I don’t get a lot of hate comments, I really don’t. The closest my comment section gets to hate is stuff like, “Hey dude, great video! But at 2:34 you have 7/9 in the tab and it should be 9/7. By the way, can you transcribe Billy Strings’ Slow Train?” Those comments are great! I make a new video every week and between scripting, transcribing, filming, performing, editing, uploading, and hosting the free tab, there are lots of opportunities for me to make mistakes. Most of the time I just forget a key signature in the sheet music or make a small editing mistake when animating something and I appreciate people pointing those out when they hinder the lesson at hand!
There is one kind of comment that gets to me though, and that is the “Misunderstanding Hate Comment”, a lot of times these comments come from people that are well informed but just missing the point. These are the worst because I want to work through the misunderstanding but sadly that normally doesn’t happen. I assume most of these folks dismiss my body of work and move on with their lives. Which is fine.
But for the folks still with me, I thought maybe we could use some of these comments to learn about bluegrass history and technique.
The video I produced on Molly Tuttle’s performance of White Freightliner Blues has generated a good amount of discussion in the comments. I read most of the comments, like some of them, but rarely respond now. The video is two years old and no longer the best representation of who I am as a player or my style on YouTube as a platform. One comment did catch my eye though, the profile picture let me know I was talking to THE Batman and I strongly considered responding.
This is a killer comment, and a great example of a misunderstanding comment. I actually think that Batman and I are in total agreement, if anything Batman just lacks a tiny little bit of historical perspective from the bluegrass side of things, something that I tried to provide in the video but alas. Let’s break down Batman’s three totally valid criticisms.
1. Sweep picking forward rolls and alternate picking backward rolls is bad.
2. I should be sweep picking my backward rolls too.
3. Molly Tuttle needs precision, and uniformity which she gets from alternate picking not down-down-up. So to play like her don’t use sweep picking.
I did my best to summarize the points made in the original comment and to adjust the language to get at a clear statement. Let’s see if I can address those points by talking about three players.
Long ago in the far off land of the 1950’s, George Shuffler was playing guitar for the Stanley Brothers. During the “lean times” it would literally just be Ralph Stanley, Carter Stanley, and George Shuffler on tour together. Because of this tight line up, Shuffler says he imitated a forward banjo roll to fill space. He found this new technique more useful than the other common country guitar styles of the time like Travis Style or the Carter Scratch.
Shuffler’s style was incredibly influential on the bluegrass guitar scene and has steered generations of guitar players to favor down-down-up crosspicking when imitating the forward roll of a banjo. Below you’ll find a kick off in the style of George Shuffler for the Stanley Brother’s standard “Will You Miss Me”. Shuffler played this kick many different ways, you can see this Stanley Brother’s recording does not match a later instructional tape.
Why go off on this tangent? Well, I want to make the point that sweep picking and crosspicking are two very different techniques and they’re made for different purposes. Sweep picking is a fluid motion that brings the pick through multiple strings on one stroke and was polished into its modern incarnation in the 80’s by Frank Gambale. Sweep picking is now generally taught with hammer-on and pull-off ornaments and associated with shred. Crosspicking is used to describe a strict, usually repeating, three string pattern that has two strings economy picked. George Shuffler’s down-down-up and Jesse McReynold’s down-up-up being famous examples. Generally there is also a rest stroke employed on the repeated strokes. Crosspicking is associated with bluegrass instruments played with a flatpick imitating bluegrass banjo which is played with finger picks and a three finger roll.
All that being said, in response to Batman’s first point: Sweep picking forward rolls and alternate picking backward rolls is bad. We’re not sweep picking, we’re crosspicking and not only is switching between the different styles not bad, but it is something that is common in bluegrass players and those players are some of the quickest out there! All they’re doing is imitating a hero of the genre, not unlike learning a Django solo with the correct fingering even though you didn’t lose most of your piggies in a caravan fire.
Batman’s second point was: I should be sweep picking my backward rolls too. Great point, for consistency of technique I should do McReynold’s style crosspicking (not sweeping) for backward rolls but I don’t. I find alternate picking does the job just as well for me personally. Down-up-up just feels less ergonomic, maybe with some pick slanting and dedicated practice I could get used to it but its honestly not a technique I am very interested in. Likely because of the historical and culture tie in bluegrass to down-up-up being a mandolin technique and down-down-up being a guitar technique.
Batman’s third point is where the trouble truly lies. It’s not a problem to favor a technique over another and I understand that the historical aspect of our genre is not common knowledge but after covering all of that, we end up with a problem of definition. Read the third point Batman made again.
Molly Tuttle needs precision, and uniformity which she gets from alternate picking not down-down-up. So to play like her don’t use sweep picking.
Remember Batman says sweep picking when he means crosspicking and if crosspicking is specifically down-down-up or down-up-up banjo roll imitation then is it crosspicking when Molly Tuttle alternate picks what would traditionally be a crosspicking passage?
The traditionalist will say no and the progressivist will say yes and I’m not sure who is right. At the very least the surrounding bluegrass guitar culture hasn’t ironed out the kinks of the definition. Jordan Ramsey suggests Cross String Picking or CSP but I suspect that will just confuse the hell out of everyone. Ramsey goes on to describe the perceivable difference in both approaches as a listener and he agrees with Batman. Alternate-Picking-Cross-Picking (DUDUDUDU) generally feels more even but Economy-Picking-Cross-Picking (DDUDDUDU) sounds more syncopated and rhythmic.
With all of that out of the way, I would wager that 99% of players end up using one technique over another based on a physical response in this case. At the very least, that’s what I did and that’s what my students tend to find. I don’t think I am the person to police whether people playing Molly Tuttle transcriptions are using alternate picking or down-down-up during the crosspicking sections. Especially when both approaches are perfectly viable.
Thanks for the killer comment Bruce Wa… I mean Batman. It was a good excuse to vent about all this crosspicking nonsense that has been coming up lately. I’ll go back to teaching guitar and you go back to keeping Gotham safe.