Back to School TJ Helmerichs Eight-Finger Freedom

November 1, 2010
DOZENS OF STUDENTS FLOCK TO TJ Helmerich’s recording class at Musicians Institute each quarter, but perhaps not all of them realize that their esteemed and humble maestro of the mixing console is also a GIT alumnus and a truly innovative guitarist. With both hands on the fretboard, Helmerich can play astonishingly lyrical lines that often feature wide, pianistic leaps and elegant turns of musical phrase. Even with a distorted rock tone dialed in, when Helmerich has his Steinberger GM angled near vertically in his lap, his guitar takes on an element of wind instruments. The notes on the neck seem to be arranged as conveniently for all eight of his fingers as the keys of a saxophone.

“I had no eight-finger influences,” says Helmerich, whose pioneering playing has earned him work with everyone from Planet X to Zappa Plays Zappa, Paul Gilbert to Autograph, U.K. to Uncle Moe’s Space Ranch, and also can be heard on solo albums for Shrapnel and other labels. “All my early heroes—DiMeola, Michael Schenker, Larry Carlton, Rush, Kiss—played ‘normal’ guitar. But when I read in Guitar Player one day that the most valuable thing to have is a unique style, I immediately asked myself, ‘What is no one else doing?’”

The guitarist and singer found the sound of two-handed melodies and riffs so compelling that he immediately began pursuing them as his life mission. “Long legato lines, smooth tone, wide intervals, extreme speed, more fingers on the fretboard—all this fascinated me,” says Helmerich. “By the time I was 18, I had decided to play in this style exclusively. I only started playing conventional guitar again in my mid-30s so I could get more touring gigs and do shows that required that. But eight-finger playing is me.”

In this lesson, Helmerich presents, appropriately, eight eight-finger (or neareight- finger) examples that will launch you in this style. Note: Everything is played entirely legato, which means all notes are either tapped by the strumming hand, or hammered or pulled by the fretting hand.

“Before you get started, though, here is a crucial bending tip,” says Helmerich. “All bent notes are bent with the fretting hand, even when the tapping hand is holding the note. Simply hold the tapped note stationary, and bend the string from behind with your fretting hand. The same goes with vibrato. Now you have all those years of practicing bends and vibrato instantly added to your tapping hand!”“All the examples are in the key of D Dorian and suit the general key of D minor,” says Helmerich. “This first example is a basic pentatonic idea. Keep the notes even, and your listener will not be able to tell when one hand switches to the other.”“Now, let’s expand our pentatonic scale even further by extending it on individual strings. This takes a bit of work, but it’s worth it. To keep things simple, I’ve presented all this lesson’s phrases in eighth-notes, but by no means are they meant to be played that way strictly. Decide for yourself how to organize them rhythmically. Make them your own!”“With this phrase, we add B and E, the notes that define the D Dorian mode. Remember that adding vibrato from your fretting hand will make things sound more polished.”“Another D Dorian phrase with the addition of two pre-bent-and-released tapped notes. Again, it’s the fretting hand that does the bending.”“Here is a more intervallic approach with the tapping hand. Take it slow and put vibrato on that final note.”“This is one of my favorite phrases. It features bent notes fretted by both the right and left hands. Very cool sounding!”“Now we’re stretching out a bit—in more ways than one! In this line our fingers get stretched, as does the harmony: The fourths add a nice change of pace from the closer intervals most melodies are derived from.”“I leave you with this basic D minor arpeggio idea. But you’ll find the only thing basic about it is the notes! This one is a real challenge to play, but it will really help improve your coordination between hands and expand your view of chord tones across the neck.”

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