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Michael Casswell - Pro Concepts Season 4 - Part 10: Popping Lines

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 43 **

This Pro Concepts I'm going to be talking about approaching and playing a 'Popping Line'. We have touched on this before and it really is a facet of contemporary guitar playing that very few can get right. It usually gets ignored by you guys and considered easy, right up to the point when you are sitting in an expensive studio, being paid to play for a big name artist, faced with a name producer who actually knows what he is doing and who turns and faces you and says "OK, we need some of that single line popping funk stuff on here, y'know, like on Off the Wall by Michael Jackson”. That's the point you suddenly realise there is a huge hole in your playing and you've probably spent a little too much time playing drop tuned Metal, and not enough time working on your funk chops! Most players get found out pretty quickly when dealing with this topic, and here's why.

Firstly, construction and composition of a good popping line is not easy. It has to have a musicality within the part which compliments the overall sound of the music. It has to be slightly catchy and infectious without being irritating.

It mustn't get in the way of the vocal or clash rhythmically with anything. It has to be executed perfectly (although Logic and Pro Tools can save your arse with some basic editing). It has to be the right sound and tone. And most importantly it has to have the feel and groove that makes it sit beautifully timing wise, which means you need an excellent understanding and feel of the sub divisions that you can use in the song time signature. This means you have to know where an up stroke should be as you strike the string, and obviously the downstroke. So when you think about a good popping line like this, there is a lot to the subject and a lot to get right, which is why so many players are simply average at it, or worse, nowhere on it.

  There is simply no easy way to teach this style, and I have tried to skim through four examples with a loop pedal and no drummer, so you can at least see the approach, not just with the lines, but also the chordal grooves behind them.

Chord ideas and grooves are another huge subject and if you look hard enough in previous Pro Concepts, you will find me covering various rhythm approaches and hear me continually say how crucial rhythm playing is if you really do want a career as a player in the industry.

  Even the pick you use and how you hold it can affect the end results. For a fatter warmer tone I expose less of the pick so the strings get hit with some flesh at the same time. For a more percussive popping sound then obviously a little more of the pick can be used. Everything comes from the wrist and not a stiff forearm and playing things at half speed first can help you get the feel for the part. You are dealing down and up strokes, where they sit in the 16th note subdivision, plus string muting, plus dynamics. It's the details that really make the difference.

  These sort of guitar parts can crop up in many styles and genres. R&B, Rock, Funk, Blues, so it's worth getting a feel for it. You might want to Google Paul Jackson Junior as a starting point and maybe check out his playing and session credits. It's also worth me saying that it's much easier to copy an already established line than it is coming up with your own cool parts. A good easy starter to try to copy and play is the iconic popping line played on the Bee Gees Staying Alive hit, which is a great example of the guitar line almost being the hook to the song. Also give Michael Jackson's Human Nature another listen with fresh ears, as a young Steve Lukather pops and weaves throughout the song with huge feel and groove.

I can't tell you how many times I have had to step up and compose or lay down a serious popping line to earn my money. Sometimes not just one line, but two or three that work together at the same time. The chances are, you may be in that situation at some point, so maybe you could try to replicate the ideas I demo in the tutorial to see if you find it tricky or not. Obviously try to come up some of your own ideas, record them and be truthful to yourself when you listen back. Does your playing tick all the popping line boxes? It's a hard topic to get right and many simply don't. But it's a rewarding style to play when you do nail it.

  I really enjoy a groove within music, so I do try to get it happening if the situation allows. But it is usually with a good bass player and drummer rather than just a loop pedal!

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