Pick Direction

Pick direction can be one of the single greatest problems that gets in the way of good single-line or lead playing. I'm talking about a logical approach to playing lead lines that consists of a very simple set of rules that surround when you use downstrokes and when you use upstrokes.

NOTE: There are a lot of different styles of music. "Generally" these rules apply to all styles of 4/4 music be it bluegrass, jazz, classical, pop, swing, celtic *reels* (see below for jig rhythm), etc. And, the same rules apply to lead guitar as well. There will be times when you will want to break these rules as you advance in your playing. If you're starting out, stick close to these rules.

Most players in the learning stage never gave this a second thought--me included way back when. It was only after giving lessons for a few years that I began to notice that those who experienced the greatest problems playing simple melodies almost always had a flawed approach in their proper pick direction. If this is still confusing, pick direction means the "up" and "down" motion of the pick when playing successive eight notes--like in a fiddle tune for example.

When I give a lesson to someone who plays lead, one of the first things I always do is carefully watch the right hand (I guess after about 15 years of teaching I'm still waiting on my first leftie). Oddly, most of us concentrate on the left hand or the hand that selects the individual notes. We rarely think about the hand moving the pick up and down. We assume it's correct and that if problems exist, they must exist only in the left hand. There are a couple of basic rules I'm covering here: 4/4 time and traditional jig rhythm which uses a similar rule but with a slight twist.

Here's a typical problem scenario: you're playing a lead line of medium to quick eighth notes. You're doing a down stroke on the "A" string (second highest). The next note falls on the "E" string (the highest). Easy enough you say. I'm already headed downward from the "A" so I'll just do another downstroke and you save myself some time and effort. Therein is the first mistake and it's a big one.

There's a natural picking "flow" of successive "up" and "down" strokes. Learn it correctly from the start and you'll save yourself a lot of headaches. It's *the* single greatest problem I've witnessed in beginning and some intermediate players.

Break it down and here's what it looks like. Below is a series of single eight notes that make up a little riff in tablature form over a measure of 4/4 time. Above each note I've indicated the proper up (u) and down (d) strokes.

 d  u  d  u   d  u  d  u    d  u  d  u   d
 |__|__|__|   |__|__|__|    |__|__|__|   |

Look carefully and a pattern begins to emerge. Tap you foot four beats to each measure. The down stroke should fall "on" the beat with the up stroke "off" the beat. Easy enough you say? Problem: the players I've worked with that have this problem have NO IDEA they're not following this simple rule. Some even deny it until they're forced to slow down and *think* and watch their right hand action.

So what if you're playing a tune that combines quarter notes with eighths, eighths with whole notes, etc.? Apply the same rule and you really can't go wrong. Downstrokes and played on the beat and upstrokes between the beat. When in doubt, tap your foot (you can use a metronome--they don't hurt) and play slowly. Make sure you're going down when you're on the beat.

Some things to think about:

  • Downstrokes sound different than upstrokes. I'm not crazy here. There's a natural feeling given to our music that's a combination of the different sounds made by up and down strokes. Good technique helps you make good music.
  • This may be difficult to think about when you're starting out but once you have it down you won't have the give a second thought to it.
  • Test yourself carefully (and slowly) to see that you're not tripping yourself up on tunes. Especially tear apart problem passages in your soloing. If there's a problem, there's a good chance you're not following the proper pick direction.
  • There are always exceptions to these rules. Get the basics down. You'll know when you can break the rules after you've gained some experience.
  • Discuss this rule with a mandolin teacher or guitar player if you have one you can consult.

Jig Rhythm

Jig rhythm differs slightly due to the 6/8 time. This music has a particular pattern that gives the jig the appropriate bounce. It's a similar rule but goes like this: down-up-down, down-up-down, down-up-down. Think that breaks all the rules above? Not quite. Tap your foot and there's always a down stroke "on" the beat! Here it is written out:

 d  u  d   d  u  d    d  u  d   d  u  d 
 |__|__|   |__|__|    |__|__|   |__|__|

Exceptions to the rule:

Yes, there are some, but I won't go into them here. In general, the exceptions deal with the fact that on occasion it's necessary to change direction to emphasize the particular sound you're searching for. Typically those are fairly advanced circumstances. For now, use this information if you choose, to evaluate weakness in passages that may be problematic to you. Chances are they involve the proper pick direction.

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