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Cracking The Code

Issue #27

But when it comes to what we might call "virtuoso" picking technique, the fact is that comparatively few players, of any level of experience, seem to possess it.
Levi Clay


Once in a while someone out there on the Internet comes up with something truly amazing (did we mention Guitar Interactive?).  Levi Clay has had his breath taken away by just such a development. They call it Cracking The Code. It's by Troy Grady and we're bringing you the first part here!

Every now and again you come across something so exciting that it plagues your very dreams for years. It must have been five years ago now, but somewhere, sometime, someone showed me some of my shred heroes playing at warp speed with a camera actually attached to the fretboard and the next thing you know I was watching their picking hand at 25% speed. It was like someone showed me the secret to technical excellence, and then took it away and told me “coming soon”. Needless to say, five years passed before I heard anything more about cracking the code (and not for lack of trying) but suddenly the site was live, and it was more than I could ever have imagined.

Heading over to I expected to see some close up playing of Jimmy Bruno and Scotty Anderson, but what I was actually found was a web series in cartoon form that after one episode had me grinning ear to ear, and feeling like I'd been transported to the late '70s on a quest to play the guitar. I threw down $5 for the whole season and set about watching one of the most enjoyable guitar documentaries in the history of the instrument. But who is this Troy Grady guy, and what prompted him to put together such an incredible resource for fans of guitar? I went to the source and asked the man himself to tell us the story. This is what he said:

“Guitar players have a problematic relationship with picking technique that is hard to explain to non-guitarists, and fundamentally unlike anything I've experienced on any other instrument.  The crux of the mystery is the famously intractable nature of playing with a pick.  It's not just that it's difficult.  Mastering any instrument is difficult - piano, for example, is famously daunting.  Its literature is exceedingly deep, and prodigies aside, most players will require years of practice to nail something like Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude".  But the piano is also refreshingly linear. You get out of it what you put into it.  It's like martial arts in that respect. If you've got a decade to spare, and a lot of determination, there's likely to be a black belt in your future.

But when it comes to what we might call "virtuoso" picking technique, the fact is that comparatively few players, of any level of experience, seem to possess it. And practising endlessly to achieve it, regardless of dedication, seems to plateau for a lot of people. This was particularly obvious growing up in the '80s. Van Halen-style Blues licks and two-hand tapping were techniques that were attainable by the average player with practice.  Indeed, part of Eddie's genius was coaxing incredible sounds from deceptively simple mechanical insights. Once you understood how two-handed tapping worked, even beginners were doing it. But with the advent of guys like Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore, the methods became way more opaque. The ability to play complex scalar and arpeggiated passages at top speed with computer-like accuracy was not just unattainable - it was simply unfathomable.  And as a result, it was totally fascinating.

As a guitar player, I was no stranger to this unique fascination. The show is a documentary series born of my Ahab-like obsession with the white whale of picking technique, and my various failures and triumphs in doing so. I actually started this work in college, with a series of breakthroughs surrounding Yngwie Malmsteen's playing technique. I continued it later on with a batch of discoveries about the kind of advanced alternate picking used by players like Michael Angelo Batio and Paul Gilbert.  This led to a series of slow-motion camera interviews with legendary players, and the next thing you know, you're on the screen with a cartoon Yngwie!

Hilariously, I remember thinking I was going to film a few interviews, slap it on a DVD with some backstory, and be done with it. The longest thing I had edited prior to this was a 40-minute feature for the web site about shopping for an amp. It was a typical reality-style, run-and-gun camcorder video. It took me two days to film it and week to edit it. So I figured I could probably edit "Cracking the Code" in a few months. That was seven years ago!

What happened in between was the series. When I sat down to write the script, I was remarkably free of any preconceived notion as to how the material should be presented. So I started telling it the way I would tell anyone about it - like a story. This is partly because the material is complex, and retracing the actual steps of the investigation was the simplest way I could think of to explain it.

But what emerged simultaneously was a kind of everyman guitar player narrative about hero worship and the quest for technical skills.  This was a fun nostalgia trip, but it was also something I thought a lot of players would probably identify with and enjoy.  I also felt like I was preserving some of this history for newer players.  If you grew up with YouTube as your bustling supermarket of guitar instruction, then just imagine standing in a physical record store with a bunch of other guys in hair spray and ripped jeans, trying to save your paper route money by memorizing printed sheet music. It's hard to imagine how scarce information was back then. It was like something out of "Quest For Fire", cradling a tiny flaming ember across the countryside just so you can grill a steak.

As the story grew, I realized I had way too much material to watch in one sitting. I also realized that the numerous technical challenges in the story provided a naturally episodic cliffhanger-style structure. At the same time, my friends were cancelling their cable subscriptions for Netflix and Hulu. When I saw twenty-somethings digging into their PayPal accounts to fork over five bucks for Louis CK's self-produced stand-up show at the Beacon here in New York, the answer seemed clear:  web series.

But fused with the narrative story, like chocolate chips in a cookie, are the specific technical challenges that anchor of the later parts of the investigation. Stringhopping, for one. You probably know the feeling - a bouncing or pecking motion with the pick as you attempt to navigate the strings. For one thing, it's sort of the universal "demonstration" picking mode for teaching purposes.  Michael Angelo Batio, for example, does this in a very pronounced way when he's stepping through a lick slowly.  And it looks entirely different from his high-speed technique, which is completely free of any kind of jitter, even when he's traversing strings.  When he starts slow and speeds up, there's a specific point where the stringhopping completely disappears, and the robot conveyor belt takes over. Where did it go? Clearly something very specific is going on there.

So it turns out that string switching is central to the problem of efficient picking.  It doesn't simply happen automatically - you need to employ a specific mechanical strategy for getting from one string to another.  To a lesser extent there's also the issue of hand synchronization. We actually discuss the solution to this in Season 1. This is something I call "chunking" - organizing phrases into units and focusing on their initial pickstrokes as landmarks. This is what keeps the hands locked at high speed, when it's otherwise impossible to control every pickstroke individually.

So the groundwork is all there in Season 1 of the show, but because of the way the information and the infotainment intertwine, it may not always be obvious.  That's going to become a lot clearer once we get into Season 2.”

And there we have it. Please take the time to watch the videos Troy has generously supplied for us and then head on over to his site and enjoy the rest of the series for free, then consider supporting and pledging for season 2.

We've got more from Troy in the next GI, and things are going to heat up quick with some fantastic footage of some of the best guitar players alive today, we'll see you then!

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Peter Green / Ivar Bjørnson

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