complete rock workout Be ready for that gig!
Been a long time since you rock and rolled? Fear not, as John Wheatcroft takes you through all the steps required to prepare you for that Big Rock Gig.
John Wheatcroft presents the ultimate rock guitar workout to make sure you hit that stage like a seasoned pro!
“The disgusting stink of a too loud electric guitar: now that’s my idea of a good time”. So said Frank Zappa, an incredibly diverse and articulate musician who could create in a wide variety of styles. Put an electric guitar in his hands, however, and it was time to rock and roll.
The purpose of this article is to hone a variety of techniques that you might wish to develop when preparing for that big rock gig. It’s no different whether it be for the start of a 30-date tour, or a Friday night pub gig where you need to impress - your family is coming, or perhaps other musicians will be there (potential future bandmates?). The better prepared you are, the more ‘headroom’ your playing has. Play at the limit of your abilities and mistakes are much more likely to occur.
We have eight studies designed to develop particular areas, such as open-string and moveable power chords, riffs and melodic hooks, all the way to bending in the pentatonic scale, string skipping, tapping and so on. We round the lesson off with a short piece that incorporates many of these concepts, with a couple of cool new ideas thrown in.
Execute each study as written; then, once you’re comfortable with them, it’s up to you to create equivalent studies using the same concepts, but in your own way. We’ve aimed for mainstream techniques that you can hear in action if you do some careful listening. In fact, listening and absorbing is as important as any other area of your practice routine. An actor, preparing for a role that requires a specific dialect, would research by listening to that accent, and maybe even visit the area for a while. Likewise, you’re never going to be able to play convincing rock guitar if you’ve not absorbed it by listening - thoroughly.
Think of learning a new idea as a process of ‘turning on’ various sounds that you are familiar with; this speeds up the intuitive side of learning tremendously.
Your approach to gig ‘etiquette’ can really make a difference too. Other musicians notice if you turn up to shows or rehearsals knowing the tunes inside out, with the right equipment, on time and with a positive attitude - they notice the opposite, too. Make sure you have a tuner, preferably one that allows you to tune silently between songs; spare strings, valves, fuses, leads and batteries if you need them. A spare guitar is a good idea too - break a string and you can do an impressive quick change.
It’s a great idea to record performances and rehearsals. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy; most phones have the facility to record and, for the purposes of reviewing your performance, the quality will be fine. It’s important to be kind but firm to yourself. While it’s good to be critical, you need to strike a balance between acknowledging the areas that need work, and those aspects of your playing personality that you actually like and should aim to accentuate.
Make your tone work for you
Your choices regarding tone can make a dramatic difference to the way your guitar sounds and is perceived. Most rock players agree that a quality valve amp turned up loud with a couple of select pedals is the way to go. We’re generally after one good tone, varying the gain level by using the volume on your guitar and kicking an overdrive or distortion pedal in or out. The gain structure is the most crucial factor in establishing your tone, and can have a dramatic effect on the playability and ‘feel’ of your guitar.
Here are some points to consider: Moderately overdriven tones are particularly expressive, especially at stage volume. The tone is rocky but still responsive to pickup changes and picking dynamics. Paul Kossoff and Angus Young are two leading exponents of this approach to tone production. Take care when mixing picked-notes and hammer-ons, as volume imbalances can be apparent.
If you’ve ever witnessed Zakk Wylde or James Hetfield in action you’ll be aware of the power, projection and sustain that a fully distorted sound is capable of. The drawbacks are limited dynamic range and increased handling noise. Techniques such as vibrato need to be exaggerated as the gain increases, if they are to be truly effective.
Single-coil pickups produce a clear, bell-like tone. They are particularly good at reproducing picking dynamics and excel in clean and moderately overdrive settings. Noise can be an issue with high gain though, prompting a number of makers to design hum-cancelling options. Full humbucking pickups produce a more strident, bold and fatter sound that fills a lot of tonal space. The unit closest to the bridge produces the brightest sound while things get progressively warmer, closer to the neck. Generally speaking, the bridge pickup sees the most action in rock as overdrive and distortion fatten the tone considerably, although the neck pickup can sound particularly flute-like, and flatters a range of high-gain techniques such as sweep picking and string skipping. Just watch any video of Yngwie Malmsteen and the number of pickup changes from bridge to neck and back again, is likely to run into double figures in every piece he plays!
I hope you enjoy our ‘technique tune-up’, and remember to refer to it any time your playing needs a shot in the arm.