation might be able to figure out this technique sooner than other more complicated techniques.

That’s our hypothesis, and it’s backed up by teaching experience where we ask new players to try moving as fast as they can without thinking too much about it. When we do this simple test, single escape motions like elbow, forearm, or single-axis wrist motion are usually the ones players discover, even if we don’t give them any other hints beyond the simple instruction to “go fast”.

Primary Double Escape

By comparison, when you look at players who learned their techniques while playing bluegrass, you start to see a lot more primary double escape players. Here’s Winfield champion Carl Miner’s DBX pickstroke:

Expert flat pickers like Carl, Molly Tuttle, and David Grier learned picking technique in a style of music where straight-line speed wasn’t the first thing they were told to achieve. Instead, they played Bluegrass standards — short songs driven mainly by melodies where all the notes are typically picked.

While musically simple, bluegrass melodies don’t often follow regular patterns of upstroke or downstroke string changes, so it’s actually tricky to figure out how to play them with single escape motions. Doing so involves inserting legato notes like pull-offs and hammer-ons, or rearranging phrases on the fretboard, to change the number of picked notes per string. Bluegrass repertoire also includes roll patterns, which are one-note-per-string arpeggio phrases that actually require double escape motion when performed with alternate picking. So those phrases are hard bottlenecks that really can’t be done with single escape, at least not if alternate picking is the approach you’re using.

When you take all these requirements into consideration, it’s easy to imagine that the first motion a beginner hits upon that can actually satisfy them all is a double escape motion, even if learning it might not be as obvious as simply moving the elbow back and forth.

Speed-Dependent Primary

Having said that, many expert bluegrass players actually do shift their mechanics to single escape motion when playing at faster tempos. Bluegrass great David Grier’s DBX wrist motion is the one he relies on at medium speeds:

But at elevated tempos, he switches to a mix of motions, both double and single escape, in which DSX actually appears to be the new primary:

Interestingly, this is still wrist motion, and still performed using the same pronated forearm setup that David uses for medium-speed playing. He’s just changed the type of wrist motion he’s making, from double escape to downstroke escape.

Multi-instrumentalist Andy Wood also changes his primary in a similar fashion, choosing a wrist-driven DBX motion at medium speeds:

Like David, Andy switches to a DSX primary for faster playing. This motion is still provided by the wrist — it’s just a different wrist motion:

Andy is also a world-class mandolinist, and it’s interesting to note that he maintains this same primary shift on that instrument as well. In this fascinating excerpt from his acoustic interview, he discusses what it feels like to switch between these two motions:

Double Escape vs Single Escape

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Speed-Dependent Vocabulary

When David and Andy switch primary motions, they also make subtle changes to their arrangements to accommodate the specific needs of DSX motion: inserting legato notes, or rearranging phrases on the fretboard, so that downstrokes are more often the final note on the string. They sometimes introduce form shifts or helper motions to make certain phrases playable that might not work with DSX alone. This is actually complicated work, and when done consciously or deliberately, requires a fair amount of knowledge about picking technique of the sort you’re presumably learning right now!

But in trying to imagine how the motor system could do this on its own, primarily by the feel of physical feedback, we can think again in terms of probability. Just as with a beginning metal player, it may be that when you tell a bluegrass player to go fast, single-escape joint motions are the first ones they discover that can do that. And once they have those, it’s easy to imagine that a really good player like David Grier would experiment with different fretboard phrases until he found a few of them that happened to feel really smooth at that speed. And just like that, a slightly different high-speed vocabulary is born.

In other words, we’re not saying that DBX motions are slower than USX and DSX motions. We don’t know that for sure, and the answer probably depends a lot on which joints you’re using anyway. But what we do know is that single escape motions are often simpler, relying on a single joint moving in a single axis of its operation. Again, the elbow is a great example of that. So when speed is introduced as the main requirement, it may just be that “go fast” leads you to those motions first. And since time is money, even for your motor system, the first good solution you discover may very well be the one you decide to stick with.