Learn a few of the techniques that have taunted our ears, muddled our minds, and focused our phalanges for decades.
• Create new drop-2 chord shapes from close-voiced triads.
• Learn how to use the hexatonic scale.
• Develop a more accurate right hand with string-skipping and hybrid-picking techniques.
Eric Johnson has earned the title of one of the most respected guitarists on the planet with his countless hours of dedication. Johnson’s exacting demands can sometimes border on OCD—he claims to hear the difference between various battery brands used in his pedals and requires a specific number of string wraps on each tuner post. His inherent perfectionism set the preconceptions of guitar technique to an all-time high with two groundbreaking albums from 1986 and 1990— Tones and Ah Via Musicom , respectively. Both catapulted this Texan to the status of Grammy award-winning guitar god. Today, we’ll examine a few of the techniques that have taunted our ears, muddled our minds, and focused our phalanges for decades.
Along with his technical pentatonic flash and 500-pound, violin-like tone, Johnson’s quintessential contribution to modern guitar soloing is the use of string skipping to imply harmonic contours that are independent of his rhythm section. Johnson effectively does this via vertically stacked triads that span the fretboard, also known as drop-2 chords. A drop-2 chord is created by taking any close-voiced chord (where all three notes are within an octave) and lowering the second-highest note by an octave. In Fig. 1 you can see how this process works with three inversions on string set 5-4-2. Move these voicings to string sets 6-5-3, 4-3-1, and 5-3-1 for all major, minor, and diminished triads (if you’re bold), and then memorize the shapes of each to master them.
Now that you know how Johnson visualizes the fretboard, let’s take a look at how he applies this to some actual music. When his “Cliffs of Dover” became a widespread phenomenon, attracting musicians and listeners alike, he began extending the live intro by delaying the recorded intro’s identifying statement. He did this by using drop-2 chords to play chord melodies over a synthesized G pedal.
Fig. 2 is a free-time, voice-leading idea in the key of G, where the chord’s melody is the top note while the bottom notes move in intriguing counterpoint. The harmonics in measure four are played by fretting the G6/9 chord while picking the appropriate string with your thumb as your index finger gently touches the harmonic above the fret in parentheses.
Fig. 3 arpeggiates drop-2 chords in a single-note soloing approach over a static D harmony (the triads used are shown between the staves). This is reminiscent of the first solo from Johnson’s “Desert Rose.” In order to fit the three-note shape in a 4/4 rhythm, we add an extra note on the final 16th-note of each beat. Notice that the “extra note” is a chord tone of the next triad (i.e., G is the b7 of Am7/E). That same harmonic sense from Fig. 2 is used as a consistent melodic device that creates contrast for the sextuplet G major phrase at the end.
Johnson’s music-theory mastery comes forth in his use of pentatonic scales built from various notes of a given harmony—a thought process known as multiple pentatonics. This idea is simply to use different minor pentatonic scales too add color to a static progression.
For example, try using a minor pentatonic scale built on the 4th or 5th degree of the scale. In the key of A, we would have D minor pentatonic (D–F–G–A–C) or E minor pentatonic (E–G–A–B–D). Why? Well, each of these scales contain notes from the A Aeolian mode (A–B–C–D–E–F–G).
Fig. 4 succinctly displays this purpose through the ascending sequence’s lack of predictability, thanks to the E minor pentatonic that spans beats two through four. For the phrase’s terminal pinch harmonic, experiment with where you pick along the 2nd string to get a clear note—it’s a matter of where you pick, not how hard you pick.
A penchant for the unexpected has led EJ down paths toward surprising innovations, like the use of the minor hexatonic scale. This six-note scale adds the 2nd/9th to the otherwise utilitarian minor pentatonic scale.
Fig. 5 sees it as the F# added to E minor pentatonic. The advantage of the hexatonic scale is twofold: First, it supports sequences that imply the use of the 9th and 11th. It also provides a nice passing tone between the b3 and root.
There is a bit of a technical curveball in measure one of this “Cliffs of Dover”-inspired line, where a repeated, root-note pedal tone (12th fret, 1st string) amidst a descending string-skipping arpeggio (Gmaj7, if you’re wondering) would cause nightmares for even the most efficient alternate picker. Use your middle finger to pluck the E notes and give your flatpick a rest. For the descending, sequential, sextuplet pull-off barrage in measure two, use light economy picking (successive downstrokes or upstrokes to cross neighboring strings). Be sure to keep the line’s flow by precisely slurring.
All musical ideas are related. You shouldn’t think that you’re learning new concepts in a vacuum. After you learn the A minor pentatonic scale shapes, you not only know how to play in the key of A minor, but you know the C major pentatonic scale and a Cadd9/13 arpeggio. Also, you’re only two notes away from the C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and B Locrian modes. (Those notes are F and B, by the way.)
Taking inventory of what you already know and building from there can be the most unexpected way of reinvigorating your musical creativity. Thinking about the guitar in new ways after the rules are learned is how we all progress. Enjoy the journey!
Snark Tuners have produced a more cost-effective pedal tuner that puts their legendary pitch accuracy into a gig-worthy enclosure
Buying a good tuner is almost a rite of passage for guitarists. You begin with a cheap one, putting the big money into your new delay or overdrive instead, then realize that playing in tune—all the time—sounds pretty good! Plunking down a good chunk of change for a nice pedal tuner says you’re serious about your craft. Still, laying down 100-plus dollars on a tuner isn't an easy prospect for many, so Snark Tuners have produced a more cost-effective pedal tuner that puts their legendary pitch accuracy into a gig-worthy enclosure, all at half the price of most tuners in its class
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The SN-10S is a pretty stout pedal. Its die-cast metal casing feels capable of handling the rough-and-tumble life of heavy gigging. The features are sparse—true bypass switching, a calibration range of 415-466 Hz, a very large and bright LED readout, and 9V DC in and out jacks for powering not only the pedal itself, but other pedals in the signal chain. It can also be powered by a 9V battery just in case you left your power supply at home or the last gig.
The SN-10S makes up for a lack of different tuning modes by having excellent pitch accuracy, especially for such an inexpensive tuner. The smooth-scrolling and easy-to-read LED readout is fast and responsive. As I changed the strings’ pitches, the indicator moved through the red flat and yellow sharp indicators as smoothly and precisely as in the company's clip-on tuners, which have fast become a favorite of many serious players. The vivid display is perfectly readable in the glare of bright sunshine too, which is certainly a big concern if you spend most of your gigging time on outdoor stages during the summer and spring months.
The Snark feels more sensitive than its clip-on cousin, which is saying a lot. That sensitivity is especially apparent with instruments like basses and baritone guitars—where low notes and overtones can confuse less sensitive and responsive tuners.
Pedal tuners are one of the most indispensable tools a guitarist can buy. And at about 50 bucks, the Snark makes it hard to justify putting off the purchase in favor of some new fuzz you’ve been eyeing. The SN-10S is pretty barebones, but for a lot of players, that will be a big plus. What’s more, the tuning accuracy is on par with pedals more than twice its cost. If you haven't made the worthwhile investment in owning a pedal tuner yet, the SN-10S offers little reason to hesitate.
The Sarge amp is a 15-watt, EL84-powered circuit that uses vintage Hammond organ transformers and a Fender Deluxe-style tone stack.
The Champaign, Illinois, headquarters for Analog Outfitters is part junk shop, part audio monastery, and it’s staffed by a devout crew committed to mastering all things audio: If you’re planning a music festival, they’ll supply vintage gear, lighting, a mixing console, and even an engineer to patch it all together and run your sound. They also specialize in organ repair. Needless to say, these guys are a resourceful bunch. Given the oldschool parts (tubes, heavy-duty transformers) used in so many old organs—and the fact that old organs aren’t exactly the rage they once were—it’s little surprise they’ve also ventured into guitar amplification.
What’s doubly cool is that Analog Outfitters has parlayed its expertise across varied audio experiences and equipment. Their Sarge amp is a 15-watt, EL84-powered circuit that uses vintage Hammond organ transformers and a Fender Deluxe-style tone stack. Each amp is handbuilt with slightly different aesthetics, but uses the same basic components to deliver unique twists on classic tones.
Old Parts, New Ideas
Much of Sarge’s immediate appeal is derived from the unique enclosure. Once home to scientific equipment, these heavyduty aluminum boxes are tough and highly portable. Each enclosure is slightly different, but they all have roughly the same pillbox-like design. On the back, three holes yield access to an 8 Ω speaker output, a fuse, and the power-cord jack.
The Sarge is small enough to sit on a cabinet and solid enough to tough it out on the floor. Inside, you’ll find three controls affixed to a vintage embossed sign. The V knob controls volume, and T and B control the treble and bass EQ, respectively. There are also power and standby switches, and a red indicator light—it’s about as simple a control set as you’ll find. Behind these knobs lurks the Sarge’s ammunition—two EL84s in the power section, two 12AX7s for the preamp, and a 5Y3 rectifier.
I ran the Sarge into a 4x10 cabinet where it sat perched like a helmet on an armor-clad mercenary—a singular red eye menacingly surveying the dark studio, ready and at attention. My Stratocaster was plugged directly in, with volume around noon. At 15 watts, the Sarge saturates pretty quickly as you roll the volume clockwise, but it will bark with true field-sergeant authority, too—easily hanging with a drummer and a second guitarist. If you’re after a gritty tone, Sarge does stand its ground.
With volume a little past noon, my Strat’s single-coils produced a razor-wire wall of sound—think punk-rock roots, London, in the late ’70s. And just rolling back the bass knob from my original 12 o’clock setting got me a tighter, more striking tone to counter the humbuckerequipped guitarist in my band. Later, I added a Fulltone Fulldrive to the signal chain, and it proved a great asset for lead playing, revealing a lot about how pedalfriendly this amp is—even with a fairly low saturation threshold. It’ll happily handle high-gain pedals and aggressive fuzz, too. A Big Muff clone retained it’s boomy character without getting mushy as many fuzzes do with low-watt amps. But even without the help of pedals, the amp’s natural sustain is rich and distinctly vintage. In terms of feel and tone, it has a very tweed Deluxelike personality. You shouldn’t expect to coax modern hi-gain compression at max volume, but that famous tweed compression is there in plentitude.
Switching to a humbucker-equipped Gibson Sonex launched the output volume through the roof. And kicking treble up a notch made the Sarge even better suited for lead duties without any pedal assistance. I really enjoyed keeping the Sarge at high volume and using the Sonex’s controls to accentuate rhythm and lead sections, and it’s easy to live out your Jimmy Page fantasies once you nail this technique. Rolling off your guitar’s volume knob is a great way to lasso the Sarge’s clean capabilities, though the volume decrease may make it hard to achieve a crystalline sound with a full band behind you.
The Analog Outfitters Sarge is a remarkable amplifier dripping with mojo and fiery furnace tone. If you love recording with smaller amps, you’ll dig its multifaceted uses and expansive personality. Those searching for pure cleans—especially in a performance context—should look elsewhere. That said, at lower volumes you can achieve real character and sensitivity with a softer sting. Sarge also plays well with all pickups, and great with fuzz boxes—delivering a lot more range with effects than you might be accustomed to from a low-wattage amp. It may look like a piece of design gimmickry to curmudgeonly purists, but it’s a practical design—small enough to carry from the studio to the stage, and tough enough to tour with. Who says organ players can’t teach us guitarists a thing or two about gear?