My long-standing problems with tremolo picking

Hi Troy and members of the Cracking the Code team. This is my first time posting, but I’ve been a fan of Cracking the Code for a few years now and I really love the scientific approach to analyzing picking styles. Without it, I wouldn’t even be able to describe my issue, but I believe I now have the right terminology and the right analysis to describe my struggles with tremolo picking, which I hope you’ll find interesting if nothing else.

I actually typed up a much longer post with more videos about 2 months ago, but decided to not post because I felt like I was unloading a 7 year long epic. Instead, I decided to take two months to diligently practice a wrist deviation based USX motion, and focus this post entirely on that for now.

So here’s the situation:

I’ve been playing guitar since 2008 when I was 13 years old as a big Thrash Metal fan. I spent a lot of time trying to play Metallica and Megadeth rhythms but could never get close. “Just practice more” everyone said, but it never helped. I remember spending weeks upon weeks and hours a day practicing Disposable Heroes by Metallica, and made zero progress in that time frame. I could never pick anywhere close to fast enough.

About 7 years ago, I decided I needed to focus entirely on alternate picking (or rather, tremolo picking on one fret on one string), and here I am 7 years later still trying. I’ve made… interesting progress, but I’m still a beginner. I’m literally better at drums than I am at guitar and I’ve played drums for less than 5 minutes.

Really, all I want at this point is to surpass the beginner stage of guitar playing. I don’t even remember the last time I tried to learn a new song; all I do is practice tremolo picking and honestly, it’s not fun anymore.

So fast forward to 2 months ago (I’m skipping the long story to save you time), and I’ve been practicing a specific USX motion with wrist deviation, and I’ve forced myself to practice every single day for at least 30 minutes if not longer. Unfortunately, I still can’t do it at any respectable speed. I made some progress on the first two days getting used to the feeling, but that’s where my progress ended, and I’ve made precisely zero progress since.

And to be clear, although I’ve only been practicing this specific technique for 2 months, I’ve spent years on and off practicing palm muted alternate picking using USX as well, as well as some other techniques. I could record them too, but I decided to keep this post on topic. Just know that it’s not like I’ve given up after a measly 2 months. I’ve been at this for 6-7 years.

Here’s me using this technique at a speed I can manage (100bpm), even though it’s not smooth:

(Side note: I recorded this video at 120fps for slow mo, but YouTube won’t play it above 30fps and I’ve given up trying to diagnose it)

To show you what the problem is, I decided to record a POV shot of myself playing while gradually increasing the tempo from 100bpm to 180bpm. I play one bar of 8ths, and then one bar of 16ths, increasing by 5bpm every two bars. It’s not a conventional video angle, but I thought it best captured the problem.

As you can see, my hand bounces quite erratically and I can’t control it at high speeds. This weird vibration issue also affects both of my hands, so I don’t think it’s something I learned to do. Unsurprisingly, I suffer from the infamous string hopping issue, but it was never something I learned to do, it just happens uncontrollably as a result of this bouncing. I was aware of this issue long before I discovered Cracking the Code.

This problem is definitely exaggerated due to string resistance as well. When picking through the string, the pushback of the string pushes my hand upwards due to basic physics, and this sets off the bouncing because I have to slightly tense my hand to keep it down. I can control this at slower speeds, but it requires a lot of focused thinking and I can’t think fast enough when it gets fast. It’s definitely not an autopilot motion for me. Even at abysmally slow speeds like 60bpm it still requires a lot of focused thinking.

I guess it’s also worth noting that I suffer from social anxiety and get very shaky hands from adrenaline rushes, which is annoying in general. Since I’m just a bedroom warrior, I don’t get anxious while playing guitar, but it might be connected since the shaky motion is identical.

Lastly, my current practice routine changes day to day, but this is an example template I’ve been following for 2 months. When I’m motivated, I sometimes spend a few hours practicing, but this is the daily minimum.

  • 5 minutes of warmup
  • 5 minutes of sweeping (for fun, why not?)
  • 5-10 minutes of trying to play fast (150-170bpm) in 5 note bursts, using this USX technique
  • 5-10 minutes of constant picking with no breaks at 80-90bpm, using this USX technique
  • 5 minutes of practicing with no pickslant and no escape motion for the purpose of targeting the bouncing problem alone
  • 5 minutes of practicing 2WPS with a 10 note 2 string pattern (the Petrucci one) slowly, using this USX technique and a DSX technique I learned previously

I am absolutely open to suggestions if you think I should change something here that would target my issue more directly. So far I’ve made no progress, so I don’t feel attached to this.

Bonus fact: I actually used to be fairly good at downpicking when I was younger. I could just barely keep up with the tempo of Master of Puppets (212 bpm) within probably 2 years of picking up guitar, but I definitely can’t do it anymore since I haven’t practiced downpicking in years.

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I would stop practicing this motion, it’s clearly not working at high speeds. You can’t change it by practicing the same motion.

How is the DSX working for you? Can you play tremolo at > 170 bpm continuously?

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You can’t change it by practicing the same motion.

Well I know for a fact that this can happen, because this is how I learned my DSX motion. It took me about 2 full years of constant practice to breach the 130bpm mark. I’m trying to keep this post on topic with respect to this specific USX technique which is why I didn’t bring it up though. I could go into detail about it, but I’d rather reserve that for a different post.

Unfortunately, I lack the natural ability required to learn a picking motion with only 10 minutes of practice like Troy suggests in his ‘Don’t “Work Up” To Picking Speed — Start With It!’ video. I’m definitely very jealous of people who can learn that fast though. 10 minutes is insane!

When I started practicing my DSX motion, my current motion would’ve been impossibly complex for me to even attempt. I know it wouldn’t be considered complex to most people, but to me it is. Picking is not an autopilot motion for me and it never has been.

I would stop practicing this motion, it’s clearly not working at high speeds.

Well that’s because I don’t even know how to do it at fast speeds. If I knew how, I could try it, but my bouncy hand prevents me from trying. By the way, this problem doesn’t depend on my pickslant or escape motion. And like I said in my post, it affects my left hand too.

I suppose I could stop practicing this motion and give up again, but what next? Do I just keep cycling through different techniques for the next 40 years hoping something will eventually work? Sorry, I don’t mean to be melodramatic, I just sometimes wonder if I’m insane for spending so much time practicing an instrument that I can’t play.

I think you’ve missed the point, though. The point is that you need to keep experimenting and changing things until you find a motion that feels good and most importantly is fast. Noone is saying that you’ll be able to learn any motion you want in ten minutes.

Anyway, I don’t think you lack natural ability! I do think you’re hindering your progress by practicing the way you do, however. If it’s not working, and by your own account it isn’t, then you’re not doing it right and need to try something else. Not more of the same.

No, but you have to keep trying different things until something clicks!

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Sup @lime! I also started with early Metallica, pretty sure that’s what got me so “pick-centric” lol.

As a suggestion / experiment, try planting the beefy portion of the base of your thumb across the low strings as if heavy palm-muting. In fact, attempt to palm mute the string that you’re hitting while attempting to tremolo it.

Based on your second video, it looks like planting that portion of your thumb / palm could potentially help reduce the “flutter” you’re experiencing.

Non-musical repetitive relaxed wrist motion.

These fast wrist motions are not “unnatural” or “musically specialized.” I was also linking to another one which was a pencil scribble on paper on a desk, but the forum only allows two. Supporting the forearm on the desk gets the subject closer to a guitar-type position.

He’s doing 16ths/200 BPM in bursts, but it even sounds “natural,” as if any teenager in art class with a sketchpad could do it.

I don’t know how this could work into your situation. I have a really strong feeling that you’re up against some combination of mental block and incorrect biomechanics – but that’s a wide spectrum of issues. Your motion does change dramatically as you transition to the higher speed, so something is either locking up (forcing another motion) or just plain taking over. I have a feeling those habits are super-ingrained the moment you put a guitar in your hands.

So I think what Johannes may be pointing to is the same thing I have in mind. One way or another, (in my opinion), you’ve got to find a fast, natural motion (even without guitar in hand) and then refine THAT into being a picking motion, as opposed to finding a clean picking motion and trying to hit warp speed with it. I think you’re on the same page with this too, given the questions you’re asking yourself.

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Yes, exactly! It’s counterproductive to keep doing something that isn’t working. And reading the OP I get the feeling @lime is hell-bent on pushing through despite not having found the right motions. This will only lead to frustration!

@lime, if you find a motion that is smooth, fast and effortless and spend some time refining it, even if it isn’t the motion you were looking for (eg USX), you will at least have experienced the feeling of effortless speed and will know what to look for.

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I think you’ve missed the point, though. The point is that you need to keep experimenting and changing things until you find a motion that feels good and most importantly is fast . Noone is saying that you’ll be able to learn any motion you want in ten minutes.

I understand and agree with the logic. But I’ve done this, long before I even discovered Cracking the Code. I’ve done it since as well. Experimenting until something feels good within a mere 10 minutes is what seems crazy to me. Finding something fast in that time frame? That’s even more impressive.

I do think you’re hindering your progress by practicing the way you do, however. If it’s not working, and by your own account it isn’t, then you’re not doing it right and need to try something else. Not more of the same.

I agree with this as well. But again, I’ve been on the path probably over a hundred times now. I’ve only been doing this specific practice routine for 2 months, but I’ve tried more methods than I can count. If I just keep trying until “something clicks”, what if it never clicks? In 7 years it so far hasn’t.

Your motion does change dramatically as you transition to the higher speed, so something is either locking up (forcing another motion) or just plain taking over. I have a feeling those habits are super-ingrained the moment you put a guitar in your hands.

This is right, but there’s an important detail missing: It happens to my left hand as well! If I try to wave my left hand in the air using wrist deviation alone, it eventually starts bouncing exactly like you see in my second video as it gets fast. Fortunately, this is a nonissue for guitar playing since I don’t pick with that hand.

I have a really strong feeling that you’re up against some combination of mental block and incorrect biomechanics

It’s entirely possible and likely that it’s a mental block. I really don’t know how to describe it, but at a certain point I lack the imagination to move my wrist faster, if that makes sense. Like, not only can I not do it, I can’t even imagine my hand doing it. My hand just starts vibrating up and down and I don’t understand what signals my brain needs to send to make it not do that.

you’ve got to find a fast, natural motion (even without guitar in hand)

Interesting approach. I’ve considered doing this, but it definitely requires the route of starting slow and working up, which this forum highly discourages.

if you find a motion that is smooth, fast and effortless and spend some time refining it, even if it isn’t the motion you were looking for (eg USX)

I can do a DSX motion around 180bpm. Before you go “oh, well why didn’t you say so!”, I left it out because the technique took years to build up from a slow speed, and it doesn’t meet those requirements. It also doesn’t work for the type of music I want to play.

Even though it’s fast, it’s not smooth, it’s not effortless, and it’s not an autopilot motion. It requires an incredible amount of focused thinking.

My hand is still bouncing erratically, but I solve the problem by digging my thumb into the lower register strings and using it to absorb the pushback of the string due to string resistance. I can keep this up for a long time, so it’s not like I want to throw this method away, but it’s not useful in general.

I posted more about this in this thread if you’re interested.

Do you have a clip with that motion instead? Perhaps it would be better to refine that motion to feel more second nature than to develop this one?

I could record something I guess, but I’m trying to keep this post on topic so it doesn’t get too convoluted. I still spend time developing it, but as I said, it’s not useful in general.

In particular, since I want to play metal, I need a technique that allows me to use palm muting, and that technique doesn’t work at all with palm muting so that’s why I’m trying to find another technique that does. This process of focusing on a palm muting oriented technique started about 3 years ago, but since that wasn’t working I thought I should give up and focus on a clean USX motion first (hence the technique in my videos).

I guess my confusion is that it sounds like I have a similar technique to the other style you’re referring to, and I also focus on lots of palm muting. I think when I do that, I just shift the emphasis from pushing the fleshy part of the base of my thumb on the strings, to the edge of my palm on the pinky since.

Can’t see all I’d like to from the POV shot, but it looks like you’re restricting yourself to one motion. The wrist is deviating (the wave-hello motion), but it kind of looks like your forearm is static, as if locked in place.

It seems to me that most fluid, natural motions for tremolo you see on CTC are what Troy calls blended - i.e. a combination of two or more motions. I’m not talking about USX or DSX; that’s what the pick’s doing. I’m talking about your muscles.

Not telling you to do this exactly, as you might vary it depending on your intended pick path, but the following helped me… I first forced a deviation-only motion, like yours. Then I forced a forearm rotation-only motion (turn-the-key motion - but with no wrist. Lock that wrist!). Tougher to do, but I figured out how. I’d do each of these for a minute or so.

Then I’d combine the two - and it pretty much happened on the spot, without having to be too deliberate about it. If you work through all that, you may end up with a more mechanically efficient, blended motion that you can do faster and with greater consistency.

I really think you need to spend a while (not 10 minutes) trying every combination of motion and escape and pick grip until you find something that doesn’t bounce and has a linear path.

It doesn’t have to sound good and it may not be the escape motion you prefer, but I think this is the starting point to move forward. Try to be an “experimenting kid” for a while, make some awful sounds on your guitar and try to find a motion that is smooth.

My USX is bouncy as all heck. Looks like yours. I tried for months to get it to be a smooth linear motion, no go even though I was putting in hours and hours each day. I had to experiment for a few more months to find a smooth DSX. Now I sound awful, can’t play my old licks, etc. but I’m not stringhopping anymore at least and I can see how things will improve a lot once I synchronize eventually.

Hi @lime!

I’ll toss in my two cents regarding this topic. I’ll quote parts of your posts where I think some clarification is needed. Hopefully I don’t come off too blunt! :slightly_smiling_face: I read through this topic as thoroughly as I could; forgive me if I missed something! :wink:

Personally I think you’re putting a bit too much focus on the past and years spent playing. I know 7 years might feel like a long time and it’s frustrating not having made the progress that one would have wanted in that timespan. However, it’s going to hinder you more than help you in your development if you constantly have it in your back of your mind. No one’s gonna judge for your time-progress ratio and I think it would be best to try and drop that thought if possible. Troy himself said in some of the Talking the Code broadcast that he has spent around 20 years on ineffective picking techniques, so you’re not alone in that part!

I understand you want to learn to tremolo picking, but doing it extensively could be less beneficial for your guitar playing on a whole. When the element of fun is missing or something lacks the spark of joy your enthusiasm eventually drops and you start doing and enjoying it less, which could lead to you quitting that activity completely. I think learning a new song or doing something on the guitar that you think you’re currently good at could help with your enjoyment of guitar playing and overall self-esteem and confidence.

I think there’s a big difference in forcing yourself to practice and doing it spontaneously or because you want to. Following a practice schedule helps some to structure their practice sessions and get more out of their available time, but I think you should never feel forced to do it in that case either. Try maybe to mix up your practice schedule or how long or how often you practice if you feel you’re currently forcing your sessions.

A couple of questions:

  • Are you exaggerating the vibration issue in the second video or is that the amount that occurs when you’re playing?
  • Is the source of the vibration the whole arm or just the hand?
  • Does the vibration happen separately in both hands or is one hand vibrating as an effect of the other one?

I think posting a clip where we can see both of your arms and the whole guitar when you’re playing could partly help deduce your problem.

Could you elaborate on this a bit? Do you mean that strings with more resistance amplifies the vibration issue? I don’t quite follow.

Reading this, I would spontaneously guess they’re different things since you said you don’t get anxious while playing in your bedroom. Maybe there could be some tension in your playing that produces the same kind of outcome? I don’t have the symptoms you mentioned, but maybe someone else on this forum could help you more with this and share their insights.

Good mindset! :+1:I think experimenting with something more than just pure wrist deviation could be beneficial!

I understand you want to keep this thread focused on your USX picking motion, but I think posting a video or your DSX technique could help here! Do your hands, one or both of them, do the same vibration you described earlier when doing your DSX picking motion? What exactly do you mean with the last section on “absorbing the pushback”? I think it’s the same thing I asked for clarification earlier, but I’ll just repeat myself here.

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As others also have already mentioned on this thread, If you want to learn a picking motion I think experimenting with different mechanics and other factors relative to picking is the fastest way forward. Try all the variations and picking details in the Pickslanting Primer and incorporate them when troubleshooting your technique. When refining a picking motion, sometimes the smaller things – like edge picking angle or supporting fingers – can have quite a huge impact!

With that said, I can give some hinters on my USX wrist deviation technique that looks similar to yours and a compound movement with the forearm (similar to Troy’s) that I also have started using. I tried to replicate the angle you used in your video to the best of my ability, but I didn’t quite manage to get the exact same perspective! Rotating the guitar around at times also made it a bit harder to play! :upside_down_face:


Wrist deviation:


Comparing this to your technique, I would say that my arm is a bit less supinated. As a result, my pickslant is a bit more shallow and my escape angle smaller. Personally I can’t do pure wrist deviation with a more supinated arm position. I would also say that my wrist is more deviated to the Ulnar side as a whole than yours.

I also feel that I need to keep my supporting fingers tucked and with the pinky touching the guitar; if I spread them all out or lift them all off the guitar I feel that my hand wants to go to a DSX position. I can’t tell from your video how tight you hold the pick, but my grip is quite loose and relaxed. I can definitely feel some pick flop if I actively think about it when playing. I usually don’t use that much edge picking with this technique.


Forearm Rotation + Wrist Deviation


Here I use a compound movement of the forearm rotating and the wrist deviating, similar to what Troy often uses. Comparing it with the first motion, you can see that my arm is more supinated and my wrist a bit more Radially deviated. My pickslanting and escape angle are consequently also a bit more distinct.

I keep all of my supporting fingers extended. For some reason, I can’t do this kind of picking technique tucking the fingers, so it’s a bit reversed from the first case. It feels that I need a bit more edge picking here, but I can still feel the pick flopping around a little.


Switching between them starting with rotation + deviation:

Both of these picking motions feel comfortable and relaxed to me and I could do them for an extended period of time. Most of the above-mentioned aspects are personal preference, but some might make the USX picking motion easier to grasp.

I think both of these motions look quite similar to yours, so maybe give them a shot! Hopefully, you’ll find something of value picking wise. :slightly_smiling_face:

Thanks for all the responses, guys! I don’t have time to respond to everything, but I’ll try to cover some of the main topics and questions.

Multiple people have suggested that I should spend time experimenting. I want to be clear that I’ve spent a lot of time doing this in the past without much success. Of course I’m not unwilling to try it again, but I know that it will take me significantly longer than most people for experimentation to lead anywhere.

Hey @AndreasNasman, I’ll try to answer a bunch of your questions.

I think there’s a big difference in forcing yourself to practice and doing it spontaneously or because you want to.

To be honest, force might be too harsh of a word. Most days I was genuinely quite motivated, and even went far beyond the 30 minute mark because I wanted to. Not all days were that smooth, but most were.

Are you exaggerating the vibration issue in the second video or is that the amount that occurs when you’re playing?

Genuinely no. I tried to keep my hand in place as best I could while recording that. This clip was also the first take.

Is the source of the vibration the whole arm or just the hand?

Well, I think it’s just unintentional extension/flexion in the wrist, but my forearm moves as a result of that motion too. Like when my hand goes down, my arm goes up and vice versa. Something about primitive lever mechanics probably explains that… That’s why I think vibration is the best term for it.

Does the vibration happen separately in both hands or is one hand vibrating as an effect of the other one?

No it’s totally independent.

Could you elaborate on this a bit? Do you mean that strings with more resistance amplifies the vibration issue? I don’t quite follow.

When your pick pushes through the string, the string pushes back due to basic Newtonian physics. In the extreme case where your hand is 100% relaxed like the hand is dead, your hand would be pushed away from the guitar. Most people are able to fight this pushback with a tiny amount of tension or a tiny amount of flexion, even if you can’t feel it, but a small amount of downward force is definitely required to keep the picking motion linear.

In my case, this pushback seems to act like a catalyst to set off the bouncing motion early. But I’m less confident about this detail.

I understand you want to keep this thread focused on your USX picking motion, but I think posting a video or your DSX technique could help here!

Since everyone is asking, I’ll try to include a recording of this. Might take some time…

Do your hands, one or both of them, do the same vibration you described earlier when doing your DSX picking motion?

Yes, but you probably won’t be able to see it. I push my thumb into the lower register strings to dampen the vibration to the point where it actually looks quite flat when everything goes right. It doesn’t feel flat though. And sometimes my hand jumps a little bit too much to where the dampening isn’t sufficient.

Fyi this second video here where it’s faster doesn’t look like deviation, it looks like Di Meola / Andy Wood style “2 o’clock” wrist motion, which from this arm position creates DSX. Like this:

I could be wrong, it could be the camera angle. But that’s what it looks like. And it looks good too, worth working on.

Hey! Sorry you’re having all this trouble. There’s some very good advice here. @gotmixes in particular is right on target:

A couple people have suggested better video of the vibration thing when it happens, filmed from the two perspectives we normally use (audience and strings). Here are some tips for doing that:

How are you getting the closeup shot, do you have a Magnet? If so that’s fine, you can continue to use that. If you have a tripod, pulling back a little farther in both strings and audience will include more forearm / arm and that can be helpful to see more of what’s going on.

More generally, the vibration thing looks pretty fast. It also looks like wrist/flexion extension, which can certainly work as a picking motion. The table tap test is also flexion-extension. If you take a metronome and tap eighth notes (i.e. two taps per click) on a table with your wrist, what’s the max tempo where you can tap two bars, is it over 200?