Have you watched pole-vaulters on the
I’ve always wondered what a lesson for
a beginning pole-vaulter might look like.
How do you practice something like this
slowly? I suppose you could travel to the
moon where there is less gravity or maybe
practice underwater where you could float
rather than suffer a nasty drop to the earth
every time you make a mistake. My guess
is that budding pole-vaulters don’t do
either of those impractical things. They
probably just do a lot of falling and get
bruised up more than the rest of us could
endure. My respect goes out to the pole-vaulters
of the world.
Back to the world of guitar.
I’ve planted a vision of bruised pole-vaulters
in your head to mentally prepare
you for something difficult and painful
on the guitar. But I’m going to do the
opposite and give you something easy to
play. Breathe a sigh of relief and get ready
to play ... two notes. Easy, right? And
you can practice them slowly without any
worries of falling to the ground. I want
to make this into a rhythmic phrase, so I
repeated these notes a few times. The right
hand will use alternate picking, starting
with a downstroke.
I really want you to remember this
phrase, so instead of using the generic title
“Fig. 1,” let’s rename it Color TVs
an unusual name, but I’ll bet you won’t
Download Example Audio 1...
At this point, you may already be wondering
where this is leading. So I’ll tell
you. In this column, I’m going to show the
best thing I have ever played. What do I
mean by that? I mean this is it
. This is the
SECRET. This opens so many locked doors
of technique and I’ve finally developed a
good idea of how to explain it clearly.
Let’s go to the next step. Do you
remember the easy phrase that you played
a minute ago? Let’s play it again. While
you’re playing it, take a look at it, and ask
yourself one question: How many strings
are you using? This is not a trick question.
The answer is one string. Now, I want to
play the same phrase using—brace yourself—
two strings! I want you to remember
this second phrase as well. So let’s get rid
of the generic title “Fig. 2”, and call it
Download Example Audio 2...
It’s still just two notes. But since they
are on different strings, we now have some
picking decisions to make. We’ve come
to a crossroads. I’m going to suddenly
transform into a cruel, dogmatic, knuckle-rapping
taskmaster, and insist with a loud
voice that you must use outside
In this case, “outside” picking means that
the first note—in this case, D—is always
played with an upstroke and the second
note is always played with a downstroke.
Your pick will never go in between (inside)
the two strings. Instead your pick will stay
outside the strings, hence the term. Outside
picking is better for these two notes.
“Inside” picking is absolutely valuable, has
its place, and is better in many other situations.
But please keep it away from these
two notes! Now let’s assemble a life-changing
guitar exercise. We’ll put Color TVs
Download Example Audio 3...
Let’s stop right here for a second. This
exercise is so important that I want to give
you some advice on how to master it. The
loud-talking taskmaster returns and says:
• Notice that the Color TVs begin with
a downstroke, while the Refrigerators
begin with an upstroke. The space in
between will allow you time to get
ready for the change in picking.
• Keep the tempo slow. The important
things are: Use the correct picking strokes
and keep the rhythm even and flowing.
• Respect the holes. Keep them in
tempo just like you would if they
• Notice that every note is picked. My
metaphor pays off here. “You’ve got
to move these refrigerators. You’ve got
to move these color TVs.”
• Practice. It takes 21 days for your
brain to take a new physical motion
and turn it into a motor skill. How
long each day? I’d guess about 15 minutes
a day, spread out in five-minute
sessions. It’s such a simple lick, that
any more than that might get boring
and that’s the last thing we want.
Hello! You’re back. Three weeks have passed,
and you have digested the examples all the
way back into the reptilian part of your
brain. No barrier or distraction can stop you
from playing it as easy as an E chord. You
can play it on a guitar, with strings that are
too high while plugged into an amp with
a sound that you don’t like with a monitor
where you can’t hear yourself, with a drummer
with erratic meter, a bass player who is
out of tune, an audience that is asking for
more Bee Gees tunes, and a dog that keeps
eating your homework. You don’t need to
make excuses. You can play it easily every
time. That’s what three weeks does. So now,
you are ready for the secret. You still have
to move these Refrigerators. But you do not
have to move these Color TVs.
What am I talking about? Let’s look at
our Color TVs for a second. It’s basically
two notes on one string. We’ve been picking
every note. But we don’t have to! The
taskmaster will still loudly demand that
you pick the first note. But after that,
the left hand can take over with pull-offs
and hammer-ons. No more picking is
required. You don’t have to move these
The Refrigerators still need to be
moved. But because you could take a break
from the Color TVs, you’ll be quicker
and more powerful when you get to the
Refrigerators. Here is a lick where this
concept really pays off. Let’s call this one
That’s the Way You Do It
Download Example Audio 4...
This lick is downright revolutionary.
There are no Color TVs, only
Refrigerators. And the result is that you
can play a phrase that uses three separate
strings with similar speed and ease as if
they were on a single string. This solves
possibly the biggest technical challenge of
playing scales and arpeggios on a guitar.
Now, before we invest three weeks in this
phrase, let’s ask an important moral question:
Isn’t it morally superior to pick every
note? Aren’t we being lazy for making the
left hand deal with the Color TVs while the
right hand takes a break? Doesn’t picking
sound better? Shouldn’t we practice picking
every note to build better technique?
The answer is no. A hammer-on or
pull-off has the same moral value as a
picked note. Hammer-ons and pull-offs
sound great and in this case, they make
the difference between a lick being comfortable
and playable, or being stiff and
impossible. You shouldn’t move these
Color TVs. It would mess up the lick.
Okay, the taskmaster is back. It’s time
to practice. Keep in mind that this lick has
six notes, a triplet feel, and should work
well over a shuffle groove. As always, start
slow and make sure the picking strokes are
correct. Don’t pick more often than you
need to. The biggest mistake students make
with this is they start moving the Color
TVs. You don’t have to. And the lick will
fall apart if you do. Move the Refrigerators
only. I want that lick firmly embedded
in the part of your brain that acts out of
instinct and habit. That takes three weeks.
It’s well worth it to experience a revolution.
All right. You’re back again. There is
no bad news. Only good. “That’s the
Way You Do It” has so many applications
and variations that I don’t know where to
begin. Or maybe I do. All we did here was
add a couple of notes with our left hand.
Our Refrigerators remain the same. You’ve
already put in the practice for this picking
pattern, so there’s a good chance it will
work immediately. That’s why I’m going
to rename it, Money for Nothing
Download Example Audio 5...
At a medium tempo this will sound
like 16th-notes. But as it speeds up, I’ve
found that the picking accents can make
it sound like 16th-note triplets. I really
like how this fools the ear. It’s actually
using eight notes to sound like nine. It’s
almost like someone smuggled in an extra
Color TV. This will sound good over a
shuffle groove, and could be written like
this next example.
To give you a small taste of where you
can go with these techniques, I’ll give you
two more variations. Both keep our picking
pattern the same, but use different
fingerings and note choices. The first uses
notes from the blues scale and a shape
that’s easy for the left hand. I’m too deep
into my metaphor now to call this one anything
but, Chicks for Free
Download Example Audio 6...
The next example, Maybe Get a Blister
on Your Little Finger
, has a bigger left-hand
stretch and is a great way to play a
blistering minor-7th arpeggio.
Download Example Audio 7...
I have taught some of these phrases
before using clearly notated videos and
tablature. But after watching students play
them, I realized that the exact picking pattern
is crucial to making these work. In
almost every case, the problem was that the
student was applying old picking habits
and trying to pick too many notes. This
left them tangled up and unsuccessful.
The solution is to pick less. This requires
less motion and very specific coordination.
When going from string to string, you’ve
got to pick it. When playing more than
one note on the same string, you only have
to pick the first note and not the others.
You’ve got to move those Refrigerators. You
don’t have to move those Color TVs.
purposefully began playing guitar
at age 9, formed the guitar-driven bands
Racer X and Mr. Big, and then accidentally
had a No. 1 hit with an acoustic song called
“To Be with You.” Paul began teaching at
GIT at the age of 18, has released countless
albums and guitar instructional DVDs, and
will remembered as “the guy who got the drill
stuck in his hair.” For more information, visit