Wrist Motion Checklist

Let’s run through a quick checklist of all the moving parts so you can be sure your setup is the right one for this important first lesson on wrist motion.

Do you have an average, non-injured range of motion in your wrist? Can you can knock on a door fast enough to convince the people on the other side of it that you’re in a real hurry? If so, we have good news! You absolutely have what it takes to perform a wrist picking motion at a professional level of speed and smoothness. It’s just a matter of getting all the parts set up correctly.

1. Pick Grip

In this demonstration, we’re using the most compact grip you can make, the trigger-style grip:

The trigger style grip is the most compact grip in picking technique.

In a trigger-style grip, the pick is placed on top of the far knuckle, or even somewhere between the far knuckle and the middle knuckle. This leaves a lot of the index finger sticking out below the pick, so the index finger is curled back underneath the hand so you don’t hit the strings. For more on this grip, be sure to reference the Primer chapters on pick grip if you haven’t already done so.

This grip isn’t magic and other grips do work. We’ll get to those in Chapter 2, Using More Supination, when we run through different arm and grip setups. But for now, in the interest of eliminating variables, try this grip even if it’s new to you. Sometimes that unfamiliarity is actually a good thing, and can feel just weird enough to break you out of whatever habits you currently have that aren’t working. Changing up grips is a great way to introduce variety to the learning process.

One thing to keep in mind with a trigger-style grip is that you need somewhere for your fingers to go, so your knuckles don’t scrape the strings. It might seem like the only way to fix this is to try and lift the fingers themselves, but if you’ve tried that, you’ve probably figured out that this isn’t actually very comfortable. Instead, the trick for this is to use a small amount of wrist extension, like this:

A fixed amount of wrist extension as part of your grip can make room for the fingers and pick.

By dialing in a small amount of wrist extension, you can allow your fingers to simply curl under your palm in a relaxed way without hitting the strings. Just make sure the pick sticks out further than the fingers, by adjusting your grip exposure, so you can still pluck the strings.

2. Approach Angle

The next thing we need to do is set our edge picking angle, and we do that by adjusting our approach angle:

If you think of the circular Star Wars t-shirt logo like the face of a clock, the forearm is not approaching the strings straight down from above at 12 o’clock. If you approach that vertically, you’ll be playing with such a high degree of edge picking that your pick is likely to slide right off the strings and make very little sound. Instead, by approaching more around 10:00, or about 60 degrees off the vertical, we can lower the edge picking angle for a more positive attack.

In our demonstration, the guitar is a little tilted so that the neck isn’t totally level with the ground. Don’t worry too much about that. Try to replicate the approach angle we’re using here. A few degrees here or there isn’t critical — just get in the ballpark.

One thing you might try is sitting down if you need to. If you play standing up, trying this in a seated position may make it easier to get this slightly lower approach angle. We can always worry about the standing position later. When your form is correct, you’ll have no trouble playing in both orientations with a small strap adjustment if necessary.

3. Wrist Straightness

One thing that’s not immediately obvious is that many great wrist players use a specific alignment between the forearm and the wrist which allows the wrist joint move most freely. Specifically, what we’re looking for is straightness. And this can be tricky, because the wrist can move in two dimensions.

First, make sure the flexion-extension axis is straight. This is the axis of motion you can see when you look down at your wrist from player’s perspective:

A wrist alignment with no flexion is what we’re looking for.

What’s most important is that we avoid wrist flexion, and this again can be tricky, because most people just rest their arm on the guitar and forget about it. But if your guitar’s body has a Stratocaster-style forearm countour, you may inadvertently rest on the contour in a way that places your elbow behind the body:

Unwanted wrist flexion can happen when you rest too far back on the forearm contour of your guitar body.

When you rest on the forearm contour this way, you are effectively pointing your arm in front of you, away from the guitar. In order to reach the strings, you’ll need to flex the wrist, as in this image. This is a super common forearm and wrist orientation, but it’s not what we want for this motion. Instead, place the arm so that the elbow is closer to, or even on, the front face of the guitar’s body. This will allow you to maintain your straight wrist geometry, with no wrist flexion, as in the previous image.

Although we want to avoid wrist flexion, wrist extension is fine. As we discussed above, you’re going to need at least a little of this anyway to make room for your fingers and the pick.

Finally, let’s take a look at the deviation axis. What we’re looking for here is also straightness:

4. Anchor Points

With the form we’re using here, you can see we have two contact points — one on the palm heels, and the other between the forearm and the guitar body:

Wrist players most commonly use a two-anchor setup the palm heels and the forearm.

The forearm anchor can be tricky because, again, the contour of your guitar’s body may cause you to position further back, leading to unwanted wrist flexion. To avoid this, start with your straight wrist geometry and place the palm heels on the strings. Wherever this places your forearm is where it goes!

You can either rest the palm heel anchors on the strings, or on some combination of the bridge and strings. If you choose the split method, the pinky heel rests on the bridge and the thumb heel rests on the strings. This should place the bridge saddles right in the middle of your palm, giving you a good tactile reference for reproducing this setup, without looking, each time you pick up the guitar.

As you achieve these anchor points, you will also achieve another important aspect of picking techique, especially if you play a high-gain amp: noise control. All the strings lower than than the one you are playing will be muted by the heel anchors. The string you are picking will be unmuted. And left-hand muting will take care of the noise produced by the higher strings. In other words, if you’re fretting a single note as you experiment with this motion, simply allow your fretting finger or fingers to lay gently across the higher strings. This will remove them from the noise equation.

5. Range of Motion

At the start of the downstroke, the wrist and arm are aligned in our default straight orientation:

The zero point of the deviation axis, with no radial deviation and no ulnar deviation, is our starting point.

At the end of the downstroke, the wrist is slightly bent toward the pinky, or more specifically, toward the ulna bone in your forearm:

At the end of the downstroke, the wrist is ulnar, producing a slight but visible bend between the pinky and the forearm.

That’s the orientation we call ulnar deviation. When you complete the downstroke, this is the slight bend you’re looking for. In other words, the range of motion for this wrist motion starts out straight, goes “ulnar”, then returns to straight again. It never goes past the straight point.

What we don’t want is to bend the wrist toward the thumb, which is radial deviation. There is nothing inherently wrong with radial deviation, and in fact, when we get to Chapter 5, The Pronated Option we’re going to see a slightly different form of wrist motion that uses a radial offset. But for the lightly supinated arm position we’re using here, what we’re looking for is a motion that only operates on the ulnar side of the wrist joint.

In short, just follow the teal guides. Straight to start, ulnar at max downstroke, then straight again at max upstroke. This is the McLaughlin, Di Meola, and Andy Wood way.

6. Motion Path

Finally, look at the path the pick is traveling. Since this is a single-escape motion, what we’re trying to achieve is a motion that’s actually slightly tilted with respect to the guitar’s body. If you’re new to picking technique, this is a pretty strange concept!

Here’s the starting position of this strangely tilted motion:

In a USX motion, the downstroke starts in the escaped position.

At the start of the downstroke, the pick is in the air. This is what we call the escaped position, because the pick is not surrounded on either side by strings. At the end of the downstroke, the pick is in between the G string and the B string, which is the trapped position:

This pathway from escaped to trapped is the motion path we want. When viewed down the strings, the motion will appear linear, making a straight shot into the strings, to the trapped position, and a straight shot back out again to the escaped position.

As you do this, one thing you can do to help to get the feel of USX wrist motion is to perform a rest stroke. In a rest stroke, the pick should actually be resting against the next higher string on your guitar when you finish the downstroke. That’s actually what’s happening in this example. In this case, that’s the B string, and you can see that contact clearly in the second snapshot.

As you perform the motion, you should be able to feel this B string contact. If you can’t, push a tiny bit harder until you feel it. But don’t kill yourself — this motion should feel easy. Just allow the pickstroke to continue for long enough that the pick eventually makes contact.

7. Ready, Set… Go!

Once you have all this, do the motion at the speed we’re doing it in the lesson chapter at about 6:20 or so. This is not a fast speed, but it’s a deliberate speed. Almost no muscular force is required to go this fast, and if you get all these moving parts set up correctly, there should be zero feeling of tension.

Film the motion and verify it is correct. In particular, verify that you are hitting the B string and coming straight back out again. Verify there is no stringhopping. Refer to the lesson chapter for a visual demonstration of what stringhopping looks like, just to make sure that’s not what you’re doing.

If you can do this motion at the deliberate speed we’re using here, with no stringhopping, and it feels smooth, then it’s time to really test whether it’s correct. How do we do that? With speed! Refer to Chapter 7, Starting With Speed for how to perform this test.

8. DSX Motion

Finally, one more thing. Keeping your form exactly the same as it is in this attempt, try the downstroke escape motion outlined in Chapter 4, where we introduce DSX motion. The only difference is that for the DSX motion, the pick now escapes on the downstroke and not the upstroke. In other words, if you’re picking on the G string, the downstroke escapes over the top of the B string, and it’s now the upstroke which is the trapped pickstroke. In fact, the upstroke is now also the rest stroke, resting against the D string.

No other significant change in form is necessary to switch from USX motion to DSX motion, which is why trying it can be a useful test of whether your form is correct. Two chances to do something right are better odds than one! Just in case, we’ll review all these setup details again, including pick grip, at the very beginning of Chapter 4, as a refresher.

Give this a shot and let us know how you make out!