Struggling with this simple pentatonic cascading lick... with video

Hey all, I’ve been struggling with basic cascade runs.
In this linked video I’m just doing a basic pentatonic cascade from low string to high string, then back.
It’s the typical pentatonic in E minor.

My main problem is when I’m going back up from the high string. I can go at a decent speed but it feels clunky and requires much more focus and effort than I think it should.
I am able do it pretty fast and clean when I’m starting from low string all the way down…but when I’m come back up from the high string I just can’t seem to do it anywhere near the same quality.
I’m fairly certain my pick grip is ok, but when I do the cascade starting from the high string it’s feels awkward and not as clean.

I’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks, but can’t seem to get it to feel as fluid and natural as I’d like.
Do I just need to keep trying this a million more times or is there some trick to this?

I’m not sure if it makes a difference but I just my pinky for the 12 and 15 frets when I run this cascading lick…but I often see people using their ring finger when they do this. Does that matter at all?

Please see the linked video for a more clear explanation…

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I don’t think it’s a fingering issue at all. When you ascend the scale it looks like you’re doing 2 notes per string strict alternate picking, so you switch strings on a downstroke to a string in the direction of the downstroke (except after the 6th note, where you switch to a string that’s not on the direction of the downstroke, which I’m guessing you’ve trained yourself to not notice as much). My guess is that if you were to just isolate 2 strings and play 2 notes each and just repeat, your speed would be similarly held back like your descending line would (also this would be a simple exercise to build up speed).

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FWIW this lick is hard to play super fast, due to the re-use of fingers. EJ and others pretty much top out around ~180 bpm on these licks. These licks will always be a little slower than your actual max speed.

One thing you can try is to just mute the strings with the left hand, or just play the harmonics at the 12 fret by letting your fingers bar across. That way you can practice your right hand in isolation. If you can do right hand-only at a higher speed, then you know what the bottleneck is and you can start to experiment with alternate fingerings to unlock higher speeds. You see some examples of this kind of isolation work in the interview with Teemu. I personally find it quite helpful when it’s not entirely clear to me what’s holding me back.

Great advice here. I was going to suggest the exact same thing. But also do your left hand with “all hammers” lightly. See what the max speed with both is. Then you’ll know if you’ve truly got a fretting hand or picking hand issue.

Also, I just took a lesson with the amazing Peter C, the forum’s resident expert in EJ style playing. He prefers to think of the EJ ‘atom’ like this, for solving alternate picking issues:


I’ve left spaces intentionally, so it’s a galloping rhythm (16th-16th-8th). It allows you to focus on the string change at your max speed, while allowing you briefly reset/relax.

There’s another atom that addresses the ‘sweep’ but I’ll leave that alone since you aren’t doing any sweeping. That more applies to 5’s and you’re playing 6’s

Also, even though it’s uncomfortable, you might want to consider ditching the pinky and playing it with your index, middle and ring fingers. I’m not saying there aren’t people who can play this phrase quite fast with your finger choices, but Eric Johnson and Shawn Lane do not finger it the way you are. When those guys do something differently than I am, I have to immediately question my own leanings :slight_smile: If you give it a try, you’ll need to adjust your left hand posture slightly. You need more of a “blues” grip where your pointer finger points more towards the bridge instead of straight up in the air.

Anyway, here’s some of Shawn Lane’s advice/demonstrations on playing fast pentatonics:

Again, he’s playing 5’s, not 6’s like you are…

Which is a nice segue into my final suggestion - why not try 5’s instead of 6’s? It sounds cool and should be easier to play once you get it under your fingers. It’s naturally more efficient because it contains a sweep, so the string changes are easier.

The Peter C recommended atom for helping with the sweeps part is this, which is to be played as a triplet:

  D  D  U  D   D  U  etc.

And for my final final suggestion ( :slight_smile: ), Peter C gives lessons, in a one off fashion if needed. Maybe hit him up for some expert advice?


Wow, this is all awesome advice…thanks to all of you for taking the time to help.
I will most definitely reach out to Peter C today about a couple of private lessons…that would be killer.

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Just had my first lesson with Peter tonight.
It was fantastic.
Thanks for the recommendation!

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This was a pretty helpful little exercise for me.

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Cool video. My takeaway is that his method to keep it interesting (without using 5’s) is to constantly change the pattern so it sounds fresh. So, not all 6’s, sprinkle in some 2’s or 4’s so it doesn’t sound predictable. Very nice! 5’s seem to do this inherently, even if you only play 5’s since the rhythm gets displaced and the phrases don’t always start on a downbeat.

He definitely gets bonus points for mentioning Troy :slight_smile:

Glad to help steer anyone in the right direction. A lifetime of my own failure always inspires me to want to help others (though I have far from cracked the code myself).

Was there anything you could share with us that Peter helped you with regarding your problem of feeling more sluggish on the descending portion? Or did you work on other things instead?

Just to add, Shawn demonstrates pentatonic sixes later in that video, beginning at about 10:48

Also, it’s interesting to note that those later pentatonic sequences are among the very few instances where Shawn used fretting combinations involving the 3rd and 4th fingers, though transitions between 3rd and 4th or vice versa are isolated. Also while he advocated against rolling the fingers when ascending in the earlier section, he utilized the roll when descending.

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