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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?

OK, now that we know there is some unwanted noise, how do we get rid of it. This is where the microscope stuff comes in. Because what you have to do now is seriously watch yourself and your hands to see where the noise is originating from. When I i.e. play something like the PG-lick...

...and I notice that there's noise, I do the following:
- I slow down a whole lot.
- Then, I gradually increase speed again until the noise occurs. Usually, I can then see what causes that noise, and hopefully find a solution to get rid of it...

Let's take the lick as an example. Two things that usually happen and cause noise when you practice this:

1. You create a slight pull-off once you raise your pinky from the D-note (15th fret, B-string, right before you go to the E on the E-string).

Solution: RELAX YOUR LEFT HAND. This used to be one of my problems... I used to use way too much strength with the left hand while picking, as if I was doing hammer on's / pull off's... this was not only uneconomical, it also created noise, since (as mentioned above), when lifting off the pinkie, I was kind of pulling off... to the open B-String. Again: RELAX. You only wanna fret the notes, which only takes a very light touch.

2. When doing the upstroke on the E-string, or the downstroke once you get back to the D on the B-String, you accidentally hit the G-string (or any string you're not intending to hit).

Work on the economy of motion of the right hand. You wanna whack the string, but you don't wanna pick any other strings accidentally, so you gotta "calibrate" your hands to pick only the string you wanna hit. Slow it down, and gradually speed it up, trying to avoid this.

Let's take another example (and AGAIN: this does not apply only to shred-licks, but also to simple stuff such as fretting basic chords, slow single notes melody... whatever you play, you might find unwanted noises or problems like that, and it takes a closer look sometimes to find the source and eliminate that problem)...

OK, here is a pretty difficult string-skipping lick by Paul Gilbert, as played in the Mr. Big-song "Anything For You" (from their debut, "Mr Big", 1989, Atlantic 81990-2).

In this TAB, I just transcribed the string-skipping section. I left out the final phrase of that very well-constructed solo, and I slowed it down a bit... the original tempo is at about 72 bpm.

String-skipping is one of the rather difficult guitar-techniques, and this passage from the "Anything For You"-solo features some wild stretches and fast skips.

Now, if we would want to practice and learn this one, we should really slow it down, like playing 16th notes instead of 32nd notes.

String-skipping is a technique where, when you're not used to it, a lot of unwanted noises might pop up. So you really do have to slow it down and OBSERVE what's happening!

Are your hands moving economically, or are you taking them too far away from the fretboard when you release a note? (which could be fixed by relaxing the hand...) Are you really hitting the strings well, making all the picked notes stand out? (Exaggerate the movement to get used to it...)

Are you making unintentional pull off's when you're not supposed too? Or are you hammering on the picked notes too hard?

I know that all that sounds like nit-picking, but it will help you quite a bit. Remember that speed is a byproduct of accuracy and precision. If it doesn't sound good slow, it won't sound better if you play it fast. And fast licks that are sloppy are not really pleasing to the ear.

Also, always remember that you wanna avoid wasting potential... if you move your hands too far off the fretboard, you kinda lose time because you gotta move them back all the way.

So... constantly check back to see whether you have any of those unwanted noises or "swallowed" notes in your playing.

Also, you might find out what your strengths are, and what you have to pay attention too. One of my problems used to be that, having practiced A LOT of legato-stuff in the early years, I was using too much strength with my left hand when playing picking-licks... a waste of potential... So, for a while, when working on picking, I had to constantly check myself, and remind myself to relax the left hand and use a lighter touch. Other players might have different problems... find yours and try to remember them... in order to avoid them.

General stuff and conclusion

It sometimes sucks to be critical about your own playing. Been there, done that, still am. But it will help you a bunch to do so. Try to find out what's realistic and then take a closer look at what you play.

As Steve Morse said: "If you find out that there's a problem, find the problem, isolate it and eliminate it".

My grandma once caught me cheating with some homework from school. She said "If you cheat, you're only betraying yourself". I didn't know what that meant, all I wanted was to get through with my homework and get decent enough grades to be done with school.

Now I know. It's like this: if you play something, and you really speed it up, but there's noise going on which you COULD avoid (which would include slowing down and painstakingly working up to speed again)... well, if you just "ignore" the noise, thinking "It's the best I can do, it's fast and I'll just stick with it"... then you're betraying yourself.

Cuz you could do better. And maybe one day you might listen back to some recording of yours, thinking "Man, I sound sloppy !". And guess what? The later you start working on stuff like that, the harder it will be. Cuz you gotta start at the beginning again, leaving out the noise etc.

Imagine you grew up thinking that the word "not" actually means yes. Not only will people misunderstand you a lot... but if you're like 20 and someone all of a sudden tells you "Hey, man, "No" means NO", you will have a HARD time getting used to it. Is that a weird analogy ? Well, I think it makes sense. It's about changing something that you are very used to, that you kinda took for granted. Cause if you have been playing for... I dunno... 5...10...15 years, and you really wanna change something elemental about your playing, it's gonna be tough (although it IS possible, and IMHO it's never too late to change something or learn something new)

Paul Gilbert learned picking holding his pick with three fingers. He tried something else and changed to a completely different way of holding it after about 7 years... and he says that it was extremely hard.

Wow, what a weird article huh `Almost no licks this time, instead a lot of rambling, weird analogies... But you know what? I thought it was extremely important to mention all that, especially after all the picking-articles. Because I learned this kind of "observing yourself, taking a very close look at your technique" stuff the HARD way... and maybe this will be able to help a few of you to avoid that problem... or get rid of it...

  • Always listen back to your playing, to check if you're REALLY happy with it and check for mistakes, noise etc.
  • Set yourself realistic, but honest goals...

  • Always slow it down and take a close look at what you are playing

  • Pinpoint the problem, solve it, take A LOT of time with it!

  • When you practice, do it with a metronome and check your playing on both a clean and distorted setting... both have their advantages

  • It's never to late to eliminate a problem or change something... but the later you start the more difficult it gets

  • Be honest to yourself. YOU have to be happy with your playing in the first place...

  • ... and most of all, although this all might sound like boring, nit-picking brain-draining stuff... it can be fun, and fun is VERY important. So is motivation ...

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/62
Eric started playing the guitar at age 10. He attended GIT and studied with Scott Henderson, Brett Garsed, Dan Gilbert amo. Eric is involved in several bands and recording projects and his instrumental debut - Hidden Creek - plus his instructional book Talking Hands - A Guide To Contemporary Lead Guitar Techniques is available HERE
Visit his website at www.ericvandenberg.net

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