** As featured in issue 38 **
Country isn't like modern Rock music, I grew up in the Bluegrass tradition and I can't ever remember someone talking to me about technique. It was always about what you played, never how you played it. You just did what you needed to do to make the sound you wanted to hear.
In the Rock tradition it's a lot more common to break down the mechanics of technique and practice them to achieve high levels of playing, speed and accuracy. This can obviously be applied to Country music, but it's not the spirit of it. We don't play with high levels of technique because that's been the focus, we come from a background where all of our instruments were acoustic and you got very little sustain or volume from them so you needed to pick every note to be heard.
When I was younger, the Bluegrass vocabulary was (and still is) driven by fiddle influence, and playing those melodies wasn't easy, but over 30 years of constantly doing it, you get faster and more accurate/efficient, but let's take a look at what it is that makes alternate picking difficult.
Essentially when you pick on a single string the motion is efficient. When you play a down strong on the G string, you're not wasting any energy by playing that string with an up stroke. It would be very inefficient to play with another down stroke as you're going by the string with an upward motion to repeat the down.
When you cross strings, things get a little more difficult. Try playing a down stroke on the G string then an up stroke on the B. When doing this you have to go beyond then B string to pick it with an upstroke. This is an excessive use of energy and keeps you on the “outside” of the strings, we call this “outside picking”. Try repeating this motion and focusing on how it feels, down G up B, down G up B etc.
If you reverse this action and play with an up stroke on the G string followed by a down stroke on the B you now feel stuck between the strings. It requires a little more accuracy and a smaller motion, it's more efficient but generally considered a little harder. We call this “inside picking”.
Now if you look at the rock vocabulary, you'll see that a lot of players tend to favour one motion over the other. Paul Gilbert and John Petrucci tend to engineer their lines to avoid inside picking, while players like Eric Johnson excel at inside picking.
In Country music it's harder to change your licks to facilitate your technique. We can't rely on patterns of two or three notes per string consistently. We just need to be able to play down followed by up, regardless of what string crossing motion this results in. This is sometimes referred to as “cross picking” and it's a staple of solid alternate picking technique. It's heard from time to time in the rock world, Steve Morse being a prime example of someone who can play long lines with one note on each string.
I've provided two exercises for this column which will dig down to the root of the technique and allow you to really hone in on what needs improving. This may seem easy, but getting it to 160bpm+ will require a lot of dedication.
Stick with it though, as you're going to need your picking balanced in order to play Country music with the control expected.