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Cracking The Code 2

Issue #28

Yngwie's entire approach is so consistent and rule-based that you would swear it was engineered to be that way.
Levi Clay

Cracking The Code - Part 2!

We had some great feedback on the amazing Cracking The Code, which we ran in GI 27, so this issue Troy Grady returns with something a little more lessons based - the deep mechanics of alternate picking with a subject he calls “downward pick slanting”.

Downward pick slanting is a method for untangling the pick from the strings, so you can move from one string to another with extremely high accuracy, even at top speed. It works by turning every upstroke into a kind of escape hatch. By angling the pick toward the floor, the downstrokes bury themselves between the strings. But the magic happens on the upstroke: the pick breaks free of the strings, and hovers in the air above them. From this vantage point, it's simple to drop down on any new string of your choosing.

The key here is that you're eliminating the inefficient jumping motion typically associated with switching strings. In fact, what you're really doing is fusing it with the picking motion. These two movements, which usually fight one another, become one simple, hyper-efficient mechanism. And the key to using it is very simple: only switch strings after upstrokes.

And miraculously, when you examine Yngwie's playing, you see that when he's alternate picking, he switches strings almost exclusively after upstrokes. So many of his signature licks work this way.  In the episode we look at the famous six-note pattern, which is so popular among rock and metal players that it's almost the "My First Shred Lick" of modern guitar.

And the fact that it has six notes is no coincidence. Since every other pickstroke in alternate picking is an upstroke, what you're really saying is that downward pick slanting requires even-numbered note groupings. And once you realize that, the whole problem of picking technique quickly reveals itself to be an engineering problem.  Fretboard shapes must be specifically designed to utilize an even number of notes per string to take advantage of its efficiency.  And this is exactly what Yngwie does. His vocabulary is just filled with all kinds of interesting four-note shapes on single strings which would normally be thought of as unorthodox. But in the downward pickslanting world, this is par for the course.

Yngwie's entire approach is so consistent and rule-based that you would swear it was engineered to be that way. This is amazing when you consider what Yngwie himself has often said in interviews, which is that he doesn't think much about his picking technique. When I first heard this, I assumed it was a cover up! But now I actually don't think he's being coy - in my experience interviewing elite players, much of their technique is learned by feel. So the real genius of what elite players do is not that they can play fast. It's that they design whole systems for doing so, totally on their own, and without even realizing that they're doing it.

And Yngwie is not alone. Downward pick slanting is probably the most widespread and important of all efficient string switching techniques. The picking abilities of many of the greatest players in history are entirely reliant on it:  Jazz legends like Tal Farlow and George Benson; rock legends like Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Steve Vai; modern fusion masters like Mike Stern and Eric Johnson; even Country greats like Albert Lee. The list goes on.

As best I can tell, these players all learned the technique subconsciously, and totally independently, with no explicit instruction to do so. And on top of this, they went ahead and built entire musical vocabularies of upstroke-switching licks with such variety that listening to them, you'd hardly guess they were all using the same mechanical foundation. It's unlike anything I'm familiar with on any other instrument, and quite likely one of the greatest mechanical coincidences in music performance history.

What Goes Down, Must Come Up

Of course downward pick slanting is just the beginning. As we move through Season 2 of the show, we'll unlock a whole Pandora's box of pick slanting discoveries: upward pick slanting, used by players like Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Rusty Cooley. And two-way pick slanting strategies for handling odd-numbered note groupings. This explains the incredible three-note-per-string scale playing fluency of players like Paul Gilbert, Michael Angelo Batio and... also Rusty Cooley.

And that's another interesting point - there is no mutual exclusivity here. Players subconsciously switch between picking strategies based on the musical context. Rusty is an interesting case of this because he's equally good at two completely different mechanical systems. His two-way abilities allow him to play complicated passages, like descending fours, or even one-note-per-string alternate picked arpeggios, at very high speeds. And his "hyperdrive" technique is a one-way pick slanting technique based on upward pick slanting that achieves blistering tempos of 240bpm or more with relative ease.  It's amazing to watch.  It's fascinating that all this is powered by a type of athletic genius intuition.

Gypsy Jazz, The Rest Stroke, and Downward Pickslanting

Django Reinhardt in Jazz may be the greatest downward pick slanter of all, since he inspired an entire style of guitar playing based on it. Gypsy Jazz is the only guitar community I am aware of that specifically inculcates downward pick slanting as a key component of their musical style.  Gypsy players normally reference the technique as a way of getting more pick attack. When you approach the strings on an angle, you can hit them from pretty far away - an inch or more, even at high speed - because none of the other strings are in the way.

This is where the classic Gypsy "snap" attack comes from. This also causes a phenomenon called the rest stroke, where the pick bottoms out against the next higher string, like a backstop in baseball.  The rest stroke doesn't actually cause the snap - that would be impossible, since it happens after the note has already been played. You can prove this to yourself by playing the top string on your guitar.  There's no string above it to support a rest stroke, but it snaps all the same if you hit it hard enough. Instead, the rest stroke and the string snap are both caused by the increased pick velocity enabled by downward pick slanting.

It's not entirely clear if Gypsy teaching recognizes downward pick slanting as a component of speed technique, or simply as a component of pick attack.  And this underscores the intractability of the problem of pick mechanics. Even when you're consciously aware of the components, it's easy for even elite players to misattribute their effects.

In actual practice the Gypsy musical vocabulary is a treasure trove of even-numbered note groupings and downward pick slanting speed. It is well worth a look, even for Rock players, as a masterful playbook of mechanically efficient, tasty playing. 


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