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Theory: Advanced Beginner
• Unlock the secrets of the double upstroke.
• Create three-note-per-string phrases while combining sweep picking and legato phrasing.
• Learn the secret to impressing girls at Disney World.
Throughout my life, there have been many incidents that caused me great grief and embarrassment.
When I was about 12 years old, my parents took me to Disney World, aka The Magic Kingdom. More specifically, to the Epcot theme park portion of The Magic Kingdom. Now, for those of you who haven’t been there, it’s really quite a lovely place. It’s full of magic, talking animals, and expensive stuff. And when you’re a 12-year-old boy, straining to grow out of your King Diamond falsetto voice and smacking face-first into the hard wall of puberty at 100 mph, it’s also a lovely place to view and attempt to impress young ladies.
Naturally, as with any self-respecting little heavy-metal kid of the ’80s, I had spent weeks—perhaps even months—preparing to unleash myself upon the ladies (read: girls) of sunny Florida. This involved, you see, decking myself out in my cutoff Ratt T-shirt, a pair of gym shorts that fit like Huggies diapers on my scrawny pale legs, and those awesome stripy tube socks we used to wear pulled up to our knees. My electric blue Puma low-top sneakers completed the whole ensemble.
Then there was my “almost” metal haircut. It curled like the wings of an angel around and behind my ears, gently falling the unfortunate too-short distance to my lower neck. The only way this could have been any better was probably a steel retainer in my mouth and a crash helmet. But, boy, I was heavy metal incarnate. (I must remind you all at this point that this was the ’80s and I was 12. Don’t use any of this against me in the future.)
So, as the story goes, we were walking into the Universe of Energy, I believe. It was the big, shiny, silver building with all the dinosaurs. I suppose I wanted to give the park visitors the idea that blood-spitting wolves of demonic origin raised me—this is very metal, you see. So, I walked a solid several paces behind my parents, thus hoping no one would make the connection of relation. (This is also very metal when you’re 12.)
I walked boldly and with great decision in my stride, as if I were carrying the giant metal banner for all to see.
I. Was. Metal. METAL, I tell you.
Now, as fate would have it I soon spotted a delightful young girl working the fruit slurpy stand, just a bit in front of the entrance. My metal-born adrenaline surged. This was what I had spent all those months in preparation for. This is what I practiced my best Dave Mustaine sneer in my bathroom mirror for. This was why I’d hiked my socks so far up my legs and taken scissors to my best t-shirt. I was called to action. The time had finally arrived.
I should briefly explain at this point in our adventure that, in order to accommodate the long lines, amusement parks put out heavy steel poles in front of exhibits, which they firmly secured into the cement with some magic locking system. These poles, in turn, are connected by strong nylon ropes and form a labyrinth of sorts, which within the period of what feels like years of slowly milling along like sheep, will eventually lead you to the attraction you came for. Sometimes when there are tons of people, you can imagine the line runs very slowly.
On this cheery sunny day we zipped through at an alarmingly quick pace. The place was practically empty. My skinny little legs pumping up and down in the hot Florida sun, my big stripy knee socks hanging on for dear life, my Mustaine scowl aimed at every passing happy park patron, the big Ratt logo on my t-shirt screaming at the world that I was a force to be reckoned with.
So cool. And so very metal.
I walked forcefully, quickly, and proudly. Then I decided to make my move. Now was the time. I abandoned my Mustaine sneer and put on my best Kip Winger pout, glancing purposefully at the hot chick. I was so in the zone. And then, she looked back and smiled at me!
Right as I ran smack dab into one of those metal poles I mentioned before.
Now, as you can imagine, those poles come just short of exactly the height of a very sensitive area. I’m talking about Wee Willy here, people. Captain Jack and the sparrows. Right in der kielbasa und sauerkraut.
Unfortunately, not only did I suffer the pain one encounters from smashing one’s twig and berries directly into an impenetrable obstacle, but I also managed to perform a complete flip over the pole and into the open arms of the hard concrete of the Disney street in front of spectators. It was in front of the Universe of Energy, in Disney World, and most importantly—in front of the object of my desire.
And so my friends, the moral of the story is: Never smash your Bilbo Baggins into a metal pole in front of a girl. Well, never do it in front of anyone, for that matter.
At this point, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What the hell does this have to do with guitar?” Nothing, really, I just needed cheap therapy from you all, thanks.
Seriously, though. This story always reminds me of the grief and embarrassment I suffered with the dreaded double upstroke—on guitar that is.
I can remember the first time I heard about the clever idea of crossing strings, ascending, with double downstrokes or the opposite version of descending and crossing strings with a double upstroke. I don’t know why, maybe it was gravity, but the ascending version was always easier. The descending, well, it became my Disney pole, so to speak. And just when I thought I was cool and started getting it under control, I hit the proverbial pole.
So, I put to use one of my practicing philosophies: Always use a wind machine to look cool like Steve Vai. Then I put to use another one of my practicing philosophies: divide and conquer. When things seem really too hard to do, find the most crucial element and practice it incessantly. Don’t think about the huge insurmountable mountain of doom.
In this case, it was the upstroke. So, rather than failing time and again by trying to apply it to an entire scale or arpeggio, I came up with a short exercise shown in Fig. 1. Three notes—very simple. The crucial element here is the wind machine I mentioned before and also to make sure you drag the two upstrokes across the strings and not individualize them by using a regular picking movement. Another helpful thing was use of the metronome. Start it slowly, practice for five minutes, focus.
Later, I began to use the exercise to make some cool licks, like the one in Fig. 2. Basically just moving it around, using the top note of each grouping as a guide to outline whatever scale I’m going for.
Finally, as the lick got faster and sounded more and more like a video game, I tried adding in more notes. This one (Fig. 3) is a three-note-per-string version through E Aeolian (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D).
So, good luck with this! I’ve also submitted for your approval a short, but very metal song to demonstrate these ideas. I’ve affectionately nicknamed it "The Metal Pole of Doom, Opus 1 in E minor.” I have fiendishly disguised the licks in my improvising, so keep an ear out. It will be kind of like the Where’s Waldo? of shred. The trauma of the original event at Disney that inspired this song probably made me play a few too many notes. Forgive me. But, to make up for it I’ve also included “The Metal Pole of Doom” without me soloing, so you can try the ideas. Do it. Do it now.
If you’re working on sweep picking for arpeggios or applying the double ups and downs to scales and feeling frustrated, try working small. These licks helped me gain control of my nemesis, the dreaded double upstroke. And soon after, I began to apply the technique to all sorts of black-hearted guitar debauchery.
And if you ever find yourself in front of the Epcot’s Universe of Energy, observe a moment of silence for my youthful misfortunes and then hum “The Metal Pole of Doom, Opus 1 in E minor.” And whatever you do, watch out for those poles!
Terry Syrek has been teaching guitar for over 25 years and is a senior faculty member of the National Guitar Workshop. He is the author of Shred Is Not Dead and continues to punish all comers with a combination of blistering speed, over-the-top distortion, and boyish charm. For more information, visit terrysyrek.com.