Primary Plus Secondary Motion

A common strategy for combining motions is to use utilize a secondary “helper” motion to handle string changes the primary motion doesn’t do.

With so many picking motions available to choose from, how many should you use, and how would you combine them? A common solution to this problem is to take a single-escape picking motion and augment its capabilities with an additional motion that you only use once in a while. This type of “primary plus helper” strategy offers the simplicity of single escape picking with a little extra flexibility for picking a wider range of patterns.

Primary DSX Plus Secondary

For example, here’s the amazing Andy Wood playing an ascending scale using an approach that combines his DSX wrist primary motion with an secondary assist from forearm rotation:

Mixolydian Scale Ascending

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

One of the unique characteristics of three-note-per-string fingerings is that when played with alternate picking, the sequence of pickstrokes on each string will be the inverse of the one before it. If the first string of the scale is played DUD, then the next string will be UDU, the next one DUD, and so on.

Since Andy’s primary motion is DSX, all the “DUD” strings will end on a downstroke, and the pick can simply move to the next string using the escape stroke. But what about the “UDU” strings, how does he manage those string changes? For the answer, we’ll need to take a closer look in slow motion:

Mixolydian Scale Ascending

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

Andy starts the first string of the phrase with his primary motion, wrist DSX, so the last note on the string is a downstroke, which escapes. As it does, the diagonal motion of the pick is really easy to see here, moving into the air above the D string for the string change.

Once he begins picking on the D string, Andy maintains his primary motion for the initial upstroke as well as the second note, the downstroke. But on the third and final note, the upstroke, he introduces an additional motion to assist in creating the escape — forearm joint motion:

It’s easy to recognize when Andy engages the forearm joint because motion of the forearm creates a curve, causing the pick to rotate in space. Wrist joint motion doesn’t do this, which is how we know a different joint is actually being used here.

The purpose of the rotation, of course, is to get over the string, like a somersault in gymnastics. As soon Andy clears the D string, he begins rotating the forearm the other way, so that by the time he finishes playing the downstroke on the new string, the forearm is back to its starting orientation and the helper motion is complete.

This clever solution turns three-note-per-string scale playing into a simple repeating two-string sequence, where the first five notes are performed with the primary motion and the last note is performed with the secondary. Simply connecting these two-string sequences together, as Andy does in the rest of this phrase, makes it possible to play scales of any length, up to and including all six strings.

Simple Primaries

Andy’s primary motion mechanic is the wrist, and as we’ve learned, the wrist can perform a wide range of DSX and USX motions. So Andy’s choice to standardize on DSX motion is simply for economical reasons, to cut down on the number of motions he has to learn and memorize.

But other common joint choices for DSX motion, like the elbow joint, don’t have multiple axes of operation. For players who choose these simpler joints as a primary motion mechanic, secondary motions are necessary to make upstroke string changes possible. A classic example of this is the high-speed technique of shred pioneer Vinnie Moore, who augments his elbow primary with forearm secondary in a strategy similar to what Andy does:

Vinnie Moore Pepsi Lick

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

Vinnie famously played this six-note pattern in a 1985 Pepsi commercial to such acclaim that we now simply refer to it as “The Pepsi Lick”. Although Vinnie was only on-screen for hand closeups in the commercial shoot, we did eventually get to see the actual picking motions involved on his second instructional Video, “Speed, Accuracy, and Articulation”, from which this clip was taken.

Vinnie’s strategy for this is similar to Andy’s, using his primary DSX elbow motion for five notes of the scale, and a dash of forearm rotation for the sixth note to get back over the string. The only twist here is that that he’s playing the sequence descending, starting on a downstroke, but otherwise the mechanics are very similar: the first string change is automatic thanks to the escape of the primary motion, and the second string change is where the secondary motion kicks in.

Michael Angelo Batio actually plays the same lick in the ascending direction also using a primary and secondary motion strategy:

Sixes Asc Upstroke

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

Because Mike starts the pattern on an upstroke, the helper motion kicks in on the third note of the scale, to allow him to get to the higher string. Then the primary motion is engaged to return to the lower string with no rotation. When you look at the motions being used on each string of the pattern, this is the exact same sequence as in Vinnie’s version of the pattern. So interestingly, even though the direction of the phrase is flipped, if you turned off the sound and only looked at the picking hand, you wouldn’t be able to tell which version of the phrase Mike was playing.

Like Vinnie, Mike is an example of a player whose primary motion appears to be DSX-only. In fact, it’s always been something a minor mystery precisely which primary motion mechanic Mike actually uses. The escape is very shallow, which is consistent with elbow motion, but it could also be a mix of wrist flexion-extension as well. We really don’t know! But it was actually Mike’s 1991 instructional classic “Speed Kills” that provided the first clue to how secondary motion works:

Mike’s strategy for ascending scale playing is the same as Andy’s, with five primary motion pickstrokes followed by a sixth with the secondary. Noticing the small shift in Mike’s hand position as he engages the secondary was the breakthrough in understanding how he navigates the strings with such accuracy.

Primary USX Plus Secondary

Primary-secondary strategies work with USX motion too. Here’s metal master Teemu Mäntysaari adapting the classic descending fours sequence to his primary USX wrist motion:

Teemu Dragon Lead1

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

In the descending fours pattern, a four-note diatonic sequence is iterated across the strings, shifting one note lower each time. Just as with Andy’s scalar approach, Teemu starts with his primary motion, except this time it’s USX. But when he reaches the third note, he engages the forearm and also a bit of wrist extension to lift that pickstroke almost straight up in the air:

As soon as he does this, he begins rotating the forearm back to its original position, allowing him to pick the single note on the B string with an escaped upstroke, and transition back to the top string for another downstroke. So that’s two string changes in a row — one with the secondary motion and another with the primary right after that.

One of the interesting things we’re seeing in Teemu’s approach is that his secondary motion isn’t actually a single motion at all but two joints coupled, or operating together. This combination of forearm rotation and wrist extension is extremely common as a secondary motion for wrist players, especially when their primary motion is USX and their arm position is supinated. It’s easy to see here in Teemu’s technique because the pickstroke moves visibly vertically.

Non-rotational Secondary Motion

Given its rotational capability, the forearm is a common choice for secondary motion, but it’s not the only one. The wrist is also a popular choice as a secondary motion, even when the primary mechanic is also wrist motion. For a closeup look at this seemingly counterintuitive occurrence, we can turn to Andy Wood once again:

Andy Wood Primary And Secondary Wrist Motion

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

In this improvisational excerpt from his all-acoustic interview, Andy plays a circular scale sequence on the top string that includes both downstroke and upstroke string changes. The first string change is a downstroke, from the B string to the E string, and it’s done with Andy’s primary DSX wrist motion, whose diagonal escape path is easy to see in slow motion:

Andy Wood Primary And Secondary Wrist Motion

Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

The way back to the B string is an upstroke, and it’s also handled by the wrist — but with USX motion instead of DSX. Notice how the pickstroke changes direction to lift over the B string:

The question isn’t really whether or not Andy’s forearm adjusts as he does this. It might, a tiny amount. But that motion is too small to cause the lifting we’re seeing here. Unlike the ascending scale example we looked at, where the rotation of the forearm was the motion that lifted the pick and caused it to escape, in this example it’s the wrist joint doing the lifting, and changing its direction of motion to do so.

Primary And Secondary Wrist Motion

At first glance it may seem arbitrary to call one of these motions “primary” and the other “secondary”, since they’re just two slightly different motions generated by the same joint. But this makes more sense when you realize that there is never any continuous USX picking in Andy’s technique. USX motion, when it occurs, is used only for specific string changes like the one in this example, after which he returns immediately to DSX motion.

In fact, in the looped example above, notice that Andy could have switched to USX motion for all the notes on the E string, but he chooses DSX instead. It is the choice to use DSX by default that makes this “2 o’clock” wrist motion the primary in Andy’s technique, and the occasional USX upstroke the secondary.

Andy also uses USX for upstroke string changes on mandolin. His playing on the bluegrass standard Liberty is a great example of this:


Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

As usual, the primary motion in this example is DSX wrist. But unlike the ascending scale example, there are no forearm helper motions here. Instead, all the upstroke string changes in this clip are USX wrist motion:


Video access level: Masters in Mechanics

In this case there really doesn’t seem to be any forearm adjustment at all. The pick escapes on the downstroke with wrist motion, and also on the upstroke with wrist motion, just moving in a different direction. Back to back, this basically creates DBX or double escape motion:

You might wonder how Andy is able to do this without altering the pickslant to correct for the attack. The answer is that DBX motion works fine with with a zero-degree pickslant. Instead, the trickier question is why Andy doesn’t need to change his pickslant to UWPS when he switches back to continuous picking with only DSX motion.

And the answer to that is edge picking. As we saw when we looked at upward pickslanting, many DSX motions are shallow enough in their escape that when you throw in a little edge picking, the motion will still be smooth without any significant UWPS. So in Andy’s mandolin technique, where the escape is shallow most of the time, Andy can switch between DSX and USX while maintaning constant pick orientation.

Secondary Motion vs Two-Way Pickslanting

When we saw Andy’s ability to switch between different picking motions with no change in pickslant, it was a turning point in our understanding of how these techniques actually work. In earlier versions of the Pickslanting Primer, we called secondary forearm motion “two-way pickslanting” because of the way it appears to change the orientation of the pick. But this was misleading, because this is not the only way to play a scale. Andy can achieve the same result with only wrist motion as the primary and the secondary and no change in pickslant, and calling that approach “two way pickslanting” doesn’t make much sense.

Instead, what really matters here is the change in motion. Simply “slanting the pick” by itself won’t actually do anything anyway unless you also change the way the way the pick is moving. Whether you do that with wrist motion, forearm motion, or some other joint is really what you need to think about when learning these techniques, not what the pick itself looks like. So for now, we think that terms like “primary motion” and “secondary motion” are a much clearer way to understand how this particular technique works, and how to actually do it.