From Doc Watson to Carl Miner: The Power of Bluegrass Crosspicking

If switching strings is the hardest part of guitar picking, then the hardest kind of string-switching challenge would be the one with the most possible string changes: one-note-per-string phrases.

If you're a fingerpicker, this sort of thing is easy. And if you're Count Rugen from The Princess Bride, it's especially easy because you have six fingers.

But even if you're a more commonly equipped player like the rest of us, you still have almost as many fingers as strings. So grabbing them one at a time is no problem at all. But trying to do this sort of thing with a pick is a whole different story. Playing only one note on a string can quickly lead to a tangle of inefficient jumping.

In fact, bluegrass players found this so challenging they came up with their own name for it: crosspicking. What makes crosspicking so difficult?

Bluegrass Rhythm

In bluegrass music, the guitar was originally a rhythm instrument, alternating powerful bass notes with chord strumming to provide the driving force beneath speedy, virtuosic fiddle solos. The naturally complementary registers of the two instruments, coupled with blazing breakneck tempos, became the formula for the pioneering sound of Bill Monroe and his guitarist Lester Flatt:

The evolution of bluegrass rhythm guitar took another step forward when Maybelle Carter turned those bass notes, counterintuitively, into melody notes. On classics like "Wildwood Flower," she kept the index finger chord strums on the higher strings, but interposed thumb-picked melody notes on the lower strings to create a hybrid lead-rhythm voice beneath her vocals:

The Doctor Is In

But light-speed flights of fretboard fancy remained mostly out of reach for bluegrass lead guitarists until the arrival of one individual. When Doc Watson burst on the scene as part of the folk revival movement of the early 1960s, his ability to go toe-to-toe with virtuoso fiddle players using nothing but a humble flat pick was nothing short of revolutionary:

"Flat pick" is the bluegrass term for a guitar pick, to differentiate it from the curved metal fingerpicks employed by banjo players and traditional bluegrass rhythm players in the Lester Flatt style. Watson's ability to flat pick complicated fiddle tunes at fiddle speeds, entirely without the aid of fingers, was the "Big Bang" moment in bluegrass lead guitar. For example, rolling patterns like this one from "Black Mountain Rag" are Watson signatures:

Carl Miner: 21st Century Crosspicker

Thanks to their one-note-per-string construction, crosspicking rolls highlight the difficulty of moving from one string to another at high speed. These kinds of patterns appear frequently in bluegrass standards like "Beaumont Rag," which is a particularly concentrated litmus test of crosspicking ability. Here's the amazing Carl Miner playing the classic Beaumont roll:

I first interviewed Miner in 2007 when he was a winner of the National Flat Pick Guitar championships in Winfield, Kansas. Miner had competed seriously as a teenager, placing second in 1997 and winning overall in 1998. So finding him at the 2007 competition was a happy accident as he trained his chops into fighting shape one more time. Miner has since leveraged his impressive bluegrass basic training to become a successful touring and recording artist.

He played guitar and mandolin on multiple tracks on Taylor Swift's Red album, toured for a year with Fiona Apple and Mumford & Sons, and logged more than 100 Nashville recording sessions in 2015 alone.

Crosspicking Mechanics

In reviewing the slow-motion footage from the 2007 interview, the speed, accuracy and sheer effortlessness of Miner's ability to play fingerbusting rolling patterns like "Beaumont" was immediately apparent. And so was his unique picking motion that made it all possible. This was fascinating and clearly incredibly powerful, and we knew we needed to find out more about how it worked.

So with more modern gear we caught up with Miner again in 2015 for an even better look:

It turns out that the graceful curvature of Miner's pickstrokes is the key to his ability to transition effortlessly from one string to another. It's also highly uncommon outside of bluegrass. We've written before in this space about the pickslanting techniques used by rock elites like Yngwie Malmsteen and Eric Johnson.

Those techniques are tailor-made for playing fast, linear lines that contain at least two notes on a string. But they fall down on unusual patterns like "Beaumont," where you need to move to a new string after every single note. The curve is the answer. It causes Miner's pick to catch air on every pickstroke, which lets him move to a new string without hitting any of the others. In fact, if you look down at Miner's hands while he's doing this, you can see actual space between the pick and the strings both before and after every note:

I grabbed this shot at a "pickin' party" at Adam Wright's house, himself a former Winfield winner. (Yes, a "pickin' party" is an actual thing!) Looking down from above like this, the curvature of Carl's pickstrokes is more than evident. And so is its historical lineage:

Of course! Doc Watson was the original crosspicker. In this footage from the Telluride music festival in the early 1970s, posted by YouTube user thefestivaltapes, the unique curvature of Watson's pickstrokes is obvious. Observing Watson's playing face-on, as we did in the "Black Mountain Rag" clip above, you'd never guess how he was navigating the strings.

It's only in rare, closeup shots like this Telluride footage that Watson's curved crosspicking magic becomes visible. And this is why crosspicking masters like Watson and Miner are able to play complicated lines that often stump players in other styles. Marathon metronome training sessions simply will not work unless you actively attempt to reproduce the curved picking motions Watson and Miner are using. And when you do, you can unlock an entire world of musical possibility, in bluegrass and beyond.

For more on bluegrass crosspicking, watch the complete Carl Miner interview in Masters In Mechanics.

Troy Grady is the creator of Cracking the Code, a documentary series with a unique analytical approach to understanding guitar technique. Melding archival footage, in-depth interviews, painstakingly crafted animation and custom soundtrack, it’s a pop-science investigation of an age-old mystery: Why are some players seemingly super-powered?

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