Can You Make Pentatonics Better?
- Learn how to create twisting “outside” licks.
- Develop a keen sense of weird phrasing.
- Understand how to target chord tones.
This term chromaticism comes from the Greek word chroma, which means “color.” Using chromaticism means having the freedom to use all 12 notes over a given chord. Imagine the possibilities and freedom to play any note over a chord in composition or improvising! The quickest way to start adding color notes to the minor pentatonic scale is to add the 2nd and the 6th, which then gives you a Dorian mode. I’ve outlined it below using the A minor pentatonic scale.
A Minor pentatonic: A–C–D–E–G
A Dorian: A–B–C–D–E–F#–G
In general, there are chromatic notes that are outside the chord/scale, and notes that are outside the key. The latter carries a lot of tension against a chord and needs movement or resolution. From my days of playing jazz gigs in Toledo, OH, I recall what legendary trumpeter Jimmy Cook once told me regarding playing outside: “You can go up to the attic, but you have to come back down.” In other words, you can play outside tonally, but you must resolve at some point in order for your music to sound coherent.
Let’s get started on this journey of chromaticism together.
Before we go hog wild and add random notes, let’s begin by taking an A minor pentatonic scale and fill in the chromatic notes between the already existing box pattern. It’s almost arbitrary, but it will enable you to hear different colors added within the scale (Ex. 1).
Chromatic Burst of Energy. In beat 1 of Ex. 2, we start with an A Dorian fragment followed by an extended chromatic line. The line in beat two starts on the b7 (G), highlighting the b5 (Eb) on beat 3, descending chromatically all the way down to B, and ending with A major pentatonic.
Bounce Around! We start on the b5 (Eb) followed by a typical chromatic rotation where we bounce around the b5. This idea lays quite well in the familiar pentatonic box. It’s easy and will add spice to your shredding (Ex. 3).
Side Stepping. A common approach to playing “outside” is side stepping. In other words, take the scale you’d normally use and displace it by a half-step above or below. By doing this, you’ll have instant access to notes that are harmonically outside the key—don’t think of them as wrong notes, just coloring notes. In Ex. 4 we take a pentatonic pattern from E minor pentatonic and sequence it in F minor pentatonic. As the notes can be analyzed over the E5 chord, it’s more important to view them as passing notes. Remember, the power of the sequence overrides the harmony!
Extend the Side Step. Ex. 5 uses the same concept of side stepping above but adds a note (D) to the displaced pattern. By doing so, this breaks the predictability of the phrase and places subsequent notes in new places.
Changing Tones.Ex. 6 is a fun lick to learn that starts with a strong, repeated three-note polyrhythmic figure (A#–B–D). The chromatic part occurs on beat 4 and utilizes changing tones, which is a type of non-harmonic tone.
Don’t Start On 1. The line starts on the 2nd (B), goes up a whole-step to C# followed by a double chromatic approach to Bb, down a whole-step to (G#), and finally resolving to the root (A). Once the A note is reached, there’s a cascading flurry of four-note groups settling in A minor pentatonic (Ex. 7).
Scrambles. This example (Ex. 8) was inspired by the legendary New York guitarist, Mark Hitt. Mark was a unique player, combining a rock sensibility with a jazz quotient. He developed an arsenal of twisting lines using chromaticism that he referred to as “scrambles.”
The pattern alternates between 1–3–4 and 1–2–4 fingerings, a typical fingering of the diminished scale. It can be analyzed where notes of the pentatonic are being targeted, but it’s all about the texture and excitement that is created. Make sure to play the line with slurs to get a fluid, legato sound.
Half-Step Approach. In this instance, we take the Im triad (Am) from the pentatonic scale and approach each chord tone from a half-step below (Ex. 9). This is more of a concept and exercise rather than a lick. This idea can be used with just about any improvising application.
One String Wonder. Ex. 10 highlights a series of chromatically descending half-steps. It’s an easy technique to get down and one I often use. It provides melodic interest, but also serves as an easy way to connect one position to the next. Here, we start on a high F that walks down a fourth to C in half-steps, followed by a C minor blues phrase.
These chromatic lines sound best when played fast and with conviction. As always, approach new material slowly and accurately. Ignore your inner voice that may tell you that the “outside” notes are wrong. Once you’re able to play the lines up to speed, you’ll be amazed by how impressive it sounds. These ideas that will add motion, color, and excitement to your playing and enhance your musical expression when soloing.
8 Ways to Shred Like Steve Vai
A gateway into some of the most recognizable Vai-isms.
·Develop a deeper sense of subdivisions.
·Learn how to combine odd groupings.
·Perfect the “Yngwie” pattern.
I had the pleasure of taking part in a project a couple of years back breaking down Steve Vai’s playing on David Lee Roth’s Eat Em and Smile album. Safe to say my fingers were fried after three months of practicing, but there were so many creative ideas to learn from. Late ’80s and early ’90s Vai is really something to behold, as he was featured in huge bands and changed the face of instrumental guitar. I want to look at some technical aspects of what he would do in terms of linear lines and expressions. My hope is that by learning them, you can take them and make them your own. Let’s dive in!
Ex. 1 is a classic Vai-ism in D minor. It’s a descending line loosely based around a series of triads with a few extra bits put in. The first beat centers on a D minor triad (D–F–A), the second beat hovers around a B diminished triad (B–D–F), and the third beat uses an A minor triad (A–C–E) to give a V-I pull back to the root note on beat 4. I love the idea of the two-note pull-off followed by a slide to transition between the cells.
Ex. 2 is similar to Ex. 1 in terms of layout, however there are a few twists. Most notably with the two-note-per-string hammer-ons shifting down two positions. This legato “smear” of notes is a trademark Vai-ism that pops up in tons of his solos and improvisations. We finish the line with a huge position shift down to a G Minor pentatonic pull-off phrase. A notable ornament of Vai’s spectacular playing.
Vai and Joe Satriani share a lot of common ground in terms of legato playing. They are known for taking three-note-per-string phrases and cramming notes into the beat for a cool washy sound. However, Vai sometimes would really focus on the odd subdivisions that these patterns would create. A sure sign of the influence Allan Holdsworth had with his angular-sounding lines. In Ex. 3 you can see how I would approach this by combining sextuplets with septuplets.
Ex. 4 is another legato run in E minor. However, this time we’re adding a tapped note at the 12th fret on each string at the top of each legato “roll.” Don’t be alarmed by the subdivisions in the transcription, these are more of a “pointer” towards the groupings. My performance note would be to practice this slowly as eighth-notes or slow 16th-notes before speeding up. Then when things are ticking along well, just go for it!
This phrase (Ex. 5) opens with a rather unique sequence for Vai: a five-note pattern played over a 16th-note rhythm. You can hear this pattern on some of his Alcatrazz material, and within the tapping runs in solos such as “Big Trouble.” The quintuplet uses notes from A minor pentatonic (A–C–D–E–G) spread out over two positions. Each pattern starts with a tapped note before pulling off to a chord tone. Then, I skip a string and play a descending three-note group. I continue this up to the top string before descending a line based around an Fmaj9 arpeggio (F–A–C–E–G).
Vai has some ferocious picking runs and when I hear Guthrie Govan go into full-on shred mode I can most notably hear the Vai influence on him. Ex. 6 features an ascending run of sextuplets in A minor. This phrase features mostly ascending notes on each string until the last two beats where we run into an Al Di Meola/Paul Gilbert-style pattern.
Ex. 7 is a flurry of notes, however there is some sense to how they are played. Keep in mind that this is phrased with three-note-per-string patterns. If we dissect the fingerings a bit, I use the classic “Yngwie” pattern of six to kick things off and then I use three groups of seven before wrapping with three groups of five. Don’t think of these in relationship to the beat, but more for just “building” the run. Practice with even 16ths or eighth-notes at first. When it comes to playing it at full speed, pick like the wind!
These unusual, almost symmetrical, patterns turn up in all kinds of places in Vai’s playing. Ex. 8 is a fun Vai phrase that outlines a series of minor 11 arpeggios. Each pattern is identical, so it’s best to play this with sweep picking and aim for an even feel. Try saying the word “hippopotamus” when playing through quintuplets to line up the syllables with the subdivisions. When Vai plays these, he lets them blur slightly, turning them into sheets of sound. Or sometimes he uses them to simply highlight the top note by sweeping so fast that it’s almost inaudible—in a cool way!
So there we have it, eight technical linear lines inspired by the amazing Steve Vai. Learning lines from your favorite artists is good, but it really starts to count when you take away the concepts and re-shape them your own way. Vai is a well of inspiration for tons of guitarists. Long may he continue!
5 Steps to Better Hybrid Picking
It doesn’t have to be all cowboy boots and yee-haws!
• Learn how to comp using hybrid picking.
• Add nuance to your playing by combining pick and finger string attacks.
• Add speed and fluidity to your lead playing.
The first thing most guitarists think of when they hear the phrase “hybrid picking” is undoubtedly twangy Telecasters. While that may be the most common use of hybrid picking, it is far from the only application. Diving into hybrid picking opens a whole new world of control, timbre possibilities, ideas, speed, and more.
As beginning guitarists start to move into the intermediate level, they typically build speed by practicing alternate or economy picking. It makes complete sense–especially to someone who’s new to the journey–that if you’re holding a pick, that’s what you should strike the strings with. I grew up learning how to play taking a slightly different route. Personally, I found it easier to be faster–and cleaner–to hybrid pick phrases, lines, and solos. It clicked with me and therefore was the technique I homed in on when growing from a beginner to an intermediate player. My alternate and economy techniques still aren’t as comfortable as hybrid picking, so here are some ideas from a guy that learned things from a bit of a different perspective. If you feel like your playing has plateaued, this might help you to keep climbing.
Small note: I use the pad of my fingers when hybrid picking and not the nail.
Step 1: Focus on the Small Differences
In Ex. 1 you’ll find what I consider to be one of the main benefits of getting comfortable with hybrid picking. I pick every note of the phrase on the first pass, but hybrid pick it on the second. On the second pass, the root note (open 4th string) is the only note the pick hits. I generally like to approach hybrid picking with an “each finger is assigned a string” method, meaning in this example the middle finger picks the note on the 3rd string and the ring finger picks the note on the 2nd string. Listening to the same two phrases played differently, you’ll note that there’s a tad more feel and nuance the second time through. These are subtle but can make all the difference in the world when it comes to creating, playing, recording, or performing parts. The combination of a mountain’s worth of small differences like this are what sets the pros apart!
Step 2: How to Play Chords with Hybrid Picking
Ex. 2 is how I love to use hybrid picking when comping. In this example the pick is handling everything on the 5th string while the middle finger picks the 4th string, the ring finger picks the 3rd string, and the pinky picks the 2nd string. Not only does hybrid picking this groove allow for a ton of control, it allows the pick to rhythmically separate from the rest of the fingers, creating a faux bassline. Again, using the middle, ring, and pinky fingers give a softer touch to the upper end of the chords, creating a more nuanced feel.
Step 3: Time to Go Low
Taking the idea of the pick handling the low end of the chords and giving the notes focus while the fingers contribute to clarity and softness on the upper end of the chords, we get Ex. 3. The pick only strikes the 6th string, while the middle finger picks the 3rd string, and the ring finger picks the 2nd string. This example of hybrid picking is widely used by guys like John Mayer and allows a player to have a ridiculous amount of control over what strings are being struck when playing something clean such as this.
Step 4: Let’s Get Sweeping
Applying this concept to lead playing, Ex. 4 replaces what would typically be an upward sweep with hybrid picking. The pick strikes the A note on the 7th fret of the 4th string. Then, the middle finger picks the C# on the 6th fret of the 3rd string, the ring finger picks the E note on the 5th fret of the 2nd string, and the pick strikes the F# on the 7th fret of the 2nd string. This is followed by a downward sweep of the same notes in reverse order. To end the lick, I pick the open 4th string. That’s when hybrid picking allows me to play a rolled Dmaj7 chord. These two embellishments are highly useful when both soloing and comping, and once again are a small touch that provides some “spice.”
Step 5: Enough with the Clean Stuff
Ex. 5 is a lick I use (I should probably say abuse) consistently. My sweep picking skills are abysmal. In part because I haven’t dedicated the appropriate time to practice them, but also partly because I tend to hybrid pick as a cheat or workaround. The lick is based on a G major arpeggio beginning at the 10th fret of the 5th string. I then pick the 4th string with my middle finger and the 3rd string with my ring finger. From there, I gather for a few notes with the pick on the 3rd string and repeat the pattern again across the fretboard. However, the second hybrid-picked part of the lick begins by striking the 9th fret of the 3rd string with the pick, then using my middle finger to pick the 8th fret of the 2nd string and my ring finger to pick the 7th fret of the 1st string. To end the arpeggio, I strike the 10th fret of the 1st string with the pick. The last bit of the phrase is a garden variety blues lick ending.
Hybrid picking is an extremely valuable tool that I think every guitar player should have in their arsenal. A player can have more control, feel, and timbral options compared to only using a plectrum, and it’s an easier way to add velocity with very minimal right-hand movement or tension. Try hybrid picking different grooves, licks, arpeggiated chord shapes, and even pieces of lead lines you already know to begin exploring how the technique can work for you.