How to Play Like ... Trey Anastasio

Trey Anastasio led Phish upstream against a wave of commercial radio, MTV, and mainstream music journalism indifference to become Big Kahunas of the rock underworld. The band’s groovy genre-blending improvisational live forays and Zappa-esque sense of musical alchemy simultaneously filled the cultural void left by Jerry Garcia’s death, while attracting a new community of jam-band devotees. Phish’s two-dozen official live releases along with Anastasio’s busy agenda of side and solo projects and liberal policy towards tapers have ensured Anastasio’s status among the planet’s most well-documented guitarists. But even a small sampling of his output shows a schooled player capable of reassembling rock, jazz, blues, and funk conventions into his own clever hybrid.

One particularly nifty aspect of Anastasio’s playing is an ability to build riffs and melodies around simple triadic arpeggios outlining classically structured chord progressions. Take a look at Ex. 1. Voiced on the top three strings, this series of legato arpeggios scurries up the first four diatonic triads of G major (G, Am, Bm, and C), detours through a I-V progression in Eb major (Eb-Bb), then returns to complete a IV-V cadence in G major (C- D). Bars 3 and 4 duplicate bars 1 and 2 in a higher inversion, echoing the climbing chord runs of early Phish gems such as “You Enjoy Myself” and “The Divided Sky.” Heed the suggested fingerings—they’ll help make those tricky chord changes smoother.

Ex. 2 recalls the extended coda of “Bouncing Around the Room” and again shifts the basic chord progression of the first two bars (C-G-Bb-F) to a higher inversion in the last two. This time, however, we’re playing more staccato and adding 6s and 9s for flavor.

The hooky melody of Ex. 3 is built around arpeggios of the I, IV, and V chords in C major (C, F, and G), but with a twist. Instead of resolving to the anticipated C in the second ending, we land on the tonic chord of the relative minor, A minor. This Mozart-approved compositional trick, called a deceptive cadence, is a slick head-turner that’ll instantly change the vibe of a song. It comes as no surprise to learn Anastasio pocketed a degree in music from Vermont’s Goddard College before embarking on Phish full-time, so check out “You Enjoy Myself” or “The Mango Song” to hear his knowledge of music theory in action.

Derived from the protracted instrumental passage of “Rift,” Ex. 4 is another demonstration of how Anastasio can reel in a clever melody from triads. The G triad is extended with an added C melody note to briefly imply a sus4 sound, while the A over Eb suggests a #11 voicing, spicing up the harmony with some zesty Lydian seasoning.

For a cool reworking of the funky intro to “Sample in a Jar,” Ex. 5 again turns to triads, only here the grips are on the middle strings and played against the droning open A and high-E strings. For Ex. 6, the Dm triads in bars 1 and 3 are spiked with a chromatic lower neighbor (G#) to the A note. Also, dig how bars 2 and 4 combine to spell out an A7b9 chord completing an alternating Im-V7 progression in the key of D minor. Play it straight with a palm mute to summon the magic of “Stash,” or swing the eighth-notes hard for a hip minor bebop lick. Either way, it’s Trey cool!