Pedal to the Metal

One of the cornerstone techniques of neoclassical shred guitar is pedal point, where a melody or scale is played alternating against either a stationary note or a fixed interval. The example below shows a simple line played in A minor, up and back down the neck on the high A string:

If you’ve never tried this technique before, imagine the above example like this:  you’re basically sequencing the A minor scale up the neck in 3-note chunks. In the first bar, there are two 3-note chunks; first the G-A-B (3rd, 5th, and 7th frets), and then the A-B-C (5th, 7th, and 8th frets). In each of these chunks, and on up the neck, the third note is the pedal point, sort of the melodic anchor around which the melody or scalar sequence moves.

You can also easily reverse the sequence, and use the first note of each chunk as the anchor, so instead of your sequence going 1-3-2-3 1-3-2-3 as in the above example, you could sequence the same notes 3-1-2-1 or 2-1-3-1.

Especially when played on a single string, it’s a good idea to stick primarily with strict down-up alternate picking at first, but hammer-ons and pull-offs also sound good, as long as the pedal points stay consistent and in time. This is a technique that relies heavily on being metronomically tight to sound really good.

Some quick music theory observations so far:  on the single-string example, the first and third notes of each position all the way up constitute an interval of a third. Whether the third is major or minor depends on if the first and third notes are 3 or 4 frets apart. So for G-A-B, the G and B are 4 frets apart, so it’s a major third. The next one, A-B-C, the A and C are 3 frets apart, so minor third.

The cool thing about pedal point is that the melodic possibilities are virtually endless, especially once you start incorporating more strings. Here’s a simple two-string run, this time in E minor:

For each position shift all the way up the neck, the pinky should be used to fret the pedal point note. Notice that for most of the positions, on the second and fourth beats the melodic note is on the same fret (on the adjacent string) as the pedal point. So in the first bar, the E note (5th fret B string) immediately precedes the A (5th fret high E string) anchor note on the second beat, then the F# right before the B in the fourth beat.

The simplest way to handle this at higher tempos is to barre the pinky on the B and E strings to play both notes. The last beat on the third bar is where you will need to use your third (ring) finger instead, as the scale note is a tritone below the pedal note, rather than a perfect fourth.

From a music theory perspective, incorporating a second string allows us to move on from just working with thirds, and to start sketching out triads and scales. We’ll discuss triads more in depth in an upcoming post (and post a quick reference PDF on the Free Resources page), but for now, we’ll just note that a triad is constructed from the root, third, and fifth (R-3-5) of a scale. The distance between the R and 3 is an interval of a third (either major or minor, per the earlier reference), and the distance between the 3 and 5 is also a third.

So stacking a major third (G to B) and then a minor third (B to D) produces a major triad. Stacking a minor third (A to C) and then a major third (C to E) produces a minor triad. Stacking two minor thirds (F#-A; A-C) produces a diminished triad. Two major thirds will produce an augmented triad, but those do not occur in the major scale or any of its modes. Since we’re working diatonically (within the scale) for these exercises, we won’t encounter any. (That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate the pattern into your own exercises!)

If you are not too well-versed in music theory and terminology, a “minor third” may not seem all that different from a “minor triad” or a “minor scale”. Don’t worry about it; these concepts take time to internalize if you’re not familiar with them. The main thing is recognizing these patterns by ear, and getting them under your fingers. The names for everything will come soon enough, but they’re really just ways to have a common set of terms so we all know what we’re referring to.

Anyway, let’s move on. Here’s a variation on the previous two-string pattern, with the melody now descending then ascending:

With multi-string pedal point forms, it’s much more difficult to use any hammer-ons or pull-offs, but there are more options for picking. Start with the usual down-up alternate picking until your picking and fretting hands are properly synchronized at moderate to high tempos. Particularly with these somewhat more complex forms, it’s better to get the pattern down in a single position first, until everything sounds clean and smooth at 112 bpm or so. Then start moving it up and down the neck diatonically, getting familiar with the position shifts, and the various triad forms throughout. Then work it through all the keys, using the circle of fifths/fourths. (For example, if you go up through the circle of fifths, C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#-etc., you just add a sharp each time to move up a fifth in key — adding the F# note to the key of C will put you in the key of G; adding the C# note to G puts you in D; adding the G# to D gives you A, and so on.)

For our last example, let’s take a look at a pattern that utilizes a three-note anchor pattern on the high E string, with the scale moving up along with it on the B string:

With the odd number of notes per string before moving from one string to another, this exercise should really help pinpoint any mechanical issues you might have with pick hand/fret hand synchronization.

As always, take it slow at first, get the pattern dialed in, build up speed, add some palm muting or other types of accents on the “1” beat to accentuate, etc.

Again, for those folks that may not have tried this technique much, you can see pretty quickly how you can create a ton of cool musical ideas on just one or two strings. We’ll definitely come back to this topic in upcoming posts, but this should be enough to give you some ideas to work on for a while. Play hard and have fun!