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What is crosspicking?

answered by Bryan Kimsey

Cross-picking is a technique of jumping, or "crossing", strings. Strictly speaking, it follows a certain pattern, using either a "forward" or "backwards" roll with a certain number of notes per phrase. Generally speaking, cross-picking can be any phrase in which strings are skipped or in which a roll or some sort or another is played. The "floating" technique, for instance, is a variation on cross-picking in which open strings are deliberately played against fretted notes for a piano-istic sound. Cross-picking is based on Carter-style playing in which a bass melody note is surrounded by strums; in cross-picking the strum is replaced with a picked note or notes. George Shuffler, who played with the Stanley Brothers for many years is the main guru of strict cross-picking, while most modern guitarists, especially those from the Tony Rice school of playing incorporate a looser cross-picking style. Norman Blake is another master of cross-picking, using a style somewhere between Rice and Shuffler. In any case, cross-picking usually derives the "main" note from the melody and the cross-picked notes from the chord.

Pick direction is an important topic among cross-picking aficionados. Shuffler uses a Down-Down-Up-Down (DDUD) direction which places a strong emphasis on the off-beat notes (2 and 4). Others prefer to maintain a more normal Down-Up-Down-Up (DUDU) direction with its resulting accents. A very small number of guitarist have good enough pick direction to vary direction freely, sometimes playing in complex patterns like DDDU/UDDD. These guitarists often are not playing direction as much as they are playing accents, and frequently are not even aware of pick direction. Again, beginners and intermediates are advised to stick with one technique until they have it mastered.

Steve Pottier wrote an excellent article about crosspicking in Volume 1, Number 4 of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine in his column titled "Beginning Clarence White Style Guitar." We have re-printed that article here in order answer the question about crosspicking.


In the last column I wrote about the rest stroke and its importance to bluegrass style guitar playing (Joe Carr also wrote about it in his column, and we didn't know until we turned our columns in to Dan that we wrote on the same topic!). I mentioned briefly that it was used in the down-down-up George Shuffler style of cross-picking, which Clarence White favored. This time I would like to describe this style and how to go about getting it going smoothly.

Cross-picking is a style of flatpicking where you play a picking pattern across 3 strings (usually). Here's a sample of cross-picking patterns played on a C chord:


pattern 1
                   pattern 2         pattern 3        pattern 4          pattern 5







crosspicking patterns

Pattern 1 is commonly used in the second part of Beaumont Rag:

Beaumont Rag Lick

Beaumont Rag Lick

The common way to play this picking pattern is down up down up (above), which gives it a real ragtime flavored rhythm. In the George Shuffler style, this is played down down up, which gives it a smoother rhythm, with more emphasis on the lower notes. This is perfect for playing a tune like Bury Me Beneath the Willow when the melody lies on the bass strings.

Before I go into an example tune, I want to talk about some ways to get this pattern going smoothly. You will remember from the last column that a rest stroke is done with the pick at about a 45 degree angle to the face of the guitar. The pick is pushed through the string, and snaps down, coming to rest on the next higher string. Begin with this rest stroke, then continue down through the next string, but for this second note, you don't use a rest stroke- the pick just glides over the top of the last string, which it picks on the way back down to the lowest string. Here is a sequence of exercises to get this pattern going:

Exercise 1

In Exercise 1 the idea is to get a quick flick of the pick from the highest string in the pattern to the lowest string in the pattern, landing in a rest stroke. Try for an economy of motion with the pick stopping solidly on the middle string.

Exercise 2

In Exercise 2 we have the same pattern extended back one note. The first two notes are played down up as in a standard fiddle tune, and the third note is a rest stroke. Try playing it in a loop (a repeating pattern that you can play again and again without breaking the rhythm), it has the feel of a gallop. If you use a metronome, set it to about 80 clicks per minute, and play so you hit the rest stroke on each click. Do this 10 times in a row, then rest a minute and repeat.

Exercise 3

In Exercise 3 we have the pattern completed, but done as tripletts and stopping every time through to emphasize the rest stroke. Play to the rhythm "bottle of rum. bottle of rum. bottle of rum..."

Exercise 4

In Exercise 4 there are no stops, just a continuous triplet rhythm (think "bubble-ty bubble-ty bubble-ty bubble-ty.."). When you get exercise 4 going smoothly you are ready for the syncopation that results when you play a pattern of 3 (no triplets)against 4(notes per bass strum).

Exercise 5

Exercise 5 is the George Shuffler pattern with a down up at the end of each measure to make the beat come out even, similar to a Scruggs banjo roll. We'll start with that pattern, but keep in mind that it can (and should be) considered a starting point, and later you can break out of the pattern at will.

Below we will use a crosspicking version of "Wildwood Flower" to put some of these ideas and exercises together in a song.

Wildwood Flower

Some final thoughts: keep it light but firm. A common error is to use a seperate attack for each note instead of pushing the first two notes as though they were an arpeggio played with one downstroke. Also, note how the basic pattern gets broken up when you play the pattern of down down up more than twice in a row. Some good examples of this style are on The Stanley Brothers of Virginia Volume 2 (County 739) and Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels (Rounder 0098). (copyright Steve Pottier 1997)

Last updated by Dan Miller Mar 24, 2010.

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