6-String Boot Camp

Since 1977, when GIT was founded by jazz guitar legend Howard Roberts and businessman Pat Hicks, the school has been a haven for guitarists wanting to drill deeper into technique and music theory. Roberts enlisted ace guitarists Don Mock, Joe Diorio, and Ron Escheté to help him develop an innovative electric guitar curriculum—a total-immersion program designed to prepare motivated students for careers in contemporary music. Together, the four musicians created the world’s top vocational guitar school, drawing players from around the globe to Hollywood, California. Eventually, GIT expanded to include keyboard, bass, percussion, and vocal instruction, evolving into the Musicians Institute. The school now offers accredited college degrees and certificate programs, as well as study sessions that range from one to 20 weeks. In recent years, MI has added audio engineering, film scoring, guitar repair, and music business to its course list. Current enrollment stands at about 1,200 students

MI is an intense, fast-paced learning environment, as I discovered during a recent visit, where I spent a week attending classes, workshops, and private lessons. This master class consists of musical concepts, techniques, and a-ha moments distilled from my adventure. Some examples come directly from classroom sessions, some are studies I worked out in the hotel room to explore concepts I’d been exposed to during the day, and others are culled from GIT’s exclusive course material. Jazz, blues, bossa nova, drop tunings, theory, and technique are all represented here, though in truth, this is a mere snapshot of what’s filling the halls in any given week. So grab your guitar and let’s absorb some of the creative energy that swirls through GIT.

Enhanced Arpeggios

Eavesdropping on a student’s private lesson with Daniel Gilbert—one of GIT’s key guitar instructors and author of the school’s Single String Technique course material—I found him describing how to create building blocks for melodic improvisation. “This of this as enhancing arpeggios,” Gilbert explains. “Take a four-note arpeggio, like a minor 7, and add one tone to it. Now it becomes a five-note grouping, which you can treat almost like a pentatonic scale by playing it in two octaves. Each enhanced arpeggio has a distinct sound, depending on the added note.”

Ex. 1 illustrates the enhancing process. The first measure contains a simple Gm7 arpeggio, with a formula of 1, b3, 5, b7. (In this lesson, all scale, arpeggio, and chord formulas are referenced to a major scale built from the same root.) The second measure shows what happens when you add a b5 to the mix, generating a 1, b3, b5, 5, b7 five-note grouping. Compare the sound of these two arpeggios, first playing them as written, then in higher and lower octaves.

Now try Ex. 2, a moody line built entirely from a two-octave span of our Gm7-plus-b5 enhanced arpeggio. Play this line against Gm7, and then transpose it to other fretboard positions and their corresponding minor-7th chords.

“You can convert any four-note arpeggio into a five-note grouping,” asserts Gilbert. “Try enhancing a dominant 7 with a 2, for instance.” To hear this combination, play

Ex. 3, which contains a standard G7 arpeggio (1, 3, 5, b7) and a souped-up 1, 2, 3, 5, b7 variation. Again, extend both arpeggios into different octaves.

“By adding occasional chromatic passing tones,” Gilbert continues, “you can craft strong melodic lines from very simple ideas.” Constructed from a G7-plus-2 enhanced arpeggio and a strategically placed chromatic passing tone (beat two’s F#), the funky Ex. 4 proves his point. Watch the accents and staccato marks—they bring the line to life.

Using this enhanced arpeggio technique, you can navigate chord changes following a three-step process of (1) arpeggiating a 7th chord, (2) choosing an extra color tone, and (3) spinning a line from the resulting five-note grouping. Ex. 5, a IIm-V progression in the key of D, suggests the possibilities. Here, we rely on two different enhanced arpeggios—Em7-plus-6 and A7-plus-2—to create the two-bar melodic line. The enhanced Em7 formula is 1, b3, 5, 6, b7; the formula for our enhanced A7 is 1, 2, 3, 5, b7. Respectively, these formulas yield five-note groupings of E, G, B, C#, D and A, B, C#, E, G.

Beads on a Wire

At MI, students can visit their favorite teachers in “open counseling” sessions, which are free flowing, hands-on-guitar exchanges between the instructor and a handful of pupils. In this informal setting, you can seek advice and probe new ideas outside the structure of a regularly scheduled class. In a lively open counseling session, Scott Henderson—a ferocious jazz-rocker and alum of both Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul’s bands—was jamming with a handful of students. Struggling through the chord changes, one student asks how he can improve his soloing technique.

“I can just see what you’re doing,” says Henderson. “You’re looking for shapes to play, which means you don’t really know what’s happening with the harmony or what notes belong to each chord. To remedy this, you need to pick one string, and then slowly go up and down that string identifying the tones of a given chord. The concept is dead easy, but it takes hours of hard work to get it under your fingers. For example, say you want to play through Cmaj7 using only the B string. What’s the first chord tone you encounter? It’s B, the 7. Going up, the next chord tone is C, the root, followed by E, the 3, then G, the 5, and finally you’re back to B, an octave higher. See how this works? Take an E7b9: Ascending, you have B, the 5; D, the b7; E, the root; F, the b9; G#, the 3; then the octave B. It’s like we have six pianos on our fretboard, and you have to learn how to spell chords on each one of them.”

Ex. 6 shows a IIm-V-I cadence in the key of G—Am7, D7b5, Gma7. To get a grip on Henderson’s fretboard mapping technique, first play this progression several times to get it in your ears and acquaint yourself with each chord’s component notes. Now, try Ex. 7, in which we ascend and descend on the first string, using quarter-notes and playing only chord tones. Imagine you’re sliding beads along a wire of an abacus, resetting their positions for each chord. Let’s break down the action: We outline Am7 by playing the chord’s 5 (E), b7 (G), root (A) and b3 (C); D7b5 consists of the root (D), b7 (C), b5 (Ab), and 3 (F#); for Gma7, it’s the root (G), 3 (B), 5 (D), and 7 (F#).

“Pick some changes from a fake book,” says Henderson, “it doesn’t matter what they are. Then go up and down each string looking for chord notes. Do this for a couple of hours every day, until you hate it. It’s flash card stuff, but you can make it more musical by adding extensions and alterations.”

In Ex. 8, we heed Henderson’s advice and make our journey through Am7, D7b5, and Gma7—this time undertaken on the second string—more musical by varying the rhythm, adding slurs, and selectively inserting extensions and chromatic passing tones. For Am7, we play the 9 (B), b3 (C), 5 (E), and b7 (G); D7b5 moves through the b5 (Ab), b7 (C), 3 (F#), #9 (F), 9 (E), and b9 (Eb); to navigate Gmaj7, we trace its 5 (D), 7 (F#), 3 (B), and root (G), before returning to the 7. The slithery action in bars 2 and 3 hints at the legato technique that’s the cornerstone of Allan Holdsworth’s elastic lines.

“Once you have this concept in your head and fingers,” concludes Henderson, “playing through changes is no longer about scales, it’s about finding chord tones. When some players see changes, they try to cram a whole scale over each chord, but really you only need one or two notes—the right ones.”

Meet the Neighbors

If the instructors are the heart of GIT, its back bone is a wealth of printed course material. The subjects are diverse, and the lessons have been fine-tuned over the years to both inspire and supply essential knowledge. One potent concept I found in the Single String Technique course relates to a specific type of approach tone known as the “lower chromatic neighbor,” or LCN. The idea is to build lines using a combination of arpeggio tones and the notes that lie a half-step below them.

Check out Ex. 9. The first measure is an unadorned Gm7 arpeggio—G, Bb, D, F. In the second measure, notice how each arpeggio tone is preceded by a note that’s one half-step lower. This is the LCN. Taken together, the LCNs and arpeggio tones give you a generous palette of eight notes: F#, G, A, Bb, C#, D, E, F. Of course, you can shift these notes to higher or lower octaves to further expand this palette.

Ex. 10, which is distilled from a longer phrase in Single String Technique, puts the concept into action. To make this simple, yet effective idea part of your soloing repertoire, just target a chord, convert it into an arpeggio, add the LCNs, and start weaving melodies from the results.

Tune In, Drop Down

At GIT, students are exposed to a variety of musical styles. For instance, the Rock Rhythm Guitar course dissects Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” Joe Satriani-inspired two-hand grooves, and such topics as slash chords, syncopation, modal progressions, secondary dominants, and lowered tunings.

A moody riff pulled from the “heavy rock” section of this course, Ex. 11 combines dropped-D tuning with flatpicked arpeggios and a moving bass line. It’s a challenge to keep a rock-steady eighth-note pulse while skipping strings, so repeat this phrase until it feels totally locked in. For fun, try it through a slowly sweeping flanger.

Elliptical Grooves

In Advanced Groove Concepts—a course authored by funkmeister Ross Bolton—we’re introduced to odd meters. Bolton writes, “Knowing how to play over odd-meter time signatures may seem to be an unnecessary skill, as most guitarists won’t need to master this art in order to have a career. However, exposure to these rhythms will improve your groove chops.”

A 7/8 pattern, Ex. 12 demonstrates Bolton’s technique for demystifying tricky rhythms. Notice how the seven eighth-notes are grouped in bar 1—two groups of two, followed by a group of three. In bar 2, we subdivide these eighths into sixteenths, which is the first step to finding the hidden groove. This subdivision yields two groups of four sixteenths, followed by a group of six sixteenths. As shown in bar 3, the next step is to split that last group of six sixteenths in half, and then add accents to the downbeat of each grouping. Now we have a groove—1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3—in which “1” is always accented.

Let’s hitch this elliptical 7/8 rhythm to a riff. In Ex. 13’s first measure, play each downbeat and scrape the muted fifth and sixth strings on the remaining notes. Paying attention to the pick-stroke markings, repeat bar 1 until the rhythm begins to feel natural. Once you have a handle on the accented pulse, look at the second bar, which is the previous rhythm sans scrapes. The underlying pulse is the same, but in bar 2 we’re allowing each beat to sustain fully. Now compare our initial 7/8 rhythm to this final 7/8 groove. In both cases, the values add up to seven eighth-notes, but the latter—with its four attacks—actually swings. You can apply Bolton’s “subdivide and regroup” system to 5/4, 7/4, and 9/8—in fact, virtually any odd-meter time signature.

Flow Flatpicking

Professional guitarists regularly visit MI to give clinics and performances. During the week I attended the school, fingerpicking wizard Tommy Emmanuel and bebop master Jimmy Bruno each gave concerts in MI’s state-of-the-art theater, and spent time answering questions from students. In a packed open counseling session prior to his performance, Bruno shared the secret of his blazing flatpicking technique.

“The way I do it is simple,” he explains. “When you move to a higher string, you always attack it with a downstroke. When you move to a lower string, always pick it with an upstroke. When there are two or more notes on the same string, use strict alternating picking—if the first stroke is up, the next one is down; if the first stroke is down, the next one is up. That’s the whole system, right there.”

To get a feel for this method, try Ex. 14. Play the line slowly, paying close attention to the pick-direction markings, and notice how they reflect Bruno’s system. Ex. 15 applies the technique—which is known by various names, including economy, directional, or flow picking—to a jump blues phrase. Combined with slurs and slides, flow picking generates a supple, relaxed sound.

“After I worked out this system,” says Bruno, “I found that other people had been using it for years. Chuck Wayne was doing it in the ’40s, and Barney Kessel too, so this is hardly a modern idea. But there’s one pitfall: You have to watch that you don’t gravitate toward lines that work especially well with this approach. That’s getting hung up on technique to the detriment of your music. And anyway, I break my own rules all the time—sometimes playing everything with my fingers, sometimes using all downstrokes for that particular tone.”

Fingerstyle Bossa

Though GIT alums are often burning soloists and shredders, the school puts a strong emphasis on being a well-rounded musician, particularly in terms of accompaniment. As they advance through the different course levels, GIT students are exposed to a variety of rhythm guitar styles, including the hip sound of bossa nova. We’ll conclude our school tour with an eight-bar progression derived from “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. This passage is excerpted from the Rhythm Guitar Professional course.

For an authentic bossa sound, ditch the pick, and play Ex. 16 using your thumb to pluck bass notes on the fifth and sixth strings, and index, middle, and ring fingers to attack the harmony on the fourth, third, and second strings. Featuring beautiful voice-leading and and plenty of swaying syncopation, this immortal groove is perfect for test-driving a nylon-string at your local music shop.

Special thanks to GIT Director Beth Marlis for making this odyssey possible and being a gracious tour guide. For more information about Musicians Institute, visit mi.edu or call 1-800-255-7529.