String crossing—the approach of moving from one string to another—is a fundamental aspect of picking-hand technique that is all too easy to ignore. Advancing players often try to perfect complex right-hand acrobatics without first considering the string-crossing basics. In this lesson I’ll break down the mechanics of the technique, provide essential exercises, and then apply it all to an etude from the classical guitar repertoire to help build up picking-hand precision.
To simplify things, start with just two strings and a down-up picking pattern. In this scenario, there are only two ways to string cross: by playing a downstroke on a lower string then an upstroke on a higher string (Example 1), or by playing a downstroke on a higher string, then an upstroke on a lower string (Example 2). In Ex. 1, the pick approaches the pair of strings from the outside, and is appropriately called “outside picking,” whereas in Ex. 2 the pick approaches each string from the inside and is called “inside picking.” Many players find inside picking much more challenging. Examples 3 and 4 expand by adding in a string jump.
Inside picking is an essential skill for all flatpickers to develop. Add a few minutes of Exs. 1–4 to your regular warm-up routine, and after a few weeks you should notice increased control with your picking hand. Take it slow, use a metronome, and focus on accuracy and tone. Honing inside picking will make more complicated techniques like cross-picking and widely spaced intervals easier to achieve and will generally increase your speed and precision.
“Etude No. 17, Op. 35” (Example 5) by Fernando Sor (1778–1839), in the key of D major, is a great piece for practicing advanced inside picking. An etude is a short composition written to develop a particular technique, and while Sor certainly did not intend this fingerstyle classical guitar etude to be a flatpicking skill builder, I find it works perfectly for that exact purpose. It’s a lovely piece, and only minor modifications to the original score are needed to make it playable with a pick.
Each measure includes substantial inside-picking jumps, and in some cases even goes from the highest to the lowest string, like in bars 3 and 7. The etude takes an immense degree of pick control, so give your muscle memory time to develop. With regular practice you should find your overall picking accuracy will improve.
To take the etude a step further, work on bringing out the melody notes, which take place on the higher strings and are indicated with upward stems in the notation. Play the melody notes a bit stronger and the accompanying bass notes a bit quieter, and let each melody note ring out until the next one is played. This emphasis brings the music to life and was probably Sor’s original intention with the etude.
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Lastly, if you, like many AG readers, happen to be a steel-string fingerstyle player, you, too, can enjoy playing this piece. Tackle it fingerstyle like Sor intended, and consider yourself lucky for not having to bother with thinking about outside and inside picking.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.