** As featured in issue 25 **
Lesson 1: Developing What You Already Know
Welcome to my new guitar lesson column, Back To Basics. This guitar tutorial series is designed to help guitar players who have been playing for sometime, of varying age and who wish to work up to the next level, whatever that means for you. Maybe you played fairly seriously when you were younger, but things such as family and career took over, and now you want to get back into it. Maybe you are younger, have been playing for a while but feel you have gaps in your knowledge or some areas of your playing are weaker than others. You may have learnt many different things but are struggling for inspiration or don’t know how to apply what you have learnt musically and feel stuck in a rut. You may have a very expensive Les Paul and Marshall amp sitting in the corner of your house collecting dust, and feel guilty for not playing it for the past few years! If any of the above sounds familiar, then please read on, as this could be the series of lessons you have been looking for!
The main aim of this column is not to bombard you with deep theory, an array of technical exercises, or 1000 licks in the key of A minor, as there are plenty of these types of lessons already available. My intention is to take what you probably already know/understand and refresh/develop it, hopefully giving new ideas and concepts (whilst inevitably sneaking in an essential amount of theory and technique along the way..) something a little deeper than the, “play this scale over this chord” approach. I will be covering many different subjects in this column including; Timing, Rhythm, Chord creativity, improvising, playing in different styles and much more. I aim to help take what you may already know about theory and technique and use it to develop your own style and musicality, getting back to the roots of playing if you like and filling in the gaps. Everything I cover will have an end goal of being used musically and in a real life situation. Not every lesson will have Tabs and backing tracks, but each one will have a concept or idea that you should be able to apply to your own playing whatever your style and ultimately see improvements. So onto lesson number one: Developing What You Already Know.
As I'm sure many of you are aware there are a huge amount of scales, arpeggios and techniques to be learnt on guitar. This is no bad thing, if you think of music as a language then scales/arpeggios are your vocabulary and technique is how you deliver your “speech”. I am a massive advocate for learning more = being able to express more. However, many players rush through the learning process by taking on as many scales etc as possible to try and find that elusive sound they are looking for, without truly exhausting what they already have. It is good practice to take something you are very familiar with and try to look at it from a new angle. Get other people's perspective on the same thing and you probably find you will have that “Wow, I never thought of that!” moment.
Probably the most well known scale shape for guitarists everywhere is the good old minor pentatonic scale. Its usually the first one you learn and with good reason, it's easy to remember and fairly easy to use and get good musical results from. There are many famous players that have carved a successful career from just this scale, and there are many who use it in such a unique way that you would struggle to reorganise it. As you learn more scale shapes and modes, it's easy to become quite snobbish about the pentatonic scale, I often hear it refereed to as a beginner or easy scale. The fact is that its a great sounding scale that works in so many different contexts and there are many interesting things you can do with it. This snobbery seems to only exist in the guitar world, as many other musicians such as sax players consider the pentatonic scale to be an interesting hip choice. Many times I have been asked the following; “Man I really liked that exotic scale you played on that solo, what was it?” It was of course “just” the pentatonic scale.
The problem with this scale for guitarists is how its taught generally. Here are a bunch of classic licks that use this shape, bend here. sounds cool etc. This is all well and good, but you tend to get used to that and then move on without truly unlocking its further potential. In this lesson I'm not going to give you a bunch of new licks, or tell you how to superimpose it in a different key, all I'm going to do is take the most familiar minor pentatonic shape and hopefully give you some fresh ideas on how to approach it over familiar rock/blues territory, so don’t worry I'm not about to go all “Jazz” on you!
When learning scales we tend to learn them in a very parrot fashion way. Play up the shape from lowest note to highest, and play back down, until its locked into our muscle memory. The problem with this is it can result in you applying this same method when trying to use it musically. When improvising you are trying to create music not simply run up and down scale shapes. A good way of breaking out of this is to set yourself challenges which I demonstrate on the video. Another way is to practice a scale in a variety of ways, not just up and down but inside out too. This also helps to get the creative juices flowing, you could play the scale backwards, skip strings and much more, remember there are no rules just experiment and see what you can come up with. To help you I have written out five different exercises that break away from the standard up and down method, you will find them on the attached Tab, I also demonstrate them on the video. Here is the thought process behind them.
Most of these ideas are based on interval leaps. There are five notes in a pentatonic scale, so from note number one I can go to any other note it doesn’t have to be the second note of the scale. All I'm doing on this first exercise is going from the first note of the scale, skipping a note, back to the one I missed then skip the next and so on, ascending and descending.
This is a variation on the first exercise. Your ears however may tell you its more of a 4th movement. It starts A – D (as exercise 1) which is a perfect 4th (the start of Amazing Grace). When using fourths exclusively it gives a very modern sound as you don’t tend to hear that movement as much as thirds and sixths.
Primarily making use of Fifths here with the octave on top, before dropping back down a Fifth to start the process again. You will of course recognise the shapes from good old power chords, but when played this way they give a super melodic feel.
Some bigger leaps here with slides thrown in for added feel. You may find the fingering hard and also the picking. If you are familiar with hybrid picking then this would be the best technique to use here.
Straight up and down the scale this time but with string skips. String skips are a great tool to spice up your playing as they add bigger harmonic leaps, also note we are playing 8th note triplets (three notes per beat) on the way up, and 16th notes (four notes per beat ) on the way down. Changing what you do rhythmically is one of the best ways to develop your playing, I go into more detail on this subject in future lessons.
Hopefully from these examples and the demonstration on the video, you can see how it is possible to start thinking differently and deeper about things you are already very familiar with. All we have used in this lesson is shape one of minor pentatonic. Now if you apply a similar approach to all the other scales etc that you know, then the possibility are endless. The trouble is we tend to resort to muscle memory, favourite licks and so on without even thinking about it. Its good to force yourself not to do that when practising and only try new things. Eventually these will become ingrained into your muscle memory and you can just continue to develop it, the only thing holding you back is your own creativity. So experiment with the ideas here, come up with your own but most importantly always use a new idea in a musical way not just a robotic exercise. Good luck!