After The Code Has Been Cracked


@Troy, what are your future goals regarding content for Masters Of Mechanics? You’ve been doing a good job of interviewing guitarists with high level guitar picking technique and have pioneered the use of the magnet camera so we could see exactly how these great guitarists do what they do. It was a big step forward for learning about how alternate picking is actually done by guitarists in genres from heavy metal to jazz to bluegrass.

At some point, and maybe you’ve already reached it, interviewing and filming more guitarists as they demonstrate their picking techniques won’t add new information on how efficient alternate and sweep picking is done though. It would just be adding more examples of techniques we’ve already seen - the picking techniques you’e been studying and then explaining to your subscribers. There aren’t an infinite number of ways to efficiently alternate or sweep pick. What are your goals regarding subjects you intend to explore in Masters Of Mechanics when the time comes that you believe you’ve sufficiently “cracked the code”?


Asking these high level players about basic music theory would be great, no confusing add9 take away the 6th times by potato crap. Just basic scales chords. How do they play an A minor pentatonic for example. And no pure fast playing, slow, easy to see, staying in the scale! So beginners are not confused. A note is out of the scale? Point it out!

With technique, most people can figure it out eventually, as proven by so many players not consciously knowing that they are doing. Theory? It’s so arbitrary, redundant, confusing, totally illogical. It’s a mess.

Really once you have the basics the advanced falls into place, music theory is soo damn poorly presented, incredibly stressful to wade through all the shit.


I think it’s dangerous to use terms like “after”, because it leads to situations where you are so sure you know something that you stop looking for ways you might be wrong. The current state of our instructional stuff is a good example of this. It’s poor. We have flagship products that don’t adequately explain the things I’m doing on-screen, or worse, explain them incorrectly.

Ironically our current spottyness comes partly from having not enough good examples of different players, rather than too many. It’s only after we started fliming a wider variety of players that we started to notice commonalities in how the wrist works - to use one example. And even then it takes years to assimilate this knowledge and practice it to where we can demonstrate it and teach it.

So we still have lots to do on the instructional stuff in terms of making things like core hand movements dirt clear to new and experienced players alike, clarifying what things like “pickslanting” even mean and how it works, and making sure that everyone here is up to speed on the same base of knowledge.

TLDR even if you assume that there is some point when remaining issues become smaller, that “after” point is still a ways down the road.

Cracking the Code is about underserved areas that could use better clarity. What are those things in guitar playing? So far from the players I’ve interviewed it seems like it’s fretboard mapping for improvisation. Not so much knowing “scale shapes”, but knowing how to connect them on the fly when the chords change. None of the great improvising players I have interviewed except Martin Miller have had good answers to how they do this, down to the dirt-clear level that even a beginner could understand.


I can nerd out on that kind of stuff with the best (worst?) of them, and I understand this can be off-putting. However, I actually don’t think that’s really what bothers people. Even your average player in a band knows shitloads of music theory and can explain it in pretty complex ways, even if they are not formally educated and only have their own lingo for things. From where I sit, most musicians are actually pretty good with harmony and knowing what scales and chords fit with each other in quite sophisticated ways.

Where everybody seems to fall down is actually finding that stuff on the fretboard. Even really great improvisers we have interviewed do not give clear answers about how they know what notes to play when the chords go flying by. They almost universally say vague things like “Well, I practiced that in every key”. I have no doubt that these players did these sorts of things, but I don’t think that actually explains what’s going through their minds when they improvise.

For a while now, years at this point, I have been asking questions about this sort of stuff in the interviews we do. The best one, and the player with the best answers to these questions, is Martin Miller. This is our best talk on this subject:

This talk is the closest thing to the kind of “do this, then do this” type of clarity that beginners need to understand complicated topics. It’s not there, but it at least leans in the direction, especially if you already know the harmony we’re talking about.

We can do better over time. We have some interviews with great improvisers like Frank Gambale and Oz Noy coming up, so we’ll have a lot more to talk about in this arena.


I definitely do not think there’s going to be an ‘after’!

As a teacher, here is what I think would be a futuristic goal, hear me out:

There are a set of processes you can take most beginner guitarists through (even children, absolute beginners) where after a time period of X they can comfortably play most types of passages, alt picking, sweeping, whatever material we think is difficult and takes a lot of work here in the year 2018.

Well, if this can be accomplished, then better and better strategies (which like start with good observations and conclusions, like Troy is attempting to do) will reduce that time period of X. And there’s no end point because we can always work on making those processes more efficient. We don’t know what the ‘limit’ of what that minimum period of time could truly be.

So basically I think there are many more observations and conclusions to come in the future, and also interviews with psychologists and physiologists and other experts to try to dig deeper and deeper into what can be effective processes for turning those conclusions into real playing improvements.


Indeed. And it is in part teachers like you who are at the implementation edge of this, learning what things work and don’t work with those trying to learn, that helps determine how much of this we have worked out.

As we learn more about how different movements work, and how to teach them smoothly, I think we do eventually get to the point of asking which specific motions should we even be teaching? I know rock players often get hung up on the way they currently play, as being somehow the “natural” way for them. But I think this is largely an illusion created by lack of knowledge. Down the line you may very well end up in violin territory where we can teach all ways, but there’s not much point, since they all have the same capabilities. So instead we just pick one method, whatever it is, and standardize on that.

Or maybe that’s not necessary, and guitar will always be a little more complex with different players using different physical methods. Unclear but worth thinking about.


I’ve got a sort of pet hypothesis that there are two main kinds of improvising player, those that hear stuff in their heads and have to work out how to get it onto the instrument, and those that need to work to get stuff in their heads so they have something to play on the instrument. I like to think of it as Charlie Parker vs John Coltrane - Parker sat in the rafters listening to Lester Young for hours, and eventually found out from looking at Stravinsky scores that what he was ‘hearing’ and wanting to play was melodies based on upper extensions, 9ths, 13ths etc. Coltrane sees Parker play and thinks “where the hell does he get this stuff?”, so he goes out and drills the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns until he has something to play over anything he might come accross*. Both of them of course are known for practising for ridiculous amounts of time.

I suppose the most likely thing is that most players will take a little bit from both approaches.

I’m not saying “some people are natural musicians and can just play without practising, some people have to learn” everyone needs to get in the shed. But I think it could be helpful to think about these two approaches when you want to get into improvising and see which one ‘fits’ you best.

*Apologies to serious Jazz scholars, I’ve obviously missed out a hell of a lot of stuff from these two player’s biographies


Well it’s just following the pitch isn’t it, adding a few slight dissonant notes with use of rhythm.
Music theory is just an exhaustive naming system, with some basic concepts behind it. I’m sure the people you’ve encountered are competent in theory, though it’s a huge misunderstood topic for beginners, the sheer amount of exhaustive names and combinations really prevents people from moving to far into it. Beginners seeing their idols talk basic theory would help a lot of people.


As for finding stuff on the fretboard, you learn to talk the pitches or notes, just like typing this out, I go instantly to the correct letter, exact same concept on guitar. You then sing through the guitar. I personally don’t think it’s that complicated… Perhaps I’m ignorant.


I’ve encountered a number of people in real life, as well as people on youtube, who get pretty insistent that the first category (hearing something original in your head, and playing it on the fly) “doesn’t exist”. The main counterargument I’ve seen to that is an old Barney Kessel video, where he demonstrates composing a melody in his head and playing it on the guitar as he goes. I guess the dissenters would get into more of an epistemological argument about whether the melody he heard in his head was truly original or outside ideas he had practiced and listened to before. And it’s certainly not the kind of fast fluid lines we see in “improvisations” from guys like Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, etc.


Just tell them the fact that they are, for all intents and purposes, composing their text on the spot, they are improvising. Within basic rules. And it’s also in fact easier to do on guitar than in english text. 12 Notes, vs, 24 letters. Only we don’t use the guitar anywhere near as much.


I’m totally not OCD, but the English alphabet has 26 letters, unless we’re talking about a rotary phone dial (no Q or Z) :wink:


I didn’t necessarily say that.

On the other hand, if you say it isn’t possible for anyone to think of original ideas and then play them, then that would mean no one could ever have written any music, ever.


I’m not really taking a stand on either side, but when people debate this, composing something in advance is viewed differently from composing something while you play.


Improvisation is just spontaneous composition, as Chris Potter would say.


For what it’s worth, I think of the need for theory and fretboard knowledge as it relates to improv to vary a lot depending context:

rock/blues in one key with general minor tonality: you don’t need to know much and many people can just take guesses

general diatonic chord progressions, major or minor: you don’t need to know much, and experience and a good ear can guide better choices

mostly diatonic blues or major/minor progressions with some excursions outside the key: a little knowledge can help the player make more melodic choices and not have to do a lot of trial and error, but some folks can just ‘hear it’

More consistent mixing of modes, modulations, borrowed chords: becomes tough to improvise without good knowledge of scale choices, fretboard mapping

Anything in the jazz idiom: there’s a historical precedent of a type of vocabulary and interacting with that vocabulary requires a pretty strong foundation in theory. Example, it’s hard to make sense of a Grant Green line (a simpler player relatively, harmonically) without being able to name how each note relates to the key and to the chord of the tune.

In ‘jazz’ (generalizing) anything beyond the most basic high school jazz band type of stuff requires a good grasp on fundamentals of keys, chord types, and awareness of how the stuff plays out on the fretboard.

Interest in adapting any ‘classical’ music into one’s improvisational vocabulary similarly requires a good theoretical foundation to be able to do for more than just parroting, but some people with good intuition and good ears can get away with a lot.

Whether it’s simple or complex, imo the higher level someone’s audiation skills are the more intentional they can be with their improvisational choices.

Just my two cents!


lol whoops, what can I say, I was freestyling


Maybe, but it’s pretty clear when you’re listening to a rock player who knows where the box is and maybe a couple of other things, and not much else. Versus someone who has a more detailed knowledge of where things are, and can play a much wider variety of lines even over a single chord or unchanging funk-type bass note groove.

And then of course there’s no stopping you from introducing other harmonies, or sequency things, on top of a static groove. All those things are off the table unless you have spent the time to map out the fretboard with lots of variety.


Re: “hearing it in your head”, is that what people really mean when they say that? I always assumed phrases like this were just figurative ways of saying that someone got an idea, somehow, even if it was just reacting to something they just played.

Just judging by what most people play, the average person doesn’t really have all that many “ideas in their head” unless they’ve really spent the time to build vocabulary over a number of years and learn how to access it. Which implies, to me, that for all practical purposes, the tree really hasn’t fallen in the forest unless you’re there to hear it!


You guys are crazy mane. I’m going to go cook some chicken on the grill.