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This article was originally published in issue #63
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Nicks music is perhaps some of the most honest and expressive instrumental ‘guitar’ music that I have personally heard in a long time. His approach to writing is often away from the guitar, focusing on building interesting chord sequences around simple and effective melodies.
In this issue's Guitar Interactive Tech Session Sam Bell delves deep into the advanced guitar techniques of one of the fastest rising stars from the world of instrumental rock, Nick Johnston.
Back in Issue 54 of Guitar Interactive Magazine, I had the pleasure of interviewing the awesome Canadian guitar instrumental songwriter, Nick Johnston. Now I present to you this tech session that hopefully captures some of the technical elements of Nicks playing in a digestible example that you can take away and maybe get some inspiration from. Nicks music is perhaps some of the most honest and expressive instrumental ‘guitar’ music that I have personally heard in a long time. His approach to writing is often away from the guitar, focusing on building interesting chord sequences around simple and effective melodies. This is all topped off with his incredibly natural almost vocal-like phrasing and raw natural tone coming from his single coil guitars. He is currently putting together a new album which will be with us very soon, however, my example is based around the vibe of his most recent solo album ‘Remarkably Human’. Within the compositions on this record, we can hear almost cinematic soundtrack style arrangements accented by very tasteful lead guitar work.
This doesn’t mean that Nick doesn’t like to crank up the juice however, far from it. Nicks almost saxophone like Legato playing is mixed with articulated hybrid picked runs, bluesy rakes, wide aggressive vibrato and expressive sweeps do crop in when the moment is right. Nick’s unique style makes all of these rock techniques sound completely natural and some could say, remarkably human. He draws from a wide range of influences, namely Steve Ray Vaughn, Yngwie Malmsteen, Van Halen and Jeff Beck. You can hear all of these elements in his phrasing and his technical approach. Be sure to download the TAB for this lesson as there are a lot of notes! And check out the breakdown video lesson as well as I go into detail of articulating these lines. Let’s dive in!
Nick is known for being a Guitar direct into an Amp kind of guy. For this tech session, I used my Line 6 Helix. I used the Placater amp model which is based on a Friedman BE100 which is what Nick used to use, you can get a close sound by going for a cranked Plexi sound with a splash of reverb. The key to Nicks sound outside of his years of playing experience and fingers is that he uses Single Coils, he often plays around with the volume and tone knobs to get different articulations. I’d also say his pick choice accents his sound a lot as well, he normally uses .88 Tortex picks, and these have a classic rounder edge and are a classic size. Giving the pick more contact with the string allowing Nick to articulate and control each notes dynamics with great effect.
Bars 1 – 4
This solo opens up with a simple melody over our Amadd9 to Abadd9 chord sequence. These chords are not diatonic to each other, for Amadd9 I am thinking Natural Minor and for the Abadd9 I am thinking Ab Lydian. Bars 1 and 2 feature the melody moving from the 5th of Am down to the b3, this leads us into the 5th of our Abadd9 chord which walks down from that interval to the #11 before sitting on the M3rd. Nick would most commonly start out writing tunes focusing on just a single note melody, he would then flesh out the harmony by trying to find chords that fit around each note or groups of notes. This is a very Soundtrack style Compositional device that most Piano players or string arrangers would use, however, Nick’s approach on the guitar is one of the things that makes his music stand out.
Bars 5 – 6
Nick has a strong blues influence in his playing, namely Steve Ray Vaughn. This is a classic A Blues scale run over the Amadd9. Notice how there is a strong use of Legato in the articulation of this line, Nick will often improvise his fills between thematic melodies, and there are many bluesy lines like this in his albums. The main thing to aim for is the cool, calm and relaxed swagger that he gets when he executes these lines. I find it hard not to rush, so taking a leaf from Nicks book I tried to relax as much as possible on this run.
Bars 7 – 9
The chord sequence turns to an Fadd9 for bar 7 then up to G# Diminished in bar 8. For these two bars I have used some shapes that Nick commonly uses for extended arpeggios and sequenced them in groups of 4 with Hybrid Picking. You don’t have to use Hybrid Picking of course, but it certainly helps to get the sound that Nick does when playing these strong sounding lines. The line ends with a semi-tone bend on the B string 12th fret which gives us our m3rd note over the Amadd9 chord.
This is a classic Am Triad sweep with some extras thrown in, the line starts with a slide from the 5th up to the b13 before ascending the Am Triad, on the high E string we’re going to hit the b5th on the 11th fret before moving up through the line and doing a slide tap between the M7 and Root of Am. So far this line has highlighted the b13, b5 and M7. These are all quite dissonant notes over Am, however, they really create a cool tension within this classic sweep arpeggio. Nick manages to do this kind of sweeping a lot in his playing without it sounding mechanical or like he’s trying too hard, it’s very natural and used more like a textual device to highlight those unusual intervals.
Bars 12 – 13
This is the first real full on legato run of this tech session, it uses a mixture of chromatic notes within an Am Pentatonic Box shape moving down in groups of 3, there are some unison notes when we move to the B and G string, Nick does a lot of this kind of thing in his playing, it really helps add some rhythmic interest to this kind of phrasing. The line wraps up with two Triad based sweeps (Em and Am) the Am sweep lands on a microtone bend on the b5th before moving down to the b3 and landing on the root. This is definitely a classic Nick Lick!
Bars 15 – 16
Here’s another extreme legato example from Nicks playing, this occurs over the G7 chord before we move into the chorus of the piece. We start by ascending a Bm7b5 arpeggio (this gives us a G9 tonality over G) this shape is using a 2-1-2 pattern (two notes on a string followed by one note etc) a common devise for fretboard visualisation used in modern legato playing. Before descending through notes of a G Mixolydian scale, notice how the pattern starts in the 13th position on the E string but then reverse shifts to the 15th fret B string, some people might call this ‘Reverse Linier’ Legato. It’s a great way of getting more out of your legato runs without having to position shift too wildly around the neck.
Bars 17 – 22
We have now reached the ‘Chorus’ of my Tech Session Example. This part moves between A Major and F Major. For this Melody I’m simply working on a melodic contour and rhythmic theme that starts in a high octave from our previous legato run that descends to a lower register in bars 21 and 22. I am making sure the notes sustain nicely, using pick rakes and pre-bends to highlight a different kind of vibrato on certain notes to get a more dramatic and vocal-like effect.
Bars 22 – 24
This is the final phrase, it starts by descending notes of the F Lydian scale starting on a 3rds based sequence from the 10th fret G string. In Bar 23 the F chord then turns into an Fm Triad. I highlight this change by playing an FmMaj13 arpeggio as this really highlights the change dramatically with all of the tasty sounding chord extensions I could desire.
Hearing Nicks playing for the first time blew my mind, his playing and phrasing sounded so natural. He has the whole tech shred thing going on, but never at the expense of hindering his inspiring tone or most importantly and prevalently his songwriting expertise. He is a Musician before he is a Guitarist, however, his Guitar playing is outstanding whilst also being understated in his albums. I feel the main lesson here is that delivery (tone, dynamics, articulation) is worth much more than any accumulation of technique. Nicks more technical playing could be seen as quite traditional, but the way he approaches it from Tone, Dynamics and Articulation are what makes it sound so natural and beautiful.