Breaking Picking Habits

Hi guys - new here. I searched a couple terms, but I wasn’t able to find what I feel I’m looking for.

I’ve been playing off and on (mostly on) for about 35 years. For most of those years, I didn’t work on proper alternate picking in lead playing. What evolved for me over the years was more or less “speed picking in time” and my fretting hand has, for the most part, caught up to it. I consider this technique “cheating” because I can improv lots of stuff here, but if I try to learn a defined piece, even a simple three-note-per-string scale, I can’t build up anything more than a moderate speed, and it’s usually sloppier feeling and sounding than my “cheater” technique.

I bought the pickslanting primer and I just finished the “Upstroke Escape” video, and I understand what’s wrong with my picking when I try to do it correctly - I think what’s happening is involuntary supination when I try to “escape.” Not bouncing, as such, but rotating the wrist rather than just deviating.

I want to fix this, but I’ve been playing for so long and have so many ingrained (bad) habits, that I’m not entirely sure where or how to begin to address it. I mean, I can start with slow, super-strict basic picking exercises, but I wonder if that all goes to hell if I start playing “my normal” after doing the exercise?

Do I have to stop all playing until I can get my retrained hand up to speed? To add insult to injury, I know I’m easily frustrated and give up on things, which is undoubtedly where I wound up with a cheater technique in the first place, but I’m more dedicated to correction now.

Pretty sure y’all are gonna ask for a video to show what the deal is, but what should I focus on? Showing the cheater technique (which I believe winds up a lot like upward pickslanting, so maybe that will be going for me later!). Should I show my hobbled attempts at alternate picking?

I love what I’m learning, but I feel like I need an on-ramp to actually APPLYING it. Can you help?

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Thanks for picking up our stuff! Short story, the forearm rotation isn’t bad or wrong. It’s just a different technique. If it’s what I think you’re describing, it’s this:

The “forearm” section of the Primer has more specific instructions for doing this motion, which is a blend of forearm and wrist. The instructions aren’t quite as detailed as the wrist motion instructions, but we’ll be updating those soon and you will get those updates for free in your account.

I used the forearm/wrist blended motion for almost all our “downward pickslanting” instructional stuff prior to the past year or so. The only thing to note is that it is an upstroke escape motion, so you’re not going to be able to use it for 3nps scale playing with pure alternate picking where you need both escapes. However you can do Yngwie style scales where you use sweeping and pulloffs and those are all covered in the Primer in the “Downward Pickslanting” section.

In short, if you’re experiencing awkwardness that you can’t really describe, it could be that you’re trying to use a motion for something it wasn’t designed for.

In general your road map for applying all our stuff, no matter which motion you’re using, is this:

  1. Try all picking motions
  2. Choose one that’s not stringhopping
  3. Do it fast to ensure it’s working
  4. Attempt simple, repeating single-string phrase to establish left hand synch
  5. Attempt string-switching phrases that fit the motion you have chosen, maintaining synch from 4

Again, not all motions fit all phrases so this is where you have to be strategic. If your best motion is a USX motion, then you will want to work on USX / DWPS phrases.

Also, once you get to steps 4 and 5, it’s not entirely linear and some phrases can be cleaner than others while it’s all coming together. That’s fine. We’re not robots, and throwing a lot of variety at this problem by working on lots of phrases in a mixed bag approach is the best way to go.

Let me know if this helps clarify.


Thanks, Troy!

I do think I am doing the wrist+forearm like you show - it’s amazing that you have everyone’s bad habits documented so well somewhere!

I think for my downstroke escape, I am doing it with pure deviation, so I’d like to be able to do that, especially since the hybrid is notably NOT working for me, and I do want to be able to go both ways.

So how did YOU break that habit? Hours? Days? Or did your machine hand just “decide to do it differently” and go?? (lol)

I wouldn’t think of this as a bad habit or something to break. It’s just another picking motion and it works fine. As an example, all the shreddy scale examples in the pickslanting primer are done more or less with this kind of hybrid motion, as you describe, using more of a deviation motion for downstroke escape. It doesn’t feel like two motions. It just feels like picking motion where some parts of the arm in addition to the wrist are also moving. So it doesn’t feel wrong or problematic, necessarily.

Keep in mind also, that not all picking motions will lead to the same creative outcome. There is a form I click into with the wrist-forearm motion, where I have a slightly more flexed wrist, where I pretty much only do upstroke escapes and downstroke sweeps. And the kind of stuff I improvise and compose in that mode sounds totally different than the stuff I would improvise or compose with wrist motion alone.

As an example, this little jazz thing has the kind of snappy downstrokes and smooth pulloffs that are almsot more like Gypsy style playing, and which I don’t think I could replicate with a wrist-only approach. Instead, I came up with this by tooling around with the forearm-wrist motion and sort of “improvisationally composing” only phrases that fit with it:

If you want to learn the all-wrist approach, that’s fine too. The “USX Checklist” we put up yesterday has some very detailed pointers for doing the upstroke escape motion with no, or very little, forearm involvement:

Again, both of these systems work, and may not be the cause of whatever feels weird or awkward to you. To be more specifically constructive we’d need to see a video of what you’re doing where you think it’s not working properly.


Thanks. Okay, here’s my video of my picking. I think overall my biggest problem with it is that no matter what I’m trying to play, if I’m trying to be precise, it’s just not happening.

So the first clip is my “cheater” technique. Not a super example of it, but it actually fools real musicians most of the time when I do it well.

Second clip is ascending 3nps alternate picking, followed by a three string 3nps alternate picked pattern, ascending and descending.

3rd clip is another ascending 3nps alternate picking.

Last clip is 3nps ascending and descending.

It’s all so sloppy. I just know there’s a million things I’m doing wrong, and I’m here to FIX THEM. Please - Troy or anyone - guide me. What do I need to change?

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Hi! Thanks for posting this. First, this isn’t really that bad. The lines are being played and they sound pretty good. In fact it looks a whole lot like what Martin Miller’s faster technique looks like, which you can see at about 58 seconds into this video:

So I actually don’t think you’re really doing what we were talking about above. I think you’re doing what Martin is doing here. I’m not totally sure I know what that is, actually. Martin and I have talked about it, and to me it looks like a blend of wrist and elbow. But that’s kind of an academic point because if this isn’t working for you or feels weird, or whatever, then that is what we have to fix.

What I think you should do to get started is follow some of the instructions we have been working on recently, because they are the most detailed and clear of the tutorials that we have put together on picking motion. This should hopefully eliminate a lot of the trial and error frustration. That’s the goal, anyway. The idea is to find at least one efficient picking motion that you can do, and it doesn’t matter which one it is at first. If you’ve never done anything that really worked, then you don’t know what it feels like to have that smoothness, and that’s a big first step. Once you have that, you can learn any other motion for which you have good instructions, and even those for which you don’t if you’re willing to tool around and experiment.

Some of these new instructions are free. You can find our USX wrist motion tutorial right here:

And once you’ve watched that, hit the checklist I’ve linked to above for an even more step-by-step distillation of this video. The idea is to replicate everything I’m doing, down to the grip and the anchor points, as closely as possible, even if it’s different than what you currently do and even if you don’t intent to play that way long-term, to eliminate as many variables as possible. Again, the goal here is to get any technique and make it work correctly. Until you do that, you never really know what correct feels like. And this technique is as a good a starting point as any other.

Step 6 is the “medium speed” attempt we refer to in the checklist. Once you get to that step, film it and post it here and we’ll take a look.

Good luck!

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Thanks, Troy. I don’t think I can overstate how helpful it is to both look at and analyze my own video here, and also to have your analysis. THANK YOU.

I agree I am not doing what I thought I was doing. Those 3nps scales and the three-string pattern, I have been working on for like 3-4 months, and I have seen drastic improvement in that time; I now kind of understand it a little better, and I want to correct my mechanics before I try to go further.

As far as what I am doing - agree it’s wrist and elbow, and based on watching, I almost think it’s something like the elbow movement is “leading” the wrist, at least in some cases, meaning the elbow movement is initiating and “motivating” the wrist movement. That may be how I subconsciously found some fluidity in the motion.

Yesterday, I discovered that the repeating pattern Syn Gates uses in the verses of the song “Hail to the King” had me playing in a proper deviation with DWPS, so as I work with the steps you’ve outlined above, I’ll see if that pattern (5-8-5-0, etc on B string) helps cement the technique’s feel for me. THANK YOU!

No problem. But keep in mind, you need to go much faster than this to know if what you are doing here is actually workable. If you can’t go significantly faster than this, right now, even on a single fretted note, that’s a sign that there is potentially something awkward about the form. If that’s the case, I still recommend that you set aside this form at least temporarily and follow the instructions above.

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Sorry if I wasn’t clear. ABSOLUTELY going to follow the instructions above! Thanks!

Okay, so another thing I’ve discovered, and I’m pretty sure this is a habit I’m going to need to break, is that I’ve grown accustomed to using the thumb on my picking hand as a “rest” on the strings to guide my pick depth. Whenever I try to keep my thumb off the strings for speedier picking, I’m like a new player when it comes to pick depth. I feel like a beginner, almost. You can see it in the video above. Is that just going to be forcing a more supinated form and practicing proper pick depth that way? Just doing 10 minutes a day of slow picking to get that under my hand? Thanks.

If you’re touching the guitar anywhere at all, then you have a reference point for pick attack. This includes what some people call “floating”, when you only rest the arm on the body, but which isn’t really floating to me at all because a body anchor is still an anchor. So your reference doesn’t need to be the thumb specifically.

The wrist motions in the new Primer lessons are anchored because the wrist rests on the bridge and strings. And they are anchored so close to where the pick hits the strings that we’re talking probably only single-digit degrees at most of whichever wrist position, like flexion/extension, for example, to make attack height adjustment. That should be enough precision to get in the ballpark by feel. But I’ll be fair and suggest that I have no recollection of consciously working on attack, other than always being attuned to when things sound and feel smooth in general playing.

Which I think is how this is done, i.e. semi-consciously by playing realistic things at realistic speeds, not unrealistic robot slow speeds. As you do this, you’re paying attention to when things feel smooth and sound good, trying to notice when that happens, and making mental note of what your form feels like when it does so you can get that form again.