“Rock guitar” is obviously a pretty broad, subjective spectrum. Blues, country, metal, and even jazz contribute to how each of us perceives that category. But virtually any rock player (or any style player) should check out the Slash tribute documentary, Raised on the Sunset Strip.
Beyond the expected accolades from his peers and (former and current) bandmates, what emerges is a profile of someone who is happiest when playing the guitar, who probably can’t conceive of doing anything else. That’s pretty awesome, and is the ultimate goal for just about any player, to be able to make a living at it so you can play all the time.
Slash famously insists that he knows very little music theory, and has no formal practice routine, he just works around in the major and minor scales and blues boxes, plays patterns and things that sound good to him. He’s probably the best contemporary example of a great player who is able to play anything he wants, purely by ear and feel. Tone, taste, and technique all combine for a powerful, passionate style.
We’ve taken a look at the technical aspects of the classic Sweet Child o’ Mine intro riff, which Slash developed as a practice exercise. Let’s take a look at another great melodic intro riff of his, from Slash’s 2012 release. The song Anastasia starts with an almost flamenco-flavored acoustic melody, essentially finger-picking the chord progression, which is in the key of D minor (yes, the saddest of all keys). See tab below:
Notice the suggested fingerpicking (p=thumb; i=index; m=middle; a=ring finger). Try it also with a “hybrid” approach (pick and fingers), like this:
The picking does not have to be strictly down-up alternating, also try economy picking (in the same direction on adjacent strings), or starting with an upstroke. As the chords are arpeggiated down and then back up, the main goal is to make sure the sound is smooth and steadily “rolling” back and forth.
This progression is very similar to that of the Ozzy/Randy Rhoads classic Mr. Crowley. If you already know some or all of the classic solos to that song, it may help you get a feel for this one.
Let’s check out a couple of “exotic” scales that can be used to add a little spice to these types of progressions.
The Harmonic Minor Scale and the Spanish Phrygian Mode
Remember that there is more than one minor scale. Usually the natural minor (R 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7, in Dm: D E F G A B♭ C) is used for solos and melodies. But the harmonic minor (R 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 7, in Dm: D E F G A B♭ C#), which does not flatten the 7th, has a slightly more exotic sound which lends itself well to more “Spanish”-sounding melodies. Anastasia is one of those songs, so having a handle on the harmonic minor scale will pay off huge melodic benefits here. Just one note of difference, but you can really hear it:
As always, it’s a huge help in navigating the fretboard to map out scales in as many positions as possible. The first example stays within the 5th position, while the second example starts in the 10th position and travels up and along the neck, ending a full three octaves higher on the 22nd fret of the high E string. Learning the positional “boxes” and then connecting them is the key to fretboard mobility.
Try out this cool scalar lick based on the harmonic minor scale, designed to go back and forth through several positional areas of the neck:
The phrase in the final bar will be slightly tricky at first, but that “slide and stretch” move will pay off in developing your own wide-interval melodic licks. Throw in all the cool guitar vocalisms where applicable — palm muting, legato, artificial harmonics, vibrato, etc.
Where the natural minor scale is also a mode (Aeolian) of the major scale, the harmonic minor scale is its own scale, which means it has its own modes. (Refer to the free printable Modes cheat sheet for more information on how modes are derived from scales.)
One of the coolest modes around is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale. It has that quintessential “classical” feel, and has been popularized over the years by players such as Ritchie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth, and Yngwie Malmsteen. It is commonly referred to as the “Spanish Phrygian” or “Phrygian natural 3rd (♮ 3)” mode. To play the fifth mode of the D harmonic minor scale, you start from the fifth degree of that scale, which is A:
Knowing how to spell scales and modes intervallically makes it easier to transpose them to other keys. The tab above, while derived from the D harmonic minor scale, would be called A Spanish Phrygian, since A is the root note of the mode. It still plays over D minor just fine, but the D Spanish Phrygian would be a slightly different animal.
So here is how to spell the Spanish Phrygian in terms of intervals: R ♭2 3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7. Remember, all of those flats are in relation to the major scale.
So now to spell out the notes for D Spanish Phrygian, we take the notes of the D major scale (D E F# G A B C#) and flatten the 2nd (E), 6th (B), 7th (C#), resulting in this: D E♭ F# G A B♭ C. Check the tab below:
Both examples stay strictly within position. If you’re feeling adventurous, map the this mode out along multiple positions, like we did earlier with the harmonic minor scale, and develop melodic licks from the notes of the mode. Stay strictly within the note range of the mode before adding “passing tones” or “outside notes”. That’s the best way to train your ears to the “flavor” of any mode or scale.
Here’s another sample lick that takes you through the notes and positions:
Quick rundown of the techniques deployed in the lick: first bar ascends through the mode in thirds; second bar uses pedal point for melodic development before a short ascending transition into the third bar, which features descending arpeggios before landing on a B♭ note (6th degree of the mode). Definitely try sweep picking on those arpeggios in the last two bars, palm muting and artificial harmonics on the pedal point in the second bar, palm muting on the first bar, etc.
Use all those vocalisms judiciously; like a master chef preparing a special dish, you try this spice and that spice until you find the right combination, you don’t throw everything in all at once.
Record a simple one- or two-chord vamp in D minor, and practice all three of the scales (D natural minor, D harmonic minor, D Spanish Phrygian). Listen closely to the differences between them, as well as the similarities.
All of the above examples and techniques are to provide some background and ideas to apply in learning the Anastasia riff. That’s the best way to learn any song and make it your own, rather than merely parroting the notes.
Back to the Song
From that soft intro the band kicks in, with Slash retracing that Dm chord progression, this time with a really cool pedal point ascending triad sequence.
Start by taking just the first pattern, and playing it repeatedly until it’s smooth and crisp at medium to fast tempo (96-120 bpm). As always, take it slow at first until you memorize the pattern, then it’s a simple matter to start moving it along the progression. Listen to how just changing a couple of notes or a position keeps the musical tension going, until it finally releases and you start the descending pattern to resolve the progression.
The way the riff alternates between the B and E’ strings will force you to really examine what your picking hand is doing. Definitely alternate pick everything, accenting only the beat notes, and keeping everything else very moto perpetuo, constant and even.
Moto perpetuo exercises are great for disciplining your picking hand to stay within a steady range of motion and pressure, neither over- or under-accenting, just playing everything smooth and clean. There’s a ton of stuff in this post to work on, so take it a piece at a time, really listen to the nuances and differences between the various scales and modes described, and experiment with what sounds good in developing a nice melodic lick, whether for a solo or for a main riff. Have fun!