Crosspicking 101: A Private Bluegrass Lesson with Molly Tuttle

Excerpt from the April 2017 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS

Crosspicking is an essential technique in the bluegrass guitar toolbox. Pioneered by Stanley Brothers guitarist George Shuffler in the 1950s and worn by players such as Doc Watson, Clarence White and Tony Rice, crosspicking is essentially a guitar version of the fingerpicked banjo roll – you pick individual notes on the strings , creating rolling patterns that describe both the melody and the chords. The technique works well for accompaniment, as an elegant alternative to strumming, as well as for melody-chord style solos.

A young player with a fine and fluid cross-picking style is Molly Tuttle. For a sample, check out his 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 start crosspicking, then some simple arrangements to practice the technique: “Wildwood Flower” and “Worried Man Blues”.

Forget fretting

Classic bluegrass crosspicking involves playing over a group of three adjacent strings, usually in an eighth note pattern. To master playing with your picking hand, Tuttle suggests, forget about fretting for now and just focus on picking open strings.

Start by playing on strings 4, 3 and 2, from bottom to top. First, use alternate picking – alternating downward and upward strokes – as shown in Example 1. In this example and the others that follow, let all the notes ring out and overlap. Loop the pattern and gradually increase the tempo as you feel comfortable. Example 2 uses two downstrokes followed by one upstroke.

These two pick patterns sound different – the low-low-high pick is smoother. Tuttle favors alternate picking, but says, “A lot of amazing guitarists use this top-down pattern. You’ll see Tony Rice move away from the alternate pick direction, and he might put in two or more tries in a row.

Now practice moving this three-string pattern across the fingerboard, as in Example 3. Start with the top three strings and go down one string at a time until you get to the sixth string, using alternate or downward 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.)

Since these cross-select patterns are based on groups of three eighth notes, they don’t fit evenly into a 4/4 time signature. To create a tidy one-bar pattern, play the three-note group twice, then add two more eighth notes—by string number, the pattern goes 4-3-2, 4-3-2, 4-2. Try it in Example 4 with alternate picking, and Example 5 with low-low-high picking. This asymmetrical pattern, says Tuttle, is “one of the things that makes crosspicking sound cool and syncopated. When you play the melody, it’s a little out of place and sometimes put on the offbeat.

Now take this one-bar pattern and practice moving it across the fingerboard, as in Example 6. Start on the sixth string, move to the treble side, then drop back down to the sixth string.

So far, cross-selection models use what you might call forward rolling – they go bottom-up. You can also move the other way with a back or reverse roll. In Example 7, the roll goes from the fourth string to the second and third, using alternate picking. In Example 8, play the same string pattern, but this time with low-to-high pick strokes.

This inverted roll, with its groupings of three, should also be adapted to fit in a single measure. Example 9 shows a one-bar reverse roll using the low-high-high pattern, and Ex. ten it’s the same with alternate picking.

time to play

Now try these techniques in a few songs. Tuttle’s arrangement of “Wildwood Flower” uses a forward roll, as introduced in Exs. 1–6. You can cross the eighth note sections with alternating pick strokes or by picking up and down. For quarter notes, use down strokes. Throughout, your fretting fingers stay close to the basic chord shapes G, C, and F. 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 “The Worried Man’s Blues” Tuttle uses an inverted roll, like you practiced in Exs. 7–10. For cross eighth notes, use either alternate picking or bottom-up picking. Tuttle’s arrangement spices things up with a few hammer-ons (as in bars 5 and 13–16) and a few slides (bars 3, 11, and 12).

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In both of these arrangements, the melodies fall on the lowest notes of the crossover patterns – it’s similar to Carter-style picking, where you play the melody on the bass and add strums on top. You can help the melody stand out more by picking the melody notes a bit louder than the top notes that fill out the pattern.

Once you master these basic patterns, you can apply them to all kinds of songs. Simply hold down the chords, find the melody notes as close to the chord shapes as possible, and cross-pick.

molly tuttle wildwood flower guitar music notation
the worried man of molly tuttle blues guitar musical notation

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.

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