Sure, the economy isn’t what it was a few months ago. But what do you do if you find the one?
Guitar shopping is certainly different than it was 18 months ago. And we’re all grateful that manufacturers like Martin and Taylor are shipping more new guitars. That means your favorite music store probably doesn’t have as many empty hooks as it did during the crazy days of Covid. Stores that sell new instruments are also moving inventory more slowly as recent Wall Street jitters over inflation and the economy filter down to dinner-table talks about family finances. Even worse, personal budgets for music gear have to compete with vacations, events, and dining out. As a result, some guitar shoppers are wondering if that new guitar purchase should be postponed, especially considering that most new models will be available in the future when the world will hopefully feel at least a little more secure and predictable.
The put-it-off brakes are harder to apply, however, when it’s a bucket-list vintage instrument you’ve been looking for since long before we even knew how to spell “Covid.” What do you do when a guitar turns up that has everything you’ve wanted and the condition is just what you were hoping for, with the right combination of real-life wear and originality? It has the sound and playability you’ve been after and doesn’t need any work, so there’s no guessing about whether a neck reset and gluing those loose braces will change the sound, but in the wrong direction. And what will make passing up your bucket-list special even more difficult is knowing you might have to wait years before another example comes along that checks all those boxes.
“Even if only a few hundred Gibson J-185 models from the early 1950s, for instance, have survived in playable condition, there will still be significant variation in those examples today.”
This is where the differences between players who buy new guitars and those who buy used and vintage become obvious. Those who search for new models are often looking for the right combination of woods, body style, and neck shape, but within a known set of parameters determined by the builder. A new Taylor is always going to have a certain feel and look that’s distinctly different from any Martin or Gibson, for instance. But Taylor offers a lot of variety within the boundaries of “Taylorness,” especially when you add torrefied tops and different bracing patterns into the mix. Taylor probably offers more distinctly different steel-string models today than all American guitar manufacturers combined were putting into music stores in the 1960s. Martin and Gibson now offer multiple options of the same model, depending on how far back you want to turn the clock. The reissue of a D-28 from 1937 is different from a reissue of the 1954 version, which is different from the Standard Series D-28, and so on. Martin and other instrument manufacturers more than hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to offering variety, yet all new or nearly new guitars have one thing in common, and that is while they do vary, they are not unique. This is partly because current manufacturing methods are so dialed-in thanks to technology like CNC, but it’s primarily because those guitars haven’t lived a guitar life yet.
In contrast, a production guitar that’s many decades old is often very different even when compared to other examples of the same model from the same year. Yes, guitars back then were made more by hand, so even siblings from the same batch will often vary both in how they sound and how they feel. But the biggest difference is usually because of what happened to those guitars after they left the factory. A few lived ideal under-the-bed-in-a-case lives, some were played often but carefully, some got played a lot—often carelessly—and show it, some were heavily modified, and some were simply played and cracked and cooked and traveled until they were worn out. Even if only a few hundred Gibson J-185 models from the early 1950s, for instance, have survived in playable condition, there will still be significant variation in those examples today.
Those who seek out vintage guitars usually have their own standards for what kind of wear and repair they will tolerate. Some are more focused on originality of all parts and finish and will tolerate small cracks and repairs; others can’t live with a cracked soundboard no matter how superb the condition of the rest of the guitar. So, when a vintage-guitar seeker finds the right combination of features in an old instrument … well, you can see where this is going. Fiscal uncertainties may prevail, and the purchase of a new guitar will get postponed. But when the just-right old guitar comes along, many of us will go for it, even if the price is steep. As one true vintage hound told me years ago, “I’d rather buy the right guitar at the wrong time than be dreaming about the one that got away years later.”
Unleash the power of shreddy subdivisions.
- Understand how to work different rhythmic subdivisions into a rock groove.
- Combine related arpeggios all over the fretboard.
- Learn how to combine pentatonic sounds with arpeggio-based lines.
In my experience, constructing lines has always been about texture and structure. Developing ideas for soloing and writing melodies takes a keen sense of harmonic and rhythmic context. It’s about seducing the listener and delivering a ride that’s hard to forget—a ride that caters to the listener. Of course, it’s important to write for yourself and from the heart, but also remember that if your heart’s intent is to inspire others, then you’re on the right track for the long haul. And this is where melody comes in.
Melody deserves a certain level of priority in relation to harmony and rhythm. In this lesson, I’m going to show you a quick way to start improving your lines. The good news is music knows no bounds and music doesn’t care what level you’re at. Harmony and rhythm need to help each other tell your story.
In Ex. 1 we’ll be playing the Em7 arpeggio (E–G–B–D) in two positions. Don’t worry, we won’t get into too much theory, just remember these shapes can be transposed into any key. The top one starts in 10th position and shifts up the neck, while the bottom one starts in 5th position. Getting these under your fingers will help map out quite a bit of the fretboard. I try to only visualize one octave at a time, and then take that shape and move it wherever I need to chase the melodic and rhythmic ideas that inspire me.
Ex. 2 follows the same idea, but this time using a Gmaj7 arpeggio (G–B–D–F#). I’ve chosen E minor and G major because they are closely related key centers. When learning these arpeggios, focus on the string pairs that occur in each octave. In the extended arpeggio that ascends from the 2nd fret, notice how the patterns recur in each octave. That’s not always the case, as you’ll see in the second arpeggio that ascends from the 9th fret.
Next, we’re going to use the first Gmaj7 arpeggio—the one with the recurring pattern—to practice running through a sequence. Think of Ex. 3 in groups of five. When practicing such lines, I like to use drum grooves instead of a metronome. Now here’s the twist: To progressively challenge my technique, I keep changing the subdivision of the meter I’m using. For example, we’re in 4/4 time here. As I develop the sequence, I’ll increase the subdivision from quarter-notes, to quarter-note triplets, to eighth-notes, to eighth-note triplets, then 16th-notes, and finally 16th-note triplets. That not only increases my speed but it also forces me to be rhythmically aware, thus giving me both speed and accuracy. It gives me full control. Take your time with this example because we’ll apply the same shifting-subdivision concept to the next one.
We revisit the Em7 arpeggio pattern at the 12th fret for Ex. 4. Let’s take a moment to talk about picking. Please use whatever technique you feel most comfortable with, but if you must know, in the corresponding audio clip I’m using as much legato technique as I can. For those not familiar with this term, it means I’m using hammer-ons and pull-offs to sound many of the notes, as indicated in the notation and tab. But there’s no need to get hung up in the picking technique. If you want to pick every note using alternate or economy picking, then do so with style. If you want to hybrid pick, go for it. The point is to increase your rhythmic knowledge and execute some creative ideas.
Now it’s time to step up the subdivisions. In Ex. 5 and Ex. 6, we’re using the same arpeggios we mapped out earlier, only this time we’re playing 16th-notes. If this is something you haven’t done before, don’t be alarmed. Just think of it as a slight increase in speed. Learning to shift subdivisions with seamless control is a great way to expand your ability to develop lines.
Enough with the exercises—let’s make some music. Ex. 7 starts out by traversing the Em7 arpeggio with 16th-notes, then transitions into the next octave using 16th-note triplets. Then for variety, we mix in some pentatonic lyricism. That brings me to a side note: Always step away for a moment from using only arpeggios by mixing in some pentatonic or scalar lyricism to your lines. A line composed of only arpeggios can sound stiff and redundant. One way to avoid this is to sprinkle some scale tones into the phrase.
In Ex. 8, we’re using Em7 arpeggios again, but the position conveniently gives us a full three octaves to work with. Instead of sticking exclusively to the basic shape, I also included some pentatonic moves. Notice how mixing 16th-notes and 16th-note triplets add color to the line. The key to sounding like a professional player is to make sure your playing offers the listener variety in rhythm and note choice.
We head back to the Gmaj7 shape for Ex. 9. It starts out in the lowest octave, which is at the 2nd fret, and once again mixes in that good ol’ E minor pentatonic (E–G–A–B–D) tonality. We repeat the same thing an octave higher, but because we run out of real estate, we need to slide up before finishing off the line in a G major tonality.
In our final example (Ex. 10), we return to the Gmaj7 arpeggio in its higher position, though we’re treating it a bit more lyrically this time around. No sequences, just playing bits and pieces of the arpeggio.
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