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Cram Session: The Ups and Downs of String Skipping

Legendary rock guitarists such as Paul Gilbert, Guthrie Govan, Shawn Lane, and Nuno Bettencourt created wildly interesting and provocative lines by simply skipping over the obvious choice.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Become more fluent in three-note-per-string scales.
• Unleash the power of intervallic licks.
• Learn how to navigate arpeggios using string skipping.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

In this installment of Cram Session we’ll take a look at some inventive ways to practice and apply various string-skipping techniques. It was during the ’80s and ’90s that Eric Johnson, Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, Shawn Lane, and other legendary rockers pushed the boundaries of what was possible on the guitar, and skipping strings was one of the principles these players refined and perfected.

The basic concept is simple: When you play a lick, don’t move to an adjacent string.

Guitarists generally play lines that follow ascending or descending patterns across adjacent strings. But by simply skipping a string it’s possible to produce lines not normally associated with regular guitar fingerings. Paul Gilbert once described the technique, as “a way to play licks that sound like they weren’t written on the guitar.”

It’s possible to use this technique to execute licks and melodies that incorporate wide intervals, and applying string skipping to modal or pentatonic scales can produce hip, distinctive lines. Skipping strings is also a great way to perform arpeggios using either legato phrasing or a combination of legato and tapping. Arpeggios are notoriously difficult to execute smoothly and cleanly on the guitar, as we often have to play single notes on adjacent strings. This can be very hard to articulate, and sometimes alternate picking or sweep picking can result in a less defined sound because the notes blend into one another.

One of the masters of the string-skipping approach is Paul Gilbert. He uses the technique to perform pieces by classical composers, transferring melodies written for either strings or keyboard to the fretboard. In the video below you can see him tackle a portion from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Ex. 1 is a simple exercise that demonstrates the string-skipping approach using the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G). You can see that we simply jump over the adjacent string and then jump back to the lower adjacent string and continue in an ascending form. We then simply reverse the idea for the descending form.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 is a Paul Gilbert-style lick based on a phrase that can be heard on his blistering cover of the Jeff Beck song “El Becko.” I remember buying a guitar compilation album with this track on in the early ’90s and loving the sound of this unusual pentatonic phrase. Following a full bend, the lick descends with a string-skipping figure using notes from A minor pentatonic. The lick concludes on a pentatonic run enhanced with an added 2.

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We stick with the A minor pentatonic scale in Ex. 3. This lick is based around a sextuplet rhythm with an ascending pattern using the 3rd and 1st strings exclusively. The passage has a wide intervallic sound based around a familiar pentatonic figure.

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For Ex. 4 I’ve outlined a typical three-note-per-string scale in G major (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#). This scale shape is one of seven fingerings that cover the entire neck. If you don’t know the remaining six shapes, I suggest you look them up and learn them. They’re vital for being able to form extended runs all over the fretboard.

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Australian legato master Brett Garsed is the inspiration for Ex. 5. This example moves through all seven modal shapes of the G major scale. The lick concludes with the original shape performed an octave higher.

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We move into classic Paul Gilbert territory with Ex. 6. Again, we’re moving up the scale using each diatonic shape. This figure ascends on the 3rd and 1st strings and uses a mixture of legato and alternate picking based on a sextuplet rhythm.

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Ex. 7 is a variation of our previous example and features a figure based around a 16th-note picking sequence performed exclusively on the 3rd and 1st strings. Once again, this lick covers a large portion of the neck and makes use of all of the modal string shapes.

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Ex. 8 is a classic Paul Gilbert-style arpeggio that can be heard on his various solo recordings, as well as his recorded work with Racer X and Mr. Big. The idea of these arpeggios is that the note that’s normally played on the 2nd string, when playing either an E major or E minor arpeggio shape, is now performed on the 3rd string. This allows us to produce a smooth consistent sound by executing different sequences with a legato technique.

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A lick in the style of Nuno Bettencourt, Ex. 9 illustrates his approach to playing string-skipped arpeggios. Based on a sextuplet rhythm, this lick is built around a sequence that repeats through the various arpeggios and includes some different fingerings that let us play inversions of both major and minor arpeggios. The phrase concludes with an ascending and descending figure that uses diminished string-skipping shapes over the E7/G# chord.

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When I was studying with renowned session guitarist Phil Hilborne, I learned the approach used in Ex. 10. This lick presents fingerings for all the diatonic harmonized 7th arpeggio extensions in the key of G major. It arranges the arpeggios as string-skipping fingerings with the root notes situated on both the 5th and 6th strings. This is a very effective way of performing the slightly more awkward 7th arpeggio fingerings, plus it has a cool intervallic sound.

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Ex. 11 is a potent sequence in D Dorian (D–E–F–G–A–B–C) that outlines various arpeggio extensions over a Dm7. Using the string skipping technique with the 7th arpeggio extensions, it’s possible to perform very sophisticated phrases with ease.

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Our final exercise (Ex. 12) is in the style of my old friend, Guthrie Govan. This lick is based on Guthrie’s jaw-dropping four-note-per-string fingering for a minor 7 arpeggio. This lick will take some work as the stretches are wide, plus you have to sound the first note on each string with a left-hand hammer-on using the first finger of your fretting hand. I suggest working on the jump between strings slowly, but even at a slow tempo make sure you’re playing it with unwavering time.

Click here for Ex. 12