View Full Version : Pick direction

Sep-14-2004, 11:51pm
Here's a brief passage taken from another thread about the demands of proper pick direction in playing bluegrass

Many (most) 4/4 bluegrass tunes of an up-tempo (160bpm+) consist of many measures loaded with eighth notes.

To simplify things, all quarter notes are played with a downstroke and eighth notes are played with down-up-down-up strokes. On the downbeat, your pick should going down.

Eight eighth notes should be played d-u-d-u-d-u-d-u. No matter if you have to go past a string to stroke it properly. For example, if the first eighth note of a measure is the 4th. fret on the D string and the second eighth is played at the 2nd. fret of the A string, the pick would downstroke the first note on the D string then the pick would travel past the A to then make an upstroke on the second note.

Two quarter notes followed by four eighth notes would be played:d-d-d-u-d-u.

My question is how much of this, if any, is important for playing jigs & reels?

Does anyone here follow this gospel? Why?

I play a steady dudu dudu or dud udu pattern, with occasional interruptions for triplets. It seems to work, but then I'm not the world's fastest player, either. I'm aware of paying no attention at all to note duration, however. In other words, I suspect I play a quarter note "d" (or "u") not "d, silent u", if you can follow.

Martin Jonas
Sep-15-2004, 4:33am
My question is how much of this, if any, is important for playing jigs & reels?

Does anyone here follow this gospel? Why?

I play a steady dudu dudu or dud udu pattern, with occasional interruptions for triplets. It seems to work, but then I'm not the world's fastest player, either. I'm aware of paying no attention at all to note duration, however. In other words, I suspect I play a quarter note "d" (or "u") not "d, silent u", if you can follow.
I do largely follow it, although not fanatically. The topic comes up very regularly, and the upshot is that for every approach you can find professionals who follow it, with impressive results. However, for those of us that fall some way short of professional standard, thinking about pick direction is (in my opinion) an invaluable part of getting the rhythm of the tune right.

In other words, it is possible to get the rhythm right with a strict alternating pick stroke such as you describe, but from your post it seems that you are not at all confident that you do actually get it right. If, on the other hand, you would pick a bar in a reel of 1/4-1/4-1/8-1/8-1/4 as dddud, then the right rhythm and the right pulse emerges more or less as a matter of course. Note duration is not just a matter of following the dots, it's what defines the tune you're playing. Playing all notes the same length would mean ending up with a quite different tune to what everybody else is playing (and also missing out on the inherent beauty of many tunes that thrive on the rhythmic variability). I suspect, though, that you're probably intuitively getting the quarters and eights right anyway, especially if have the opportunity to play with others. One of the most intriguing things, to me, about playing Irish and Scottish tunes is that you do get a much wider range of rhythms than in, say, bluegrass music, where the standard chord progressions and the presence of pure rhythm players creates a more rigid structure.


Dagger Gordon
Sep-15-2004, 7:19am
Interesting timing,this thread.

I attended a workshop by Steve Kaufman at the weekend. Mostly flatpicking guitar, but he was firmly of the opinion that my playing would benefit from strict down/up playing all the time.

He reckoned it would be cleaner and smoother and you wouldn't need to resort to hammer on/pull offs if you got in a fix (unless you want to, of course).

I have to admit it's a long time since I've really thought much about my own technique, but I figured that Steve's playing on both guitar and mando is so clean and looks so effortless, and he sees some of the best players in the world at his guitar and mando camps in the States that I should try to do what he says.

And do you know what? I think he's right. I believe there was an almost immediate improvement.

Sep-15-2004, 9:16am
Funny you mention that, Dagger. I got one of his flatpicking DVDs a couple of months ago and based on it, decided to get stricter on myself as regards the down-up thing.

I thought I had been reasonably consistent with down-up picking, but when I actually sat down and analysed what I was doing, I was breaking out of the pattern fairly often. I've found that being more rigorous in sticking to the pattern is starting to make a positive difference to my playing.

Martin Jonas
Sep-15-2004, 9:37am
Dagger/POB, what do you (or Steve Kaufman) actually mean by "strict down/up playing"? There are at least two ways in which that expression can be interpreted.

My understanding of the original post of s1m0n is that he alternates between down strokes and up strokes, regardless of the length of the note. Playing like that, you would play a bar of 1/4-1/4-1/8-1/8-1/4 as dudud, starting the next bar with an upstroke. There would then be no preference for pick direction at the beginning of each bar. The other interpretation of a "strict picking pattern" would be to play a downstroke on the beat and an up-stroke off the beat, making the phrase above dddud, starting the next bar (and indeed every bar) with a downstroke. Which of the two has Steve Kaufman suggested?


Sep-15-2004, 10:05am
The second one (for rhythms with an even number of beats per bar, of course; jigs and so on are a different story).

Sep-15-2004, 10:14am
I think that's quite helpful on reels. Staying on pattern with DUDUDU motions is a key to speeding them up. In jigs, I still think you need the "Broken pattern" (ie DUD DUD or DDU DDU) to get the "pulse" sound correctly

Sep-15-2004, 10:20am
I agree that dududud isn't as good for jigs - I also think that for playing rhythm along to jigs a dud dud type of pattern works best.

But I reakon reels are best played dudududu etc (although I find it harder to do triplets on reels than with jigs) http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

Sep-15-2004, 6:22pm
I say for a treble (a triplet with all the same note) can sound better d-d-d depends on the tune in a Hornpipe not really but the more aggressive Reels with this it sounds good. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Dagger Gordon
Sep-16-2004, 2:20am
I was only discussing it with him in terms of reels.
In jigs, there is plenty of time to play DUD DUD, and I've not heard him play a jig.

As regards playing rhythm, his advice seemed to be different. Back-up bluegrass guitar is predominantly bass note followed by treble strings, both played with down strokes. I asked him about that, and he admitted that other rhythm and styles did require up strokes, but we didn't really go into it.

I think his point was principly that a strict down up pattern keeps your timing better in the tough runs. Jigs aren't too difficult, and dudu works fine for reels.

However, what about hornpipes with tricky runs? The third part of The Belfast Hornpipe for example. I think it IS true that you would be better playing dud udu dud udu in each bar.

Martin, as regards pick direction preference, I was a bit surprised when I examined my own playing to find that in fact I quite often started a bar with an upstroke, particularly with jigs, so I am sometimes playing them udu udu. I admit I was actually very surprised at this, and examined why.

Take a tune like The Atholl Highlanders. The first note in the first bar is open E. Since the tune is in the key of A, I like to allow the 2nd A string to ring a bit so I'm happy to play that string, but clearly the note you want to mostly play is the top string where the melody is, and I've found that is best achieved by starting with an upstroke.

I've also noted that where the melody starts on the top string and goes down to the second, I also tend to start with an upstroke. My introductory notes leading to the first note of the first bar of a tune are also often upstrokes.

I'm not quite sure yet what to make of all this. A lot of assumptions I'd made about my own playing are turning out to not exactly be the case. One thing I have concluded which does please me is that I don't seem to have a pick direction preference.

Sep-16-2004, 2:49am
A lot of assumptions I'd made about my own playing are turning out to not exactly be the case.
Same as that. I'd always assumed I stuck pretty close to dudu, until I actually took a closer look. I was very surprised at how much I deviated from that, without ever thinking about it. It goes to show, it can be a good thing to sit down and take stock of your playing once in a while.

I've never achieved the kind of fluency with my melody playing that I'd like to have, and I reckon that one of the reasons was that I didn't pay enough attention to this issue sooner. I have a young family and a busy job and it's very hard to get time to practise, but I'm amazed at how much improvement I can hear with the bit of practise I've managed to get. I'd strongly advise anyone starting out to nail this issue early.

Oct-09-2004, 9:39am
Having been playing mandolin for about a decade, only last year I decided to analyse my picking technique and try to 'regulate' it. I found that my instinct was generally to play "dudu" regardless of note length - the most ergonomic way of playing. However, there were instances where, for some reason, I would switch direction and find myself playing upstrokes on downbeats. I do, and have always done, quite a lot of triplet work, and following the "dudu' pattern strictly would naturally leave me upside-down after a triplet. Also I found I had a reluctance to use an upstroke when moving to a lower (in pitch) string - for example, the sequence dBAF# DEF#D, I would pick "dudu udud". Sometimes I was able to correct this by adding in a triplet at the first opportunity. But it frequently caused problems when trying to play at speed.

I tried out a few techniques suggested in posts at this and another forum. Firstly, I forced myself to adhere to the "dudu" pattern regardless of which string I was moving to or from. Secondly, I forced myself to break out of the "dudu" pattern for triplets, always starting the triplet with a downstroke and always following it with the same: "{dud} d". Thirdly, I tried to break out of the "dud udu" pattern I had been predominantly using in jigs and adopt a strict "dud dud" pattern (this was hardest of all). Once I had worked out how to do all this, for the first time in God knows how many years, I sat down and *practised*.

For the first few months all this upheaval sent my playing up the creek - I could barely get from one end of a tune to the other without tripping up somewhere. A year on, I am undoubtedly reaping the benefits. Of course, old habits die hard, and I still lapse into my old ways from time to time - especially with jigs. But I don't see this as a bad thing - having the ability to use different picking techniques (even 'wrong' ones) is surely a bonus, as it facilitates a greater variety of pick-hand ornamentation and may help you out of a difficult 'hole' now and again, should you stumble into one.

Oct-09-2004, 9:52am
Another brief point: On polkas (of the Sliabh Luachra type) I have begun trying the 'bluegrass' technique, described in the quote in S1m0n's initial post on this thread - downstroke on every downbeat. I find it prepares me better for the fast semiquaver (1/16-note) runs, since my hand is already moving at the right speed. But I find it hard to stick strictly to this pattern, because of the temptation to syncopate. I sometimes find myself using paradiddle-type patterns, e.g. "duud uudu" on the quavers (1/8-notes).

I think the important thing is, if you are going to put yourself in a difficult situation, you have to have some idea of how to get aout of it.

Oct-11-2004, 3:28am
Whistler, your situation sounds very similar to mine. The transition period can be frustrating, eh? By the sound of things, you're closer the light at the end of the tunnel than I am (I'm also trying to get used to a new right-hand position as well as relearning the pick direction thing) so it's good for me to hear of others who've found the whole process beneficial.

Oct-11-2004, 4:32am

For me. Reels is DUDU. The core tune, and with a longer quarter note (assuming the tune is in 8ths) I'll do a phantom stroke to keep the DOWN's on the Downbeats.

String crossings is where I get into trouble. Specifically, picking DOWN then switching to a higher string with an UP. I practice the picking exercises on CoMando a bunch (with the stupid metronome ghrrr...) to make sure I can do this cleanly without too much thinking.

These "Rules" DUDUDUD for Reels and (enter your preference here) for Jigs are really just great strategies or foundations. There will be hundreds of exceptions...but I always try to see them as exactly that. Exceptions. I found it very vauable to have a Foundation to build on.

lotsa luck..!

Oct-11-2004, 1:44pm
I don't often play unornamented quarter notes in reels. If I do not use some form of triplet ornamentation, I usually play it as two eighth notes. Instead of the 'phantom' upstroke that craigtoo describes above, I catch the string lightly on the upstroke (possibly only catching one string of the pair - I've never looked that closely), giving the effect of an echo. In context, it does the job of one sustained note. It sounds allright to me, anyway.

Disclaimer: This is not advice, just the way I do it.

Oct-29-2004, 11:42am
Now, I'm not that exeprienced of a mandolin player, but I think this goes the same with playing marching percussion and as it does with playing bodhran. #Every single note grouping as a stick pattern which is based off a group of 4 16ths being played RLRL as such...

| | | |
\ \ \ \

Take away a note to create a new grouping and the sticking remains the same:

------- # -------
| # --- # |- | -|
| # | | # | #| #|
\ # \ \ # \ #\ #\
R # R L # R #L #L

That's (1 and uh) and (1 e uh) -- same with Bodhran, it's a strict up down motion. #All this is done so your arm(s) are keeping a constant flowing motion that makes learning music so much easier. #Once this basic concept is understood, you can basically pick up any peice of symphonic drum music and never have to worry about learning the stickings.

I've been finding the same thing applies to playing my mandolin this past week. #Keeping my arm and wrist moving just sounds a lot smoother when I listen to myself. #


Shana Aisenberg
Oct-30-2004, 8:42am
In referring back to Dagger's post in regard to pick direction for Atholl Highlanders and starting the group of eighth notes on the E string with an up, I'd highly advise starting on a down pick.

Even though, as you pointed out, the next note in that passage is on the A string, once you're used to DUD DUD (or DDU DDU as Dan plays) you'll find that the string crossings aren't going to continue to be an issue. The drive that your picking approach gives to getting across the fundamental (and danceable) rhythm of the tune is IMO, the most important thing.


Dagger Gordon
Oct-31-2004, 6:45am
Couldn't agree with you more as regards the fundamental danceable rhythm of the tune being the most important thing.

I have to tell you that I have played hundreds of dances (it's mostly what I do) and I must have played The Atholl Highlanders literally thousands of times, as it's one of the most common tunes we have. It's always a crowd-pleaser if you're playing for Strip the Willow.

I was a bit surprised myself to find I was sometimes starting with a upstroke, so instead of DUD I'm often doing UDU.
I think the crux of the matter comes down to the question of being used to DUD DUD. There seems to be an implicit suggestion here that this is rhythmically more driving than UDU DUD or indeed UDU UDU. This would seem to me to further suggest that you perhaps consider an upstroke to be less effective than a downstroke.

If you think they are equally effective, I see no reason why UDU should be any less driving than DUD.

I'm not particularly advocating that everyone should start everything with an upstroke - you can do what you like. I was merely noting that when I actually examined my own playing I found that I was sometimes doing this. I confess that rather surprised me.

Nov-01-2004, 5:36pm
Having listened to Dagger's recordings quite a bit, and being pretty useless at playing jigs, I was interested in his comments on pick direction. I learnt (or taught myself) many years ago to play DUDUDU, with the first D and second U pretty much being the same as the downward stamp of the foot. Old habits are hard to break and I've been advised many times to learn DUD DUD for jigs but never been able to change.
Or so I thought - I checked myself playing Atholl Highlanders and found that I play the ringing E down at the start of the tune but up thereafter, followed by another upstroke. Or is that just consistent with DUDUDU?

Nov-01-2004, 6:13pm
The more I've been playing the more I'm seeing that your pick/strum direction is exactly like symphonic percussion sticking... #You're using a natural up down motion -- by changing that motion you're going to introduce some anomolies... whether it's from a slight tempo variance as you readjust or a volume change when your muscles contract quickly to change motions.

Now, granted, when I taught drum corps, we were playing on kevlar drum heads and the slightest nuance could be detected in a line of 8 snares, though I doubt it would make a noticable difference in a small ensemble. #I'll probably stick to strict DUDUDUDU (or DUDUDU) -- it makes the most sense to these old ears.