In her latest lesson, virtuoso Nili Brosh analyzes techniques and approaches made famous on records from the venerated '80s record label.
• Work through sweep arpeggios in the style of Jason Becker.
• Add more chromatic notes to your improvised solos.
• Make your riffs more compelling with unexpected rhythmic subdivisions.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Shrapnel Records introduced the world to some of the most virtuosic rock and metal guitarists to have ever plugged into a high-gain amp. Starting in the ’80s, an era that has subsequently become infamous for guitar gods, Shrapnel’s founder Mike Varney carefully selected the cream-of-the-crop players for his unique record label.
Some Shrapnel alumni are best known for sweep picking, others for insane alternate picking, and yet others for emphasizing legato fretwork. But all of them are known for playing a lot of notes in a very musical way. What made many of these players great, in my opinion, is that each took a unique approach to playing and writing within the fairly specific “shred” genre.
Want to acquire some tricks of their trade? Let’s take a look at key ideas and techniques used by several of Shrapnel’s heaviest hitters.
Most people associate Shrapnel guitarists with technical lead playing, but before we go there let’s first visit the often-overlooked art of playing rhythm. In my opinion, Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouillet of Racer X were absolute masters of creating rhythmically exciting and unexpected metal riffs. These were often based on strong rhythmic hooks that included subdivisions and interwoven exchanges, and took surprising aural twists and turns.
Ex. 1 is a Racer X-style riff in A minor that illustrates the basic idea of taking one rhythmic pattern and throwing in surprise subdivisions. This riff’s main rhythmic pattern is based on three-note groupings of 16th-notes. In the first measure we encounter a new subdivision on beat 4. Hear how those 32nd-notes surprise the ear? It’s a great example of what Racer X was known for.
Another example of this effect is in the riff’s second fill. We have a 16th-note triplet run to wrap up the first repetition (starting on the “and” of beat 3 in measure 2), and again, the change in subdivision from the main 16th-note pattern creates an additional rhythmic twist.
Now that we’ve had a dose of rhythmic content, let’s shift over to the kind of lead playing that makes many listeners’ jaws drop. Because he introduced pop and R&B-inspired chord changes and funky rhythms to what was fundamentally a hard rock and metal label, Greg Howe is arguably one of the most distinctive Shrapnel artists. To make things even more interesting, he favored an innovative tapping technique and infused his playing with chromatics.
Inspired by the record Introspection, Ex. 2 is a Greg Howe-style lick over a series of dominant 7 chords. Hear how the chromatics are interwoven between E7 and B7 chord tones on the weak parts of the beat? This is a common jazz guitar technique, but it’s made very Howe-ish thanks to Greg’s grooves, feel, and note choices.
Next over A7 comes one of Greg’s most famous tapping techniques. This line also demonstrates his “hammer-on from nowhere” technique, which means that the hammer-on note isn’t approached by a previously picked note. Finally, we have another of Greg’s famous tapping techniques over the F#7. Here, we take three-note-per-string scales and instead of picking every note or playing full-on legato, use a hammer-hammer-tap pattern to cover the ascending phrase.
Another Shrapnel powerhouse is Tony MacAlpine, who is famously known for his blazing picking and his blend of classically inspired themes and contemporary instrumental music. Ex. 3 pays tribute to his approach to arpeggios.
The opening phrase is one of my favorite Tony-isms. We’re creating a major 7 arpeggio, in this case Dmaj7, by only using the lowest two strings. Keep in mind that there’s absolutely no picking here—it’s strictly legato and tapping. But the real interesting thing about this kind of line is the context in which Tony often uses it. Here, we’re in a Bm tonality, so we can use a D major arpeggio (Bm’s relative major) and still stay in the key.
We’ve explored a variety of tapping and arpeggio ideas, but haven’t yet encountered one of the most common staples of the Shrapnel guys: alternate picking licks! Many of the Shrapnel guitarists are well known for playing long, scalar runs in which they pick each note. If used wisely, this can be one of the simplest ways to enhance your playing, as these runs are mostly pattern-based and primarily built on the three-note-per-string scale fingerings.
A simple alternate-picked line in B minor, Ex. 4 starts with a six-note scale shape that’s copied across three octaves. You’ll find this fragment (the first three beats of the first measure) on many Shrapnel albums. Keep in mind that strict alternate picking is crucial for the accuracy and cleanliness of a lick like this, so be sure to practice it slowly.
Because these lines work so well in the three-note-per-string fingerings, they’re often conducive to some sort of triplet subdivision. The kicker with such licks is that they’re very pattern-based and can end up sounding too much like an exercise. Use them wisely and musically.
And last but not least, what would a column on Shrapnel be without a mention of the legendary Jason Becker? For dedicated shredders, his playing and spirit need no introduction, but if you need one, check out this trailer for the excellent documentary Not Dead Yet.
Ex. 5 is a workout in Becker-style sweep arpeggios. One point that was unique about Jason’s particular approach to sweep picking is that he extended certain arpeggio shapes further than other players did. In this example, all of the shapes extend down to include two notes on the 5th string. It’s fairly rare to see the Bm and E shapes extend down that far, but that’s part of Jason’s nuanced magic. The key to successfully playing sweep arpeggios lies in the picking pattern. It’s always a specific, non open-ended pattern that isn’t as simple as just constant downstrokes and upstrokes. A hammer-on or pull-off is included every time there’s two notes played on the same string.
Keep in mind that playing anything cleanly and accurately lies in practicing very slowly, in time with a metronome. These guys were all masters of fast playing, but I believe they were standouts because they used their chops in clever and musical ways, and that composition was their first priority. So when you’re sitting down with your metronome to blaze through these licks, just remember that music comes ahead of technique.
This blazing live performance of Racer X’s “Scarified” from 1988 illustrates how Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouillet varied the rhythms within their warp-speed riffs.
Greg Howe improvises an incredible solo over his tune “Come and Get It.” Check out 0:45-0:48 for a great example of one of his signature tapping techniques.
Here’s Tony MacAlpine playing “Pyrokinesis” with an excellent view of his fretboard. Marco Minnemann plays the drums on this track and MacAlpine plays everything else. Look for his tapped arpeggios sequences and notice how he weaves them into both the melody and the solo.
The legendary Jason Becker performs a dazzling mix of feisty, extended-range arpeggios in this clip from a guitar clinic in 1989.
There's a lot of musical gold inside the scales.
• Develop a deeper improvisational vocabulary.
• Combine pentatonic scales to create new colors.• Understand the beauty of diatonic harmony.
Improvising over one chord for long stretches of time can be a musician's best friend or worst nightmare. With no harmonic variation, we are left to generate interest through our lines, phrasing, and creativity. When I started learning to improvise, a minor 7 chord and a Dorian mode were the only sounds that I wanted to hear at the time. I found it tremendously helpful to have the harmony stay in one spot while I mined for new ideas to play. Playing over a static chord was crucial in developing my sense of time and phrasing.
The following is the first improvisational device I ever came across. I want to say I got it from a Frank Gambale book. The idea is that there are three minor pentatonic scales "hiding" in any given major scale. If we're in the key of C (C–D–E–F–G–A–B) we can pluck out the D, E, and A minor pentatonic scales. If we frame them over a Dm7 chord, they give us different five-note combinations of the D Dorian mode. In short, we are building minor pentatonic scales off the 2, 3, and 6 of the C major scale.
Viewing this through the lens of D minor (a sibling of C major and the tonal center for this lesson), D minor pentatonic gives us the 1–b3–4–5–b7, E minor pentatonic gives us 2–4–5–6–1, and A minor pentatonic gives us 5–b7–1–2–4. This means you can use your favorite pentatonic licks in three different locations and there are three different sounds we can tap into from the same structure.
If you smashed all of them together, you would get the D Dorian scale (D–E–F–G–A–B–C) with notes in common between the D, E, and A minor pentatonic scales. Ex. 1 uses all three scales, so you can hear the different colors each one creates over the chord.
Ex. 2 is how I improvise with them, usually weaving in and out using different positional shapes.
The next idea is one I stole from a guitarist who often came into a music store I worked at. On the surface, it's very easy: Just take two triads (in our example it will be Dm and C) and ping-pong between them. The D minor triad (D–F–A) gives us 1–b3–5, which is very much rooted in the chord, and the C major triad (C–E–G) gives us the b7–9–4, which is much floatier. Also, if you smash these two triads together, you get 1–2–b3–4–5–b7, which is a minor pentatonic scale with an added 2 (or 9). Eric Johnson uses this sound all the time. Ex. 3 is the lick I stole years ago.
Ex. 4 is how I would improvise with this concept. Many different fingerings work with these, so experiment until you find a layout that's comfortable for your own playing.
If two triads work, why not seven? This next approach will take all the triads in the key of C (C–Dm–Em–F–G–Am–Bdim) and use them over a Dm7 chord (Ex. 5). Each triad highlights different three-note combinations from the Dorian scale, and all of them sound different. Triads are clear structures that sound strong to our ears, and they can generate nice linear interest when played over one chord. Once again, all of this is 100% inside the scale. Ex. 5 is how each triad sounds over the track, and Ex. 6 is my attempt to improvise with them.
If we could find all these possibilities with triads, it's logical to make the structure a little bigger and take a similar approach with 7 chords, or in this case, arpeggios. Naturally, all the diatonic chords will work, but I'll limit this next idea to just Dm7, Fmaj7, Am7, and Cmaj7. I love this approach because as you move further away from the Dm7 shape, each new structure takes out a chord tone and replaces it with an extension. I notice that I usually come up with different lines when I'm thinking about different chord shapes, and this approach is a decent way to facilitate that. Ex. 7 is a good way to get these under your fingers. Just ascend one shape, shift into the next shape on the highest string, then descend and shift to the next on the lowest string.
Ex. 8 is my improvisation using all four shapes and sounds, but I lean pretty heavily on the Am7.
This last concept has kept me busy on the fretboard for the last five years or so. Check it out: You can take any idea that works over Dm7 and move the other diatonic chords. The result is six variations of your original lick. In Ex. 9 I play a line that is 4–1–b3–5 over Dm7 and then walk it through the other chords in the key. These notes are still in the key of C, but it sounds drastically different from playing a scale.
In Ex. 10, I try to think about the shapes from the previous example, but I break up the note order in a random but fun way. The ending line is random but felt good, so I left it in.
While all these concepts have been presented over a minor chord, you can just as easily apply them to any chord quality, and they work just as well in harmonic or melodic minor. Rewarding sounds are available right inside the harmony, and I am still discovering new ideas through these concepts after many years.
Though the above ideas won't necessarily be appropriate for every style or situation, they will work in quite a few. Developing any approach to the point that it becomes a natural extension of your playing takes considerable work and patience, so just enjoy the process, experiment, and let your ear guide you to the sounds you like. Even over just one chord, there is always something new to find.
It's time to move past the blues scale.
- Learn how to use diminished and altered sounds over a IV chord.
- Develop a better sense of voice leading.
- Understand the basics of connecting guide tones.
Let's talk about momentum. It's an essential part of any great solo, and when you're ripping over a 12-bar blues, the first spot to really demonstrate your mastery of the harmony is when the IV chord pops up. In this lesson, I'll demonstrate how to create some … fourward momentum … in your next solo.
Let's consider the first four measures of the I chord in a blues as a place of rest. Naturally, once we get to the IV chord in measure 5, we can still play our usual blues vocabulary, however that shift is a great place to add tension. Below are eight ways of adding this momentum using various harmonic devices.
It’s All About the 3 and 7
Before we start adding tensions from other harmonic sources, it is worth understanding where certain intervals within the I chord want to resolve. Doing so will help greatly when we take things to a more complex level. The defining intervals of any 7th chord are the 3 and 7. The 3 will tell you if it's major or minor and 7 will indicate if it's dominant. Simple as that. In Ex. 1 you can see how taking one note and moving economically through the changes helps create a melodic line. This small piece of visual awareness is huge. We will work backwards from these resolutions and create strong lines that weave from chord to chord.
Walking Up to The IV Chord
Ex. 2 is a fleshed-out version of something you might hear from a bass player pushing towards the IV chord. As a bass line, you might hear the G walking up to the C by way of an A, then a passing note of Bb, and then a B before landing on C on beat 1. This melodic line sits on top of the G7–Cm6/G–Bbdim7–G7 while the bottom voice pedals a G. This gives a nice sense of movement on the top voices while the lower voice ties it together with the held G. We resolve to the root of the C7 in measure 2 before resuming our blues vocabulary over the IV chord.
Slipping from a Half-Step Away
It is likely that within your comping vocabulary you will have heard a passing dominant chord a half-step above the destination chord. For example, a Db7 dropping to a C7. This usually occurs on beat 3 or 4 of the measure before C7. We can do the same thing with our lead lines (Ex. 3). On beat 3 I outline a Db7 arpeggio (Db–F–Ab–Cb) from the root on the 5th string. This then smoothly resolves down a half-step to the b7 of the C7.
Superimposing a II-V
Harmonically, we can look at the relationship from the I chord to the IV chord in a couple of ways. One way is as a V–I in the key of C. Before we add any advanced harmonic tensions, one thing we can do is to substitute this with a IIm–V into the IV. This is common in a jazz blues. In Ex. 4, I start by outlining a Dm7 arpeggio (D–F–A–C) by hammering into the root at the 12th fret of the 5th string, then ascending through the arpeggio up to the b7 at the 13th fret on the 2nd string. It's important to be aware of your resolutions and voice leading across these changes so that they sound smooth.
Let’s Get Diminished
Now that we have introduced the idea of the I chord functioning as a V of IV we can treat this like we would any other V chord. Next, we will turn the G7 into a G7b9. Before pondering options of which scale to use, let's look at what the notes of the chord would be. With the addition of the b9 this would give us G–B–D–F–Ab (R–3–5–b7–b9). If we ignore the root for a moment, we are left with a diminished 7 chord (B–D–F–Ab). Remember, any note can function as the root in a diminished 7 chord. In Ex. 5 I grab notes from this diminished arpeggio note pool and break them up rhythmically before sliding into the 5 of the C7 and hitting a few more chord tones to finish the phrase.
Continuing with the concept of the G7 as a G7b9, we can use a half-whole diminished scale built from G (G–Ab–Bb–B–C#–D–E–F). You can see in Ex. 6 that I start with pentatonic vocabulary before introducing the diminished sounds in the fourth measure. This one is a little more scalar sounding and navigational as we are ascending through the diminished scale. I finish this transition with strong motivic phrasing over the C7 to bring the listener back in.
We can keep playing with diminished sounds, but in Ex. 7 I take a more triadic approach. Within the G half-whole diminished we have four major triads: G (G–B–D), Bb (Bb–D–F), Db (Db–F–Ab), and E (E–G#–B). Due to the symmetrical nature of the scale, we can also pluck minor versions of those four triads as well. In this example, I mix these triads in measure 4 to create a melty John Scofield-esque sound to transition to the IV chord.
What’s the Altered Scale?
Another idea is to fully alter the G7 to include any combination of b9, #9, b5 and #5. Doing this opens up the option of using the altered scale or Super Locrian scale (1–b2–b3–3–b5–b6–b7) to bring in all those tension tones that will be released upon arrival at the IV chord. After setting up a theme using the minor pentatonic scale in Ex. 8, I descend through the altered scale over measure 4 and resolve across the bar line into the C7. When using these kind of tense scales, it is important to aim for smooth voice leading into your destination chord. For further practice with this scale, take each tension note and see where it can smoothly resolve to the next chord.
When approaching new sounds, it can often be a cool device to pick a couple of triads from a scale and craft melodic lines with more manageable material. In Ex. 9, I'm using a Db major triad and an Eb major triad over the G7. Those notes give us the 1, b9, #9, b5, b13, and b7. With these two triads we cover all the tensions within the altered scale. We are linking these two triads in different inversions to ascend across the fretboard before again resolving with good voice leading into the 5 of our C7.
I hope these examples give you new ideas and possibilities when it comes to stepping up to take a solo on a 12-bar blues. The main things to focus on when adding any sort of tension and release mechanisms in your playing are strong, confident phrasing and good voice leading on the dismount. I would recommend isolating the parts within these examples and then coming up with your own entrances and exits on the more stable parts of the progression. After you get used to stepping out and back in again with the given examples, feel free to adapt these concepts into your own playing to spice up those solos. I have included an 8-measure looped backing track to practice over. Have fun!
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|C7 / / / |C7 / / / | G7 / / / |G7 / / / :||