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!

Climbing the K2

One of the most enduring and fundamental sets in the classical violin pedagogy is the classic folio of 42 etudes by 18th century violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who to this day is considered one of the founding pillars of French Romantic-era violin. Kreutzer was a contemporary of Beethoven, and the latter’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 was dedicated to Kreutzer.

Of the 42 etudes, the signature piece is Etude #2. Centuries after it was written, it remains an essential part of the instructional canon for classical violinists. The opening phrases of Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption are based on #2’s opening melodic phrase.

Since many violin exercises fall very well on the guitar neck, this is an ideal piece to take a look at. While just 25 bars long, the “K2” goes through a variety of cool techniques and melodic ideas, and is sure to provide challenges along the way, even for experienced players.

The first eight bars of the piece are shown below:

The guitar sounds one octave lower than written in standard notation, so pieces transcribed from other instruments should typically be transposed an octave up. However, leaving the piece in the lower octave, as we’ve done in the excerpt above, provides an opportunity to work in areas of the neck that may not frequently get much melodic attention. Note also how, with strict down-up alternate picking, the string changes take a bit of practice to internalize, as there are frequently odd numbers of notes per string, and the changes often occur on a downbeat.

The melody is pretty simple and straightforward, an intervallic line based on the C major scale, working down and back up the neck through the key diatonically. The first two bars the melody repeats through C, then shifts to Am (relative minor) for the next two bars. Bars 5-8 ascend the pattern diatonically using this intervallically displaced triad pattern. (We’ll explain the concept of displaced intervals in more detail in a future post. For now, “displaced” simply means that instead of a straight up-and-down scale, the notes are moved around for more melodic possibilities.) The triads ascend: F-G-Am-B diminished. These triad patterns should be simple to replicate on any pair of adjacent strings, just about anywhere on the neck.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the next eight bars of the piece. Till then, keep climbing!

Economy Legato, Mr. Roboto

One of the really cool things about the guitar, as opposed to, for example, the trombone or the piano, is that the guitar has options in how to produce notes — you don’t have to pick every single note. Smooth legato phrasing is a great complement to a solid picking attack, and helps make a soloist’s overall style more multi-dimensional.

Here’s a cool run that works on legato phrasing as well as economy picking. It’s a basic four-note A minor diatonic run, descending from the 5th fret on the high E string, and ascending back up:

Try it first with straight down-up alternate picking, just to get the patterns down. Once you feel comfortable with it, it’s time to work some hammer-ons and pull-offs in.

It’s okay to have a little bit of emphasis on the first note of each beat, but the way to get a good legato sound is to make sure that all the unpicked notes sound at about the same level, and are in time. Use a metronome and take it slow at first.

So far, we’re still alternate picking from string to string, which may make the first two notes of each beat somewhat challenging to keep in time at higher tempos. But economy picking might make things a bit simpler and smoother:

Playing the phrase with economy picking pairs up the pick strokes for the descending and then ascending parts of the phrase. At first, you may want to break the phrase down to just four notes at a time, first the descending part, then the ascending part. Beginning a phrase with an upstroke — much less two upstrokes — may seem awkward at first.

If you’re unfamiliar with economy picking, it can be challenging at first to get the simultaneous pick strokes to sound smooth and even. As with sweep picking, you’re not quite “dragging” the pick across the strings like a strum, but the pick strokes aren’t completely independent, either. Strive for a smooth, even sound and feel, and the proper picking motion will become more comfortable.

Once you’re able to clock it smoothly at about 120 or so on your metronome, expand the run to an entire octave:

When you hit the turnaround, transitioning from the second beat to the third and ascending back up the scale, you could play it without picking the G at all, but it may be easier to maintain a strict rhythm by picking the first note of each beat, plus it will set up the consecutive downstrokes.

Since this exercise is designed to simultaneously work on elements of picking and fretting, it helps to work on one aspect at a time. Getting the legato down first, making sure the notes are fretted smoothly and evenly, will make learning the economy picking side of it easier.

Pentatonic Power: Unwrapping the Boxes

The five pentatonic boxes are usually one of the first things most players learn. Like many things, while they’re simple to get the hang of, you can spend a great deal of time mining cool licks and ideas from those five simple boxes.

A classic basic picking exercise that has great practical application uses the “two-finger” boxes on the 1-2 (E’-B) string pair. Chances are you can play this pattern at a fair amount of speed:

Basic 2-string pentatonic box pattern

Single-string and two-string exercises are ideal for isolating any picking-hand issues and working on them before they develop into habits that might limit speed or accuracy. Start with down-up alternate picking, then work in hammer-ons and pull-offs to build legato technique, Once it sounds smooth and clear, it’s time to move it up and down the neck. Here’s the standard A minor pentatonic, all five boxes, starting at the fifth fret:

A minor pentatonic box pattern

The above exercise is a great one for synchronizing both hands, between the string-crossing and the frequent position shifts. If you drill the pattern repeatedly, it’s more rhythmic to hit the turnaround at the first beat of the second bar and start descending at that point, instead of going up to the next box at the 20th fret.

Just as important as working up and down the neck, is working across the neck in a single position. So let’s try running our four-note pattern down through the entire box in position, one step at a time:

A minor pentatonic box (Box 1)

Naturally, we’ll want to work on all five boxes in this manner, ascending and descending, and string them all together in succession when comfortable with all of them.

So far, we’ve just been working with straight 16th notes (groups of 4), but triplet and sextuplet patterns, because of the odd numbers of notes picked per string, are excellent for alternate picking. This last exercise shows the entire first Am box in sextuplets, ascending and then descending back:

Pentatonic box sextuplet pattern

Again, keep it strict down-up alternate picking until you’re comfortable with the pattern and build some speed and accuracy, then start throwing in legato dynamics, observing how those affect your picking hand dynamics as well.

Outside/Inside Picking

For many players, including myself, one of the most persistent mechanical challenges is picking from one string to another. Of course, this can mean a wide variety of combinations, but let’s start with the most basic idea of getting your picking hand from one string to an adjacent string, using standard alternate picking. When learning or refining any technique, it’s important to isolate the motion to its most basic mechanical fundamentals, and build on it.

Let’s take the middle string pair, 3rd (G) and 4th (D) strings, and break down the mechanical motion of going from one string to the other. Imagine a point halfway between those two strings. If you start on the D string with a downstroke, and then play the G string with an upstroke, then you’re going from the “outside” of the strings toward that imaginary point; if you start on the G string with a downstroke followed by an upstroke on the D string, then you’re starting from the “inside” of the strings, heading “out” away from that midpoint. So for the sake of simplicity and common terminology, we’ll just refer to those as “outside” and “inside” picking combinations, respectively. See the tab below:

(*Note:  Different players and teachers have different names for concepts such as this. I’ve seen other teachers and books refer to the “outside” one as “inside”, and vice versa. That’s fine; especially when it comes to naming things, the only rule is “whatever works”. If it makes more sense to you to call them “inside” and “outside”, “A” and “B”, or “Sid” and “Nancy”, then go for it. We’ll stick with “outside” and “inside” here just for the sake of having a common terminology.)

Try it out on all five adjacent string pairs briefly. It shouldn’t take long for it to sound fairly tedious, and more like an exercise than like actual music, so let’s come up with something. Here’s a quick progression to run through on the 3-4 string pair, that sounds more musical:

Since we’re just working with two-note figures (diads), the tonalities indicated above are just the most obvious ones within the key of A minor. For example, the first diad of A-C could also be a C6 inversion.

Fret-hand fingering should be pretty self-evident throughout; the final A-D diad can be either barred or played to set up the ending power chord. Mainly we want to focus on how the picking hand is situated throughout, maintaining a steady back-and-forth. Start with down-up picking at first, then try up-down. Also try reversing the note sequence for the diads with each picking configuration; for example, the first A-C diad would be C-A, exact same fingering, just different order.

Diads are pretty easy to develop and move around, so be sure to try out your own ideas, on as many adjacent string pairs as possible. The minor third interval tuning of the 2-3 (B-G) string pair should present some useful fingering ideas. These ideas apply to non-adjacent string groups as well, of course, but stick to adjacent string pairs until you feel like you have mastered these sequences, and you can play them smoothly and cleanly at a minimum of 120 bpm straight 16th notes. Again, focus on economizing the motion in your picking hand before bumping up your metronome.

Finally, here’s a fun and musical alternative to our diad sequence — since the overall key is Am, working in the open A string builds on the mechanical concept. Work both ideas on other string groups, further up the neck, etc.