Primary Motion

A player’s primary motion is the default picking motion they choose for single-note playing at a given speed.

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.