Chops: Intermediate Theory: Intermediate Lesson Overview: • Add some blues firepower to your lick arsenal. • Become a string-skipping ninja. • Develop the skills to become a harmonic ninja
• Add some blues firepower to your lick arsenal.
• Become a string-skipping ninja.
• Develop the skills to become a harmonic ninja by implying the root note.
Traditional blues is usually not improved with large doses of athleticism. I can just imagine the song titles that might result from such a combination:
“One Bourbon, One Scotch,
and One Protein Shake”
“I Got my Mojo Jogging”
“Hellhound on my Treadmill”
“The Thrill is Brawn”
“I Can’t Quit Yoga, Babe”
I could keep riffing on these puns, but I think you get the idea. And now that I’ve built my metaphor, I’m going to contradict it by playing a bunch of my favorite 16thnote and 16th-note triplet licks over some unsuspecting blues changes. The speed of these solo phrases is definitely not traditional, but the notes still fit over the chords, the fingers get an invigorating workout, and there is enough bending and syncopation to pay tribute to the crucial sounds of the original art form.
Overall, I like having these types of phrases in my guitar phrase toolbox, just in case I need to turbo-charge a blues and give it some rock teeth. So let’s take a look at how it works in Fig. 1.
The first six notes form an awesome phrase and exercise by themselves. It’s a simple three-note pattern that alternates between two different ending notes. When played with alternate picking—which is what I recommend—the picking will reverse itself, in relation to the left hand, every three notes. This reversal can be infuriating at first. But with some slow and accurate practice, you can turn an enemy into a friend and add some serious indestructibility to your alternate-picking technique.
In the second measure, a couple of pull-offs are included to give some muchdeserved rest to the picking hand. And make sure to give proper attention to the bend at the end. It is the first chance for the solo to breathe, so savor the moment.
For measures three and four, I repeat the established patterns, but alter the notes to fit the IV chord (D9). You may notice there is no D note in this whole two-measure section, even though it’s played over a D9 chord. I leave the root note to the bass guitar and/or the ear of listeners who will infer it.
How does that work? All the notes that make up a D9 chord are being played in the solo, except for the root (D). Since 4/5 of the notes from the chord are there in the solo, the remaining unplayed note is strongly implied by the context. I never pass up an opportunity to use the word extrapolate, and that is what the ear does when the chord progression and the notes of the solo all point to the same root note, even if it’s not actually there. Last but not least, the phrase ends with another bend. Don’t miss this opportunity to shake it.
Measure 5 begins with 16th-note triplets. Harmonically, I chose notes to outline the E7#9b13 chord. That chord has so many symbols and numbers it almost looks like an abbreviation for a swear word. But don’t worry—it’s just notes, and this opening lick only uses four of them.
I highly recommend taking a close look at the combination of downstrokes, upstrokes, pull-offs, and hammer-ons that happen during the first six notes. My teaching experience tells me that most guitarists will find this particular combination to be counterintuitive at first. But this is a great opportunity to open up a new door of technique. Great sounds lie within. Slow, accurate practice will guarantee your success.
Immediately following the triplets, a couple of syncopated notes lead into a string-skipping challenge. The left hand shape alternates between tiny and large stretches, which will wake up the fingers and the brain. The resulting notes continue to outline the V chord. Enjoy the bend and vibrato at the end.
And finally, the last two bars resolve to the I chord. The 16th-note triplets at the top are best picked, starting with an upstroke. But what if you’re more comfortable starting with a downstroke? What would Al Di Meola do? The answer is “up.” It’s worth a try.
The return to 16th-notes summons a sparsely populated Am9 arpeggio. I purposefully chose to play only the b3, b7, and 9, and leave out the root and 5. Since there are only three different notes, the arpeggio has wider interval skips than if all the notes were included. And by only playing the most colorful notes, the harmonic character is magnified. It makes the listener go, “Ooooh!”
I end with the 3 and the root … the strongest, bluesiest, rockingest, two notes in the cosmos.
Once you have built all these details into a solid solo, it’s up to your ears to make stylistic decisions. I suggest being like a bouncer at a nightclub, but a very cool and reasonable one. You have the muscle to intimidate and keep people out of the club. But instead, you reserve the muscle to break up the occasional fight, and the rest of the time you keep the peace and act generously with the guest list.
How a flat tire inspired a whole new view of arpeggios.
“Wait! Look over there … in the dark. Is that an abandoned car?” I am always amazed how bad luck and good luck can occur simultaneously. It was my 20th birthday, and I was with my bandmates from Racer X. We were recording our second album in a remodeled chicken ranch north of San Francisco. We had taken the night off to see Poison play at a club in the city. Poison’s catchy tunes and choreography hadn’t had time to work their magic on the masses yet, so C.C. and the boys were still slogging it out in the clubs. After the show, my bandmates and I piled back into my newly purchased—but very previously owned—Oldsmobile and headed back into farm country where the chickens and our guitars awaited us.
It was about an hour drive into rural darkness before we would reach our destination. The city lights had faded from the rearview mirror. We were tired and traffic lesson > SHRED YOUR ENTHUSIASM was sparse. The night was peaceful and … BLUCK! blook-blook-blook-blook-bleckbleck- bleck-bleck-blunk-blunk-blunk-blunkblunk ... yek … yek … yek … yubbbb.
One of my tires had blown out. I slowed down and pulled off the highway, and onto the gravelly berm. I had never changed a tire before, but I was not without help. Jeff Martin, Racer X’s lead singer, has a heroic reputation for being able to repair, build, or modify just about anything. My car, and our ride home, was in good hands.
Of course, the first piece of equipment that is needed to change a blown-out tire is a spare tire. I opened my trunk. It contained no such thing. That’s when we saw it, a ghostly image just barely visible in the distance— an abandoned car. My car may not have had a spare tire, but it did have a lug wrench, so off we went to see if we could salvage a replacement tire. It turns out that we could. Jeff was able to remove a healthy tire and roll it back to my crippled car.
Things were going well. My car had a functioning jack and Jeff was able to prop up my car, so that the new tire could be installed. That’s when Jeff discovered that the lug holes on the new wheel did not line up with the lug posts on my axle. Things were not going so well.
Here is where the important part of the story comes in. Let me frame it first as a mathematical equation: 2 + 2 = 5 if you take a big piece of metal and pound that 5 until it pretty much looks like a 4.
And that’s what Jeff did. He looked at the lugs on my car and saw where they needed to go in order for the replacement wheel to fit.
This principle can be applied to playing arpeggios on a guitar. First, let’s pause to take a look at the dictionary definition of arpeggio: The notes of a chord played in succession, either ascending or descending.
That’s just fine, but I’m going try an experiment. I’m going to discard the second half of the definition (ascending or descending), and focus entirely on the first half. Let me show you what I mean. In order to play the notes of a chord in succession, we’ll begin by choosing a chord.
I’m going to pick my #1 favorite chord in the world. It’s a dominant 7sus4 chord. Why is it my favorite? Because my eyebrows rise up and my forehead gets all crinkly whenever I hear it. It’s also in these awesome songs: “What a Fool Believes” — The Doobie Brothers (first chord) “Real Man” — Todd Rundgren (“got my head in the sky”) “A Hard Day’s Night” — The Beatles (the legendary opening chord, arguably)
Enough chord promotion. It’s time to grab you guitar and play it in the key of D as shown in Fig. 1. As you play the chord, please notice that the voicing is 1–5–7–4– 5. In contrast to this chord, the corresponding arpeggio, according to the strict dictionary definition, should voice these notes in purely ascending order: 1–4–5–7.
Can you see the difference? Go back and look at the chord voicing again. The 7 is not placed at the end, but in the middle. The 4th is closer to the end, and there are two 5ths that are spread way apart. I think this chord voicing actually sounds better, is easier to play, and projects the character of the sus4 with more clarity. There isn’t a musical reason why the chord voicing has to ascend strictly in order. It’s my favorite chord and the voicing sounds good, so I’m sticking to it.
So here is the big moment. I want to disregard the rule of “ascension,” and create an arpeggio using the same voicing as my favorite chord. For that, I need to invent a completely new fingering. When you play Fig. 2, I think you’ll immediately feel why.
The key to the fingering in Fig. 3 is that there isn’t any barring, so the notes are separate from each other and have more potential for vibrato. Plus, in some areas we use a “two-notes-per-string” arrangement, which is very useful for speeding up the line and making new phrasing patterns. My favorite chord has become a SOLO. I can now simulate “A Hard Day’s Night,” but at lightning speed!
This will also work for other chords. In Fig. 4 you can see an A9 chord—also known as the “James Brown” chord. I tried to find a fingering that would allow me to play this chord voicing as an arpeggio. I couldn’t do it exactly, but I could use my lug wrench to pound a note off of it and then it worked just fine. Fig. 5 is the arpeggio, but without the root.
But we’re not done with our lug wrench yet. I want to play these same notes again, but with a new rhythmic phrasing pattern. Some of the notes in Fig. 6 will “line-up” perfectly with nice rhythmic accents. Others will be squeezed in between. My ear doesn’t mind this. In fact, it gives the lick a certain appealing, earthy feel. The car is riding a little lopsided, but she still rolls stylishly down the road.
If you’re willing to learn the pattern above, then you deserve to be rewarded with Fig. 7
So now, I ask you: Do you also have a favorite chord? If you do, then please waste no time in pounding it into an arpeggio. The fingerings will surprise you, and some new musical doors will appear for you to explore.
If you don’t have a favorite chord here are some ways to look for one:
- Take some lessons from a piano teacher.
- Take some lessons from a jazz guitar player.
- Learn 20 Beatles songs—learning 25 or 30 is even better.
- Learn 10 songs where piano is the featured instrument.
- Listen to your favorite music and when your eyebrows jump up, go back and learn that chord.
Finally, I would like to thank Jeff Martin for saving the day and getting my car back on the road. I suppose there’s the possibility that the abandoned car had an owner who returned to a very nasty surprise. If that owner was you, then I send my apologies for the missing tire and my warmest gratitude for helping the band and me finish a face-melting heavy metal album. It’s called Second Heat if you want to have a listen.
Playing over jazz chord changes can be one of the most humiliating experiences a rock guitar player can ever face.
Then, I listened to the jazz standard “Stella by Starlight” with the same intentions. There are many versions of this popular tune and after listening to several of them, I would estimate that on average there a four seconds between each key change.
Now let’s do the math: “Stranglehold” (the solo) stays in one key for 176 seconds. “Stella by Starlight” stays in one key for four seconds. When it comes to improvising, “Stella” requires the soloist to think… not twice as fast, not 10 times as fast, but 44 times faster than when navigating through “Stranglehold.”
This is why playing over jazz chord changes can be one of the most humiliating experiences a rock guitar player can ever face. I know. I’ve tried it. It’s horrible. Just horrible! (Not the music, but my ability to play it.)
There are two things that I want to scream out when I’m butchering a jazz standard. The first is, “I’m not ready to change yet!” Basically, I’ve never had to deal with my whole harmonic universe shifting every four seconds. It doesn’t give me a chance to even get started. I haven’t unpacked my bags, or even taken my shoes off. I haven’t had a chance to look around. I’m not ready to leave yet! My second impulse is to scream, “I don’t know what happened, normally I can play!” Suddenly, all my Ted Nugent licks don’t work anymore and that is deeply unsettling. It fills me with an uncontrollable desire to apologize.
Is this proof that all rock guitarists are dummies and all jazz guitar players are geniuses? It sure feels that way, when all those chords toss me around. In defense of myself and of my rock ’n’ roll brethren, I have to say this: What we may lack in “wild key center-hopping abilities,” we make up for with “things that can’t easily be written down” and “controlling that fire-breathing monster we call distortion.”
Before I go further, I should say that I really like the sound of traditional jazz. When I hear a mellow hollowbody guitar with squeak-free and unbendable flatwound strings, the guitar’s tone control all the way down, and then plugged into a super clean, solid-state amp, it’s like a sonic massage. The music is beautiful. The atmosphere is sophisticated and attractive. I wouldn’t change it one bit.
I also believe that this kind of jazz setup prevents many of the problems that rock guitar players have to deal with. It’s quite possible that the typical clean jazz tone is 44 times less distorted than the average fire-breathing guitar rig.
This means that jazz guitarists can funnel all their brain and finger power into steering through those winding roads of harmony. The jazz player is not distracted by the obligations that distortion requires. The rock player, on the other hand, has to reserve significant brain and finger power just to harness the wild beast that comes alive when the distortion is cranked up.
I must admit that when I see a rock guitar player strap on an instrument, the first thought that enters my head is worry. I’m worried that it’s going to be noisy. Distortion magnifies the sound of every tiny hand movement in the same way that the typical jazz sound can mask them. Have you ever heard the Van Halen song, “Atomic Punk?” Eddie Van Halen plays the intro just by rubbing the side of his hand across the strings with lots of distortion and a phase shifter on. It sounds like Godzilla brushing his teeth! (I heartily approve.) If you tried the same technique with a clean jazz sound, you’d barely hear anything. Godzilla and his toothbrush would fade into the flapping wings of a butterfly. Done right, distortion brings unique sounds and excitement. But in inexperienced hands, it can be a big loud mess.
Let’s look deeper into the nature of this fire-breathing rock guitar sound. I’d like to use painting as an analogy. With distortion, every tiny brushstroke is enlarged to a billboard- sized font, with all the details intact. There is your technique, with no clothes on, projected on a giant screen. If your technique is in good shape, you’ll be proud to have it projected. But if it has some flaws or uncontrolled areas, you may crave the relative safety of those mellow muffled flatwounds. But don’t give up too easily. Let’s look at some specifics for taming the issues of distortion.
First and foremost is string noise. Possibly the biggest challenge to making a distorted guitar sound good (not noisy) is merely playing one note while simultaneously keeping the other five strings from scratching, grumbling, muttering, or just plain-old ringing out. With a jazzy sound, this is nearly a non-issue. With a rock sound, this string-controlling technique is vital.
This is where we come to the “things that can’t be easily written down” part. Can you imagine what a score would look like if you had to specifically notate all the muting required to control the unplayed strings? For every note played, the other five strings must be muted every time you play a new note! And the muting doesn’t come from one simple source. You can use the palm of your picking hand, the pick itself, the tips of your fretting fingers, the front side of your fretting fingers, your thumb, or even just turn off your distortion box at a precise moment. Most of these techniques utilize small, specific physical motions that are barely visible, but again, are vital.
Of course, no one notates this sort of thing when writing out sheet music. It would be painstaking to write and cumbersome to read. But in the real world of playing rock guitar, it has to be done!
Imagine if a drummer had to do this. If every time drummers hit their snare, they had to lightly hold every other drum on their kit to keep them from making an unwanted racket. Only octopi could be drummers! Or think of the piano. In order to play a single, clear note, pianists would have to stretch out their arms in both directions to cover and control the other 87 notes! The sensitivity and feedback potential that rock guitar players use (to their advantage) would make many other instruments simply uncontrollable or impossible to play. This is why I feel that the art of playing a distorted electric guitar should not be underestimated. Distortion exaggerates the potential for beauty or ugliness, and it’s purely up to the guitarist to steer the sound one way or the other. This is one of the things I love most about the electric guitar. It may have dangerous risks, but the sonic rewards for getting it right are glorious.
And then there’s vibrato. Again, those jazzy flatwounds tend to keep things on the safe side. In fact, they are barely bendable, while slinky roundwound strings open up a whole world of vibrato possibilities. The whammy bar and the slide are other variations on this fantastic theme. Like before, the subtleties that separate the beautiful from the noisy are nearly impossible to notate on a written page. You can show “where” the vibrato should happen, but it would be impractical to notate “how.” And the “how” is everything! If you listen to one note from B.B. King or Brian May, you can immediately tell who is who, just by their vibrato. I love them both, but I can’t imagine how to write down the difference in a way that could be quickly and easily read.
There’s more: Rock guitar players gain expression by sliding in and out of notes, using different pick angles to squeeze out pick harmonics and manipulate different attack textures, using pick scratches and other percussive sounds, and controlling harmonic feedback.
What is my conclusion from all this? First of all, if the most important stylistic ingredients of rock guitar can’t be realistically notated or perceived visually, this leaves us to use THE EARS. Written music certainly communicates something (notes and rhythms) that forms the skeleton of music. Your ears will give the music its body and soul, and bring it to life. Rock music may be relatively simple harmonically, but the performances are as deep as the human spirit. In the vast majority of great recordings and performances, no one had any charts in front of them. It was all by ear.
My second conclusion is that I am thankful that there are different styles of music, each with something that can inspire. All musicians have their comfort zone, and the trick for each of us is to venture out of it enough to get new ideas and inspiration, but not so much that your self-worth is crushed like a peanut under an elephant’s toe.
Damn you, “Stella by Starlight.” I’ll get you someday.
P.S. What? No musical example this month? Okay, one quick one. I’ll give you the written skeleton in Fig. 1.
The secret here is that nearly half of these notes can be bent. Your job is to insert those bends and bring it to life. (Please check out the audio file in the online version of this column. I’ll play both the bent and unbent version so you can hear the difference.) Rock ’n’ roll!
or download example audio (no bends)...
or download example audio (bends)...
or download example audio (bends slow)...