What is it, exactly, that defines a hero? When it comes to guitar, Chet Atkins may have answered this question best when he stated simply that if it weren’t for his hero, Merle Travis, he’d probably still be “looking at the rear end of a mule.”
See, by loose definition, a guitar hero can be merely daring, dazzling, inventive, entertaining, and inspiring. (Travis certainly was all of these things to Atkins). But really, that’s not enough. To qualify as a true hero in any field, you must also actually save someone from something terrible (or, at least, highly unpleasant).
For example, to Atkins—who grew up “so far out in the sticks you wouldn’t believe it”—Travis was a hero not just because he demonstrated the musical glory that can be achieved with six strings and a thumbpick, but also because, in the process, he revealed a path out of the boonies. Travis’ innovative playing was so encouraging, it gave young Chester the escape velocity he needed to avoid a lifetime spent with a plow, not a guitar, in his hands.
Additionally, real heroes are those people whose heroics are so influential, they engender other heroes. Travis not only gave the world a valuable style that helped many players launch their own careers, he also motivated his protégé (and eventual bosom buddy) Atkins to take his fretboard feats to the next level and become arguably the greatest fingerstylist of all time. (For the record, though, Travis once boasted playfully, “If I’d spent as much time practicing the guitar as I did chasing pretty girls, I’da been Chet Atkins.”)
If you like practicing at least some of the time, the following pages offer something very special—lessons on the playing styles of 25 true heroes who have collectively helped save the guitar from ever getting stale. While none of these lessons can offer a complete dissertation on a given player’s style and technique, they each, like that magical closet that leads to Narnia, offer a portal into a singular world created by singular guitar talent. Hopefully, they will lead you on some exciting and rewarding fretboard adventures upon which you never imagined you’d embark. Who knows? With the right spark of inspiration, you just may become the next guitar hero. —Jude Gold
Chester Burton “Chet” Atkins, a.k.a. “Mr. Guitar” (1924-2001), grew up in rural Tennessee and Georgia and went on to become one of the most renowned guitarists and producers in country music, though he also lived in the worlds of classical, jazz, and folk. It was after hearing a Merle Travis recording in 1939 that Atkins really began developing his own sound. Interestingly, the young Atkins assumed one could only perform such complex fingerpicking with the thumb and, at minimum, two fingers, so that’s how he went about learning the style, never knowing that Travis pulled off his spectacular finger-plucked riffs with only his thumb and index finger.
Over the years, Atkins developed his own two- and three-finger rolls, as demonstrated in the example below (which channels the Travis’ composition “Walkin’ the Strings”). Here, the right hand simply alternates between thumb and index plucks throughout.
Throughout the phrase, the fretting hand forms a series of ascending chords in the general key of F major on the sixth, fourth, and third strings, with every fourth note being an open D. To get that authentic Atkins plucked sound, make sure to use a thumbpick on the low notes, and, for a slightly muted tone, lightly rest your plucking-hand palm on the third and fourth strings at the bridge.
Nailing Atkins’ overall tone isn’t as simple, if only because Mr. Guitar played so many guitars over the course of his career. He worked with Gretsch and later Gibson to create a line of instruments, including Gretsch’s famous 6120 (a favorite of Brian Setzer), Tennessean, and Country Gentleman models. Like his friend Les Paul, Atkins had a real knack for electronics and even came up with a stereo guitar setup with the bass and treble strings getting their own half-pickup so he could decide to run, say, only the bass strings through an echo unit (his effect of choice). It’s interesting that someone so accomplished would one time say, “Everything I’ve ever done was out of fear of being mediocre.” —Josh Workman (Special thanks to Jim Nichols, who was consulted in the writing of this piece.)
As unpredictable as they come, Jeff Beck has kept guitarists on the edge of their seats for more than four decades now, and he’s not done with us yet. With his ever-expanding arsenal of techniques and his continually evolving talents at melodic interpretation, Beck shows no sign of slowing down. His mind-blowing catalog, from the Yardbirds to his current four-piece lineup (as well as numerous guest appearances on others’ projects) constitutes nothing less than a university’s worth of study materials.
Lose your pick (if you dare) and dig deep into the snarly pull-offs and sweet ’n’ sour bendies in FIGURE 1, the whammy-bar inflections in FIGURE 2 that leave you wondering whether you just heard a slide guitar or blues harp, and FIGURE 3’s deliciously dissonant fingerstyle “banjo” rolls (Sorry for giving this last one away, Jeff!). You’ll be rewarded with goosebumps to spare.
Beck’s innovative whammy work doesn’t end with faux slide and harp sounds, either. You’ll need a floating bar to play FIGURE 4, which shows how the Guv’nor coaxes a tear-jerking G Lydian melody (actually a simple descending D major scale sequence à la “Dueling Banjos”) from a single, 19th-fret D harmonic. Finally, FIGURE 5 offers a taste of Beck’s uncannily accurate off-the-fretboard slide work—just one of many high points (no pun intended) in his live set. Mute all six strings with your fretting hand (very important), hold the slide in your plucking hand, and use it to tap and vibrate the virtual above-the-neck “fret” positions as notated. You’ll be conversing with the birdies in no time. —Jesse Gress
FIGURES 4 and 5
The original British blues-rock guitar hero, Eric Clapton was referred to as “God” by many well before his 21st birthday, at least in graffiti that decorated London circa 1965-1967. Whether or not Clapton truly is a celestial power, his transition from the Yardbirds’ original guitarist to the revolutionary blues ace who powered John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek & the Dominoes was downright biblical in the sense that it spawned perhaps the largest following of any single rock guitarist to date.
A switch to a more song-oriented approach in the early ’70s has garnered Clapton massive popularity as a solo artist ever since, but his recent projects—a Cream reunion in 2005, tours with his own guitar-intensive band, and a pair of 2007 appearances with Steve Winwood—confirm that Clapton’s original flame still burns brightly. Always an elegant player and a pioneer of exquisite tone, E.C. was the first to introduce the kind of smooth, repetitive triplet-based pentatonic figures in FIGURES 1–4 to the blues-rock pantheon. Practice ’em until they flow like water, then append them with the trio of sweet Clapton-isms in FIGURES 5–7. Strive for that “Slowhand” vibrato—a study in itself—and watch the sparks fly. —Jesse Gress
At 78, Dick Dale is not one to rest on his laurels. Dale—the undisputed surf guitar king, who pioneered the clean, reverb-drenched tones and tremolo-picked melodies that will forever identify the genre—was presented with the Guitar Player Legend Award in 2007, and he still attacks his ax like a great white chomping on a longboard. From Dick Dale & the Del Tones’ 1961 hit “Let’s Go Trippin’”—generally regarded as the first surf song—on up to recent gigs (which feature his 15-year-old son Jimmy on second guitar), Dale has never stopped playing and performing, and all of his signature techniques are present and accounted for.
Because Dale is a lefty who doesn’t reverse his heavy-gauge strings (.016-058!), it’s hard to cop 100 percent of his vibe, but it sure is fun to try. Plug in some Fender gear, dial up a clean tone with plenty of ’verb, and downstroke your way through the tubular IV-I curls in FIGURE 1. The run in bars 1 and 2 pits the A pentatonic minor scale against A7, the IV chord in E. This is typically a no-no for bluesers, but perfectly acceptable by hodad standards.
Many surf tunes are built on standard 12-bar blues progressions, and FIGURE 2 shows how Dale uses descending B7 and A7 arpeggios (each laced with a chromatic passing tone and topped with a familiar guitar-noir quote) to cover a typical V-IV-I turnaround in E. Finally, the timeless bit of exotica in FIGURE 3 provides an ideal vehicle for perfecting Dale’s machine-gun tremolo picking, not to mention his penchant for fretting melodies over the top of the fretboard. Now, that’s entertainment. —Jesse Gress
Before there was Clapton, Page, and Hendrix, the reigning instrumental guitar god was a mild-mannered low-string picker from Coolidge, Arizona, named Duane Eddy. Between 1958 and 1996, Eddy released a staggering 30-plus albums that produced 28 singles—15 of which cracked the Top 40. Many of the titles had a revolutionary or road-based slant to them, including “Rebel Rouser,” “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” “Detour,” “Cannonball,” and “Because They’re Young.” One of his best-known hits was “Peter Gunn” (written by Henry Mancini), which was used as the theme song for the TV show of the same name. The song has found continued life everywhere, from the original Blues Brothers soundtrack to wedding and cover band set lists across the globe.
From a musical and technical standpoint, Eddy’s melodies were basic and sparse, but he infused them with soulful mojo and a healthy dose of effects—primarily amp tremolo set to medium or low speed, vibrato (courtesy of a Bigsby), and echo. Employing mostly medium tempos and big subdivisions (typically quarter- and eighth-notes) allowed Eddy to use the Bigsby on his two-pickup Gretsch 6120 hollowbody to great effect. He could add everything from subtle and controlled vibrato to more exaggerated bend-like maneuvers on notes and chords, and he pioneered the technique of using the bar to bring a “pre-depressed” string up to pitch from a half- or whole-step below. This was the vibrato-bar equivalent of the reverse-bend, except that the pitch resolved upward. (Sometimes, when applying this process to a picked open string, Eddy would score major cool points by operating the Bigsby with his fretting hand.) For his monumental influence on electric guitar music, Eddy received the Guitar Player Legend Award in 2004.
The confidence in Eddy’s delivery, phrasing, and tone—which remains to this day—allowed him to play straightforward lines (like the one shown here) with such authority he became an icon to the new crop of future legends just coming over the horizon—a generation that would include Clapton, Page, Harrison, and more. To achieve an even yet commanding attack, pick this lick using all downstrokes. Keep the tone rounded, not percussive, and let the notes sing. —Jon Chappell
Helping pioneer progressive rock (as he did with King Crimson’s landmark 1969 album In the Court of the Crimson King, and six additional releases before disbanding the group in 1975) was just one of Robert Fripp’s many contributions to electric guitar culture. The late ’70s found Fripp collaborating with David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Talking Heads, and performing in a solo-looping context dubbed Frippertronics. In 1980, he reformed King Crimson in a dual-guitar configuration with Adrian Belew, playing music that emphasized intricate, interlocking “guitar gamelan” arrangements. In 1985, Fripp stepped out of the spotlight, retuned his guitar to a custom set of intervals he dubbed “New Standard tuning” (C, G, D, A, E, G, low to high), and began his noted Guitar Craft seminars, which offered a wholly new approach to the education of the aspiring guitarist. Since the mid ’90s, Fripp has continued his Guitar Craft activities, expanded Frippertronics into “Soundcapes,” and reformed the Fripp-Belew version of King Crimson several times.
Throughout his far-flung musical journey, Fripp’s highly idiosyncratic guitar technique has always avoided the blues-based approach of most rock guitar players, drawing instead on concepts more associated with avant-garde jazz and European classical music (though frequently with a Hendrix-like ferocity). He often combines a mastery of rapid alternate picking with motifs in whole-tone or diminished tonalities, and stretches out continuous cross-picked (and, believe it or not, polka-influenced) sixteenth-note patterns for minutes at a time in a form called moto perpetuo (perpetual motion). The resulting sound—a sonic mist of timbral diamonds—can be heard in such compositions as “Fracture,” “FraKctured,” and “Starless.”
If you want to explore New Standard tuning, you may want to do some string swapping. The low C can sound flaccid unless the gauge is upped, and the high G will require something rather gossamer. (Many in the Guitar Craft community use an .011-.058 set for acoustic.) Once your guitar is re-tuned, tackle the example below. The first two measures are typical of Fripp’s whole-tone moto mojo. Built on augmented triads, the opening phrases travel in descending minor-third motion, generating virtual 12-tone ambiguity before landing, butterfly-like, on a delicate Cmaj7 chord. Alternate picking is essential, as is letting all notes ring for as long as possible. —Douglas Baldwin
Known in the jazz world as “Mr. Rhythm,” Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green (1911-1987) believed that, within the context of a big band, the guitar should be felt more than heard. Born Frederick William Green in Charleston, South Carolina, Green started on ukulele and banjo before picking up the guitar in New York in his early 20s. Green joined Basie’s Orchestra in 1937 and quickly discovered that the best way to keep his job was to keep his playing simple. “I went into something [with more syncopation] and they said, ‘No, no, just keep time,’” said Green. “So who was I to say [anything different]? I just played rhythm.”
Green’s tenure with the Basie band lasted for over 50 years (seven longer than Basie’s!) until his passing in 1987. Throughout his career, Green generally grabbed three-note chord voicings on the sixth, fourth, and third strings and strummed them with the rock-solid quarter-note rhythm that made him famous. What many guitarists don’t realize is that Green, at most, only fully sounded one or two notes in each chord and muted the other strings for maximum chunk. (Again, he wanted to be felt.) This technique allowed Green to choose certain notes that would blend perfectly with the band while also becoming part of a nice melodic guitar line that complemented the harmonic progression at hand.
Green played a variety of acoustic, non-cutaway archtop guitars over the decades, including the Epiphone Emperor, Stromberg Master 400, and Gretsch El Dorado, all with heavy strings and high action. He almost always played acoustically. Legend has it that whenever Green tried to plug in, someone in the band would come along and snip the power cord to his amp, and he quickly got the message. For a taste of something he might have played on the first four measures of the Gershwin classic, “I Got Rhythm,” take a look the changes below. Notice that the solid dot in each chord grid shows which note rings, while the X’s refer to the muted notes. (The unused strings are muted by the fretting hand as well.) Also, observe some of the unusual fingerings included—they’re based on Freddie Green concert footage. Now, just start strumming ’em four to the bar, and “keep it simple.” —Josh Workman
What more can be said about our patron saint? Though we lost James Marshall Hendrix (1942-1970) some 37 years ago, this southpaw sonic visionary’s legacy continues to astound, confound, and inspire every successive generation of musicians to date. It’s not often that an artist becomes associated with a particular chord, but Jimi Hendrix and the 7#9 chord have become near synonymous. FIGURES 1 and 2 illustrate a pair of high-octane C# blues licks (dig that signature pre-bend-and-gradual-release maneuver in FIGURE 2) played over the C#7#9 or C#m7 voicings shown in the grids. This key allows you to double the b3/#9 in the “Hendrix” chord with an open E string for a bigger-than-life Jimi jangle. (And remember, Hendrix almost always tuned down a half-step.)
Thriving on musical extremes, Hendrix mastered balls-out incendiary electric blues soloing, but tempered it with a gentler approach to his ballads, one that acknowledged R&B greats such as Curtis Mayfield and Pops Staples, and even country pianist Floyd Cramer. On the flip side of Hendrix’s universe, FIGURES 3 and 4 guide you through some characteristic Hendrix-style ballad moves derived from familiar A major, dominant, and minor chord shapes played in the fifth position. Similar partial-chord runs are applied to make magic over the Em-G-Am-Em progression in FIGURE 5. Fly on, brother. —Jesse Gress
Question: Who is heavier than Tony Iommi? Answer: No one. He’s the guy that terrified us all with his liberal use of the tritone (the devil’s interval—yikes!) in the tune “Black Sabbath” and the dude who taught generations of kids the dirge-like Aeolian mode with his classic “Iron Man” riff. But what truly makes Iommi the heaviest of the heavy is his uncanny ability to work in major key licks in predominantly minor tunes. Nowhere is Iommi’s talent for this better displayed than in his awesome (and heavy as hell) guitar work in Sabbath’s eloquent anti-war screed “War Pigs.” In the intro, he leans on the major 3 of the E chord, G#. When the up-tempo power chords kick in, he trills between the same note and the minor 3, G, further blurring the distinction between major and minor.
It’s in the song’s solo that Iommi really works his major/minor magic. The phrase below combines several Iommisms and will kill on “War Pigs” as well as on most any other heavy tune in the key of E. It starts with a slinky E Mixolydian figure. (Note that some of the Ds are open and some are fretted, which adds clang and keeps the lick from sounding too pretty.) The first ending features an Iommi-approved speed-of-light trill between E and D, while the second ending trills G (notated enharmonically as F##) to G#.
After lulling listeners into this false sense of major-key security, do what Tony would do and blaze away in the twelfth-position E minor pentatonic box. Arranging a solo with this light/dark contrast makes it ten times more powerful when you finally return to the minor tonality—the place where, in the words of Tom Morello (also a master of this concept), “true heaviness lives.” —Matt Blackett
Elmore James (1918-1963) was a Chicago-based blues player best known for his electric slide work. His most famous song, “Dust My Broom,” was actually written and played previously by Delta blues great Robert Johnson, but James recast the tune’s signature lick from conventional fretted playing to slide, and recycled it many times in his other compositions.
James’ explosive assault on the strings turned “Dust My Broom” into a gritty, edgy, and blistering song, making it music for an urban setting—more suited to James’ bustling post-war Chicago than Johnson’s sleepy pre-war Delta. His opening slide lick is the first lick you need to learn if you’re going to don a metal or glass tube on your finger. James performed “Dust My Broom”—which is very similar to the lick shown here—in open D tuning (D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high). You can play this either lap style (holding the slide/bar while the guitar lies face-up in your lap) or normally (holding the guitar in the traditional way while wearing the slide on the 3rd or 4th finger). Start from a place below the target fret (the 12th), and slide up quickly after you strike the strings. This will give you the on-the-beat feel you need to convey the drive of the figure, while allowing for a dramatic and pleasing slide ascent.
Once you’re at the 12th fret, it’s not as if your slide hand can just coast. James simultaneously applied slide vibrato to the strings while strumming repeated eighth-note triplets with the picking hand. It’s not a particularly difficult move, but it does require true left/right-hand independence. James’s vibrato never got too wide; that is, the up- and down-string distance he moved the slide was never that great. It was just enough to be felt as extra intensity seeping in between the strums. —Jon Chappell
From the first notes of Dire Straits’ 1978 debut it was abundantly clear that not every guitarist on the planet was using a blazing Marshall stack as their delivery system of choice. The clean-toned, fingerpicked lines of guitarist Mark Knopfler drew on influences such as Chet Atkins and
J.J. Cale, and they stood out in a world of plectrum-fueled speed picking. Knopfler has always been able to weave deceptively intricate tapestries of notes with an incredible economy of motion. His efficient plucking-hand attack makes it possible to absolutely shred, even with a squeaky-clean tone.
The following examples are inspired by the live version of Knopfler’s signature tune, “Sultans of Swing,” and they’re both an awesome boot camp for getting your fingerpicking chops rocking. Don’t worry—you won’t need any hardcore classical technique to pluck these notes. Both examples can be conquered with just the plucking-hand thumb and index finger.
FIGURE 1 is a cool major pentatonic run that suits the F major sections of the “Sultans” progression. Once you get the plucking-hand moves down, you can apply this technique to a multitude of scales and arpeggios. Pay close attention to the thumb (p) and index finger (i) plucking indicators. After plucking the first note with your index finger, you’ll pluck each downbeat with your thumb and every fourth sixteenth-note (the a in one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a, etc.) with your index finger. All the other notes should be sounded with either a hammer-on or a pull-off. This is crucial: If you try to pick more notes than those indicated you’ll throw the groove, lose the cool accents, and hamper your ability to burn through this.
FIGURE 2 uses the opposite plucking pattern on a repeated motif (one of the aforementioned tapestries). Keep the plucking crisp so the notes ring out, but don’t obsess on it. One of the coolest things about the Knopfler way is that if certain notes get deadened by a finger bumping into an adjacent string, it only makes the lick sound cooler, funkier, and cluckier. Those little organic inflections will become an integral part of this technique and they’ll give rise to parts and sounds that are simply impossible to duplicate with that blunt tool known as the plectrum. —Matt Blackett
Taking nothing away from Sir Paul and Sir Elton, but if the Queen is going to give out knighthoods for musicians, Her Royal Highness should at least bestow one upon her country’s undisputed king of country picking, the very gentlemanly Albert Lee. Lee has had a long career, playing with everyone from the Everly Brothers to Eric Clapton, but he really came into his own as a session player and sideman in the ’70s with Emmylou Harris, and in his own band, Heads, Hands & Feet. Lee was known for playing Fender Telecasters early in his career, but for years now he has played a three-single-coil-equipped Music Man Albert Lee signature model.
One notable technique Lee adopted with effortless zeal is the old but never stale-sounding Nashville “echo cascade” or “timed delay” effect, whereby an echo unit supplies notes in between the picked ones in rhythm with the groove. A now-famous trick that’s been employed by everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Van Halen (“Cathedral”) to The Edge (“Where the Streets Have No Name”), Lee was one of the first to incorporate it into hot country soloing, and you can hear it used in his blazing leads on Emmylou’s “Luxury Liner” and Heads, Hands & Feet’s “Country Boy.”
To produce the cascade sound, set your delay to play back one repeat (feedback=0) at equal volume with your picked note. Next, because the delay-time setting is tempo-dependent, set the delay to spit back its note exactly one-and-a-half times the rhythmic value of the picked note. So, if you’re playing eighth-notes, set the delay to repeat each note exactly a dotted-eighth’s duration (one eighth plus a sixteenth) after it is played.
The easiest way to convert tempo to seconds is this little formula: 45/T=S, where 45 is the conversion factor for tempo to time in seconds, T is tempo (in bpm) and the S is the time in seconds for your delay. For example, if you plug in 120 for the tempo and divide by 45, you’ll get 0.375 seconds (or 375 ms). Of course, if your delay box has a tap tempo function that can be set to a dotted-eighth subdivision, the faster way to get the same effect is tap in the quarter-note tempo and let the delay unit do all the math for you and automatically generate the dotted-eighth cascade you seek. Apply the approach to the lick (in the style of Lee’s “Country Boy”) shown here, and stand back—notes will be ricocheting everywhere. —Jon Chappell
Queen’s Brian May is known for his unique and beautiful tone, his lyrical vibrato, and his guitar-building wizardry. The aspect of his playing that kicks everyone’s ass, however, is his amazing ability to layer guitar parts in the studio to create 6-string montages that sound like choirs of angels, string ensembles, or entire orchestras. One of his most famous examples of this talent occurs in the solo to “Killer Queen” off the Sheer Heart Attack album. In this lead passage, May uses “simple lines intertwining” to create counterpoint that was inspired by bells in a Mantovani piece.
The obvious question people had for May when they first heard the three-part harmony was, “How are you going to pull that off live?” Any live Queen recording of the tune gives the answer, “Quite nicely, thank you.” By picking and choosing the best bits of his three tracks, May fools you into thinking that he’s covering all the parts. Now you can do the same. The example below is an amalgamation of the end of the studio version of his “Killer” solo (where the multi-tracking is in full force). Whenever possible, let the notes ring together, and think call-and-response as opposed to a single part. That, along with the double-stops at the end, will help create the illusion of two guitarists (with awesome ’fros, stacks of AC30s, and coiled cords). Bonus points for playing the phrase in stereo with a panning delay. —Matt Blackett
Merle Haggard’s right-hand guitar man for years was the late, great Roy Nichols (1932-2001), a teen prodigy whom Haggard first idolized from afar. Nichols was a multifaceted jazz and country player who brought his progressive playing into a straight-ahead country-rock setting, and he’s considered one of the founders of the so-called “Bakersfield Sound,” which, along with Merle Haggard and the Strangers, includes Buck Owens, Don Rich, Dwight Yoakam, and Brad Paisley.
Though Haggard’s music has often been pretty meat ’n’ potatoes as far as chords and grooves are concerned, you never quite knew what to expect from his lead guitar player. The Tele-twanging Nichols would rip out reverse bends, bluegrass flatpicking runs, bendy steel licks, and fluid swing-jazz arpeggios—all in the context of a I-IV-V country song.
One of Haggard’s biggest hits was “Mama Tried,” a typically Haggard-esque hard-luck song that includes the line “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole/No one could teach me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried.” The opening lick (reprised just before the guitar solo) is a great example of Nichols’ innovative playing. He drops in a bluesy stop-time reverse-bend phrase that leads into a ’grassy open-string vamp just before taking off into the single-note solo.
The example here captures that spirit, including the opening reverse bend. As with all reverse bends, you have to pre-bend the string to the desired pitch (in this case, a whole-step above the sounded note) before striking it. Doing this successfully—meaning, getting the note perfectly in tune—is a
combination of feel and visuals. You have to “learn” through trial and error what the correct tension of the bent string is. —Jon Chappell
In 1971, psychedelic soul wunderkind Shuggie Otis (son of blues/jazz kingpin Johnny Otis) was still a teenager when he tracked a lead guitar break that has endured as perhaps the most hypnotic solo section in R&B history. We’re talking about the kaleidoscopic twin-guitar fadeout on “Strawberry Letter 23,” a gem of a song that would enjoy its biggest popularity (and even crack the Top Ten) when the Brothers Johnson resurrected it virtually note-for-note in 1977. (On their version, producer Quincy Jones hired jazz great Lee Ritenour to replicate Otis’ challenging lead parts.)
On the original cut, Otis, armed with a Gibson ES-335, a Fender Super Reverb, and two tracks of analog tape, stacked a higher part (similar to Guitar 2 below) atop a lower part (similar to Guitar 1) to generate a mesmerizing harmonic progression composed of shimmering sixteenth-note triplet phrases. Each phrase sounds four times per measure. (Notice that the second pulse of each six-note grouping is a rest.)
If you can play either part separately, generating the two-part composite lick (highly recommended!) is easy if you have a looper or, even better, a multi-track recorder. (Mixing tip: To make the repeating four-bar phrase even more epic sounding, take inspiration from Otis and gradually add trippy effects such as flange or phase shifting to the entire mix as you slowly pull back the master fader.) —Jude Gold
James Patrick Page is one clever bastard. Think what you will about the third member of the Yardbirds trinity’s alleged appropriations of O.P.M. (you figure it out) during his reign with the legendary Led Zeppelin, but the wizardly guitarist—gifted with a keen producer’s ear—has always had plenty of tricks of his own. For instance, Page cultivated a deep relationship with alternate tunings and used them to create lush, otherwise unobtainable musical textures on such epic Zep songs as “Kashmir” (DADGAD), and “The Rain Song” (D, G, C, G, C, D, low to high).
The deceptively simple and easy-to-play combination of simple and complex droning chord voicings that Page concocted for “The Rain Song” are presented without rhythmic reference in FIGURE 1, but after listening to the recording you should have little trouble piecing together the puzzle. (Tip: Try it on a 12-string.) In another stroke of brilliance, Page was probably the first guy to come up with the forehead-smackingly simple solution for playing whammy-style glissandi on a stop-tail Les Paul by hammering-on and pulling-off notes while bending and releasing the string behind the nut with his pick hand. FIGURES 2 and 3 illustrate this technique, which has since become one of rock’s most enduring Spinal Tap moves. —Jesse Gress
Sure, Robert Quine (1942–2004) was the lead guitarist for iconoclastic punk pioneers Richard Hell & the Voidoids, as well as guitar texturalist extraordinaire for the genre-defying rebel leader of the avant-garde, Lou Reed—and true, Quine was one of the only guitar heroes you can think of whose surname starts with “Q”. But the real way Quine earned his way into this exclusive alphabet of the guitar elite is by making the challenging task of crafting killer guitar parts seem so damn easy. Quine’s near-supernatural skills at riff-craft perhaps resulted from a brain that seems to be wired completely backwards from those of most guitarists. Simply stated, it seems the more Quine cast aside traditional guitar technique, proper intonation, “good” tone, extra notes, and conventional applications of effects, the more powerful his playing became.
“In some ways I have really limited technique, but I do have enough technique to put some real emotion across,” said Quine in the January ’86 GP. “I try to operate on a very intuitive, unconscious level, because that’s where the good stuff is.”
A good example of Quine’s less-is-more mojo is the warped, warbling diads he added on Reed’s “Waves of Fear” (from The Blue Mask, 1982)—which, like those in FIGURE 1, swim around in the key of D major. “The first time I heard the song, I knew exactly what I would do,” said Quine. “I got out the Fernandes Strat copy, the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, the little Peavey Bandit, got that scary chorus sound, and played these Chuck Berry things up and down the neck. It just fell into place.”
An even better example is the song’s gritty and warped solo, which finds Quine sounding as few as one or two notes per bar, as in FIGURE 2. On the surface, this excerpt looks insultingly simple to play, because it’s just one note! The challenge, though, is to—as Quine did on “Waves”—make this lone note as interesting and electrifying as a lightning bolt. Use fretting-hand vibrato, wild amp settings, delay and other effects, and any other mojo you can conjure to give this pitch some power. —Jude Gold
“Randy Rhoads had been making excellent money teaching for about ten years, which meant he never had to go out and play disco, blues, or Steely Dan music in clubs, so his influences were very unusual,” reflected bassist Rudy Sarzo (who played with Rhoads in both Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne’s band) after Rhoads’ untimely death in a 1982 plane crash. “He was not like a typical American guitarist who had influences of R&B, country, and things like that, because he never played that stuff. He mainly listened to classical music and late-’60s, early-’70s English rockers.”
On Ozzy Osbourne’s first solo album, Blizzard of Ozz, Rhoads’ guitar flurries caught the world of hard rock a bit by surprise—suddenly, it was apparent that there was room for more than one virtuoso (Van Halen) atop the lead guitar heap. The fun part about Rhoads’ style is that his lyrical phrases usually stay “in the lane” rhythmically, making his trademark Baroque trills (FIGURE 1, à la Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley”), three-note-per-string legato scale runs (FIGURE 2), pick-tapped trills (FIGURE 3), and “Flying High Again”-style open-string pull-offs (FIGURE 4) fairly easy to cop once you’ve practiced the moves and gotten them up to speed. Throw in some vicious Brit-blues-influenced pentatonic licks as well as the occasional sprig of chromaticism, deliver it all with a Les Paul, a Marshall, and an MXR Distortion+, and you’ll be one Rhoads scholar who’s truly done his homework. —Jude Gold
A staunch advocate of peace and universal brotherhood, Carlos Santana’s guitar playing has always conveyed a similar sentiment. Okay, maybe it’s hokey to claim that you can “hear” such qualities in a guitar part, but with Carlos, well, you can actually feel the love he puts into each note. Santana is also a devotee of the Dorian mode, and has a particular knack for combining its characteristic sweetness with nasty blues sounds, as well as a talent for manipulating it to form other modalities. Add plenty of Latin-influenced rhythmic syncopations and a sublime, sustained tone and you’ve got the basic recipe for Santana stew.
Check it out: The rhythms alone in FIGURE 1 create musical excitement, but a few bluesy D pentatonic minor-based intervals coupled with Santana’s innate sense of call-and-response add some serious sizzle.
FIGURE 2’s run, played over a typical Im-IV progression, brings some fluttery Dorian flavor to the blues party, while FIGURE 3 reveals how Santana substitutes F# Dorian (plus a few outside tones in bar 2) to create a wailing B Mixolydian modality over a bVII-I “A Love Supreme”-style vamp. (This last example recalls Santana’s mid-’70s ’Trane-influenced collaborations with John McLaughlin.) Just remember that when it comes to making these tasty musical recipes successful, it’s up to you to provide the main ingredient: heart. —Jesse Gress
The Who’s stadium-rocking, windmill-strumming whiz kid Pete Townshend is well-known for his starring role in the evolution of the power chord, but the iconic British guitarist is also one of the all-time greats at using acoustic guitars in hard rocking tunes. The power and aggression that Townshend can achieve on a Gibson J-200 (his acoustic of choice for many years) is an amazing thing to behold. By comparison, when most players strum a steel-string, it sounds too delicate and, well, nowhere near as cool. This lesson offers all the tools necessary to inject a little bit of Pete Power into your acoustic playing. What you see before you is a new spin on the CAGED approach to chord fingerings (CAGED being an acronym for the five most common chord shapes).
The first chord, C5, is a true power chord—just roots and 5s. Letting your third finger rest lazily against the D string to mute it, strike the chord hard, and dig the consonance that occurs when there’s no 3 present. (Bonus: You can slide this shape to just about any fret on the neck and get a great sounding chord.) The next C fingering does contain a major third, but the combination of fretted and open notes makes it ring in a different and more satisfying way.
The A chords are simple but incredibly effective. In the recording studio, do one pass on one and overdub the other and hear what happens (clue: something bitchin’). They’re both portable as well.
The first G is a power chord that’s, well, just plain powerful. (Strum it as hard as you possibly can, and watch out for old strings that may snap in protest.) The next G offers a prettier, more delicate sound that is delightfully moveable.
The first E is heavy and chunky, the second simply massive—it doesn’t get any bigger or badder on a standard-tuned acoustic than this chord right here. Damn.
For the D grips, we have one power chord and one tinkly add9 voicing. These two sounds were born to be overdubbed—yum! Move them pretty much anywhere on the fretboard, and they’ll still rule.
Recording tip: Overdub a track of high-strung or Nashville-tuned guitar on top of any of these voicings, and only Pete Townshend will be a cooler acoustic player than you. —Matt Blackett
Chicago-born guitarist and bassist Phil Upchurch has been backing jazz, blues, and pop stars for over 50 years. What magic formula has allowed him to record and perform with everyone from Otis Rush and Donny Hathaway to George Benson and Michael Jackson? Aside from Upchurch’s immense talent and versatility, it also has to do with the fact that the guitarist is very detail oriented—particularly when it comes to rhythmic and melodic phrasing. Whether comping or soloing, Upchurch thinks like a drummer and always plays with and not on top of the band.
“If you listen to [drummer] Philly Joe Jones’ snare, you can get a lot of ideas for rhythmic comping on the guitar,” offers Upchurch, who also points to Miles Davis—with his masterful blend of sustained notes and silence—as essential listening for all aspiring jazzers. Upchurch says that, like Davis, a great soloist must practice mindful interaction with the band, knowing exactly when and when not to play.
Most phrasing in Western music can be divided into two- or four-measure
segments, and the phrase below is no exception. First, sing or tap its rhythms and observe how the two main statements develop over a span of four bars. Notice the hole left at the end of measure 2—this gap (starting on beat three) might elicit a bass drum “bomb” or quick piano jab on the upbeat to set up the next phrase. Now, play the example on guitar. Like many Upchurch lines, these contain a healthy mix of melodic shapes to keep things interesting. In the first measure, Upchurch descends a four-note Am arpeggio (contained within Fmaj9). In bar 4, he lands on an octave-displaced Ebmaj7 (superimposed over Cm7) that resolves to A, the 3 of F7. —Josh Workman
STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN
One of the most powerful guitarists ever to roam the earth, Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990) pummeled his ax like a force of nature throughout his profoundly successful but all too short mission to bring the blues to the masses. In concert, shredded pieces of body—both guitar and human—would literally fly off the stage as testament to SRV’s heavy strings and even heavier pick attack. (You’ve heard the Krazy Glue skin patch story, right? SRV would apply the epoxy to his wounded fingertips and, legend has it, “borrow” skin from lesser-used areas. Yow!)
Like Hendrix, Vaughan tuned down a half-step, which made his already massive Texas shuffle-based grooves (like the one in FIGURE 1) sound even bigger. (Rumor has it that SRV often reversed picking directions on this one.) You can extend this riff by adding an E bass note on the fourth string at the 2nd fret, then playing the fretted notes in reverse order.
Vaughan often played single-note lines, double-stops, octaves, and chords by flailing on all six strings, while muting unwanted ones with his fretting hand. Try this out on the signature “T-Bone-with-a-b9” lick, the Albert King-style overbend, and the Hendrix-y wrap-up that make up FIGURE 2. Use the same approach for FIGURE 3’s thumb-fretted bass notes, octaves, and double- and triple-stops, which are played over a straight-eighth groove.
Thanks, bro’. We owe you, big time! —Jesse Gress
Born in Jug’s Corner, Mississippi, in 1915, Muddy Waters (1915-1983, born McKinley Morganfield) was, to say the least, an important historical link between the acoustic and electric blues movements. It would be more accurate to say he almost single-handedly led the charge to bridge the two styles. He played acoustic in the Mississippi Delta. Then, in 1945, he headed north to Chicago, where he soon became the leader of the city’s South Side electric blues movement. A large and imposing man, Waters dominated the stage, the scene, and the entire city in all things blues. He had talented contemporaries and rivals such as Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II, but no single person is more associated with the Chicago sound than Muddy.
With a style that included percussive, stinging single-note Delta riffs and an aggressive bone-chilling slide technique, a big raspy singing voice, and a commanding stage presence, Waters had everything going for him. He went on to enjoy a long and prolific career both on stage and in the studio. He played a Telecaster (often capoed) on which Fender amp knobs were installed in place of the stock ones, and he wore a metal slide on his fretting-hand pinky.
Waters had two hit songs, “Mannish Boy” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” that used a variation of the traditional blues technique of call-and-response (a musical practice with roots in the field hollers and work camp songs of the Delta). They both became blues anthems and the basis for numerous other songs (such as George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”). The example shown here incorporates both the “Mannish” and “Hoochie” licks, and you can see how the open spaces created by these stop-time riffs welcome wailing vocal solos or blasting instrumental licks. Just don’t get the two licks confused, because each is typically played in rhythmic unison with the rest of the band! —Jon Chappell
ANGUS & MALCOLM YOUNG
As they captained their indestructible Aussie rock-and-roll vessel into a fourth decade at the turn of the century, Angus and Malcolm Young still commandeered one of the heaviest two-guitar assaults on the planet. Perhaps the only band to survive the rough seas of success without tempering their heaviosity, AC/DC’s hallmark has always been big, brash chordal and single-note arena-rock riffs laced with plenty of, get this, space. Until Malcolm’s departure from the group in 2014 due to dementia, he anchored the rhythm figures, while Angus handled both rhythm and lead duties.
The siblings kept things simple by eschewing effects and plugging straight into their Marshall stacks. Malcolm played the same Gretsch semi-hollowbody since day one; Angus still favors Gibson SGs. FIGURES 1 and 2 provide a glimpse into Mal’s m.o.: Big, robust power chords (often played “open” in nut position) and catchy, syncopated rhythms that include plenty of (here it comes again) space created by actual rests. (Listen to those drums pop through!) Even busy sixteenth-note riffs like the one built on broken power chords in FIGURE 3 are infused with staccato “holes.”
And nobody does pentatonics like Angus. FIGURE 4 begins with a gradual bend that peaks with two beats of Angus’ hellaciously exaggerated vibrato (which he attributes to “nerves”) followed by a speedy descending B pentatonic minor run rife with pull-offs. The repetitive riff in FIGURE 5 is laden with double-stops and reflects Angus’ Chuck Berry roots, while the descending B Mixolydian-based scale sequence in FIGURE 6 alternates with pulled-off open-B pedal tones. Adjust the last few notes, and voilá! You’ve got one of Canada’s top-10 ring tones. Seriously. —Jesse Gress
Albums by Frank Zappa have always been found in the rock bins in record stores, but pigeonholing Zappa as a rock artist is a bit like labeling Johann Sebastian Bach a church organist—it only tells a small part of the story. With his daredevil approaches to meter, harmony, and composition, and his ambitious orchestral pieces, the electric-guitar iconoclast arguably had more in common with classical innovator Igor Stravinsky than he did Eric Clapton. And the only thing more cutting than Zappa’s tone was his razor-like wit and keen sense of satire.
Zappa was also known for challenging the conventions of improvisation. To help wrap our brains around some of his ap-proaches to soloing and full-band improv, we enlisted the help of one of his former guitarists, the virtuosic and similarly genre-defying Mike Keneally.
“Frank often used the improvised sections of a show to go into solo guitar excursions, where nobody—not even Frank himself—knew where things would end up,” says Keneally. “In those sections, he’d often explore ideas that were based more on harmony than on melody, so it often felt like he was working out compositional strategies on the spot. Something cool that people discover when they get into Frank’s music is the unique way he used various triads over different bass notes.”
One harmonic sequence Zappa enjoyed was moving a series of open-sounding chords down the neck, with the top voice in the progression descending in half-steps while the bass notes jump around (FIGURE 1). If you like, you can continue this pattern all the way down the neck.
“The step-wise melodic motion in this progression allows you to play outside the chord changes, without sounding completely ‘wrong,’” says Keneally. Speaking of ‘wrong’ notes, when it came to single-note playing, Zappa might throw in a super-ambiguous whole-tone lick—all whole- steps—whenever he felt like completely exploding the harmonic content of the solo [FIGURE 2].” —Josh Workman