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Break It All Down!

Welcome to the laboratory. Let's get our microscopes plugged in and start our close examination of our playing technique...

"Why?" you might ask. Well, the answer, as usual when it comes to me answering simple questions, is a rather long one.

A lot of the time, we measure our technical progress by the speed we gain. "Hey dude, I can play 16th notes at 160 bpm". Wow. Tells me nothing. 16th notes? Different notes (like a sequence) or just one (open string?). Of course it is quite a bit of work to get to tempos like that. But the question is: How does it sound?

I don't necessarily mean the melodic content of what we play. I mean the actual execution. Is it precise and accurate, or is it rather sloppy. Because, if it is sloppy, maybe you wanna slow down a bit and make sure it SOUNDS GOOD. Because that is what it is all about. And it does not only regard high speed-shredding. It applies to anything we do.

The question you should ask yourself when you practice something new is: "Is this just all the right notes at a high tempo, or does it actually sound good, too?"

There's a difference, believe me. I've heard a lot of players who play really fast stuff, smoke coming off the fretboard... But it didn't sound very good or impressive at all, cuz there was a lot of noise happening. And one day, I sat down and took a closer look at my technique, actually paying attention to the accuracy... turned up the volume some and all of a sudden I noticed how much noise was going on besides the actual notes I intended to play.

Another example: A while ago I was sitting in the rehearsal room, playing some fast sequence-stuff, and Andy, the drummer of my band walked in. He looked at me and listened to the fast stuff, then he said "Awesome. But can you play it clean?".


Well, I was actually able to play it with a clean sound, mainly because I do practice a lot without an amp. That way, I might miss noise that might be going on (I usually check in between with an amp), but I gotta play a bit more precise and accurate. You really gotta work to hear all the notes, to make them ring.

And here comes the first important piece of advice (after a typical, way too long Vandenberg-introduction): PICK HARD. This applies to all of the fast picking stuff in particular. Like the stuff I showed you in my picking-articles. Really, I recommend to pick hard, especially on the upper 3 strings. You want every note to stand out.

Listen to players like Paul Gilbert or Thorsten Koehne. They do pick hard and get a really aggressive sound, all notes standing out.

When you practice without an amp, and maybe there's some stuff going on around you (recently, I was on a 2 1/2 hour train ride, and I got out my guitar and did my practicing routine... I had to pick HARD to hear myself), you gotta really wack the strings to be able to hear yourself.

Exaggerated motion, that's another effect of picking hard. If you i.e. practice the good ol' "Paul Gilbert"-lick (as mentioned in my picking articles), you might wanna exaggerate your picking motion just to get your brain and hands used to it. Then you can start working on motion economy etc.

Think of it as learning a difficult rhyme, like a tongue twister. Most people prefer to say the thing slowly and really pronounce the words clearly in order to get used to it... speeding it up and using it in context comes after that.

So, get your right hand used to the good ol' "down-up-down-up"-pattern on adjacent strings by exaggerating the motion. You should at least try the "Pick Hard"-method. If you pick too softly, it might lack that special, sometimes even aggressive sound of fast picking, and it might make your playing sound sloppy.

You can later experiment with different ways of picking... picking rather softly etc. It's part of the mysterious thing we call "dynamics". For now, try wacking the strings around a bit.

Now we get to a topic that I pretty much left out in my newer version of the "Picking trilogy" (it was mentioned in the 1999-version): What about amp setting and effects?

Here's how I do it and what I recommend to students: Alternate between a clean or semi-clean tone (just a tidbit of crunch) and, if you're a higain-freak (I am), a higain-sound.

Both have their advantages. The clean sound will really make you work. You gotta be extremely accurate and precise to make all the notes ring and sound good. If you're sloppy with your left or right hand, you'll hear it (similar to practicing with no amp).

The higain sound might mask that, but it will let you hear some of the other noises and sloppy things that can occur... sympathetic string noises, your right hand making scratchy noises on the low strings etc.

Of course, with the extreme higain sounds, you can't prevent ALL the unwanted noises, but it will help you to limit them, narrowing it down.

So, basically, try your exercises and licks with those two different sounds... When I i.e. work on a new lick or something, I play it several times with a clean or crunchy sound, then I switch to the gain-sound and play that a few times, trying to get of all the stuff I don't want in there...

Problem found, what now? >>