Bluegrass technique - am I stringhopping?

I’ve been playing a long time but am fairly new to bluegrass. I’ve been at it for over a year and just can’t seem to get the right hand technique down. Any suggestions?

2 Likes

Edit: @blackie69, I merged your two topics into a single technique critique post, so we can keep the discussion on your technique in one place, hope this is ok!

------ here’s my reply again ------

Welcome to the forum @blackie69!

What you are doing here may be indeed hopping, but you could try a couple of tests:

  • Does your picking feel like “knocking on a door?” that would suggest that you are using some muscles for both upstrokes and downstrokes (i.e. it’s not a truly alternating motion).
  • can you speed it up significantly (don’t worry if it gets sloppy). As a rule of thumb, string hopping should not me able to play beyond 130bpm 16th notes or so. So if you are able to reach, e.g. 4 notes per beat at 140-150bpm, it would be good evidence that you are not hopping.

In terms of seeking an efficient picking motion, the single string is always a good test / starting point. Do you have a movement that allows you to alternate pick fast on a single string?

More generally, have you gone through the Primer already?

Let us know how these tests go :slight_smile:

2 Likes

Hi Tommo and thanks for combining my ravings, I was a little confused as how and where to post. Firstly, it does not feel like I’m knocking on a door but I think I see some hopping going on. I am able to play a single string pretty fast, 4 notes per beat at 140 bpm… it’s when 2 or more strings are involved that’s where the trouble starts. Alternate picking on multiple strings at even a medium tempo is very hard. I have gone over the primer. Thanks for your reply!

1 Like

Sounds like a good starting point! Could you post a video example of that, so we can start looking ath the picking trajectory you make when you pick fast?

You can use the same camera angle of the first video, but would be even better if the light was coming towards your picking hand and not from behind it (so that we can see both the pick and the strings).

1 Like

I hope this will give you a better idea of my issues. Thanks, again!

Thanks for doing this so quickly!

A quick comment that comes to mind is that you are making very small picking motions, that stay very close to the string.

You could start experimenting with bigger motions, roughly the same size as the distance between strings (if you think about it, that would be at lest as far as you need to go to move between different strings). Have you ever tried this, e.g. using rest strokes?

1 Like

That makes perfect sense! I will definitely work on that! Thank you, Tommo!

1 Like

I’ve been trying to employ the my wrist and use either a DWPX or UWPX but I can’t seem to get up to even a moderate speed with either. I can play much faster by only using my elbow but this is quite sloppy and I haven’t been able to refine it. I’ve been struggling with this for over a year and I can’t seem to make much progress in either case. My question is, should I abandon one or both of these techniques or is the key somewhere in between or a marriage of both?

1 Like

True, this movement is faster and I would definitely exploit it more! But I am not 100% sure it’s only elbow!

The elbow typically generates a DSX (escaped downstroke) trajectory - which means you can easily change strings after a downstroke.

In any case, the fact that you have a faster motion is a good starting point! Next step would be to verify if indeed it’s a DSX motion (or perhaps a USX - escaped upstroke?). You can do this e.g. by picking 4 notes per string on a pair of strings, even something very artificial like this:

G--------7-7-7-7---
D-5-5-5-5----------

and checking whether you can change strings more easily when you start with upstroke or downstroke

1 Like

I’m not sure if I’m following you. The tip of my pick is pointing towards the ceiling not the floor, so that’s an upwards pick slant, correct? And I can change strings much easier when I start with a downstroke ( finishing the 4th beat on an upstroke). Does that make sense?

Yes! It means you are most probably using an escaped upstroke trajectory (USX) for your faster motion -> knowing this is already useful, it means you can go a long way by practicing licks that always change strings after upstrokes.

Ah…so, I have to plan ahead! Does that mean I should always find a fingering that suits my picking hand, if possible? And at some point, will I be able to play licks that change strings on downstrokes? In order to do that, won’t I have to use a double escape?

A little bit yes, but it may become more automatic once you get used to it -like most things :slight_smile: You can also sneak in a hammer-on or pull-off here and there to make this motion fit with even more phrases/lick. Finally you can also use downstroke-sweeps where appropriate.

Yes, this could be a next step (although even at elite level some players never took this extra step!). But I think finding at least one comfortable motion (even if not “universal” for string changes) and learning to exploit it well is a very good start.

Also, using a motion you already have can give you some early wins, which is good for motivation :slight_smile:

Edit: here is a cool tune that uses only upstroke escapes as far as I know (and surely for the fast bits):

1 Like

Brad Davis is a BEAST! Of course, that’s a whole different technique but I get the idea. Thanks so much, tommo. :+1::wink:

Just noticing you have the terms switched up in this post and in your first video at 0:13. When the the tip of the pick points upwards and the wide part of the pick DOWNwards, you are downward pickslanting, this facilitates the UPstroke escape path (USX). Where the pick is burried in the strings on a downstroke and lifted out of the strings after an upstroke.

2 Likes

K, thanks! So, the slanting refers to the wide part of the pick, right? I get confused with the UPX, DPS, etc. Downward slant = upward escape, correct?

That’s right. You got it now.
UPX is not the abbreviation though. It’s USX (upstroke escape). And DWPS (downward pickslanting).

1 Like

Haha, told ya I was confused! :laughing: Thanks for straightening me out! :+1:

ok, so here’s another video of me trying to use only wrist motion…and clearly struggling. I’m not exactly clear what I’m doing wrong, tho. Could someone please point out my problem…or problems? TIA!

Great playing, and thanks for posting. I believe I just replied to your previous post with some clarification on the terms, but I didn’t realize you were working on bluegrass stuff. Sorry again for the delay.

Basically, in the world of wrist motion, you’ve got three options for picking motion. Two are diagonal, and one is semicircular. The two diagonal ones are USX and DSX, and they refer to motions where the pick only goes up in the air at one end of the motion, either upstroke or downstroke. Those are your “pickslanting” motions, for lack of a better term.

The semicircular one is DBX, which stands for double escape. This is where the pick goes up in the air at both ends of the pickstroke. This is the one you want for bluegrass.

The caveat is that some players, like David Grier, switch systems when they speed up, where instead of the DBX motion, they actually do use the two pickslanting motions, flipping between them as the phrase requires. They’re usually not aware they’re doing this, so at some level they start doing it automatically. For our purposes, let’s just ignore that this happens, and instead start off by trying to learn the DBX motion which is I think how most bluegrass players start.

The good news is that thanks to your tests, we already know that you have plenty of physical capability to do what you want at tempos that are fast enough to sound great. Speed is not the issue. The issue is that when you try to do these multi-string phrases, you’re stringhopping, which is that small vertical, bouncy motion of the picking hand.

As part of this, as @Tommo points out, your picking motion on a single string is very small and the pick is cutting off the sound of the notes before they have a chance to ring out. To give them that chance we need to make a bigger motion. Or more appropriately, a smoother more fluid motion with less bounce which will probably take care of both these issues.

The way I learned to do this technique is via roll patterns, because they move across three strings in distance. This will address the distance problem Tommo is talking about. The key is that the only way to know if you’re in the ballpark of doing the motion correctly is if you can do it smoothly at medium-fast tempos or better, let’s say 120bpm sixteenths or so. That’s the only reliable test for avoiding stringhopping motion.

When done correctly, DBX motion in the Molly Tuttle style is very flat. This is why it’s fast. So what I’d like you to do is fret a three string chord on the top three strings and try a forward roll pattern. However, instead of super focusing on playing the three individual notes in the roll pattern, focus on making a three-string-sized picking motion that is almost flat to the strings. Don’t worry about hitting the wrong strings. Only make a low effort at accuracy. Put the emphasis on feeling flat, fluid, and fast.

As you do this, you can rest the heel of your palm lightly on the bridge. In the interest of learning wrist motion, all motion should come from the hand. You should still easily be able to reach a three-string distance, even with only wrist motion. If you notice the guitar shaking, or your upper arm or shoulder moving around, then you’re moving something other than the wrist. Experiment and see if you can zero in on the feeling of the hand itself moving. It’s a low-effort feeling, where muscles in your forearm and upper arm don’t do much, and the actual weight of the hand moving around is minimal. Finding this feeling can be a little like learning to raise one eyebrow, i.e. learning to target a thing you haven’t learned to target before.

Can you do that in way that feels smooth and at least 120bpm sixteenths?

As for what kind of motion to make, I’ll make a bluegrass-appropriate analogy: You can almost imagine your hand is a bird flying low over the top of a lake, trying not to hit the water, but trying to get as close as you can to it where you can almost dip a toe in as necessary. That’s the flatness we’re looking for.

Also, I’ve heard it suggested that players start out by strumming three strings, and while I haven’t tested that suggestion, I’m a little skeptical. A strum intentionally dips the toe in the water all the time, keeping it below the water level. And since many people already know how to do this, doing it repetitively might not really be teaching you anything new. Instead, we want the ability to dip in and out of the water as necessary. Again, I can’t say for sure that the strum method won’t work, it’s just my guess that it might not. If you try it and it works, then we learn something!

Don’t worry about pickslanting as you do this. DBX motion uses no pickslant. It does use escape motion, just not any change in the pick’s orientation.

Try this and see how far you get!

1 Like