Pickslanting Concepts

Not only do picking motions often move along a diagonal path, but when this happens, the pick itself frequently assumes a diagonal orientation.

In Cracking The Code, the orientation of the pick compared to the plane of the strings is called pickslanting, and there are broadly three types: downward pickslanting, upward pickslanting, and zero-degree pickslanting.


Here’s Marty Friedman’s famously recognizable picking hand setup:

The slant of the pick toward the left in this closeup shot is pickslanting. Specifically, this is downward pickslanting, after the way the pick appears to tilt toward the floor to achieve this orientation. We sometimes abbreviate this as DWPS for short.

If you imagine the point of the pick connected to the string like a hinge, so that it can only pivot from that spot — like the flap on an airplane wing — then downward pickslanting is the orientation where the flap points down toward the floor.

The inverse orientation is upward pickslanting or UWPS, in which the pick appears to slant toward the ceiling. Here’s sweep master Frank Gambale:

The Garage Spikes Problem

The purpose of pickslanting is to ensure smooth pick attack when diagonal escape motion is used. In the simplest scenario, with a vertical pick, the diagonal motion of the pick causes a “garage spikes” problem, where one side of the alternate picking motion — either the downstroke or the upstroke — grabs the string:

In this example, the diagonal trajectory of USX motion is causing garage spikes on the downstroke as the point of the pick digs under the string. However the upstrokes are still smooth — in fact, almost too smooth to produce a strong attack, thanks to the increased sliding. This asymmetry is typical of garage spikes problems, where one side of the motion becomes sticky and other side becomes slippery.

The solution is tricky. In the above animation, the pick may appear perpendicular to the guitar, and therefore typical to most players when they look at it. But the pick is actually not perpendicular to the way it’s moving — hence the spikes. To fix this, we must reorient the pick perpendicular, or orthogonal, to the way it’s actually traveling. When we do this, this is what it looks like:

By applying downward pickslanting, the pick may superficially appear slanted. But the key is that it is now actually perpendicular to its direction of motion. This eliminates garage spikes, restores smooth attack, and allows USX escape motion to function as expected.

Slant Versus Motion

Paradoxically, the purpose of pickslanting is make the pick… perpendicular! Just not perpendicular to the body, but instead perpendicular to its direction of motion. Remember, these players aren’t actually picking parallel with the strings — they’re picking on a diagonal. Here’s a short loop of Frank’s DSX motion:

Frank’s primary alternate picking motion is DSX, featuring a characteristic single-escape trajectory. In this example, the downstroke begins trapped between the A and D strings, and finishes in the air above the G string, in the escape zone. The upstroke is the reverse, traveling from the escape zone above the G string to the trapped zone between the D and A strings to start the motion over again.

That’s the motion. The pick’s orientation is UWPS, clearly slanting upward, toward the right side of the screen. To figure out why he’s doing this, let’s rotate the camera until the pick appears vertical again with respect to the screen:

With a 20-degree rotation of the camera, we’ve dialed out Frank’s upward pickslant, restoring the pick to vertical with respect to the screen. But we’ve also done something else we didn’t expect: we’ve made his DSX motion parallel to the screen. This shows us that in some sense, Frank’s pick wasn’t really slanted at all. Relative to the picking motion, the pick was actually perpendicular:

In rotated view, the pick is vertical and the strings are diagonal. As far as the pick is concerned, it’s really just moving side to side, and upstrokes and downstrokes are perfectly symmetrical in their approach to the string.

Achieving Pickslanting

The term pickslanting does not refer to the act of rotating the arm to make the pick appear slanted. The slant simply refers to the appearance of the pick, regardless of how it is achieved. And while rotating the arm can affect the pickslant, these don’t always correlate in the way you might think.

For example, here’s a comparison of picking pioneers David Grier, on the left, and Steve Morse, on the right. Note that David’s technique uses an obvious upward pickslant, achieved by using an index finger grip and tilting the arm toward the thumb:

Steve’s technique is the opposite: it is supinated, or tilted quite significantly toward the pinky. Thanks to Steve’s use of a three-finger grip, his pick is vertical, or perpendicular to the strings, with no upward pickslant and no downward pickslant at all.

Both players are using downstroke escape, or DSX motion here, where downstrokes move away from the body and escape. But only one of them actually has an upward pickslant. David’s tehchnique requires the pickslant thanks to his thumb anchor, pronated arm position, and index finger grip, whereas Steve’s does not. So calling Steve’s technique “upward pickslanting” doesn’t make any sense, since no pickslant is actually present. His technique in this example is simply DSX motion being performed with a perpendicular pick.

Note also that not all picking motions can be performed with a zero-degree pickslant. Marty Friedman’s technique, pictured above, is a classic example of USX technique because it requires the pick attack correction provided by downward pickslanting / DWPS. To make matters more complex, some techniques, like the type of double escape motion used in bluegrass flat picking, actually require a vertical pick, or zero-degree picklant, to avoid pick attack issues. It’s complicated!

Pickslant As A Component of Technique

This complex interrelationship can produce all kinds of interesting combinations. Many of these techniques have become de facto standards in specific musical styles, influenced by specific repertoire and perpetuated through a kind of loose convention as players emulate one another.

For example, one technique commonly used in high-speed metal guitar involves using an arm position similar to the one user in Steve’ Morse’s technique, but in such a way that the pick slants away from the floor, producing upward pickslanting:

This technique uses a supinated forearm position where the arm is rotated or tilted toward the pinky. This causes some amount of the underside of the arm to become visible when viewed here in Magnet perspective. The reason this arm position is used in styles like metal is due to the way it permits very high speed picking by way of reverse dart wrist motion. When performed using this arm position, reverse dart wrist motion usually moves away from the body of the instrument during the downstroke. So this technique typically produces DSX, or downstroke escape motion when the parts are aligned this way:

Where it gets tricky is that this type of supinated arm position can produce downward pickslanting, when used with a typical index finger grip. This is the opposite of what is needed for the type of escape this technique produces. The solution is to use a trailing edge grip to achieve upward pickslanting. This lets us perform DSX motion, while maintaining smooth attack, even though the arm is rotated in the opposite direction of the pickslant.

The result is that arm position and pickslant are related but semi-independent. Since the pick is held in the fingers, which are connected to the arm, altering the arm position can alter the pickslant. However, using a different grip can produce significantly different pickslants. And neither of these tells you conclusively which type of escape motion the player is making, since some escape motions can work even with a vertical pick, while others may not, depending on a variety of factors.

Pickslanting In Practice

The term “pickslant” has the word slant in the name. But this can be a little misleading. In actual practice, you don’t always have to take additional steps to “slant the pick” to achieve pickslanting. For most picking motions, the simple act of assuming the body positioning and pick grip necessary to perform the motion is enough to create the correct pickslant.

Once you achieve this general body positioning, you can still make minor adjustments to the pick and its attack, including its pickslant, with changes to your grip and arm position. But these changes will be small enough that you can probably focus on learning to create the motions themselves, without worrying too much about the pickslant.

Instead, a more general awareness of what different pickslants look like can be helpful in understanding why certain techniques look the way they do, so it’s not confusing to you when try to learn them. In the next few sections, we will take a look at some common picking motions and the pickslants they use.