“I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF MYSELF MORE AS A
musician than just a guitar player,” says Frank
Gambale. “A lot of guitarists are quite satisfied
to just play their three blues licks and that’s
it—but not me. I don’t fit ‘the norm,’ I guess.
I like to find cutting-edge, musical solutions
to the guitar.” Gambale’s biggest solution was
to elevate the technique of sweep picking to a
high art, with books and instructional videos
that made his name synonymous with the technique.
He also came up with a new tuning
dubbed the Gambale Tuning (A, D, G, C, E, A,
low to high), to facilitate piano-like “cluster”
chord voicings that he says are nearly impossible
on a standard tuned guitar. His 2004
album Raison D’Etre showcased this to the Nth
degree. Pretty impressive, especially considering
that he has also released more than 20 solo
albums and been a member of various highpowered
ensembles including Chick Corea’s
Elektric Band and Vital Information. Gambale’s
latest solo endeavor, Natural Selection [Wombat], finds the guitarist in a somewhat mellower
vein, as he has foregone drums and
sticks to a clean, sultry jazz tone.
It took a few listens to Natural Selection before
I realized there were no drums on the record.
Well, I love drums and I’ve worked with
some of the best drummers in the business.
But music these days, especially pop and
jazz, are sonically very drum heavy. For example,
turn a modern rock or jazz CD almost
all the way down—all you’ll hear are the
drums! They take up a huge amount of the
audio spectrum. With Natural Selection, I
wanted the guitar, bass, and piano to have
more space in the music.
Your tone is also clean throughout the record.
I love distorted guitar, and I’ll be going
back to it soon, but on this record I wanted
a clean, uneffected sound. I used a Yamaha
AES1500 jazz box strung up with a .010 set
of D’Addario Chrome flatwound strings
through a German-made AER amplifier. For
jazz, flatwounds sound the best. To my ears
roundwound strings sound completely wrong
on a jazz guitar. They don’t have the right
amount of attack.
Did you use your Gambale Tuning on Natural
No. That tuning is particularly suited for
chord melody playing, not single-note
improvisations, which are what I do on the
new record. Live, however, I play a doubleneck
so I can have both tunings available.
The tuning has been a revelation. I gave up
on harmonically dense cluster voicings for
the guitar because they were a physical
impossibility. But I was messing with a
Nashville tuning patch on a Roland VG-88
a few years ago and I got the idea to develop
this tuning, wherein the whole guitar is
tuned up a fourth, but the top two strings
are down an octave.
What string gauges do you use for your
I use a .010 gauge set for the bottom four
strings, starting with the A string, and for
the top two strings I use the D and G strings
from a set of .009s. So gauge-wise, low-tohigh,
it is .036, .026, .017, .013, .024, .016.
It takes a moment to get used to, but within
a few minutes, everyone I show it to loves
it. The beauty of the tuning is you can play
the same shapes that you’re used to, whereas
if you use an alternate tuning like open D or
DADGAD, all of your shapes go away and
you have to relearn everything. In my tuning
if you play, say, a D chord shape, it’s still
a major triad.
Do you feel that your association with sweep
picking sometimes overshadows your music?
Yeah, I get frustrated when people think
of me as just a technician and disregard the
musical content. I never set out to be a technician.
I never just practiced technique.
Sweep picking was an evolution born out of
a desire to play licks from other instruments
like piano or saxophone. Music is the number
one goal—it’s sacred—it’s not just about
the technical aspects of it. That being said,
I devoted most of my life to refining what
you can do with sweep picking and exploring
all of its possibilities, so I understand
why people would come to me if they’re having
problems with their technique. For me
personally, sweep picking has broken through
the physical barrier of the guitar. I no longer
have a limit on how fast I can play. In fact, it’s easier to play fast than slow. The analogy
I use is, when you’re playing fast with straight
alternate picking, it’s like a car with only
four gears barreling down the highway at 70
MPH, revving really high and shaking. Conversely,
sweeping is like having a fifth or
sixth gear, going fast without any drama.
What do you find is the biggest problem with
other guitarists’ technique?
Most of the time the biggest problems with
acquiring speed are not holding the pick at
the right angle, and using a pick that is too
heavy. If the pick is too heavy, it’s like running
a car without shock absorbers—the plastic
should flex a bit and absorb some of the attack.
It’s also important to keep the pick at a 45-
degree angle. That way there’s less resistance
between the string and the pick. See, there’s
nothing natural about holding a guitar. When
you do hold it, however, your picking arm
comes over the guitar at a 45-degree angle, so
that is its most natural position, and when
you put a pick in your hand, it’s important to
maintain that angle to the strings.
Did you experiment with picks?
Yes, and I found bigger picks to be more
ergonomic. They tuck up easier into the
upper part of your index finger for more stability—
almost like they’re form fitted. For
almost 35 years I’ve been using 1mm heavy
D’Addario/Planet Waves picks, but they
stopped making them. They have a softer
curve to them, like the round side of a standard
tear drop pick, but it’s the same on all
three sides so you get three picks in one
How can a player make use of their practice
When you’re at home practicing you’re
in the left-brain, getting your s**t together
with theory and fretboard knowledge—but
when you hit the stage you need to forget
all of that. You can’t be thinking onstage.
One trick I’d use is, since the guitar is such
a visual instrument and we’re all used to
shapes, I’d have students turn the lights off
and play in the dark with a drummer and
bass player. That way you have to use your
ear and respond to what you’re hearing. Or
you can just close your eyes—you’ll have a
way better chance of tapping into your creative
right brain that way.