If you have never heard about pickslanting, you should probably check out Troy Grady on Youtube and learn from the man who introduced this concept in the first place. However, I will try to explain it in my own words. If you already know what's going on, you can skip right to the licks.
So what exactly is pickslanting? It's a technique that deals with switching strings when playing fast with a pick. Most people think about alternate picking as simply moving the pick down and up. There is more to it, though. When your pick is in a neutral position, you have to move it away from the strings in order to get to the next string you want to hit. For example, if you play a downstroke on the G string, you can either play it again with an upstroke or play the B string with another downstroke. If you want to hit any other string, you have to get the pick out of the strings first. Because of this, it is very easy to develop an inefficient technique that won't allow you to play fast no matter how long you spend practicing it.
I spent hundreds of hours practicing my picking without getting the results some other guitarists got and I could never understand why. Then I found out that it was all because of the string switching motion. If this is your experience as well, pickslanting might very well be the missing ingredient in your playing and could make it feel almost effortless. If you can already play fast, you are probably doing it without even realizing and I would still encourage you to continue reading because you might learn about ways to use this technique that you have not thought of before.
Let's take a look at the following images:
In the neutral position, the trajectory of the pick never lets it get out of the strings and you are required to do extra movements it if you want to move to another string. There are ways to do this efficiently, but it is not very likely that you will stumble upon them randomly.
When you angle the pick so that the part you're holding points toward the floor, the pick's trajectory will free it from the strings on its own with every upstroke. This means that you can switch strings after any upstroke and it will be almost as easy as playing tremolo on one string. So as long as you have an even number of notes per string and start with a downstroke, or start an odd number of notes with an upstroke, you finish with an upstroke and you will be free to alternate pick everything. But what if the last note is a downstroke?
Well, there are two solutions here. Just as you can slant the pick down, you can also do the opposite and then it will be the downstrokes that escape the strings (unsurprisingly called upward pickslanting). Changing the slant as needed during a lick is called two-way pickslanting and it allows you to play almost anything just with strict alternate picking. That isn't the focus of this lesson, though.
The other option is to stick with only one slanting direction and work around the limitations. If you're wondering who would actually do something that seems so limiting, here are some players that use downward pickslanting to play incredibly fast: Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Zakk Wylde, Marty Friedman just to name a few. All of them have an amazing technique and in fact, their style of playing would be very different if they didn't have to find solutions to the problems downward pickslanting presents.
So how are we going to deal with the downstrokes? Well if the last note on a string is played with a downstroke and you want to move to the next thinner string, you can simply do it with a sweep. It's easy to sweep in the direction of the pickslant, but you can't really do it the other way because the pick goes away from the strings – which is what we wanted to achieve in the first place.
This raises an interesting point when it comes to alternate picking versus economy picking. If you want to only do one or the other, you will need to use two-way pickslanting to make it work. So while economy picking might be more efficient in terms of the overall amount of motion, string switching is exactly as difficult as with pure alternate picking and this is much more likely to limit your speed. This is why the downward pickslanting approach uses a combination of alternate picking, sweep picking, and legato, which may seem strange to anybody who doesn't know about the fundamental mechanism behind it.
“Wait, did you say legato? I thought this was supposed to be a picking lesson!“ Don't worry, the amount of legato involved can be minimal if you want to pick as many notes as possible. However, sometimes you want to move to a new string after a downstroke and it's not the next one you want to get to, so a sweep won't work. In that case, the solution is to not pick the last note, so that the last pickstroke on that string is up.
This pretty much summarizes downward pickslanting. If you think about all the possible situations with different amounts of notes per string, you will find out that this technique allows you to play almost anything with the exception of playing a single downstroke and moving to a string that isn't the next thinner one.
So how do we actually achieve the proper downward pickslanting movements? First of all, there is a possibility that you are already doing upward pickslanting and in that case you probably shouldn't force yourself to learn a new technique to replace your current one if it works well. Maybe the better thing to do would be to learn how to switch to a downward angle when you need to, but I won't be dealing with two way pick slanting here.
Of course, the most important part about all of this is positioning your hand so that the pick is angled in the right direction. You only need to have a slight angle, just so that the pick clears the strings with an upstroke, but a bigger angle isn't wrong either. You might already be used to angling the pick so that you use the edge to make contact with the string instead of the flat side. This makes getting through the string easier, so don't remove that angle, just add the slant to it like I show in the second image below (hopefully you can excuse how terrible the images are).
If you have spent enough time practicing an inefficient “bouncing“ motion (called stringhopping), you are probably going to have to focus on removing that. Something that worked really well for me was to rest the pick on the next string after a downstroke. It's like you want to do a sweep, but don't actually play the next string, just use it to stop the pick. This way you won't allow your hand to bounce off. You don't have to do this if you don't have any problems with keeping the hand from bouncing off the strings.You will, of course, need to practice this technique very slow at first to get used to it, but at the same time playing slow is what allows inefficient movements to creep their way into your technique, so be careful not to let that happen.
One last thing I would like to mention before proceeding to the lick examples is the actual picking movement. Pickslanting doesn't require you to use a specific part of your hand to do the picking. Different guitarists use different picking motions, but the downward pickslant is something they have in common. Your technique should hopefully work, no matter if you use your wrist, fingers, elbow or a combination of them. For me, forearm rotation works really well.
When learning licks from the internet or anywhere else, there is usually no regard for what pickslanting the lick needs and you can often find out that some licks simply don't work for you. That is unless you naturally developed two-way pickslanting. I especially don't like seeing things like “Licks in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen“ when even though it may sound like something he would play, there's no way he would do it the way the lesson shows. I made sure that everything in this article is designed specifically for downward pickslanting.
All right, that text was way longer than I thought it would be, let's finally take a look at some licks to develop this technique. We are going to start with alternate picking and add the other parts later. A lot of these licks are repeatable, I used (R) to indicate that.
Lick 1.1 (R):
Just try repeating this simple pattern. The goal here is to get used to the new movements without having to worry about repositioning your hand all the time, that's why the lick only uses two strings. You can, of course, try moving it to a different pair of strings or going up and down the neck, if you want to, but the picking hand is the more important one in this case. You might also want to try playing it in reverse, as Lick 1.2 shows. Just make sure to start with a downstroke in either case.
Lick 1.2 (R):
Let's try a similar thing, but this time we have to switch strings every two notes. We're going to use the first position A minor pentatonic for that.
Lick 2.1 (R):
Lick 2.2 (R):
Now let's get more strings involved so that the hand gets used to moving to the correct position to hit the next string. You can just play the whole pentatonic shape up and down (make sure to hit the top note twice, otherwise the last one on the string will be a downstroke), but that could be a bit too boring, so here's a simple pattern that uses the same shape, but the notes are in groups of six.
After getting comfortable with both the ascending and descending version, try playing them one after the other and then you can repeat the whole thing without stopping. You could in theory repeat just one of these licks, since it ends with an upstroke, but jumping from the first string all the way to the sixth will never be easy.
This next lick uses the E harmonic minor scale. All notes here are sixteenths, except for the last one, you can sustain it as long as you want.
Finally, let's take a look at an E minor pentatonic lick that uses two positions at once, but thanks to being higher up the neck, you should be able to easily fret the notes without moving your hand to a different position. Again, these are sixteenth notes with one more note at the end. You can also substitute the 16 G near the end with 15 G for a more bluesy sound.
Great, if you can play the previous patterns comfortably, you should have the alternate picking part figured out. If not, don't worry, it takes a while to get used to this new technique. Now we are going to add some sweeping into the licks. Keep in mind that the two consecutive downstrokes in the tab represent a sweep, not two individual pickstrokes.
Lick 6.1 (R):
There are two sweeps in this lick. One appears between the third and the fourth note and the other is between the last note and the first note of the next repetition. If you're comfortable with this, try lick 6.2. The picking pattern is exactly the same, but you have to roll the third finger on your fretting hand, fretting the G string just as you release tension from the D string so that the two notes don't ring together. This doesn't have anything to do with picking technique, I just wanted to include it to make sure that you know what the challenge here is and how it's different in comparison to the previous lick. You could probably just use a different finger here to avoid doing the roll, but that's not the point of the exercise.
Lick 6.2 (R):
A very good use of sweeping with downward pickslanting is for playing arpeggios. Let's take a look at some two string arpeggios that are in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen, both in terms of the sound and the technique. The notes are in groups of six with one extra at the end. If you have problems with the roll near the end (14 D going to 14 G), you can play 14 D to 13 G instead to make it easier for the fretting hand.
There is also a way to play arpeggios like this descending. The next lick is very similar, with the ending being a little different. Hopefully, licks 7.1 and 7.2 can give you an idea about how to play two string arpeggios with downward pickslanting. You could also use these picking patterns for a pentatonic scale or something similar.
Alright, let's get back to the minor pentatonic for the next lick. The Eric Johnson descending fives pattern is a great example of the downward pickslanting technique. You can obviously move this pattern to any pentatonic box. The notes here are in groups of five, one note extra at the end.
As long as we keep the same number of notes per string, we can play anything with the fretting hand and the picking pattern will stay the same. In lick 8.2, we play a diminished arpeggio using exactly the same picking.
An interesting thing to realize is that we can always add an even number of notes on a string and the technique will still work. In lick 8.3, the first string of the pattern is always doubled (you could instead double the second string), resulting in groups of seven notes. You could, of course, do the same with the diminished arpeggio idea or anything else you can come up with. Another possibility is to combine groups of five and seven notes to create really interesting rhythms.
By now you should have a decent ability to combine alternate picking and sweeping in the context of downward pickslanting, so it's time to add some legato in order to play more licks. Let's start with a simple one, just to get used to this.
As you can see, I wrote the same notes twice. The first time, we start with a downstroke. That way, there won't be any legato, but when the lick finishes and gets repeated, it starts with an upstroke, like I notated in the second half. This way we will have to use a pull off for the second note. Every new repetition of the lick will always start with an upstroke, so we could play it like that even the first time to keep it consistent. I usually prefer to start with a downstroke, though, like I notated in the tab.
Lick 9 (R):
The next lick is something Zakk Wylde would play. Remember, there is also a sweep between the last note and the first one when repeating the lick.
Lick 10 (R):
One of the things Yngwie Malmsteen is known for are his three string arpeggios, so let's take a look at how they work with this system. Lick 11.1 shows a diminished arpeggio with one note on the G string, one note on the B and two notes on the high E string.
When ascending, all three strings are played with a sweep. Then the highest note is played with an upstroke. The next note will be a pull off. During this time you should be able to move the pick in the right position for another upstroke, this time on the B string. We are not sweeping here, those are two individual upstrokes with a pull off between them. We need an upstroke on the B string in order to be ready to start the arpeggio again. The notes here are in groups of six with one extra note at the end.
Of course, we can also start with the highest note and do the descending part first, then ascend, like in lick 11.2. Make sure to start with an upstroke, you need the pull off to get the pick in the right position for the next note.
Lick 11 .2:
Our next example is a lick consisting of groups of six notes, with one extra note at the end. The pattern moves through the E minor scale.
If you managed to get this far and can play the licks shown, you have acquired the super powers of downward pickslanting. Before I show you some more interesting licks, there is one thing I haven't mentioned yet. There is another way of getting to the next string, other than sweep picking. Let's say that we want to pick one note on the G string, then one note on the B string and after that another note on the G. Normally, we would play a downstroke on the G and sweep to the B. However, that wouldn't allow us to get back to the G string. There's no room for legato either, so is there a way to solve this with downward pickslanting?
It turns out that there is. If you mute the B string properly, you can play the downstroke on the G string and simply push the string through the B. It's like playing two notes at once, but with the thinner string muted, so it doesn't ring out. If you do this well, there will only be a percussive sound that you probably wouldn't even notice if you didn't know about it. Troy Grady calls this technique swiping. I haven't mentioned it until now because it's not perfectly clean and being the perfectionist that I am, I try to avoid it if possible. That being said, you can definitely learn to do this in such a way that will make the swipe pretty much inaudible.
The first example for swiping is an A harmonic minor pedal point lick played with sixteenth notes. You can repeat it as long as you want and then resolve it on fret 10 on the B string. I notated the swipes by putting an X on the string that is swiped.
Lick 13 (R):
Next, we have a classic Paul Gilbert lick. Normally it wouldn't be playable with downward pickslanting, but we can use a swipe to help with that.
Lick 14 (R):
I think that's enough for swiping. I usually try to avoid this, but if you need to use a swipe somewhere, you know how to do it. In case you want more practice, you can try playing lick number 12 with strict alternate picking, that will require you to do a swipe on the third note of every group of six. The amount of swipes here makes it hard to play because you have to be able to hide them well.
Since you already know about all the techniques necessary, I am going to show you some more licks now. The first one is in A minor and it consists of a full bar of sixteenth notes with three notes at the end. I will leave the rhythm there up to you, personally, I would play the first one as a quarter note, the second as an eighth note and let the last one ring out for the rest of the bar. Feel free to disregard the picking pattern for the last three notes and play them whichever way you like.
The next lick has the same rhythm, a bar of sixteenths and three more notes at the end. Again, feel free to play those three notes with any rhythm and picking pattern you like. The lick combines both A minor and A major pentatonics, which could sound cool in a blues or classic rock context. I recommend playing the first four notes with fingers 1 and 3, then sliding the third finger to the fifth note. You can either play it as a downstroke, as notated in the tab or not pick it at all if you want to emphasize the sound of the slide. The rest of the picking pattern will stay the same either way.
In lick number 17, we have another combination of A minor and major pentatonics. It's a full bar of sixteenths with one extra note at the end. If you want to avoid the swipe on the first note, you can let it ring out longer, which would give you enough time to get in the right position for the next note without going through the first string. This will, however, change the rhythm of the lick, so you will have to adjust accordingly.
We have the same swiping situation in the next lick as well. This time we're in E minor pentatonic with 12 sixteenth notes and the blues note ath the end. The lick can be played repeatedly, if you don't play the ending note and instead start from the beginning.
Another E minor pentatonic lick. It consists of three groups of six notes with one more to finish it. The only way our technique can work is if the first note is played with an upstroke.
Let's do a big sweep with this A minor arpeggio and then descend down the harmonic minor scale. 12 sixteenth notes and one more at the end.
In lick number 21, we have an E minor arpeggio, but this time there's some string skipping going on. As with lick number 9, I notated it twice for exactly the same reason. Every new repetition will have to start with an upstroke and a pull off, so it's up to you if you want to start the same way or play down, up at the very beginning, like notated in the first half. You should easily be able to change a few notes in the lick to get a different arpeggio
Lick 21 (R):
Ascending and Descending Picking Patterns
The very last thing I would like to show you in this lesson are some patterns you can use to move either up or down the strings and easily make your own licks using them. I will give you one example for each and leave it up to you to make up your own fingerings for them to suit your style. You already know the Eric Johnson descending fives pattern, which I showed you used with the minor pentatonic and then with a diminished arpeggio. I'm sure you can find other uses for it.
The pattern in lick number 22 is great for ascending a two note per string scale/arpeggio in sixteenth notes. Here it's used with the minor pentatonic.
Now let's try a descending pattern for two note per string shapes. This time the notes are in groups of six.
This next ascending pattern works well with three note per string shapes (E minor in this case), the notes are again grouped by six.
If we just remove the sixth note from every group in lick 24.1, we get a very similar pattern, but with groups of five notes.
The next one is a sixteenth note descending pattern for three note per string shapes. It's used here with the A minor / C major scale.
We stay in the same shape for the next one. We are going to descend in groups of six notes.
For the final pattern, we go back to A minor pentatonic once again. This time we incorporate some swiping and put the notes in groups of six.
That's it for this guide, now you should have a good understanding of downward pickslanting and you should be able to create new licks that use this technique. I hope you enjoyed it and learned something new, or maybe just found some licks and patterns to try out.