Norm Blake crosspicking technique?

Hi All,

First time poster here. I’ve been deep in all the instructional materials after stumbling across Troy’s stuff a few weeks ago. Troy, your lessons and videos are fabulous, nobody else out there is covering this stuff!

Anyways … my musical interest is bluegrass and old time / roots style flatpicking. So I’ve been binge watching (and re-watching) all of Troy’s lessons on cross picking as well as interviews with Andy Wood, Molly Tuttle, David Grier, and Carl Miner. It’s great to understand what they are doing.

I’ve been trying to get comfortable with one of Andy’s 9-0-2 or Molly’s 10-0-3 technique. Unfortunately none of them are yet sticking. I’ve come to realize that my self-learned strumming and picking style so far seems to have a bit of wrist rotation in it, and so trying to play with just wrist deviation-type and wrist flex type movements is not feeling particularly natural.

In a bit of frustration I started looking for videos of other players to see what else is out there. And I found a very interesting instructional video from flatpicking legend Norm Blake. The video is available as a paid download or stream on the website, it’s called “Norm Blake’s Guitar Techniques Vol. 1.” It costs $25 to access the video, fair warning in advance.

Most of the video is more focused topics that will be less interesting to people on this forum (but certainly interesting if bluegrass is your thing, including some less-common roll patterns that I immediately found easier to play than the standard 3-3-2 syncopated role). However … there is one potential nugget which is a track in the middle called “Right Hand Technique.” Norm talks for a couple of minutes and demonstrates his right hand technique. Unfortunately he doesn’t have Troy’s super up close cam, but still the video is pretty good. Guess what … it’s completely different from Andy’s 9-0-2 or Molly’s 10-0-3 technique. In fact, he’s doing a combination of wrist rotation and something else. So what is he doing? Anybody know?

He seems to be able to use his technique to easily cross in the 200-240 bpm (eighth note) range, though I don’t know if he can push it as fast as David’s or Molly’s 300 bpm eighth note pace.

I know Troy has a video of another player (Michael Herring?) doing a wrist rotation based technique. But that video doesn’t look to me like what Norm is doing in the video. Michael Herring’s technique has a very distinctive “wobble” look to it. Norm’s technique doesn’t seem to have that same “wobble” look.

Anyways … I searched the forum and found pretty much no discussion of Norm Blake. One of the greatest flatpickers ever … what’s he doing and how is he doing it? Looking for help (and hoping that maybe it’s a better fit for me than the 9-0-2 or 10-0-3 techniques).

Hi, welcome to the forum!

I love your question. I’m not going to drop $25 to see the exact clip of Norman, sorry :rofl:
Are there any free videos of Norman where at least the crosspicking at the speeds your referencing are present? The top google hits feature tempos that are pretty laid back (but nonetheless, excellent playing!)

We saw a fantastic post recently on a crosspicking technique that has some rotation in it. Does what you see Norman doing at all resemble the video in the first post of this thread?

Love Norman! There are some picking hand close ups here:

And whilst it’s only audio, here’s Norman cross picking 16th notes at around 130bpm

Thank you for the kind words of welcome!

Here are some YouTube clips which I think are actually marketing teasers from the instructional video I mentioned. The first one has the stereotypical “play in” open and I clock Norm doing eighth notes @ 210 BPM.

The second is a full take of him doing Whiskey Before Breakfast, at about 200 to 210 bpm.

It looks to me like Norm is not anchoring at all, in the way that Mollie or Andy do. Yes, he’s dragging his fingers very lightly on the pickguard. But he is moving between strings by moving his entire forearm (so, elbow movement), most obviously when working in strums and rhythm figures, but also when moving more than 1 string on a single note line. Am I seeing this right?

Regarding the other thread with the member video of cross picking that joebegley mentioned — I can’t quite tell if it’s similar to the Norm mechanics or not as the camera angles are so different. However it is very nice playing so compliments to whoever that player was!

Yeah I forgot to mention above that while I’m not a huge bluegrass fan my dad had an old Norman Blake record I listened to a lot when I was a kid. I liked it a lot and love his playing too.

Right, this is a totally different system. It’s not wrist based and though the term is a little bit loaded, I’d consider that gentle contact with his fingers on the pick guard a form of an “anchor”. Others might not, but he’s definitely got a reference point.

Yeah after seeing more clips of Norman, I’d say this is also a different system than that awesome clip that @Constare9 graced us with.

BUT I see Troy is typing, so I’ll shut up and we’ll find out what’s really going on here :slight_smile:

There’s what you’re asking, and then there’s what you want. I think the second part is really what you want to focus on, i.e. being able to play particular lines.

Meaning, you shouldn’t try to “do” a particular technique, be it Andy’s technique, Norman’s, or anyone else’s. Instead, you should try to go fast until you find something that’s easy. Knowing the material as well as you do, you’ll have a little more to go on because when you find something that works, you’ll be able to recognize which joint motion it is and that will help you do it again the next you pick up the guitar. And the next time. And the next time. And so on.

So again, I’d recommend finding a selection of phrases you want to play and doing them fast until you find a motion that produces no tension and gets at least some of the notes right. That’s the first step and you can’t skip it. Once you have that much, link to a clip and we’ll take a look and see if we can spot any areas for improvement.

Good luck!

Sadly as usual I’m not answering the question! My standard response to all questions that start with “How do I learn player XYZ’s motion” is that most of the time you shouldn’t. If you want the most progress the soonest, going for it on your own produces that. You can learn someone else’s technique, but that takes a lot longer because now you’re forcing yourself to figure out one specific way instead of accepting any answer that works.

Second stock response is that we really shouldn’t offer advice on someone’s technique without seeing it first. Otherwise you’re just taking it on face value that whatever someone describes is really what is happening, or what is relevant. And we know for sure that is not always the case.

I’m sorry to be no fun at parties!

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Right, and thanks for jumping in. I know the rules about “video first, suggestions later”. Sounds like @40YearsWandering thinks he’s got a motion that’s in line with Norman’s:

So we’ll have to wait for video to see.

I just was wondering more from an academic standpoint if you had comments on Blake’s setup and motion(s). Have you done any analysis on that type of crosspicking? I probably don’t know what I’m looking at, but it looks a good bit different than the ones I’ve seen you talk about:

Oparin, Morse, Martin Miller, Jimmy Herring, Andy Wood etc

I’m no fun in general and get just as much enjoyment (more maybe???) from nerding out about mechanics than actually playing stuff.

Norman looks broadly like Andy and Anton to me. There’s some forearm helper for ascending inside picking, but that is also true of Andy and Anton.

There really aren’t too many “big picture” categories left we haven’t seen at this point. Anyone you can point to is going to fit in one broad box similar to something we know. Only the small differences between those approaches are left to sift through and by their nature they will matter less and less from a practical standpoint.

The most important things we don’t know are what things a person should do to test if they’re having a particular problem, and to verify they’re improving. Simple things like the table tap tests were a huge step forward. Note how much less common the “I can’t go fast” posts are now. If you can do the tests, you can go fast. We need to identify more bottlenecks, tests, and solutions like those.

Same arm position as Andy, mostly wrist with a little forearm but not on every note, only as a helper. Mix of downstroke escape and double escape. See also Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton for a very similar approach.

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Yeah, great point.

It could be a coincidence, but I’ve been seeing more “Help I am having trouble crosspicking” posts lately. I’ve actually taken a stab at it myself more recently since I’ve never tried it. Promising results in a short period of time too! I should make another thread with video clips. The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that

  • To get it to work, I have to use a much different pick grip and wrist extension than I do for anything else I’ve ever played
  • When the motion is working, it “feels” nothing like the movement I’m doing if I spot check it in a mirror. I don’t even know how to describe it.
  • In general, it doesn’t feel like any other picking motion I’ve ever done, and I’ve got a decent DSX and USX going at this point

so all that’s to say, I think the compound nature of the motion required for crosspicking seems much harder for folks to grasp than the single escape stuff. Is there any way to get the equivalent of a table tapping test for crosspicking? I can’t even begin to think how that would work, based on what I’ve seen so far in my own progress with it.

Then it’s time for my other stock answer, which is nobody should try to “do crosspicking”. What you’re really trying to do is learn a picking style capable of doing upstroke and downstroke string chnages. This is best done by playing a wide variety of phrases that don’t conform to any particular type of string change. This may at times involve playing lines where you have a single note on a string, sure. But trying to do a pentatonic scale starting on both pickstrokes is just as unusual for most people. So you don’t need one note per string lines to force yourself to find a new motion.

Bluegrass is great for this since there are a wide variety of simple melodies in open positions that weren’t written with any particular escape in mind. But jazz works equally well if you try to play phrases that move across the strings using common shapes and sometimes have intervals in them that aren’t stepwise.

Variety and going fast is the first step.

Hi Troy, that video you posted is helpful.

What I see at 1/4 speed: the rhythm playing is very heavy forearm rotation. And Norm’s playing has lots of rhythm mixed in even to his solo lines. So watching at normal speeds, yeah it looks like lots of forearm rotation. But at 1/4 speed looking at just the single lines I see how it reverts more towards the Andy style.

Well for me, I can kind see where I’m getting stuck. My default rhythm and strumming playing uses heavy forearm rotation mechanics like Norm’s. And my default “play real fast on one string” is a forearm rotation based motion as well. I think you called it the Eddie Van Halen tremolo in one of your videos. On a single string I can get that to 180 bpm+ Sixteenth notes no problem. However as soon as I try to take it to two strings as an outside picking 2-note roll, the speed limit comes up. I can pick it with forearm rotation clean until 90 bpm sixteen notes. Muddy until about 110 bpm. After that, it sounds like I’m just playing a tremolo on 2 strings instead of 1. Muddy and swiping and soft volume. Not clean picking at all. My conclusion is that forearm rotation does not work as primary movement for crosspicking , so even though it’s my natural movement, it won’t get me where I want to go (which is crosspicking given my genre interest).

I guess I’m going to keep playing around with the Andy method and see where I can get with that to get me out of my current rut. Thanks for your comments!

If it’s at all helpful (and it may not be, but most likely will not be harmful) that Blake clip is one I’ve transcribed and posted on soundslice, so if anybody wants to do a deeper frame-by-frame matching with the tab, here ya go:

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