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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Chops: Intermediate Theory: Beginner Lesson Overview: • Understand the essential elements of Chicago blues. • Learn how to properly back up a harmonica player. • Create “looping” phrases that

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand the essential elements of Chicago blues.
• Learn how to properly back up a harmonica player.
• Create “looping” phrases that build tension in your solos.

Click here to download the sound clips from this lesson.

I’m back to help you expand your blues vocabulary further, this time with some chords, partial chords, and chord voicings that you have to know if you’re going to play lowdown Chicago-style blues right.

In the classic Chicago blues styles of the ’50s and ’60s, rhythm guitar and lead guitar melded together in a unique and intricate way. So in these examples, we’ll expand your lead playing as well as your rhythm chops. In the classic bands of the era, such as the groups led by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson II, the harmonica was as much—or even more—of a dominant lead instrument as the guitar.

Many bands featured two guitars, like Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Tucker with Sonny Boy, Dave and Louis Myers with Little Walter, and Jimmy Rogers or Pat Hare together with Muddy in his band. Here’s what’s neat about everything I’m about to show you: When you turn up for your solo, all these chords and licks are great lead tools as well. Just listen to SRV soloing over any of his shuffles and you’ll find traces of all this stuff.

The ensemble playing of the bands I’m talking about was very much a team sport. The guitar parts, harp parts, and piano parts could often be solos in their own right, but the players knew how to blend together to make one sound. Therefore, the first step is to turn down your rhythm.

You may say, “Hey, I do turn my rhythm guitar down.” No, you don’t. Not enough!

Blast your solo as loud as you want, but keep your rhythm guitar volume to a minimum. Always keep in mind that playing accompaniment too loud will not have the effect you may think, no one will be impressed, they’ll just want to hurt you and for you to go away. That’s enough philosophy— let’s get down to some nuts and bolts, tricks and licks.

We will begin by checking out the common chord shapes used during this era. In Fig. 1 you can see a few options for E and in Fig. 2 we do the same for A. Now we have the I and IV chords for a blues in the key of E. For the V chord just take any of the “A” shapes and move it up two frets. It’s magic!


Let’s start with a dirty shuffle rhythm using our basic open E chord and an inversion of a E6/9 chord in Fig. 3. We can use our new superpowers to simply move this shape up to the 5th and 7th frets for the IV and V chords, respectively.

Robert Jr. Lockwood was really the originator of most of this stuff I’m showing you. Both Lockwood and the sadly under-documented guitarist Reggie Boyd were pretty much the most well-rounded, virtuosic, and most knowledgeable players of the era, and many bluesmen of the time got a lesson, directly or indirectly, from these two guys.

Now that you have the basic chord shapes, it’s time for some licks. I know how much you all like licks, but bear in mind the words of the great American bluesman Sonny Lane, “F**k a lick!” What I choose to believe he meant was don’t make up your mind about what to play until you are in sync with what’s going on around you musically. Use your ears, not your licks! The lick in Fig. 4 is a great way to segue from the I chord into the IV. For some extra vibe, add a slight palm mute and use all downstrokes.

I call the lick in Fig. 5 a “looper.” Once you get it going, you can pretty much go on autopilot for a while to build up tension. In the example, I have outlined how to play this phrase over the I (E7), IV (A7), and V (B7) chords in the key of E.

We have another looper in Fig. 6, and this time we will use it over an A7. The addition of the 9 (B) at the top of each phrase is a Lockwood staple, revealing that he could be somewhat more sophisticated than his surroundings."

Everything I’ve shown you here is not only great for big, powerful solos, but I have also started you on the path to learning how to correctly accompany a Chicago blues harmonica in a band setting. The difference? Easy, here are three steps:

1. Turn down.
2. Listen and complement the soloist.
3. See steps 1 and 2.

Being at the right volume is even more important than being in tune for this stuff!

For reference, check out any Little Walter compilation, or anything from the ’50s by Sonny Boy Williamson or Muddy Waters. Those really playing this style very well today are guys like Rusty Zinn, Junior Watson, Billy Flynn, and Little Charlie Baty. You can also hear all these licks in the blasting blues-rock stylings of Stevie Ray Vaughan and his hordes of followers, all the way to sophisticated jazz-blues playing of dudes like Robben Ford and the great Chris Cain.

Listening to the rest of the musicians is key in a band situation. Good Chicago blues players weave in and out of the forefront, up and down the fretboard. For your solo, crank your amp and play all of this however you want, because then it’s time for them to follow you. Don’t forget to step out and put on your best blues face!

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Sometimes, in the quest for buttery, singing, and perfect diamond-like tones, you can forget about the twisted potential of stompboxes, how beautifully demented their creators can be, and what

Sometimes, in the quest for buttery, singing, and perfect diamond-like tones, you can forget about the twisted potential of stompboxes, how beautifully demented their creators can be, and what a delightfully varied art form music is in the first place.

Consider the Crushsound Farmer’s Mill. This is a stompbox born of motivations most traditional guitarists would consider bizarre. It unapologetically exists—in part—to create the sound of your cable or jack crapping out. And if at first that sounds like a waste of your hard-earned cash, few would fault you. But the Farmer’s Mill is a thoughtfully executed and wellbuilt piece of gear that digs deep into the artistic notion of creation through destruction. And no matter where you stand on that particular aesthetic gesture, for musicians that live comfortably outside convention and willingly incorporate more chaotic sounds into their playing, the Farmers Mill can be a surprisingly powerful musical tool.

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