Want to be a better player? Of course—we all do. That’s why we practice. So why does it seem like all that practice time isn’t paying off? It could be because you’re not practicing the right stuff. n Guitarists tend to associate the term “chops” with playing fast. And while technical proficiency is definitely part of the equation, there’s a lot more to chops than just burning through scales. To really grab a listener’s attention you’ve got to play with confidence and conviction. You need accuracy, dexterity, and a solid sense of time. The good news is that if you strive for all these things, the speed will come.
The following exercises are designed to break you out of the stereotypical chops mentality—they should strengthen your groove and your ear, as well as your fingers. To really benefit from these exercises, use a drum machine or a metronome when you practice. Trust me—15 minutes with a drum machine is the equivalent of one hour without it. It’s not only the fastest way to improve your timing, it’s also a great way to chart progress. If last week you could barely play a lick at 100 beats per minute, but this week you’re burning through it at 115 bpm—that’s improvement!
I’ve included left- and right-hand fingerings where I thought they might help, but they’re merely suggestions. Always use the fingerings that keep you relaxed and playing in time.
There are no tempo indications. Each of these exercises should be played at a variety of tempos. To really know a pattern, you should be able to groove with it at a slow crawl and at breakneck speeds. The slow tempos help to etch the rhythms and fingerings into your soul and give you solid time. The fast ones give you the ability to stay with the groove when you’re blazing away. You need both.
Obviously, this is not an all-inclusive regimen. Each example is simply a jumping-off point to your own exercises and licks. And you don’t have to tackle these drills all at once, either. Pick and choose based on your own needs. Select a few areas of study, get your drum machine going, and hit it for 15 minutes a day. In 15 days’ time you will see dramatic improvement in your playing—guaranteed.
1. ALTERNATE PICKING
You can build alternate-picking chops by running scales up and down the fretboard. Play scales using intervals, however, and you’ll get more musical results. Featuring minor and major thirds, FIGURE 1a makes a great warm-up and sounds cool—in a quasi-classical kind of way. Apply this “two notes down, one note up” concept to a pentatonic scale and you get FIGURE 1b. Simple, but effective.
But Wait, There’s More...
Here are some cool ways to get even more mileage out of these exercises:
• Move them to other keys.
• Mess with the phrasing—if it’s picked, try slurring, or vice-versa.
• Mess with the timing. For example, see what happens if you start the lick one beat earlier or later.
• Try out different grooves. If a lick is written as a blues shuffle, try it over a hip-hop beat.
• If you really want to supercharge your licks (and don’t have problems with your tendons), try these exercises on an acoustic guitar. The heavier strings will work your hands that much harder.
• To make any exercise sound more musical, throw in rests, slides, and bends.
2. SWEEP PICKING
Here are a couple of simple licks that not only improve sweeping chops and pick control, but sound great at the same time. Sweeping is similar to strumming: As you pick one string, your pick comes to rest on the next. Sweep across the strings in one smooth motion.
FIGURE 2a combines sweep picking with hammer-ons and pull-offs in a cool pentatonic lick that creates the illusion of cleanly picking every note. FIGURE 2b incorporates alternate picking and sweeps to create a lounge-lizard flourish. Don’t rush the sweeps—make sure all the notes are of equal length.
3. HAMMER-ONS & PULL-OFFS
The Hendrix-inspired licks of FIGURE 3a give your weaker fingers a great workout, and they animate what might otherwise be boring, normal chords. Try to pick only the first and last notes of bar 4.
Just want to fly through scale patterns? No problem. FIGURE 3b is an easy, symmetrical shape taken from the B Locrian mode. If you get your fingerings down, you’ll only need one pick-stroke between the first note of bar 3 and the end. Take it slow, and try to keep the phrase fluid and lyrical.
4. STRING SKIPPING
Taken from our old friend the pentatonic scale, FIGURE 4a takes two notes and then plays them in reverse, one octave higher. To reach the high D in bar 2, slide with your 1st finger to change positions on the and of beat three.
Want to inject some space into your soloing, improve your knowledge of the fretboard, and sound badass and funky, all at once? Try FIGURE 4b. The muted notes buy you just enough time to make the position shifts. Attitude is more important than intonation on the high-C bend in bar 2, so do it with no fear. Who ever thought just a couple of notes could be so hard to play and sound so cool?
Here’s something to help you fake your way through tunes by Paul Simon, James Taylor, and a host of others. You can nail this pattern using only your picking-hand thumb (p) and index finger (i), but for a more flexible technique, try including your middle (m) and ring (a) fingers as shown. Don’t short-change the quarter-notes on beats one and four—it’s their sustain that gives this pattern its rolling quality. If FIGURE 5a sounds too corny for you, try FIGURE 5b for a more dungeonistic vibe.
Two notes played together, these nifty little diads are good for a lot more than just playing the intro to “Johnny B. Goode.” Working with double-stops will improve your coordination, expand your knowledge of harmony, and get you to think outside the blues box. Double-stops are also just the thing for soloing on an acoustic or clean-toned electric. Once you can really fly through FIGURE 6a, slide into FIGURE 6b’s slinky licks.
7. CHORD SCALES
This is basic, Diatonic Harmony 101 stuff, but plenty of us can use a refresher course. Take a C major scale, play every other note (C-E-G-B), then move each note up to the next higher scale tone. What was a Cmaj7 becomes a Dm7 (D-F-A-C), then an Em7 (E-G-B-D), and so on. Zillions of tunes are built on these simple moves, so understanding them will come in handy. Work with the drum machine—chords won’t do you any good if you don’t hit them right on time. Get so you can cruise through Examples 7a and 7b, then watch how much harder you groove the next time you get a progression thrown at you.
8. OPEN-VOICED TRIADS
Getting bored with run-of-the-mill chords? You’ll never look at major and minor chords the same way after trying these guys. Open-voiced triads are created by moving the middle note of a chord up one octave. For example, instead of a C chord’s typical C-E-G arrangement, you get C-G-E. These voicings are cool for several reasons. When strummed (FIGURE 8a), they ring beautifully; arpeggiate them (FIGURE 8b), and you can do a convincing Eric Johnson imitation. They also work your pinky like crazy, and, best of all, when you play with distortion, these shapes speak clearly in a way that normal voicings can’t.
9. PINKIE STUFF
Here’s a basic, sixteenth-note exercise with a twist—you can’t use your 1st finger. FIGURE 9 will teach your pinky to jump when and where you tell it to. Take it slow. Play for accuracy, not speed, and then watch what happens. Not only will your 4th finger be capable of acrobatics you never thought possible, but when you go back to using your 1st finger, you’ll feel positively superhuman.
You know the rules: bend from one scale tone to the next, right? Unfortunately, a lot of us get stuck with our favorite two or three bends and never explore any of the others. FIGURE 10 will break that habit in a big, fat way. Descend through a C major/A minor scale, three notes at a time. After every group of three fretted notes, repeat the same three pitches, but this time bend into the first one and release to the second, as shown. This lends a nice, vocal quality to your phrasing, trains your ear by making you remember the target pitch, and builds your strength and control with a series of half- and whole-step bends. You’ll bend to every note in the scale with this exercise. Have fun with the wound strings, most of which you’ll probably have to pull toward the floor.
11. 16TH-NOTE GROOVES
Syncopated, sixteenth-note figures are the cornerstone of funk guitar. Get comfortable with them—they’ll help you play any style better, tighter, and funkier than ever before. The trick to hitting solid, confident sixteenth-notes (which you can count as “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a,” etc.) is to always use the same picking-hand motion: Use a downstroke on the one, an upstroke on the e, a downstroke on the and, and an upstroke on the a. Lay your left hand across the strings to muffle them, and try FIGURE 11a slowly. Count out loud as you do this, and, of course, play along with the drum machine.
Keep this rhythm going, and try FIGURE 11b through FIGURE 11e. The only thing you’ll do differently is squeeze the D9 chord when it comes up. Keep counting out loud. Finally, try to mix and match these examples à la Red Hot Chili Peppers with FIGURE 11f. For maximum funk, keep your strumming motion constant, but occasionally skip over the strings instead of hitting them.
Certain triplet patterns fall nicely on the fretboard. FIGURE 12a outlines an easy pattern many players overlook. This triplet lick, a hybrid of the Dorian mode and the blues scale, is similar to Brian Setzer’s lead break in “Jump Jive an’ Wail.” The three-note-per-string pattern lies well beneath your fingers, and, whether you pick every note or just the first of every triplet, you’ll sound slick and mean. Make sure you really sting that last C.
Now take a look at FIGURE 12b. These are the same notes as in FIGURE 1a, but now they’re crammed into triplet phrasing, creating a cool, two-against-three feel. Set the drum machine to a slow shuffle, relax, and have at it. Helpful hint: Accenting the downbeat will help any triplet lick groove.
Sure, you should learn to arpegiate all chords in all keys, all over the neck, but in the meantime, here are three, handy arpeggio patterns that you can use in a ton of rock, pop, blues, and jazz tunes. Warm up with FIGURE 13a, and then string the patterns together with FIGURE 13b, a straight-ahead IIm7-V7-Imaj7 figure that uses nothing but chord tones.
14. TREMOLO PICKING
Contrary to popular opinion, tremolo picking does not simply mean picking a string as fast as you can. For our purposes, think in sixteenth-notes. Program a drum-machine pattern with sixteenth-notes on the hi-hat, tap your foot, keep your picking hand loose, and go for it. FIGURE 14a is similar to Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” FIGURE 14b is one of Eddie Van Halen’s favorite ways to end a solo. Try this four-bar phrase over any hard-driving Am groove.
Don’t let the jazzers have all the fun—here’s a way to dress up blues licks with hip, elegant-sounding octaves. These are just the thing for building accuracy and confidence. Start with a scale pattern you know and love (like the blues scale in FIGURE 15a), and run it forward and backward. Once you’re comfortable with that, try FIGURE 15b for a SRV-meets-Wes vibe.
Technique is a funny thing. Like a loaded weapon, if chops fall into the wrong hands, things can get ugly. Remember that a great groove will beat lightning scales any day of the week, and overplaying can get you fired as quickly as playing out of tune. So long as you keep your priorities straight, a little well-placed flash will lend authority and excitement to your playing.