Flatpick Your Way to Shimmering Harmony and Bell-like Sustain

September 1, 2004

A potent plectrum technique, crosspicking lets a guitar ring and shimmer in magical ways. Crosspickers build elaborate lines by mixing open strings and fretted notes, and picking only one note per string (this initial attack may be followed by hammers or pulls). As you’ll soon discover, crosspicking minimizes fretting-hand activity, while stepping up the demand on your picking hand, which has to dart back and forth across the strings. The challenge? You have to keep a steady rhythm, even as the distance between string jumps expands or contracts. It takes practice, but the payoff is a dancing cascade of notes that packs more wallop than a similar fingerpicked phrase. Thanks to the open strings, crosspicked melodies sound richer and sustain longer than those played using the more conventional, multiple-notes-per-string approach.

Among flatpickers, there are several schools of thought on how best to navigate crosspicking’s wicked string jumps. One school adheres to strict alternate picking—even if you’re forced to hop over a string to make the reverse stroke. The advantage of this pendulum-like technique is that it eliminates hesitation. Your hand always knows which way to move. The action is automatic and unvarying—an upstroke follows a downstroke, and vice versa.

A second flatpicking recipe works like this: Downbeats automatically call for downstrokes, upbeats get upstrokes. In this scenario, a series of quarter-notes would all receive downstrokes, while a heavily syncopated line would contain mostly upstrokes. Because it’s tied to a phrase’s rhythmic pulse, this scheme yields beautiful dynamics. Again, there’s no hesitation once you internalize the formula.

Another crosspicking school advocates economy of motion—think of this as flow picking. The technique emphasizes downward pick strokes when moving from low to high strings, and upward strokes when moving from high to low strings. The idea is to hit as many strings as possible with a single, controlled move before reversing direction. Flow picking is related to a shredder’s sweep picking, but typically involves more directional shifts within a given passage.

For example, consider a crosspicked pattern that incorporates the first, third, second, fourth, and fifth strings. Using a flow picking approach, you’d make an upstroke, two downstrokes, and two upstrokes. Because this technique is variable and requires split-second decisions, it’s tricky to master. However, it rewards you with graceful lines that seem to surge from the guitar.

Why not use the ten examples in this lesson to explore all three picking methods? Then, when you’ve found the one that works best for you, try fingerpicking the examples using either a hybrid flatpick-plus-fingers grip or a full-on fingerstyle technique, à la Chet Atkins or Jerry Reed. In the process, you’ll burn these crosspicking moves deep into your synapses.

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