I just listened to the guitar solo in Ted
Nugent’s “Stranglehold” with the intent
of discovering one important thing. I
wanted to know how long the solo stays
in one key before changing to another key.
The answer is two minutes and 56 seconds
of grand and grinning A Dorian before the
song finally shifts to an A Mixolydian melody,
followed by some howling Byrdland
feedback. I just want to ponder that number
one more time ... 2:56. All spent in a
single key center. Right on!
Then, I listened to the jazz standard
“Stella by Starlight” with the same intentions.
There are many versions of this
popular tune and after listening to several of
them, I would estimate that on average there
a four seconds between each key change.
Now let’s do the math: “Stranglehold”
(the solo) stays in one key for 176 seconds.
“Stella by Starlight” stays in one key for
four seconds. When it comes to improvising,
“Stella” requires the soloist to think…
not twice as fast, not 10 times as fast,
times faster than when navigating
This is why playing over jazz chord changes
can be one of the most humiliating experiences
a rock guitar player can ever face. I
know. I’ve tried it. It’s horrible. Just horrible!
(Not the music, but my ability to play it.)
There are two things that I want to
scream out when I’m butchering a jazz standard.
The first is, “I’m not ready
yet!” Basically, I’ve never had to deal with
my whole harmonic universe shifting every
four seconds. It doesn’t give me a chance
to even get started. I haven’t unpacked my
bags, or even taken my shoes off. I haven’t
had a chance to look around. I’m not
ready to leave yet! My second impulse is
to scream, “I don’t know what happened,
normally I can play!” Suddenly, all my
Ted Nugent licks don’t work anymore and
that is deeply
unsettling. It fills me with an
uncontrollable desire to apologize.
Is this proof that all rock guitarists are
dummies and all jazz guitar players are
geniuses? It sure feels that way, when all
those chords toss me around. In defense of
myself and of my rock ’n’ roll brethren, I
have to say this: What we may lack in “wild
key center-hopping abilities,” we make up
for with “things that can’t easily be written
down” and “controlling that fire-breathing
monster we call distortion.”
Before I go further, I should say that
I really like the sound of traditional jazz.
When I hear a mellow hollowbody guitar
with squeak-free and unbendable flatwound
strings, the guitar’s tone control all the way
down, and then plugged into a super clean,
solid-state amp, it’s like a sonic massage.
The music is beautiful. The atmosphere
is sophisticated and attractive. I wouldn’t
change it one bit.
I also believe that this kind of jazz setup
prevents many of the problems that rock
guitar players have to deal with. It’s quite
possible that the typical clean jazz tone is
44 times less distorted than the average fire-breathing
This means that jazz guitarists can funnel
all their brain and finger power into
steering through those winding roads of
harmony. The jazz player is not distracted
by the obligations that distortion requires.
The rock player, on the other hand, has to
reserve significant brain and finger power
just to harness the wild beast that comes
alive when the distortion is cranked up.
I must admit that when I see a rock
guitar player strap on an instrument, the
first thought that enters my head is worry.
I’m worried that it’s going to be noisy.
Distortion magnifies the sound of every
tiny hand movement in the same way that
the typical jazz sound can mask them.
Have you ever heard the Van Halen song,
“Atomic Punk?” Eddie Van Halen plays the
intro just by rubbing the side of his hand
across the strings with lots of distortion and
a phase shifter on. It sounds like Godzilla
brushing his teeth! (I heartily approve.) If
you tried the same technique with a clean
jazz sound, you’d barely hear anything.
Godzilla and his toothbrush would fade
into the flapping wings of a butterfly. Done
right, distortion brings unique sounds and
excitement. But in inexperienced hands, it
can be a big loud mess.
Let’s look deeper into the nature of this
fire-breathing rock guitar sound. I’d like to
use painting as an analogy. With distortion,
every tiny brushstroke is enlarged to a billboard-
sized font, with all the details intact.
There is your technique, with no clothes
on, projected on a giant screen. If your
technique is in good shape, you’ll be proud
to have it projected. But if it has some flaws
or uncontrolled areas, you may crave the
relative safety of those mellow muffled flatwounds.
But don’t give up too easily. Let’s
look at some specifics for taming the issues
First and foremost is string noise. Possibly
the biggest challenge to making a distorted
guitar sound good (not noisy) is merely
playing one note while simultaneously keeping
the other five strings from scratching,
grumbling, muttering, or just plain-old ringing
out. With a jazzy sound, this is nearly a
non-issue. With a rock sound, this string-controlling
technique is vital.
This is where we come to the “things
that can’t be easily written down” part. Can
you imagine what a score would look like if
you had to specifically notate all the muting
required to control the unplayed strings?
For every note played, the other five strings
must be muted every time you play a new
note! And the muting doesn’t come from
one simple source. You can use the palm of
your picking hand, the pick itself, the tips
of your fretting fingers, the front side of
your fretting fingers, your thumb, or even
just turn off your distortion box at a precise
moment. Most of these techniques utilize
small, specific physical motions that are
barely visible, but again, are vital.
Of course, no one notates this sort of
thing when writing out sheet music. It
would be painstaking to write and cumbersome
to read. But in the real world of playing
rock guitar, it has to be done!
Imagine if a drummer had to do this.
If every time drummers hit their snare,
they had to lightly hold every other drum
on their kit to keep them from making
an unwanted racket. Only octopi could
be drummers! Or think of the piano. In
order to play a single, clear note, pianists
would have to stretch out their arms in
both directions to cover and control the
other 87 notes! The sensitivity and feedback
potential that rock guitar players use
(to their advantage) would make many
other instruments simply uncontrollable or
impossible to play. This is why I feel that
the art of playing a distorted electric guitar
should not be underestimated. Distortion
exaggerates the potential for beauty or ugliness,
and it’s purely up to the guitarist to
steer the sound one way or the other. This
is one of the things I love most about the
electric guitar. It may have dangerous risks,
but the sonic rewards for getting it right
And then there’s vibrato. Again, those
jazzy flatwounds tend to keep things
on the safe side. In fact, they are barely
bendable, while slinky roundwound strings
open up a whole world of vibrato possibilities.
The whammy bar and the slide are
other variations on this fantastic theme.
Like before, the subtleties that separate
the beautiful from the noisy are nearly
impossible to notate on a written page. You
can show “where” the vibrato should happen,
but it would be impractical to notate
“how.” And the “how” is everything! If you
listen to one note from B.B. King or Brian
May, you can immediately tell who is who,
just by their vibrato. I love them both, but
I can’t imagine how to write down the difference
in a way that could be quickly and
There’s more: Rock guitar players gain
expression by sliding in and out of notes,
using different pick angles to squeeze out
pick harmonics and manipulate different
attack textures, using pick scratches and
other percussive sounds, and controlling
What is my conclusion from all this?
First of all, if the most important stylistic
ingredients of rock guitar can’t be realistically
notated or perceived visually, this leaves
us to use THE EARS. Written music certainly
communicates something (notes and
rhythms) that forms the skeleton of music.
Your ears will give the music its body and
soul, and bring it to life. Rock music may
be relatively simple harmonically, but the
performances are as deep as the human
spirit. In the vast majority of great recordings
and performances, no one had any
charts in front of them. It was all by ear.
My second conclusion is that I am
thankful that there are different styles
of music, each with something that can
inspire. All musicians have their comfort
zone, and the trick for each of us is to
venture out of it enough to get new ideas
and inspiration, but not so much that your
self-worth is crushed like a peanut under an
Damn you, “Stella by Starlight.” I’ll get
P.S. What? No musical example this
month? Okay, one quick one. I’ll give you
the written skeleton in Fig. 1
The secret here is that nearly half of
these notes can be bent. Your job is to
insert those bends and bring it to life.
(Please check out the audio file in the
online version of this column. I’ll play both
the bent and unbent version so you can
hear the difference.) Rock ’n’ roll!
or download example audio (no bends)...
or download example audio (bends)...
or download example audio (bends slow)...
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