The cascading waterfall of sound that is Eric Johnson's lead playing has captivated players and listeners for 30 years.
Sonically, it's an almost formless wash of sunshine. In Johnson's ethereal soundscape, all the edges are smoothed away.
Even the distinction between scales and arpeggios seems to blur. His patterns tumble imperceptibly through positions, like falling through clouds. And his limitless supply of sparsely voiced diatonic chord substitutions only enhances the vertigo. And it's the seemingly imperturbable precision of Johnson's right hand that makes it all possible.
And now, armed with a modern understanding of picking mechanics, we can actually begin to understand and recreate Johnson's wondrous style.
The foundational skill of Johnson's lead style is the ability to play two-note-per-string passages at high speed. And of course, the ideal mechanical system for playing this is downward pickslanting.
Wait a minute, downward what?
Getting Straight with the Slant
If you haven't watched Season 2, Episode 1 of Cracking the Code, now might be a good time to do so! Because it turns out the secret to Johnson's picking technique is precisely the same one that powers Yngwie Malmsteen's legendary scalar accuracy. And it is ingenious and easy to replicate.
By simply rotating the picking hand downward, toward the floor, Johnson and Malmsteen create a subtle but powerful change in the pick's travel.
In this position, called downward pickslanting, downstrokes tend to bury themselves between the strings. But upstrokes are where the magic happens: The pick breaks free of the surrounding strings and pulls away from the guitar's body. This makes the upstroke the ideal time to switch strings, because nothing can get in the way. The pick simply drops down on the next chosen string and continues playing.
The genius of this solution is that the upstroke itself becomes the string-switching movement. There is no longer any need to jump from string to string, and this removes the primary source of sloppiness and mistakes most players face. Once you remove the error-prone process of "stringhopping" from string to string, it becomes dramatically easier to play with great accuracy.
Note also that downward pickslanting is not the same as edge picking. That's a completely different and much more commonly discussed pick angle. And it solves a totally separate problem. Players use the edge of the pick to reduce the resistance of the picking motion against the strings. But pickslanting uses rotation of the hand and/or fingers to change the entire trajectory of the pick's travel. The key is that these two happen simultaneously in Johnson's technique.
Ah Via Pentatonic
In retrospect, this all should have been obvious. Johnson is a one-way pickslanter, and he maintains a pronounced downward pickslant at nearly all times. This pickslant is more aggressive than Malmsteen's, and it's plainly visible, even on standard-definition footage like his 1990 Hot Licks instructional video, Total Electric Guitar. Here's a screen cap of just how clear that is:
This pickslant dovetails perfectly with the cornerstone of his lead playing: the pentatonic scale. Thanks to its two-note-per-string design, the pentatonic scale is actually perfectly efficient. By simply starting on a downstroke, and using downward pickslanting, the sequence changes strings cleanly after every upstroke:
As you can see clearly in this closeup footage, captured with our prototype iPhone slow-motion analysis rig, the smoothness and accuracy of the string switching is readily apparent. There is no jumping from string to string whatsoever.
Thanks to downward pickslanting, each upstroke is the string change. And this is true whether you're ascending or descending. The mechanics don't change based on the direction of the lick; once the upstroke is in the air, it can drop down in any direction it chooses, either higher or lower.
Astute observers also will notice that when played descending, with a down-up sequence on each string, the pentatonic scale is an outside picking lick. When played ascending, that same down-up picking sequence becomes inside picking. Of course, it's still the same picking sequence, and because of this, there is no mechanical difference in difficulty between them.
In other words, in a downward pickslanting world like Johnson's, inside and outside picking as concepts have little relevance to actual difficulty. The only thing that matters is making sure that every string change happens after an upstroke.
The Pentatonic Cascade
Now, when you combine the power of the downward pickslanting upstroke with a little sweeping, amazing things start to happen:
This is an example of Johnson's rich pentatonic vocabulary, which I like to call the "cascade," and you can watch the original and my version in the video at the top of this lesson. It combines the power of downward pickslanting with ascending sweeping to create the descending ripple of pentatonic sound that has become Johnson's trademark.
This particular cascade moves from the pentatonic box position down to the mid-neck third pentatonic position. Along the way, we see a variety of Johnson's signature moves: the initial ascending pickup, a single-string legato turnaround, a battery of slides and pull-off position shifts and more. It's a vocabulary that is uniquely his, but also immensely powerful as a tool chest in creating your own pentatonic, downward pickslanting explorations.
You'll note that every alternate-picked string change in the lick is still an upstroke. But now, we've augmented the mechanical formula with sweeping for switching strings after downstrokes. This is the same formula Malmsteen uses, and the results are truly stunning.
Cracking the EJ Code
If you're interested in learning more about Johnson's picking mechanics, we'll be doing exactly that in the very next episode of Cracking the Code, Season 2. That episode, "Eric the Right," is set to roll out soon and includes an extremely detailed pack of more than 30 slow-motion clips and 25 pages of written analysis. That pack is available to our Season Pass holders now, and the episode will arrive shortly.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with a sample of some of the amazing and timeless sounds in Johnson's larger repertoire. All of these can be created by following the simple rules we've outlined here. Ah Via Pentatonic, indeed!
Troy Grady is the creator of Cracking the Code, a documentary series with a unique analytical approach to understanding guitar technique. Melding archival footage, in-depth interviews, painstakingly crafted animation and custom soundtrack, it’s a pop-science investigation of an age-old mystery: Why are some players seemingly super-powered?