august 2012

No longer relegated to beginner-level melodies or open-position chords, open strings can add sonic spice to your solos and make them come alive.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand three ways to incorporate open strings into your solos.
• Create a harp-like sound for scalar passages.
• Learn the bluegrass standard “Bill Cheatum.”

Click here to download sound clips from this lesson's notation.

No longer relegated to beginner-level melodies or open-position chords, open strings can add sonic spice to your solos and make them come alive. In this lesson we’ll explore three ways of incorporating open strings into a solo. To facilitate our discussion, I’m calling these “devices.”

• Device 1: Use an open string as a place to facilitate a position change.
• Device 2: Use an open string as a pedal point.
• Device 3: Use open strings to create a cascading effect.

Let’s begin with Device 1. This is very helpful for creating seamless transitions from low-to-high or high-to-low, depending on the direction of the musical line. In Fig. 1 we have a G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) spanning an octave and a 5th (G up to a high D) where the scale starts in 1st position and finishes in 7th position, with the open 1st string facilitating the shift into 7th position.

Wherever there’s an open-string note that belongs to the key, then there is the potential to make a position change at this spot. In Fig. 2, we find the same G major scale with the shift occurring after playing the open B (2nd string). In Fig. 3, we once again play the G scale, this time a shift occurs after both the open B and E.

Playing scales by combining open strings and position shifts is a great way to break out of any position-playing ruts you may find yourself in, and it adds the sonic variety of open-string and fretted-note combinations.

Device 2 uses an open string as a pedal point. A pedal point is where a specific note—usually the root or the 5th of the key and typically the lowest note in a phrase—is continuously played while other harmonic or melodic material is played above it. In Fig. 4, we simulate the sound of a continuous pedal note by alternating between the pedal note and the melody above it, giving the impression of multiple parts. Focus on strict alternate picking and you’ve got a great picking-hand workout.

The devices mentioned so far are not mutually exclusive. While playing Fig. 4, you may have noticed that it combines both a pedal point and a position change. In that example, the position change is facilitated by an open string on beat 4 of measures one and four.

The sonic variety you can create by combining open strings and fretted notes is something unique to the guitar and other stringed instruments. The final device we’ll discuss showcases this to a greater degree than either of the devices we’ve explored up to this point. Device 3 produces a harp-like sound from the guitar—sometimes referred to as cascades, floaties, or campanella—and open strings play a significant role in producing this sound.

To achieve this sound, we rearrange a passage that may typically be played on a few strings and play it across multiple strings, allowing as many notes to ring as possible. Take a look at Fig. 5. Here you see a descending G major scale played in 1st position, followed by the same scale with a different fingering to allow multiple notes to sustain simultaneously. Because of the refingering, the open strings can continue ringing, and this contributes to the scale’s harp-like quality.

What better way to apply the information we’ve covered than to put it into a tune? I’ve written an arrangement of “Bill Cheatum”—a traditional fiddle tune—that incorporates all three of the devices we’ve discussed. “Bill Cheatum” is typically played in the key of A. However, I’ve notated it in the key of G, so grab your capo and place it at the 2nd fret, and you’ll be in the key of A. Let’s dig into the piece and try out these open-string devices.

In measure five (counting the pick-up measure as one), Device 3 occurs in a descending G major-scale run. The final note (E) of that measure is played on the 7th fret of the 5th string. To get back to 1st position for the next phrase, the open 4th string is used to facilitate the position change (Device 1). Strive to make measures four through six sound as smooth and connected as possible. Keeping the open strings ringing in measure five will help with this.

Measure eight begins with a cascading effect. The third note of the measure (E) provides an opportunity to shift from the 3rd position to the 7th position. To shift back to 1st position for measure nine, use the open E once again.

The phrase that begins on beat 3 of measure 12 and ends on the first note of measure 14 uses both the open 1st and 2nd strings for position changes. The phrase in measure 13 is played out of 7th position and resolves in 1st position thanks to the open 2nd string found on beat 1 of the next measure. By listening to the tone of the last note in measure 13 and comparing it to the tone of the first note of measure 14, we’re able to hear the distinct characteristics of a note fretted higher up the neck as compared to an open string. Considering the tone of notes on various strings plays a part in deciding note placement.

The tune’s B section begins at measure 18. Here, I’ve used a pedal point through measure 23. Measures 24 and 25 use Devices 1 and 2 to wrap up the first statement of the B section. At measure 25, beat 3, the open G provides a point for a smooth transition into the low register to begin the second half of the B section. Beginning in measure 27, we see the longest usage of Device 3, which resolves in measure 29.

Measures 30 and 31 reuse the G pedal point, but this time we vary the texture by playing pull-offs to the open G. The final two measures use Device 3, which generates a cascading effect to close the solo.

The techniques in this lesson will help you to navigate the fretboard outside the boundaries of position playing, challenge your picking hand, and add sonic variety to your arrangements and solos. When arranging your next solo, try adding a few of these devices. Good luck!

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Every guitarist should know the importance of a large vocabulary. You want to emote—you want to “speak” through your guitar in any given situation.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how to create and develop musical phrases.
• Learn the difference between a concept and a motif.
• Create a large phrase vocabulary to use when the spotlight is on.

Click here to download sound clips from this lesson's notation.

Every guitarist should know the importance of a large vocabulary. You want to emote—you want to “speak” through your guitar in any given situation. That takes a vast, memorized database of licks that you’ve accumulated and rehearsed a million times. Or does it?

I’m a big advocate for preparedness, so I say “Yes!” You should be writing at least one lick a day, playing it all over the neck in various keys and grooves, and—most importantly— working it into your improvisations. Did that lick “stick?” When you write a lick tomorrow will you remember this one? I hope so, but realistically, I doubt it.

You see, we simply don’t remember most of the licks we write. My suggestion would be to record them and classify them by genre and revisit them as situations arise. Every lick you write is progress and some of them inherently will stick, but most won’t. So how do we avoid the following all-too common situation?

You’ve got a gig. You’ve rehearsed plenty. All your friends are there. The hot chick in the front row is giving you “you’re a rock god” eyes (assuming you’re not playing an instrumental gig). Your amps are finally fired up to the level they’re supposed to be. The downbeat drops and whoosh! Crickets. What little vocabulary you mastered is seemingly gone with the wind like the sound guy’s burrito from last night. Ugh!

We’ve all been there. But how do we avoid this situation while working on our vocabulary? We develop methods to deliver creative, stylish, and musical ideas on the fly as if these ideas have been part of our vocabulary for years. How do we do this seeming miracle of musical mastery? Remain calm. It’s not that hard. The answer is two fold: concepts and motifs.

For our purposes, we’ll define a “concept” as a combined execution of technique, rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics. These are the basic building blocks of anything cool and stylish in music. We can further define these concepts by adding in direction of play using patterns, shapes, or linear lines.

Simply put, here’s how to build a concept: Think of a technique, throw some appropriate rhythm and phrasing (musical punctuation) on it, then add in “feel” through the use of dynamics. Easy enough right? It should be. But it’s these basic musical elements that we seem to forget when we step into that performance situation. It’s not a bad idea to write down “concept = technique, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics” and keep that in front of you just as a reminder to stay musical! Now that we understand what a concept is and how to keep it in mind, let’s hand some to the audience on a silver platter through the use of motifs.

A motif is a repeated concept. Simple as that. How do you create a motif? Take your concept, repeat it at different parts of a scale via patterns, shapes, or directions (linear, diagonal, cross-fret), and voilà! You’re playing a lovely, creative, musical line that wasn’t pre-meditated but still sounds “vocab.”

All we need to have in our minds (in real time) are those creative concepts. That’s it. Then, through the wonderful and often overlooked power of repetition, we link those concepts to create as long a musical line as we want. Think of building a chain. The concepts are the links. You can add (repeat) links as much as you want to build as long a chain (motif ) as desired. Our minds aren’t filled with those specific, memorized licks, only the concepts. That’s how we can create awesome lines on the fly and why our improv can get better in no time!

Okay, enough chit-chat: Let’s put hand to fretboard and bring this all to life.

First, let’s think of a concept. Let’s pick some details, like key and quality. How about G major (Fig. 1). We’ll pair a tripletphrased rhythm with alternate picking and a pull-off. We’ll play with three notes per string, but repeat them in our phrase, thus having five total attacks on that string. It’ll sound something like Fig. 2.

Let’s further define the concept by simply choosing a direction or path to play on. You can use the shape of a favorite pattern, a linear line up and down a string, a diagonal path, or any combination thereof. Let’s play down a diagonal path that will start on the 15th fret on the 1st string and go as low as the 9th fret on the 5th string.

Now all we do is play the concept on the path, and we’re playing our motif. This divine musical combo produces our onthe- fly, creative, musical line that seems like something out of a practiced vocabulary. Woo-hoo! For our purposes today, I’m going to keep things diatonic (all in the key of G major). Here’s the final result in Fig. 3. You’ll notice the bend to finish the line. Something different is always nice to break up the repetition of a motif.

Let’s do one more example. Again, first create a concept. For this one, we’ll use A minor pentatonic as our key and tonal quality. Check out Fig. 4, otherwise known as the “E” shape from the CAGED system. Let’s pick tapping as our technique and we’ll play it with a simple 16th-note rhythm. Now let’s add direction. Our fretting hand is going to play the pattern across the neck from high E to low E. Our tapping hand is going to tap straight across the 12th fret in the same manner.

Now let’s phrase it. We’ll tap on E, pulloff to C, pull-off again to A, and then use a “hammer-on from nowhere” to tap on the G found on the 8th fret of the 2nd string (Fig. 5). That’s our complete concept. Now, we’re going to simply take that concept and move it down one adjacent string at a time, remembering to play in the pattern with our fretting hand and straight across the 12th fret with our tapping hand. Let’s add the adjacent string and we get Fig. 6. If we keep adding on adjacent strings, we get our motif in full (Fig. 7), again creating a great, musical line developed on the fly by just thinking of one cool concept and then repeating it.

So there you have it. We know a vocabulary is essential, but being able to improvise and create lines in real time is paramount. The truth is that in a performance, it’s about 30 percent vocab and 70 percent on-the-fly ideas. Yes, 70 percent is a big number but hopefully, with the methods I presented today, filling your 70 percent will become creative, musical and fun.

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If one had to choose the best “one, two, three, four” in all of recorded music, who would get the prize?

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to play guitar and count to four at the same time.
• Feel the rush of an Em9 arpeggio.
• Create long phrases by combining odd-numbered lines in different octaves.

Click here to download sound clips from this lesson's notation.

If one had to choose the best “one, two, three, four” in all of recorded music, who would get the prize? Among the songs I’m familiar with, it would have to be a three-way tie between Paul McCartney’s spirited count at the start of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” the passionate shout before the last verse of “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, and George Harrison’s grumble at the top of The Beatles’ “Taxman.” The Ramones get honorable mention for their legendary live four-counts, but when I actually listened to the studio recording of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” it was either a “Go” or a “Four.” (I’m guessing that the mastering engineer chopped off the “one, two, three.”) There must certainly be other greats in this category, but those are the first that came to my mind.

My challenge for you this month is to play guitar and count to four at the same time.

Fig. 1 is the phrase I want to use. It can be played over an Em chord or an Em9 chord for more flavor.

There are 14 notes here. But I look at it as “5–4–5.” That is: five notes descending, then four notes descending, then five notes descending. I visualize these three sets of notes separately, and it makes the larger phrase easier to hold in my brain.

I like to use a combination of picked notes and pull-offs. Please check out my suggested combination. The pull-offs allow me to “recalibrate” my picking pattern so that each of the three sets can begin with a downstroke. This helps me to mentally keep them organized, and I think that it’s physically easier to play too.

After you’ve practiced this enough to make it comfortable, it’s time to repeat it in two lower octaves, as you can see in Fig. 2. This is relatively easy to do. The notes are the same (just octaves lower), the fingering pattern is the same, and the picking/pull-off pattern is the same. All you have to do is shift positions and move to a lower set of strings.

Rhythmically, I removed the eighth-note rest that ended the bar in Fig. 1. So now, the high set of 14 notes leads right into the middle set of 14 notes … which leads right into the bottom set of 14 notes.

As they go whooshing by, these “14s” create an interesting rhythmic disorientation for the listener. But I want us (the players) to remain in rhythmic control. Somebody should know where “one” is, and it might as well be us.

The first step to accomplish this is to master the phrase itself. I should mention that after the three “14s,” we go straight up an Em9 arpeggio to resolve the phrase. These are challenging licks, so I hope that the combinations of picking, pull-offs, and hammer-ons will make them easier to play. Once you’ve emerged from the woodshed with mastery of the entire phrase, it’s time to start counting!

It will take some time and practice to develop the coordination to juggle these phrases accurately. But it is possible. And it’s actually quite thrilling to get it right. It can feel surprisingly like looking down from the top floor of a skyscraper, or looking over the edge of a famous canyon.

I’m really scared of bungee jumping, but playing this phrase while counting “one, two, three, four” gives me a palpable rush. Why bungee jump, when you can play Em9 phrases and count to four?

Or try both and compare.

May all your canyons be grand.

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