Timeless Advice

10 Technique and Sight-Reading Shortcuts from Studio Legend Tommy Tedesco
By Jesse Gress,

The late session legend and GP Studio Log columnist Tommy Tedesco’s 1979 book, For Guitar Players Only: Short Cuts in Technique, Sight Reading and Studio Playing (Dale Zdenek Publications), has long served as a bible for scores of bud- ding session players. Though times have changed, the information presented within its pages is still relevant for those wishing to hone their technique and sight reading chops. With that in mind, we present here a condensed Cliff ’s Notes-style overview of the book that offers an glimpse of its valuable content, with hopes that it inspires you to seek out a copy of this priceless tome (thankfully still in print, by Belwin Mills), and reap its wisdom.

PICK WISELY

In case you haven’t noticed, your choice of pick can drastically affect your tone. Try different thicknesses to hear and feel how each creates a different sound. Tommy would use a thick, stiff pick to get a softer note attack and a rounder tone (especially on nylon-string acoustic), and a thinner, more flexible pick for a brighter tone and a more “slappy” attack.

UPS & DOWNS

Alternate picking (down-up, or up-down) is hands down the most popular form of picking. This technique locks you in with the tempo and is typically employed with downstrokes on the strong downbeats and upstrokes on the weaker upbeats. Tommy ’s book contains a series of exercises designed to improve left- and right-hand synchronization, accuracy, and velocity. Examples 1a and 1b illustrate on the staff and in grid form—where the numbers indicate fingers—a one-finger-per-fret approach commonly used in position playing (more on that later). Though notated here in fifth position, this (and all) patterns can be played in any position. Don’t worry about reading the notes (yet); once you memorize the pattern, you can practice it mindlessly while watching TV. The objective, for now, is to establish muscle memory, via repetition. Keep a steady tempo, begin slowly, and gradually increase speed with each practice session. Put the two-note patterns diagrammed in Examples 1c–1e through the same drill. Each extrapolation is designed to strengthen a different finger. Experiment with various two-, three-, four-, and five-string groupings, as well as string skips.

    Examples 2a-e present a series of short melodic motifs played on adjacent two- and three-string groups. Memorize them by shape and practice each one individually, then try combining Ex. 2a with 2b, 2d with 2e, and so on. This promotes greater finger independence and alternate pick- ing accuracy.     

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ECONOMY PICKING

One of T.T.’s secret weapons was a technique he dubbed “economy picking.” It’s a clever way to play blindingly fast ascending runs across adjacent strings, by grouping three notes per string and picking each string down-up-down. This allows you to economize pick motion, by following through and crossing to the next higher string with a downstroke, which, when alternate pick- ing, would otherwise silently pass over the string in preparation for the next upstroke. Ex. 3a introduces the economy picking technique with an ascending chromatic pattern that’s played in fifth position across three adjacent strings as eighth-note triplets in 3/4 meter, while Ex. 3b presents the same pattern adapted to duplet eighth notes in 4/4, which encompasses an additional two beats. Try extending both examples across all six strings. 

    Apply economy picking to Examples 3c-3e, where the same pattern gets relocated to three different string groups, then move on to the half-whole-step and whole-half-step patterns in Examples 3f and 3g, all in front of the TV, if you like. Examples 3h and 3i show two C major scale patterns (starting on the 5 and the root, respectively) that Tommy employed in conjunction with economy pick- ing. He often used the technique as a blur of chromatic notes to b.s. his way to a predetermined target tone, voiced on the top of a given chord, as demonstrated by the run in Ex. 4a, which targets B, the 7 of C, or the 9 of Am. Follow the run with any chord voiced with a B on top. All b.s. aside, Ex. 4b applies economy picking to an ascending whole-half G diminished scale (G, A, Bb, B, C#, D#, E, F#), perfect for altered A7 chords, while Ex. 4c resolves to an ascending D major scale (D, E, F#, G, A, B C#) run that’s laced with a couple of chromatic passing tones (the economy picker’s best friend!). Try string- ing together all three runs, or adding a bar of any chord listed and voiced with the last note in each measure on top.

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TREMOLO PICKING

When it comes to tremolo picking—fast alternate picking on a repeated note, a faux mandolin and bouzouki effect often used in ethnic and surf music—Tommy advised guitarists to play rhythmically instead of trying to go full speed ahead. Use alternate picking to tremolo eighth notes, 16th-notes, or their respective triplets, depending on the tempo at hand. This allows you to stay in time.

SIGHT READING 101: NOTES ON SINGLE STRINGS

Okay, here’s where we lose the tablature (which you’ll never see in a professional sight reading situation), turn off the TV, and get real. Tommy professed that learning to read notes on the guitar begins with memorizing the notes on each individual string. While many guitarists rely on position playing (the one-finger-per-fret method dictated by the location of the index finger), this alone does not encourage knowing all the notes on the fingerboard, and position-reliant players may get stuck when confronted with notes that fall outside pre-learned shapes. 

    Examples 5a-5f present every note on every string, from open to the 12th fret, where the fretboard essentially repeats itself one octave higher, with non-natural notes notated using sharps. Play each example ascending and descending using any fingering you like. The point is to look at the note while playing it and develop a motor reflex that can instantly recall where it lives, because it’s never moving. (Tip: Expert sight readers learn to read a beat or more ahead.) Use the fret numbers for initial reference, but the goal is to eventually block them out and just read the notes in the standard notation.

SIGHT READING 102: ENHARMONIC NOTES

Any note can have two names. These are known as enharmonic equivalents. For example, F# = Gb. For homework, rewrite Examples 5a – 5f using flats and natural signs to cancel previous flats, and repeat the same practice routine. Writing them down will reinforce your sight reading skills, similar to learning math or a foreign language. Use the common enharmonic notes shown in Ex. 6 for reference. 

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SIGHT READING 103: SINGLE-STRING EXERCISES

For Guitar Players Only contains extended sight-reading exercises confined to each single string. Examples 7a-7f illustrate the concept with eight-bar fragments played between open position and the 12th fret on all six strings. The fret indicators are gone, so you’re reading on your own. The uniform half-note rhythms here are intentional—they give you a little extra time to think and look ahead to the next note. It’s not about speed at this point, it’s about looking ahead. (Note that this lesson doesn’t delve into the all- important subject of reading rhythms, but F.G.O. contains plenty of info regarding all types of rhythms.) While there seems to be a sense of randomness here, there is much common melodic motion at work. You might even recognize some familiar melodies. This is, of course, only the tip of the musical ice- berg. Refer to F.G.O. for extended examples, or compose your own exercises.

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SIGHT READING 104: POSITION PLAYING

Though I previously may have made position playing sound detrimental, it’s any- thing but. F.G.O. stresses the importance of being able to sight read in any position, via extended exercises in nearly every one-finger-per-fret position. The short, two-bar snippets in Examples 8a-h span the first to ninth positions and demonstrate the three basic types of melodic motion you will encounter as a sight reader: scale-wise motion, interval skips, and chord-form reading. Confine the notes in each example to their respective four-fret position. For example, frets 1 through 4, 2 through 5, 3 through 6, and so on. No chord symbols, fingering indicators, or tablature here. This is what T.T. and other session greats were dealing with up to three times a day! 

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USING OPEN STRINGS TO CHANGE POSITIONS

The TAB is back in Ex. 9, but only to illustrate how Tommy would often insert an open string into an ascending run to facilitate moving up the neck seamlessly. In this case, using the open high E string at the end of bar 1 buys a fraction of a second to shift your fret hand from second to ninth position. Though all of the notes could have been played in ninth position, Tommy preferred to avoid playing low notes in high positions because of the darker tonal quality, especially when playing a nylon-string acoustic.

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TRANSPOSITION READING

T.T. had a great trick up his sleeve for read- ing parts written in bass clef, which he was often called upon to double one octave higher. Here’s the two-step formula: (1) Mentally visualize a virtual capo (or use a real one) at the third fret—this essentially transposes the guitar’s open position up a minor third, or one and one half steps, and (2) Read the bass-clef part as though it were written in treble clef, albeit transposed to the major key located a minor third, or three frets lower. (The key of A, in this case.) Ex. 10a shows a descending C major scale notated in bass clef and its treble-clef 8va (octave higher) equivalent, while Ex. 10b reveals the same notes read as a descending A major scale played three frets higher, relative to the virtual third-fret capo. (Tip: This works in any key with the same key conversion.) What a useful trick!     

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EPILOGUE

GP Editor-in-Chief Mike Molenda’s choice of the Holiday 2017 issue’s Studio Log column reprint struck a personal chord with me. The last time I saw Tommy was at a music-store clinic, where he put me on the spot to provide impromptu accompaniment for the William Conrad reading of James Kavanaugh’s poem, “Terror,” described in that very column. I nervously proceeded to play every weird chord I knew, with decidedly questionable results. The punchline came when Tommy played the recording of his version, based primarily on a heavily effected open Em chord and some related low-register tremolo picked notes! Point taken—less is often more. That reprint triggered the impetus for a diligent online search that resulted in the procurement of William Conrad Reads Selections from The Poetry of James Kavanaugh with Original Guitar and Percussion Arrangements by Shelly Mann (sic) and Tommy Tedesco, not on vinyl, but as an Audiobook cassette! Priceless!! Viva Tedesco!!!

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