Please diagnose my plateau

Hello all,

I am an intermediate player who has been playing casually on an off for 15 years but only became really serious in my devotion to become great 4-5 months ago.

My focus is 100% entirely on bluegrass. I am transcribing every Bryan Sutton fiddle tune that I love and every Tony Rice break I can find. As this forum is well aware, bluegrass is not a style where you can chose uwps or dwps and then plan out your licks by organizing a certain number of notes per string. The fiddle tunes are what they are and they have to be alternate picked. I guess that means I need to use the double escape or “cross picking technique”. But to me, that technique is eerily similar to string hopping and I am having trouble identifying the line between the two.

I have transcribed a lot of stuff and have practiced some songs like, literally thousands of times. The one song I have played more than any other is Beaumont rag. I know the notes like the back of my hand, so this is really the song that I am using to drill my picking technique and to try to increase my speed.

I can tremolo really fast but for some reason , when actually playing out the tune, I cannot play anything cleanly past 100bpm (16th notes). I have been grinding and grinding and drilling and drilling and drilling and just cannot nudge my speed even my a single bpm over 100. It’s so frustrating. My hand gets so tense, locks up, it feels so inefficient, but I can’t downward pickslant , because just as often I can changing strings after a downstroke. I also feel like none of the great bluegrass players learned to play fast by studying how their grip should change depending on how many notes are in the line. To me it seems they all learned to do this naturally, by feel. Essentially just trying to play faster and faster little by little, and overtime their muscles learned what they had to do to go that one extra bpm faster.

Well, my muscles aren’t. And I think I’m probably string hopping but I don’t know what to do about it. I cannot even begin to explain To you how many hours I have spent drilling this one song over and over and over and over and over , thinking that the practice would somehow make me be able to play it faster. But it hasn’t. And I feel like I have wasted hundreds of hours on nothing. My wife is losing her mind. She doesn’t even like that I play guitar anymore because she finds it so annoying, which makes me sad. At least if I had something to show for it… but I don’t.

Anyway, 100bpm 16th notes is so slow. I understand that I can strategically incorporate hammers and pulls in order to rest for a beat to allow me to go faster, but I shouldn’t be having to do that in order to get to 110 or 120, yea maybe when Sutton plays at 160 he uses some rest strokes, but he can also alt pick straight notes at that speed for several bars.

Anyway, I have been to 3 different teachers. And they all say the same thing. Play slower. Play slow enough so that it is musical, and clean and Crisp… once you can do it like that, you will be able to then do it a little faster. But that was only true for me until I hit this plateau. Now I can put in 100 hours of Beaumont rag at 95bpm and it doesn’t make one lick of a difference. Trust me, I practice slow so freaking much. Not one of these teachers can actually look at my technique and say anything about it. They just think it’s because I haven’t learned the song well enough. Really? I have played Beaumont rag 30,000 times per week, I still don’t know it well enough?

Part of me thinks it could also be a hand synchronization issue because even when I do the chromatic exercise I just struggle to hit the notes cleanly. But maybe that’s just because I haven’t practiced that pattern that much. Beaumont rag is a pattern I have practiced to DEATH. can hand synch really be the issue?

Anyway, here is my video. I would be so insanely grateful if anybody could help me figure out what to do. I suspect the diagnosis is going to be string hopping but I don’t know how to cure that in a bluegrass context.

3 Likes

Except… it is!

Bryan is mostly a uwps player. That’s how he reaches the faster speeds. We’ve discussed this quite a bit on here, and you can find those discussions if you do some searching. But if you transcribe a lot of Bryan you will notice that the vast majority of his fast lines are downstroke string changes. He is not a double escape player habitually. He is what we have tended to call a “two way pickslanting” player. A primary up 2wps player, to be precise. This is the playing style where you adopt one picking motion as your core motion and use a very brief switch to another motion sometimes, for certain phrases. In Bryan’s case, that core motion is the DSX, or downstroke escape motion — performed mostly with wrist motion.

So…

Your playing sounds great! It’s not super slow for bluegrass, and is in the same speed range as lots of the more complicated stuff David Grier plays when we interviewed him. For the more complicated slower stuff David’s motion is more double escape. For the faster stuff, like Bryan, he becomes a 2wps player at high speed and we have some very, very good closeup footage of this:



Do you want to play very fast lines? The easiest way is to arrange them for DSX, which is the most common high-speed approach in bluegrass, again used by players like Bryan, David, and Jake Workman. If you want to know how to actually do the DSX motion, that’s what the Pickslanting primer is about. We cover David’s motion here:

If you don’t have the Primer, here’s my best forum advice for doing what you want to do:

Again, sounding great so far. Keep up the good work!

2 Likes

Troy, thanks so much for the guidance. You really have an amazing thing here.

I just bought a membership so I have access to everything now and will dive in, but it’s a lot to take in so I appreciate the direction you’ve given here.

My video was at 90 or 95 bpm, I forget. It’s actually a transcription of doc Watson’s version. He plays it at 128.

I’m looking specifically at the B part, which every flat picker plays the same notes more or less. That three string roll. I am capping out there at 95-100bpm and haven’t gained any speed in months. For this particular pattern I assume crosspicking is the answer. I also assume I must
Not be crosspicking properly
Because I have been stuck at 95bpm for many months. Doc and Bryan and whoever else plays this song can do that cross picking at 130 or 140 and I figure if I can do that , I can also cross pick the linear lines at that speed.

I am not looking for blazing speed. I just want to be able to play moderate bluegrass speed like even just 120 or 130 bpm. I was hoping to accomplish that with all crosspicking.

Would you say I am crosspicking or am I string hopping ?

1 Like

If you simply can’t do the roll patterns fast enough then the motion is probably wrong. We can try to speculate exactly what the difference is between these slightly speed-limited motions and the really fast ones, but it’s sort of academic. Because at the end of the day the solution is to go fast, regardless of sloppyness. You can then go backwards and try to clean up the fast motion, maybe with a little filming to see what’s wrong. It’s a bunch of trial and error, but you will eventually figure out how to do the motion in a way that feels easy and clicks.

However… keep in mind that not all players appear to be able to do roll patterns at high speed. You don’t see this from Bryan or David, and I love these guys, but when they’re blazing their vocabulary changes. Molly has high-speed roll technique, Carl Miner does. So it can be done. But rather than beat your head against the wall trying to do something, I would also try to get stuff you can get immediately, right now. And the single-escape motions are much more gettable for most people right away. Get those happening and sounding good, with loud, clear, fast, and easy attack.

You can always make figuring out the roll stuff a side project and continue doing that over time. Getting fast, smooth single escape motion right now will only help that side project.

Edit: Here’s our lesson on getting the roll patterns with wrist motion:

A much more condensed and targeted version of this will make its way into the Pickslanting Primer wrist motion section eventually, but for now this is where you can find it, and it’s mostly still accurate.

Thanks. So, I just should clarify, it’s not just the roll patterns I can’t play. It’s any of the lines. Even a 1 string alt picking exercise. I can’t do it plaster than 95bpm 16th notes. And I don’t want to play blazing fast. Just like 125 bpm 16th notes lets say… that’s why I’m trying to learn cross picking as my primary form. when Bryan is blazing he may do upward slanting. But he can do crosspicking rolls at 130bpm in his sleep as can any bluegrass guitar player. I just want to be able to alternate pick bluegrass standard fiddle tunes at 125-130bpm. Bryan has songs at 165 which I’m sure is when he changes his approach and vocabulary, but since my goal is just to be able to pick fiddle tunes at 130, I thought that a good approach would be to learn the cross picking technique, and then apply that to all my playing, even linear lines. So my video I posted here is my attempt at cross picking.

However now that I have access to all this other content I may try to implement the one way escape patterns, I guess I just never thought I was going to have to plan out how many notes I play per string if my only goal is to play moderately paced bluegrass fiddle tunes at 125bpm

I will watch all the crosspicking videos available on this site and try to practice fast first and then worry about filling in the accuracy afterwards. I just feel like my hand physically cannot do it, I feel like crying. Haha.

Right, because something is wrong with your motion. You have to start somewhere with fluid motion and single escape motions are the simplest ones to get. Once you get those, getting others becomes easier. By all means keep trying to smooth out the crosspicking motion as well.

What do you think a roll pattern is? It’s “planned”. The first three notes are always DUD, second three notes are always UDU. Then it repeats. As players try to learn to do this sequence of motions, they repeat this thousands of times to get it smooth until the motions themselves become completely memorized and repeatable. And just because you can do the roll doesn’t mean you can automatically play a scale. We might think of that as easier, but in reality, it’s not. It’s just different. You still have to learn the picking and fingering combinations for all of the scale fragments you want to play, which all feel slightly different and thus are different as far as your motor system is concerned. Hence the repetition, smoothing, and memorizing.

Eventually you learn and memorize so many of these little picking and fretting combinations that you feel like you can go anywhere or play anything. But if you record yourself and play it back — surprise, the licks and patterns all repeat. Everyone’s vocabulary is just a remix of things they already know, with giant holes where the fretboard shapes they haven’t yet memorized would go. Those are the shapes that may as well not exist to you because you’ve never worked on them.

TLDR memorizing things isn’t bad. Any complex motion that you want to do smoothly is worked out in advance at the level of the motor system. What you want to do is build up such a large vocabulary of memorized mini motions that they no longer feel memorized to you, and you “feel” free in whatever you’re playing.

1 Like

i don’t mind memorizing, or doing my own arrangements, but all the old classic standard fiddle tunes that i learned the melody to that are played in the open position, which everyone on youtube seems to play the same way, black berry blosson, cherokee shuffel, wheel hoss, lost indian, beaumont rag etc… i basically can’t learn them by playing them the normal way and have to rearrange the to fit a particular technique? It just makes me feel frustrated, why did everyone on youtube figure out how to play fiddle tunes like a normal person but i can’t learn that way?

even the open position g major scale that i’ve been practicing so much… i can’t play that either… i have to rewrite it… and i can’t even play it the same way ascending as I do descending? i have seen like 1000 youtube video lessons about bluegrass which say to study the open g major scale, but now I find out that i can’t learn bluegrass that way, i guess it makes it feel like theres something wrong with me. 125 bpm seems like it should be possible to play normally.

Sorry if I’m not explaining this properly!

This is an oversimplification, but there are generally only three types of motions you can make in alternate picking: USX, DSX, and double escape / DBX. These are your efficient picking motions because they can all go fast. Right now the only one you have is double escape, and you might not be doing it right because it’s speed limited. So what you need is a plan for learning at least a couple of these motions so you can play what you want. I’m giving you that plan, based on the experience of what we’ve seen others do that worked.

Am I understanding you correctly that never, in your entire 10+ years of playing guitar, have you ever picked faster than 100bpm or so? Well that’s a major roadblock. It is holding you back because you have no reference point for what “smooth” actually feels like. So it’s the first thing we need to fix. And it doesn’t really matter which motion you use to get that, because you can get all motions eventually. But you need to get at least one of them to start.

I think the DSX motion is the best way to start for a bluegrass player. Why? Number one, because it’s a single escape motion, and those are easier for people to figure out. And, two, when it comes to DSX vs USX, we’ve seen some of the best players in the world like Bryan, David, and Jake seem to favor DSX. That’s not the only motion those players use, but it does seem to be the main one. Many of their arrangements of the standards that you want to play use this motion more than any other. I can’t comment on what random YouTubers do. But these are some of the best players on the planet, and this is what they do.

Of course, you don’t have to only ever use the DSX motion. And you don’t have to rewrite every song to use this motion exclusively. Even players that use this motion heavily will still throw in bits of other motions like the “2wps” switcheroo we were talking about, and also the double escape motion. But you don’t have any of those motions yet. So have to start somewhere. I’m just suggesting you start with this one.

The best way to do that is first on a single note on a single string, trying to get it going fast, any which way you can. Then you can try some simple DSX exercise-type phrases to see if you can manage those. There are a bunch in the Primer right here:

Moving beyond this, it is on my list to arrange some simple grass style phrases for DSX-only, so that beginning players have something cool to play. I will fast track that over the next couple of weeks and put them on the platform. If you can get that happening, you will be very close to expanding to other motions and playing more “real world” style arrangements that mix and match motions.

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it. This forum post will self-destruct in 10, 9, 8…

Wow thank you so much. I really appreciate the attention you’ve paid to my frustrations and I totally understand what you’re getting at now.

I can DSX one note on one string extremely fast. But if I try to do multiple notes on that one string it is much slower so maybe I also need to work on some exercises to get the synchronization down. I will study the upward slanting primary and do all those exercises.

Thanks Troy. Your responsiveness on the forum alone is worth the price of membership here. I can’t wait to start learning how it feels to play fluidly and become familiar with the type of phrasing available to me in DSX motion.

To answer your question. Yes, I have never alternate picked faster than 100bpm In my life. I mean. I can set it to 105 and get it but it’s on and off and sloppy and I get extremely tense and can’t sustain it.

Your hand speed should not suddenly drop when you try to play multiple notes on a string. Are you saying that’s what happens?

Or are you just saying the hand synch is off and it’s sloppy? If so, that’s ok. That’s not the same thing as suddenly becoming slower. That’s a hand synch issue. Simple repeating accented patterns (Di Meola 3s, Yngwie sixes) are the general fix for that. They’re not very grassy but they’re exercises. You get them by accenting the first note of the pattern to create “chunks”. Here’s our current lesson:

In general, these issues you are facing are core issues that affect everyone and high priorities for us to address. Someone needs to dive into the Primer and immediately understand how to proceed without needing to hit the forum. So all this feedback from you is super useful for us and will lead (quickly) to an updated and more effective learning product.

Keep it coming.

Thanks Troy,

Yes what i mean is i can tremolo extremely fast, but if i make it a pattern where i have to fret different notes on the string, i can’t do it as fast, so must be hand synch issues. i am now just going fast anyway, and using chunking by focusing on the first note. Maybe that means hand synch is my major problem in the first place. which is odd for beaumont rag though since i’ve played it 100,000 times

I am going to pursue DSX fully now, my last question is about the whole concept of down beats and off beats. In bluegrass you are taught to always play downstrokes on downbeats and upstrokes on off beats. If i am trying to play with DSX, should i abandon that for now? Should i be willing to start on the “1” beat using an upstroke the way Mclaughlin does in the primer? begin entire repeating 4 note phrases for example, with an up stroke instead? Or can i still approach it with the strict alternate picking rule of sticking to down strokes on beat, but just try to arrange the stuff so i change strings after a downstroke?

I am trying to practice stuff like the 6 note pattern, but with DSX, i will always have to change strings after an odd number of notes instead of an even one so it makes it more difficult to practice these chunked patterns and then move them to different strings because I’im changing strings after an odd number of notes…

FWIW, i think the problem is with me, not the primer. I came in as a bluegrass wannabe so i thought all this shred stuff shouldn’t apply to me, i should be able to play with a double escape motion, cross picking entire fiddle tunes, at least to get up to 130bpm. So my original approach was to come in here and figure out specifically why my crosspicking isn’t working. But now my point of view on the subject has changed and i will follow your advice. The primer is great.

If you want to start on a downstroke so that is the downbeat, that’s of course fine. For something like any of the McLaughlin lines, you can just omit the first note and becomes downstroke / downbeat. For all I know that’s how John actually hears them. We just wrote them this way so the repeating nature of the pattern would be obvious.

Phrases like this one are already written downstroke / downbeat anyway:

You’re not an intermediate guitar player. You got a lot of awesome responses helping you. You fall into the advanced category. You’re good. Just because you want to be better doesn’t make you intermediate.

Thanks. I appreciate that. I guess I may undersell myself, but I am speaking really from a bluegrass context. I’m only capable of participating in “slow jams” which are always said to be for late beginners and intermediates. I can’t come close to playing any real bluegrass lead so I figured that meant I was intermediate.

And yes, Troy gave me a ton of really useful advise on this thread for sure. I’ve decided to pursue downward slanting separately by practicing the EJ pentatonic licks as a way to learn what it feels like to pick fast and fluid but that is my secondary goal, primary is still going to be playing all the fiddle tunes and drilling them as much as possible until I can get the damn cross picking motion down.