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Pick Direction – Rules of Engagement

Everyone has heard great guitar flatpickers. This is a very developed art among guitar players, and the folks that teach it I’m sure have more complete rules on how pick direction is determined than what I know. These rules would apply to flatpicking the dulcimer as well. I would love to talk to an expert guitarist about this, and if I do I may expand or change some of what I’m about to write. But until then, here is what I have learned from my own development of the style concerning pick direction. I know it’s probably not complete, but I also know that this will apply at least 99% of the time. What might be missing you’ll just have to figure out what works for you.

I am a cross string Flatpicker.   In well over 30 years of playing, I have only adopted this method in the last 5 years or so.   I will not hedge a bit in telling you…This has made me a better player.  I used to use a different pick direction scheme for every song, dependent on what string I went to next, and I had to remember a different pick directions scheme for every single song.  Yikes !   I call this a song specific pick direction method…every song has to be individually figured out.   What if you didn’t have to figure it out ?   Songs are easier to learn and you get up to speed faster.

Ready for a detailed list of rules ? Well, there is only one.

Rule – In counting out quarter notes in a measure, such as 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and… the numbers are all ‘out’ strokes, and the “ands” are all ‘in’ strokes.

It doesn’t matter if the note in the Tab is an 8th note, or a quarter note, or a dotted quarter note, if it falls on a number in the count, it’s an ‘out’ stroke. If it falls on an “and” , it’s an ‘in’ stroke.  It doesn’t matter if it is on one string or multiple strings either.

Another simplified way to say it is 8th note beats 1, 3, 5, and 7 are always ‘out’, and 2, 4, 6, and 8 are ‘in’.

That being said, I have also taught a variation of this that does work ‘most’ of the time, and works better on the fly in practicing, because it does not require counting.  It does conflict with the main rule in bold above every now and then, mainly with some dotted notes, or odd syncopation.  In that case, you need to refer back to the rule in bold as the king.   The variation would be – Always start a measure with an ‘out’ stroke, all eighth notes alternate direction, and every note that follows a quarter note is an ‘out’ stroke.

I have been asked “What about hammers, slides, and pull offs ?”    Same thing applies.   For example, if you are hammering an 8th note starting with an ‘out’ stroke from, we’ll say fret 2 to fret 3, then you have spanned the time of two 8th notes (out / in) even though you only picked once.  So the next note would be an ‘out’ stroke.   Same principle if the note your hammering from starts with an ‘in’ stroke.   You’ve spanned the time of two 8th notes (in / out this time) even though you only picked once. So the next note would be an ‘in’ stroke.Triplets ?  A triplet is 3 notes that takes up one 8th note span of time.  So, it is treated like a single 8th note.

HERE is some tab to Illustrate. Requires TabLedit. Be sure to display both notation and tab. Or PDF version.  Count is above the Tab, Pick Direction is Below the Tab. Note that numbers are out, and “&” is in.

That’s pretty much it ! Simple huh ? As simple it is, it takes plenty of practice to be consistent. And you do need to reach a level of unconscious consistency . The word ‘mechanical’ is a threat to sound like a negative, and it is if it’s meaning is lifeless, dry, sterile, etc. But mechanical can also mean precise, smooth, clean, and fast. That is what reaching the unconscious consistency in your pick direction will bring you. You prevent the negatives with dynamics, syncopation, embellishments, touch, and arrangement.

Finally, you WILL be able to make this automatic in EXACTLY the same way Bum Diddy became automatic.  Try it with something new to start.  Unlearning something you’ve already got down is harder than learning.  With what I’m suggesting here, all you have to do is learn the method, not a different scheme for every song.   Every song uses exactly the same automatic and predictable pick direction scheme.  You don’t have to think.  When you don’t have to think about your picking hand so much, you can pay more attention to what really makes music happen…creativity, flow, dynamics, soul.

Good Luck ! Please do email me if you have questions as you work on this.

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