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Cheapskate Collective: Lick Learnin' on the Cheap

Because playing well is the first step to sounding good.

Mad Man, Bill Bernbach, once said, “Good advertising will kill a bad product faster.” Transpose this into our key and it could easily read, “Good gear will make a bad player suck louder.” We tend to attribute great tone to great gear whenever we separate the guitar from the hero. But would Hendrix be Hendrix if he played a Tele? Or even worse, a banjo—forgoing “The Star Spangled Banner” in favor of “Pickin’ & Grinnin?” One shudders. But while great players seem co-joined to their axes, it’s always the fingers that determine who stands out from the pack, and who packs it in. Or plays bass. In other words, you need talent—or, at the very least, a computer. ‘Cause if you come up short on the former, the latter can always help you make the most of what you have, for less. Here’s how.

YouTube: The Good, The Bad, and The Tone Deaf
For my thrift and laziness, YouTube is still the go-to site for one-on-one lessons, gratis. But there’s an ironic catch. Try searching for lessons on SRV’s “Scuttle Buttin’,” and you’ll pull up half-a-dozen versions. Some with a little Scuttle, others with a little Buttin'. And then there’s the Buttabuskin Scuttlerumpadumpin’ versions (usually in a bedroom). But only a player already capable of executing the lick correctly would be able to tell the difference, based on ear alone. So make sure your virtual teacher has some performance vids posted as well. If he can play, he can hear. Otherwise, it’s not worth paying them the money they’re not asking for that you don’t have.

The Pros Know
It’s not uncommon to find great lessons posted by—or featuring—the guitar gods themselves, giving us pleebs one-on-one instruction direct from Mount Olympus. For example, John 5 will teach you how to chicken pick, and Justin Derrico will demonstrate the infusion of Carlton jazz into Wylde pentatonics. And there are guys like Satriani and Govan who are/were professional instructors. These dudes are teaching the gospels of shred, and if Satch is good enough for Steve Vai, he’s good enough for us deadbeats. Simply enter the shredder of your choice followed by the word “lesson,” and be amazed at what surfaces. Last year, I took private lessons with Chris Broderick of Megadeth. I had no idea he offered lessons via Skype until I bothered to check. While certainly a far cry from cheap, it made perfect sense. Some touring musicians, believe it or not, would rather earn coin than sleep all day.
I ran across Justin via YouTube during a quest to shortcut a lick, and was pleasantly surprised by his personable approach and teaching style. His website offers an unpretentious combination of video, MP3s, and good ol’ fashioned reading of both words and charts. You study where it counts and cut corners when you’ve done the groundwork. What’s especially cool is that you pay what you can by way of donation. He also offers private lessons via video chat, the advantage of which, as I learned from Mr. Broderick, is that the teacher can watch you play instead of vice versa. They can address bad technique on the fly, the same way a golf or tennis pro would correct a bad swing. Suppose you held your pick with your thumb and middle finger. A private teacher would instantly reprimand you. After all, a goofy grip like that would get you absolutely nowhere! was also the most recommended by readers of this column. Harold S. says: “Justin has a great collection of lessons and he is constantly adding new stuff. His website is a complete beginners course and he also features intermediate and advanced lessons, strumming and rhythm techniques, music theory, tips for beginners gear. The site is very well structured and many lessons are available not only in English but in other languages, too. Last but not least: everything is free and he runs the website from donations.”
Of the subscription sites, I’m fond of Kristofer Dahl’s ever-expanding community of semi-pro teachers with fully pro chops, presented in a very cool interface that has it all: videos, charts, looping, backing tracks, and more. Altogether, it combines the best of formal instruction with a modern, peer-to-peer vibe. Don’t let the “master class” pretension scare you; beginners are treated to an easy-to-follow interface along with Kris’ wacky sense of humor and plenty of shredding to inspire further practice. While the humor may be a little goofy for the serious “musician,” the videos are solid, with plenty of corner-cutting instruction for those with chops but no patience. For an example lesson, check out GMC’s “Lick of The Day” and fool around with the loop feature. It’s the visual equivalent of putting the needle back. And back again. And again. One more time. Oh, f*ck it.

Trust me when I say that every pro guitar player over age 30 wants to know where this app has been all their lives. With Jammit, you learn famous guitar parts by isolating and controlling the actual tracks as though you’re sitting at the board when nobody’s looking. In fact, not only can you solo the lick, you can slow it down and even replace the track with your own! Say adios to Zakk’s pentatonic predictability, and hello to your mixolydian madness. But—and it’s a big but—when you factor in the price per track along with the iPad required to run the app, it ain’t for cheapskates. And unlike a record player, Jammit will not help you with your ears. Count on those babies to get fat and lazy, sitting around your head all day while Jammit does the heavy lifting.

Guitar Pro Software
Many private teachers use programs like Guitar Pro to communicate fundamental scales and modes as homework for their students. The interfaces aren’t always the easiest to figure out, but you get charts and standard notation along with auto-play that you control, from meter to tempo to tuning to whatever. Feeding it the sheet music of famous licks is both cheap and easy; what you won’t learn is feel. This is what HAL 9000 would sound like if he could shred. All function, zero form. “One more time, Dave. Or die.”

Reader Paul G. used this Guitar Pro to learn as well, “When I first moved to Barcelona a few years ago, I asked the man in the guitar store about private lessons. He said, ‘Find a friend who plays the guitar and he can show you songs to play.’ Well, sadly I don't have a friend who plays the guitar so I needed to find an alternative—the program Guitar Pro. I started with bands that have simple chord structures like Bad Religion, Green Day, The Offspring. Then I went to the typical open chords you find in acoustic songs by Pink Floyd. After that I decided to try some lead guitar, mainly Pink Floyd to try and develop bending and vibrato. Now I am trying my hand at Gary Moore's blues period with songs like "Midnight Blues." After a little more than two years of working with Guitar Pro, chord structure flash cards, and watching people on YouTube, I am pleased with my steady progress. Sure, I am nowhere near Gary Moore or David Gilmour, but when I play their music I am the most happy and isn't that what playing an instrument is all about? Being happy?”

Amazing Slow-Downer
After getting into an online debate about the correct way to play “Scuttle Buttin,” I went back to the original recording and slowed it down, digitally, using this nifty app. It’s been around for a while, but previous versions pale in comparison to the latest. At $14.99, it does a damn good job at slowing the tempo without affecting the pitch, and it also lets you loop any problematic bars. (In the case of the SRV track, that would be, uh, all of it.)

This is how I know that Vaughan does not bend the high G to E, but slides into it, just like the live version. So there. (I think.) This app also works your ear. There’s no notation or transcription to do the work. Even at dead-slow tempos, figuring out the trickiest licks is time consuming and intensive, thanks to that four-letter word called “feel,” which often prompts other four-letter words starting with “F.”

Garage Band
The original DIY DAW also gives you the option of learning from the actual pros teaching their own classics. The lessons are simple, clean, and most of all, accessible—just like everything else from Apple. Having Sting teach you, “Message in a Bottle,” is pretty cool, even though it’s, y’know, Sting. He keeps it simple, not bothering to get into parallel fifths or blue turtle farts. In fact, many—if not all—of the lessons on GB are tailored to the beginner-to-intermediate player, and they can be downloaded individually for free. It’s a terrific added value to an already great app that’s part of a great suite of apps in iLife. So for those who have never played a note, but want to learn, make this your first introduction to the instrument. Remember: This is the company that made computers fun to use. Teaching guitar? Done.

Your Advice
We assembled the above options from experience as well as your input. Here are some additional sites to check out as suggested by you. Feel free to leave more feedback in the comments section! via Joey A. “There's some quality stuff there. Check out the video vault.” via Chuck. “[Don] Redman is selling his services like everyone else but he operates on a shoestring and has great prices on all his products, which are top notch. The best part is all the free lessons on this site and if you subscribe to his e-list you get additional free lessons each month.” via Ed R. “I have two of his DVD series and they're great.” via Rich W. “Eventually you need to know the notes on the fretboard. How will you find the right barre chord if you don't at least know the notes on the 5th (A) and 6th (low E) strings? Fingerstyle ace and educator Mark Hanson has some good tips for learning the notes on his website.” via John O. “Ran into this site not too long ago. I'm a late beginner and the exercises and lessons are great. Very organized, too. $25 for the whole year.”

The Cheap Plug
Of course, my editor reminds me that I'd remiss not to mention the wealth of free instructional content on the very website you're reading this column on. They roll out around seven new lessons every month, all of which are archived on the site and feature heavy-hitting instructors like Paul Gilbert, Jim Campilongo, Pat Martino, and more. Every lesson has notation, descriptions, and audio examples. You can access them all here (it defaults to everything from the latest issue, but you can choose "ALL issues" from the dropdown to open the flood gates, or look for something specific in the Section dropdown menu).

Lessons Learned
Every guitar hero (providing they’re between endorsement deals) will quietly admit that tone comes from within. This is why Hendrix sounded nothing like Marvin, who sounded nothing like Blackmore, who bears little resemblance to Gilmour, who’s nowhere near Clapton, who’s miles away from Malmsteen, who sounds like the sonic opposite of Knopfler, who doesn’t come close to SRV. But we all know what they have in common: talent. The Strat is a distant second. In their day, “jammit” was a verb. And so, despite the fact that learning has never been easier, nothing will replace the three Ps: practice, persistence, and perseverance.

I hate to break it to you, but that is why Hendrix would’ve still sounded like Hendrix even if he opted for a banjo instead of a Strat. The only difference is, he probably would’ve set fire to it a lot sooner.

Next month’s installment: We're diving right into the good stuff next month: electric guitars. Do you have gear-scoping secrets you'd be willing to share with the group? Are you loyal to a specific brand of high-value axes? Which components do you compromise on, and what high-end features to you swear by? Send your suggestions (including links to videos of you demonstrating the instrument if you have 'em) to and we might use them (and credit you, of course!) in next month’s column.

For years we’ve seen your letters, e-mails, and comments: “How about covering something I can afford?” “Why not make a version for the rest of us?” “Maybe when I win the lottery.” Trust us, we sympathize. Sure, we’re living in a golden age of gear, but it’s not always easy sorting through the boutique masterpieces to find the more affordable gems. So with that in mind, we’re launching this Budget Gearhead column, written by budget gearhead Aubrey Singer. We want this to be a forum for you to get help and help each other get great tone without breaking the bank, so interact, comment, email, and share—we’re all in this together.