Intermediate Warm-ups: Using Riffs to Build Technique

Continuing from the recent post on warm-up routines, let’s take a look at some ideas that will help you connect technical ideas with musical ideas. One of the best ways to do that is by finding familiar songs and riffs that highlight particular techniques, and use them as practice pieces.

We’re going to look at three riffs in the style of classic rock/metal songs that will build your picking hand strength, stamina, and accuracy. For the most part, use down-up alternate picking, except as indicated. Definitely use a metronome. Strive not only to play the riff at its original tempo, but to exceed that tempo if possible.

The first riff is similar to Ozzy’s classic Crazy Train. Take it slow until the pattern feels comfortable. Maintain strict alternate picking throughout, and use the suggested fingering. This is a great riff to work on those tricky 1-3-4 fingering combinations.

R01

Next up is the opening riff to Guns ‘n’ Roses Sweet Child o’ Mine. Slash has mentioned in interviews over the years that it was a warm-up exercise long before it became the intro to a massively popular song.

R02

Try the suggested fingering, and definitely use alternate picking throughout. This is a fantastic riff for string skipping, and for working on the 3-4 fingering combination.

The third song we’ll look at is a true metal classic, and one of my favorite songs ever to just fire up the amp and play loud. Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell is one of those killer Dimebag Darrell riffs that, if you walk into a guitar shop and crank it out with conviction and authority, with a good crunchy tone, people will stop what they’re doing and listen. It’s a fun, deceptively simple riff, played in two octaves. Let’s take a look at the upper octave, which kicks off the song:

R03

Note the accents on each downstroke, and the palm muting through most of the riff. If you haven’t worked much with palm muting, it’s a fun technique that sounds cool with a fat distorted tone.

The main riff then descends an octave, to the open E string.

R04a

Notice the change in fingering, which takes advantage of using the open position. Here’s a different way to play the lower-octave riff, that takes advantage of the extra punch of the low E string:

R04b

Try them both, throw in palm mutes and pinch harmonics, in the Dime style. Learn all these riffs as mechanical exercises that enhance technique, and as pieces of music, that you can add flavor to as you see fit.

Chances are that the biggest challenge with playing this riff at higher speeds is crossing back and forth between strings. So let’s head back up to the 12th position, to the higher intro riff, and break it down a bit. Here’s the first two beats (each four-note group of 16th notes is a “beat” in this case) of the riff:

R05a

Just play that section over and over again, building speed only when it’s accurate. Remember, if it sounds sloppy slow, it’s going to sound really sloppy at faster tempos. Anything played clean and tight at a slower tempo will sound better and more technically proficient than something “close enough” at a faster tempo.

From the second beat to the third beat of the riff shows the transition of the riff, which is basically a sequenced blues box to begin with.

R05b

You can probably see right away where nailing this section will do wonders for your picking hand. Additionally, you should be able to come up with plenty of variations of your own, based on this sequence, that will sound cool, work the rest of the fretting hand, and possibly be useful in your own songs.

If you work those two bars up to tempo, and put them together, you should be able to nail the end of the riff pretty easily. Keep an eye throughout on the range of motion for your picking hand when going from one string to the next; this is one of the most essential keys to technical mastery.

So while these riffs (and any others you may think of) should keep you busy for a while, as a small bonus, let’s take a look at some of the techniques and tricks Dime uses throughout the Cowboys solo. After an introductory four bars of tritones, Dime uncorks a sweet pattern across the neck. Utilizing a 1-2-4 fingering, this pattern will give your hands a nice stretch and broaden your range on the fretboard.

R06a

This is a tough one to put into theoretical terms; like Eddie Van Halen, many of Dime’s solos and riffs don’t fall clearly along this or that scale. This is a great example of how, if you play something with great tone and conviction, it really doesn’t matter what scale it corresponds to — if it sounds good, it is good.

Let’s take the shape and work it up to speed on any one given string (in this case, the low E):

R06b

Notice the picking indications, try alternating between the palm-muted triplet and the legato triplet with straight down-up alternate picking, or down-stroking the first note of the legato phrase on the accented beat. Either way works, whatever sounds better and feels right.

Starting at the thirteenth bar of the solo, Dime hits a nifty little chromatic lick that falls nicely across the E5 (minor blues) key. Here’s one way to play it, which again at higher speeds will test your picking hand:

R07a

Now try playing the same lick all on the G string, which makes it a decent chromatic stretching exercise:

R07b

Finally, the rhythmic breakdown at the end of the solo contains a really nice shifting scalar lick, in two octaves:

R08

Keep the slides tight, rhythmically and dynamically, and see how many other scale forms you can map this sort of thing out on, if you’re comfortable with it.

Definitely look for more riffs you can use for technical warm-ups and exercises, and of course develop as many of your own as you can. Play hard and have fun!

Single String Thing, Part 2

Let’s finish up our look at scale patterns on a single string by looking at some cool melodic sequences to play along the scale. Hopefully by now you’ve mapped out the A minor scale up and down each string, and learned the pattern for each string, one at a time. (For reference, you can print the handy Fretboard Maps PDF from the Resources page; for the A minor / C major scale we’re reviewing, use the top diagram “Natural notes”.)

The examples here will all take place on the high E string, but of course it is highly encouraged that you try them out on every string, using just the notes in the scale, and paying attention to how the patterns differ along each string.

If you haven’t worked on single string scale patterns before, it may seem a bit limiting at first. But by staying on one string, and within one scale (at least at first; of course you should apply these patterns and sequences in as many keys and scales as possible), forces you to work on several important techniques:

  1. Alternate picking — Obviously this is most logical and efficient way to go on one string. But legato is also handy to try!
  2. Position shifting — As you shift, pay close attention to which fingers you use to anchor the shifts, both ascending and descending. Take it slow and use a metronome, and strive to keep the shifts smooth, even, and locked in with the tempo.
  3. Theory — Going across the neck on multiple strings can force you to think about where and what the notes are on the next string. The linear nature of a single string radically simplifies that process. Notes, intervals, and scale patterns can be easier to internalize this way.

So let’s take a look at a few sequencing patterns that can be run through the scale. The first one is a four-note pattern that ascends the scale one step at a time, and uses shift slides to make it smooth and easy, rather than stretching the hand trying to play all four notes before shifting. Use the suggested fingering and shifting:

SSE_01

Now let’s try the classic 1-2-3-1 / 2-3-4-2 / 3-4-5-3 / etc. sequencing pattern. Many players find this to be an easier way to play this type of sequence:

SSE_02

It’s tempting (and easy) to play a fast sequencing run that simply ascends chromatically, and such runs are definitely part of a well-rounded practice diet. But try staying within the scale for these exercises, and pretty quickly you’ll hear how it lends a more structured, melodic, classical sound

The next exercise utilizes the classical pedal point technique, where a scale fragment or melody is played “against” a repeated stationary note, creating a very melodic effect. Again, be sure to try these types of figures ascending and descending, and see how to “reverse” the patterns when desired.

SSE_03

The last exercise is a sequence found in the styles of many ’80s neoclassical shredders. It involves displacing the notes, ordering them in a different sequence, and then repeating that sequence through the scale.

Let’s take a simple 3-note sequence of notes such as A-B-C (1-2-3). Instead of just playing them in order, we’ll start the sequence with the third note, C, then go back down to A, come back up through B to C, then back down through B to end on A.

So the whole 6-note sequence goes C-A-B-C-B-A (or in numerical notation, 3-1-2-3-2-1). Here is the sequence broken down to a single-bar “cell”:

SSE_04a

It may be awkward at first, because you should be using just the 1-3-4 (index, ring, pinky) fingers to play the sequence at this particular position, but any chance to work on that 3-4 combination is a good thing. Like anything else, take it slow, use a metronome, play it clean and accurate before playing it fast.

Using the fretboard maps as reference, simply run that same 3-1-2-3-2-1 sequencing pattern up and down through the rest of the steps in the scale, as shown in the tab below.

SSE_04

At faster speeds, this type of melodic displacement sounds really cool, and maybe even sounds a bit trickier than it actually is. These “impress the neighbors” runs are always fun to play, and become easier once you master the sequence and see how to move it through the scale.

Definitely get familiar with these patterns, develop some sequence ideas of your own, and run them through the entire pattern along the neck. Again, add sharps and flats as needed to try different keys, and go through the circle of fifths / fourths.

We’ll end this post with a quick variation on the 3-1-2-3-2-1 sequence we were just looking at. It simply goes from 5th position to 4th position — but of course the 4th fret on the E string is a G# note, not in the A minor / C major scale. The G# pushes the tonality to E major (E-G#-B triad), which harmonizes well against A minor. Simply play this bar over and over again until you get the hang of it. Listen to how the sequence “resolves” musically. Experiment and see where other sequences outside the scale can fit in and sound good.

SSE_04b

Use the 1-3-4 fingers for the A minor (5th position) part, and 1-2-4 for the E major (4th position) part, so you get to use all four fretting fingers. Just go back and forth between the two until both feel smooth and easy to play and shift between. It’s a great little exercise for picking and for ear training.

As you practice all these variations, in different keys and on different strings, be sure to keep some blank tab paper handy, and listen for interesting sequences to put together, so you can write them down as soon as you can. Good luck and have fun!

Single String Thing

In past posts, we’ve concentrated on a variety of ways to play scales, but generally on forms and patterns that use most or all of the strings. Those tend to be the most efficient as far as maximizing fretboard navigation goes, and there are lots of cool sequencing patterns that can be developed from those scale forms.

But single-string scales are pretty cool too, and in fact have benefits as well for navigation, and for developing cool sequencing patterns. It’s just about impossible to know too many different ways to play a particular scale.

As always, we’ll use our trusty A minor (C major) pattern, since there are no sharps or flats. Here’s the scale played along the high E string:
SS01
Spelled intervallically:

SS01a
Check the tab below, and play the scale ascending and descending, using the suggested fingering:

SS_01

It’s possible to play as many as four notes along the string before needing to shift position, but it is highly recommended to play no more than three notes before shifting, especially at first. It’s easier to maintain control moving up and down the neck, and the shifts are shorter in distance.

This is a great single-string scale exercise to reinforce that principle.

SS_02

Here’s the same exercise in groups of four, the “three against four” rhythm always sounds cool!

SS_03

Now let’s map the same scale along the B string:
SS02

Don’t worry about starting or ending on the root as you play through the scale patterns, just play as many of the notes of the scale as you can along a given string.

Moving along to the G string:
SS03

Using the Fretboard Maps PDF from the Resources page, map out the scale on the other strings (really just the D and A strings, since of course the pattern on the low E is the same as the one on the high E), and play them all. In the next post, we’ll go over some cool sequencing patterns, stay tuned!