How would you suggest a budding guitarist tackle the chromatic scale?
They should probably start with the dreaded chromatic exercise [Ex. 3]. Keep the notes even in sound and rhythm and play up and down the [partial chromatic] scale, four notes per string. Then, find ways to change things up—like reversing your picking. Start with an upstroke [Ex. 4]. This puts upstrokes on the downbeats, which might feel a bit weird. Sometimes it’s good to do something unnatural like this, if only to make it feel good when you go back to normal picking.
Do you favor a particular hand position when you’re picking?
Back when I was teaching Steve Vai, this was my technique [rests heel of picking hand on bridge]. Later, I decided to pick with my hand floating above the strings. I also tried the rest-your-pinky-on-the-guitar approach for a while, and the ol’ hold-the-plectrum-in-your-fist-and-pick-from-the-elbow technique, kind of like how John Petrucci plays. But it seems like what I’ve finally arrived at is a sort of semi-floating approach, holding the pick between my thumb and index while gliding my middle and ring fingernails against the pickguard area.
Do you ever go back to those other picking approaches?
Sometimes. I think somewhere along the way I decided that if I stuck to one style of picking, then I’d have the same sound on every song, and I didn’t want to do that. It was a dangerous path to take, because my contemporaries at the time—this is back when I was 16 or 17—would find some picking technique they were very comfortable with, exclude all other techniques that they found awkward, and then they’d excel in that one area. And there I was developing three or four approaches simultaneously, moving slowly. But I think it paid off, because it gave me a lot of different ways to sound the strings.
How are chromatic exercises useful for becoming a better picker?
One thing that’s good about [Ex. 3] is that it’s so simple you can forget about the fretting hand and focus on other things like, say, picking tone. It takes the pressure off the fretting hand for a bit so you can just sit there and look at how you’re striking the strings. If the pick is flat against the string, without any angle, you’ll get a bright sound, and it’ll be a bit slappy. As you angle it, you get a little bit of drag, but it’s a softer tone. For that [Clapton-esque] “woman” tone, pick flat. Want Van Halen? Angle it. In a way, by changing the picking angle you’re EQ-ing the string.
When you’re playing fast, the more the pick dips below the string line, the more drag there will be, which can be a problem. I’ve noticed that with all the fastest players I’ve been standing next to the last few years of G3 tour—Vai, Yngwie, Paul Gilbert, or Petrucci—it’s just the tip of the pick that’s getting down there, unless they’re purposely trying to get that “I am indeed killing this string” sound. They all have a way of lifting off a little bit as they go faster.