Crosspicking is an essential technique in the bluegrass guitar toolkit. Pioneered by Stanley Brothers guitarist George Shuffler in the 1950s, and carried forward by such players as Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice, crosspicking is essentially a guitar version of the fingerpicked banjo roll—you flatpick individual notes across the strings, creating rolling patterns that outline both the melody and the chords. The technique works well for accompaniment, as an elegant alternative to strumming, as well as chord-melody-style solos.
One young player with a fine, fluid crosspicking style is Molly Tuttle. For a sample, check out her gorgeous YouTube rendition of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” Tuttle is also a clear and patient teacher, and she shared the following exercises to get started with crosspicking, and then a couple of simple arrangements for practicing the technique: “Wildwood Flower” and “Worried Man Blues.”
Forget About Fretting
Classic bluegrass crosspicking involves playing across a group of three adjacent strings, usually in a pattern of eighth notes. To get the hang of it with your picking hand, Tuttle suggests, forget about fretting for now and just focus on picking open strings.
Start by playing across strings 4, 3, and 2, low to high. First, use alternate picking—alternating down- and upstrokes—as shown in Ex. 1. In this example and the others that follow, let all the notes ring and overlap. Loop the pattern and gradually increase the tempo as you get comfortable. Ex. 2 uses two downstrokes followed by an upstroke.
These two picking patterns sound different—the down-down-up picking is smoother. Tuttle favors alternate picking, but says, “A lot of amazing guitar players use this down-down-up pattern. You’ll see Tony Rice break away from the alternating pick direction, and he might put in two or more downs in a row.”
Now, practice moving this three-string pattern across the fingerboard, as in Ex. 3. Start on the top three strings and move down one string at a time until you get to the sixth string, using either alternate or down-down-up picking. (If you’d rather listen to something more interesting than the open strings, feel free to hold down any six-string chord while you do this exercise.)
Because these crosspicking patterns are based on groups of three eighth notes, they don’t fit evenly into a 4/4 measure. To make a tidy one-measure pattern, play through the three-note grouping twice and then add two more eighth notes—by string number, the pattern goes 4-3-2, 4-3-2, 4-2. Try it in Ex. 4 with alternate picking, and in Ex. 5 with down-down-up picking. This asymmetrical pattern, Tuttle says, is “one of the things that gives crosspicking a cool, syncopated sound. When you’re playing the melody, it gets a little displaced and sometimes gets put on the offbeats.”
Now take that one-measure pattern and practice moving it across the fingerboard, as in Ex. 6. Start on the sixth string, move to the treble side, and then go back down to the sixth string.
The crosspicking patterns thus far use what you might call a forward roll—they go low to high. You can also move in the other direction with a backward or reverse roll. In Ex. 7, the roll goes from the fourth string to the second and third, using alternate picking. In Ex. 8, play the same string pattern, but this time with down-up-up pick strokes.
This reverse roll, with its groupings of three, also needs to be adapted to fit into a single measure. Ex. 9 shows a one-measure reverse roll using the down-up-up pattern, and Ex. 10 is the same thing with alternate picking.
Time to Play
Now try these techniques in a couple of songs. Tuttle’s arrangement of “Wildwood Flower” uses a forward roll, as introduced in Exs. 1–6. You can crosspick the sections of eighth notes with either alternating pick strokes or down-down-up picking. For the quarter notes, use downstrokes. Throughout, your fretting fingers stay close to the basic G, C, and F chord shapes. Be sure to stay in position: Play all the notes on frets 1, 2, and 3 with your first, second, and third fingers, respectively.
In “Worried Man Blues,” Tuttle uses a reverse roll, as you practiced in Exs. 7–10. For the crosspicked eighth notes, use either alternate picking or down-up-up picking. Tuttle’s arrangement spices things up with some hammer-ons (as in measures 5 and 13–16) and a couple of slides (measures 3, 11, and 12).
In both of these arrangements, the melodies fall on the lowest notes of the crosspicked patterns—this is similar to Carter-style picking, where you play the melody in the bass and add strums on top. You can help the melody stand out more by picking the melody notes a little harder than the upper notes that fill out the pattern.
Once you’re fluent with these basic patterns, you can apply them to all kinds of songs. Just hold down the chords, find the melody notes as close as possible to the chord shapes, and crosspick away.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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