Even with a wealth of theoretical concepts at his fingertips, Mahavishnu’s leader still plays from the gut.
• Understand how to use odd time signatures.
• Create extremely syncopated and emotive solos.
• Learn how to use the “double harmonic minor” scale.
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What do you get when you cross odd meters with synthetic modes, displaced accents, Eastern philosophy, Marshall amps, and unbridled energy? Unfortunately, most of us would just get a mess of noise, but if you’re John McLaughlin you get the essence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and some of the most revolutionary music to come out of the 20th century.
In The 50 Greatest Guitar Books I wrote extensively about how The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut recording, literally changed my life overnight, so I won’t retell that story here. Nevertheless, it’s worth saying that hearing John McLaughlin’s music for the first time was a pivotal moment, and I am delighted to have been given this opportunity to try to relate some of his musical concepts to you.
McLaughlin’s musical legacy is vast in scope and material. Thus, this lesson focuses on only one aspect of his 50-year career, specifically the original incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which lasted from 1971-1973. Yet even limiting ourselves to just three years and three albums gives us an enormous number of musical concepts to explore, so let’s get started.
To grasp McLaughlin’s playing and compositional style, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of modes. While space limits us from exploring modes in depth, the first few examples provide insight into the variations one can create from basic scales. For our examples, we’ll stay in the 12th position and base our fingerings on an E tonality. In Ex. 1, you can see a basic fingering for the E natural minor scale, otherwise known as E Aeolian (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D).
Our next example (Ex. 2), illustrates the harmonic minor variation. There are several different ways to think of E harmonic minor (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D#), but for our purposes we will consider this an Aeolian scale with a natural 7 (D#).
Ex. 3 is what McLaughlin calls a “synthetic scale,” or a scale that doesn’t occur natively in Western scales and modes. He describes it as the “double harmonic minor” scale. Basically, it’s a harmonic minor with an added b5 or “blue” note—in this case, Bb.
It’s worth mentioning that in John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra scorebook, McLaughlin includes no fewer than 16 synthetic modes as points of reference “for the benefit of the serious music student.”
Ex. 4 is where things start to get interesting. This is a classic McLaughlin-esque arpeggio figure that uses notes from all of the aforementioned scales, thus giving us nine different notes to work with. But it gets even better! Since the arpeggio starts and ends on B, we are actually playing in a synthetic version of B Phrygian dominant (B–C–D#–E–F#–G–A), which is a mode found in the E harmonic minor scale.
If all of this seems needlessly confusing—I hear you screaming—I would agree … up to a point. But it is important to remember that McLaughlin knows, understands, and uses all of these concepts in his playing and composing. So if you want your own music to be unique and innovative, a little knowledge (confusing as it may be at first) can go a long way.
The modes are just the start of what makes this unusual arpeggio pattern so unique. The next aspect to consider is the rhythm McLaughlin used. The time signature here is 5/4, a meter that appears throughout Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” and in portions of the theme to Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin. McLaughlin has a habit of making his odd meters even more challenging by displacing the accents of his bass notes, which I have also done here. You’ll hear these displaced accents throughout McLaughlin’s career, most notably in the Mahavishnu pieces “The Dance of Maya” and “Hope.”
Moving on to our melody (Ex. 5), we revisit our modes and find a highly syncopated line played in octaves (one guitar is played up an octave to emulate the register of Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman) using notes from the B Phrygian dominant scale. (Remember, that’s also the E harmonic minor scale.) This melody or head, as jazz musicians call it, is slow enough to be recognized as a theme but too angular, syncopated, and dissonant to be called catchy. But who needs catchy when you can have angularity, syncopation, and dissonance?
Finally we put everything together and add in the solo (Ex. 6). Ironically, there’s not much theory to discuss, though there are plenty of stylistic details to absorb. Personally, I’m of the opinion that when it comes time to solo over a Mahavishnu tune, McLaughlin lets go of his modal concepts and becomes a much more intuitive player. He frequently plays pentatonic lines over his modal arpeggios, letting the harmony do the work of establishing the exotic mode, while he solos more like a hyper-speed Hendrix than a technically precise music theoretician. When it comes to McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu soloing, the term “reckless precision” has never been more apt.
The solo highlights several of McLaughlin’s signature licks and concepts, including his use of accelerando, or speeding up (measures 2, 5, and 6 of the solo), repetitive licks, and playing on the lower strings in the higher register. And, of course, extreme speed and syncopation.
You can see that it’s not any one concept that makes John McLaughlin’s playing unique. Rather it’s his liberal use of a multitude of influences, both musical and philosophical—rock and jazz, East and West, logic and intuition—that creates his inimitable style. If you hope to attain any resemblance to McLaughlin, you must open your mind, open your heart, and practice, practice, practice.
Learn all about the Queen guitarist’s signature techniques.
• Explore guitar orchestration and layered harmony parts.
• Understand how to move between chord inversions.
• Emulate the feel and phrasing of one of rock’s greatest guitarists.
In this installment of Electric Études, we take a look at the unique guitar style of Dr. Brian May, from the legendary rock band Queen. May has been crafting distinctive guitar parts for more than 40 years, and Queen’s popularity continues to grow with legions of loyal fans young and old. The band has inspired countless artists from Foo Fighters to Lady Gaga, and Queen’s catalog includes some of the most popular classic rock tracks of all time.
Following the tragic and untimely death of the irreplaceable and enigmatic Freddie Mercury, the Queen legacy continues with May and drummer Roger Taylor flying the Queen flag at sold-out performances all over the world with singer Adam Lambert. They even have a live musical stage show We Will Rock You, which has enjoyed a nonstop run in London’s West End for 12 years.
May has a unique style and favors some unorthodox techniques, such as attacking the strings with an old sixpence coin instead of a standard flatpick. He also uses his right-hand fingers a lot, either gently brushing across the strings or pulling his index finger off the strings as they rub against it. At first glance, you might think he’s tapping.
For this feature, I’ve tried to incorporate as many different rhythm and lead techniques as possible, and when composing this short piece I turned to a number of classic Queen songs for inspiration.
The first 10 measures are inspired by “Now I’m Here,” from Sheer Heart Attack. This section features a slightly cleaner sound with the guitar volume backed off and some chorus to produce a wide-sounding effect. I work through a series of major triads while palm-muting the open 4th string. You can hear how the drums accent the chord stabs. I turn the volume up slightly for the conclusion of this section and work around an A5, D/A, and A7sus4 figure.
In the next section, I kept our verse riff and added some chordal ideas similar to what May played in “One Vision” off A Kind of Magic. These chords employ a very common characteristic of Brian’s rhythm style, where the root note of a power chord simply drops down by a half-step to change the chord. I’m also putting in a bit of the D blues scale (D-F-G-Ab-A-C) as well. Pay attention to the chord stabs, and be sure to keep them tight and clean.
The driving figure that comes up next should sound familiar to anyone who has heard “Keep Yourself Alive” from Queen’s debut album. I kicked on a phaser for this section and conclude with some bluesy licks in G minor pentatonic (G-Bb-C-D-F). The next bit borrows elements from “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Bicycle” with a quarter-note triplet before heading into a harmonized trill. The harmony idea continues with a descending line based around D Mixolydian (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C), leading us to the solo section.
The solo section moves to a half-time feel and the chord progression emulates Queen’s majestic approach to ballads. May has an uncanny feel for melody and well-placed chord tones. The solo is based around F major and its diatonic modes, and the F major pentatonic (F-G-A-C-D) scale. Over the C/E chord, we touch on F#, which isn’t diatonic to the key, but adds to the majestic sound. This section also features a fair amount of positions shifts, so take care with accuracy.
I then move into some of May’s signature scalar runs, starting off with triplets and then moving to sixteenth-notes. To give the backing track the correct feel, I’ve included some guitar harmony ideas, trying to emulate the sound of May’s orchestrated lines. On the track there is some overlapping of lines. In the second measure of this section, you will notice that the guitar parts overlap a bit. I’ll leave it up to you to choose which note to play.
The phrase over the Bb-Gm change includes a short melodic figure that works great performed with the first finger to give a smooth feel. The next bit is a common bluesy phrase that’s based in the C major pentatonic (C-D-E-G-A) with some passing tones. This lick works great over the C major to Bb/C chords, resulting in a dominant tonality. The final section includes an idea that May is famous for, and can be heard in the classic “Brighton Rock.” Check out the ascending C Mixolydian (C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb) lines that use two different delay settings to produce a harmony. I set one delay to a half-note and another to a quarter-note, and both are synced to the track’s tempo. As you climb up the scale, a harmony is produced as each delay enters.
May’s main influences in his formative years included Hank Marvin and Rory Gallagher. Both these guitarists had a profound effect on May’s approach to tone. He has always favored Vox AC30 amps and started off with a Marvin-inspired clean tone. But he loved how Gallagher pushed his amp into a smooth overdrive using a treble booster to generate searing sustain. May has used this approach for many years, favoring the sound of the treble booster as it pushes the tubes harder. This produces saturation and sustain, but also cleans up the bottom end. May leaves his treble booster on all the time, and to produce clean tones he backs off his guitar’s volume and plays lighter.
Live, May uses three modified Vox AC30s, with the middle amp completely dry and the left and right amps dedicated to effects. The treble booster is in a small housing attached to his guitar strap and is routed before his wireless unit.
All these elements, plus the unique switching and tonal capabilities of May’s “Red Special” go towards producing his signature tone. He also uses 6- and 12-string versions produced by Guyton guitars in the U.K., which are stunning instruments. I had the pleasure of using Brian’s own Green Guyton when I toured with him. Burns made some affordable replicas, but later Brian took over production with his own brand, Brian May Guitars.
For the recording I used my own green Brian May production guitar, which has had a few modifications to it. This ran into a Brian May signature Fryer Treble Booster and then into a Wampler Thirty Something to emulate the front ends of the Vox. The amp I used was a Cornford Carrera, an 8-watt combo. The phaser was an MXR EVH90, while the chorus, flanger, and delay were added in mixdown, courtesy of Line 6 Mod Pro and Echo Pro units. I used the guitar’s volume to produce different amounts of gain or to make the tone clean, and the treble booster was on all the time. This track will obviously work with any guitar, but having the unique switching available on the Brian May guitar really helps, as in some places I would knock one pickup out of phase to produce that squawky tone and also help sonically separate the layered harmony lines.
Unlock the secrets of one of the most influential guitarists of all time.
• Learn about riffs that use movable triads.
• Understand how to combine pentatonic and blues scales.
• Play solos in the blues-rock style of one of the most influential guitarists of all time.
For this installment, let’s look at one of rock’s most revered and influential guitarists, Jimmy Page. Not only did Page form one of the biggest-selling bands of all time, but his blend of American blues-style soloing and rock ’n’ roll has inspired generations of guitarists and bands alike, and many point to him as the father of modern blues-rock and hard rock.
Page is one of those rare guitarists with an instantly recognizable sound. He was one of the first guitarists to use extended pentatonic riffs, fusing complex unison lines with the bass. He also showed his folk influences by experimenting with acoustic instruments and the very Eastern-sounding DADGAD tuning. He was a sonic pioneer too, employing a wide variety of effects and even playing his guitar with a violin bow.
Page recorded a wealth of material, so I want to cover as much stylistic variety as possible in this short study piece. The goal here is to demonstrate his riff style, use of triads, and also his approach to creating solos—namely position shifts and repetitive phrases.
The first eight measures of the verse are based around the power chords A5 and G5, with guitar and bass unison riffs that use notes from the A minor pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G). Notice the sprinkling of chromatic notes and check out the bluesy move from the b3 (C) to the major 3 (C#). The verse concludes with D and A/C# arpeggios.
For the beginning of the next section, I’ve tried to show an idea reminiscent of “Kashmir” without departing from regular tuning. As you play through this, you’ll see that the open D on the 4th string remains constant below a series of descending triads before the phrase ends with a pair of Gm triads.
On the audio demo, I’ve opted for a slightly clean tone in this section, and I doubled the main guitar with a 12-string electric to create a jangly texture.
The solo section is inspired by “Stairway to Heaven” and uses the Am-Am/G-D/F# progression–the Am/G is a chord that many people play as a straight G chord. The second half of the progression includes the chords of Am, C and D. The solo is based mainly around the A minor pentatonic scale, but also includes the b5 (Eb) to create the A blues scale, and adds the 6 (F#), which implies a Dorian sound. The solo kicks off with a classic blues-based bending figure that resolves to the F# note and outlines the D/F# chord. Measures 19-20 start with a classic Page repetition lick using bends and fast pull-offs. This lick is pretty hard to get smooth and clean, so build up speed gradually.
The phrase in measure 20 starts in A Dorian and shifts up a minor third—with the shape remaining the same—and turns into a cool blues-based lick. In the next few measures you’ll move through a few different pentatonic positions before hitting some high-register bends. The solo concludes with two classic Page-style moves: a repeating bending figure (this leads to the solo’s climax) followed by a fast pull-off lick.
Page is known for using mainly a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Telecaster, but also played a double-neck Gibson SG and a Danelectro. His choice in amps was also varied. Everything from Marshalls, Supros, Oranges, and Hiwatts made appearances in the studio and onstage.
For the recoding I used several different guitars, all of which ran into a Blackstar Series One 50 set to the clean-bright mode with the gain full and the Dynamic Power Reduction (DPR) set to about 10 watts. For the verse, I used my 1960 Fender Telecaster plugged into a Wampler Plexi-Drive for a little bite and drive. On the chorus, I ran the Tele straight into the Blackstar’s clean-bright mode for some Class A-style breakup. I also doubled this with my 12-string electric, a Music Man BFR Silhouette. This sound was slightly cleaner and I added some phaser in the mix stage.
For the solo, I used my Music Man Axis Supersport that’s fitted with low-output DiMarzio 36th Anniversary PAFs. Still using the clean-bright mode, I plugged into the Plexi-Drive pedal and added a little extra gain, but rolled off some bottom end to make the tone slightly harsh.
Make sure you carefully study Page’s tone because many people add too much gain. They hear what they think it is, but it’s not. His tones were quite thin—fuzzy, in some places—but they worked perfectly in a mix.