50 Tips FOR... Electric mastery
Jon Bishop wants to help you become a better electric guitarist! Covering all aspects of lead and rhythm playing the broad range of techniques covered means there’s something in here for everyone.
We can all do with kicking our playing up a notch, and this super article from top tutor and working pro musician Jon Bishop is designed to fine-tune every aspect of your electric playing.
ABILITY RATING Info Key Various Tempo Various CD TRACKS 4-9 Will improve your… Use of various harmonic techniques. Use of sweep picking and tapping. Use of hybrid picking.
Two issues ago we ran a ‘50 pro tips for acoustic mastery’ feature that has proved very popular with many of you. Following on therefore is its sister lesson, this time focusing on your electric guitar skills.
The early pioneers of solo guitar playing experimented with amplification during the 1940s. Big band guitarist Charlie Christian attached a simple pickup to his Gibson archtop, which allowed him to play singlenote solos and be heard over the volume of the orchestra he performed with - none less than that of the great clarinetist Benny Goodman. Feedback from the resonant acoustic body led to Les Paul, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender experimentation with solidbody designs, and so the modern electric guitar was born.
As a GT reader you are clearly interested in improving many areas of your playing. So our aim with this feature is to illustrate some new ideas and fresh approaches, specifically for electric guitarists of all styles and abilities. Be it incorporating advanced harmonic techniques like Eric Johnson or Chet Atkins, or trying the show-stopping YouTube friendly spectacle of adding in slap bass style elements a la Guthrie Govan, there is hopefully something here for everyone.
Open-string muting on electric guitar is an essential, yet often overlooked part of sound production. Any strings that aren’t damped by either the fretting or picking hand can ring out in sympathy, especially when playing at volume or with higher gain settings. We recommend you always try to practise plugged in, even if it’s via headphones, so you can a gain a true representation of the tone and quality of the notes you are articulating.
We have written out 50 pro tips designed to take your electric guitar playing to another level. The first 20 are conceptual in nature, but are no less important for that since they concentrate on vital areas of approach and general good practice.
The following 30 come with audio examples that you can learn and these are, as ever, fully tabbed. In many cases we have used famous guitarists for inspiration and draw heavily from the country, jazz and rock genres. So if you like the technique or effect in a particular example you can dip into the artist’s back catalogue for extra research.
Overall you may find that implementing and practising some of the less obviously exciting, core concepts covered here will provide the biggest gains in the long run. However, playing slap bass style, harp harmonics or walking bass is fun and will raise the eyebrow of the even most seasoned guitar shop assistant! As ever have fun and I’ll see you next time.
CHOOSING AN INSTRUMENT
01 There are many kinds of electric guitar so it is worth understanding the basic options. The two most common types are bolt-on neck with single-coil pickups (Telecaster, Stratocaster etc) and the set-neck mahogany body with twin humbucker design (Les Paul, SG, PRS etc). Modern guitars are often a hybrid of the two and a‘super-strat’ (bolt on neck with modern tremolo and a humbucker) offer much versatility in terms of tone and functionality. Digital guitars like the Line 6 Variax have really come of age offering great tonal flexibility and the convenience of being able to switch between tunings at the touch of a button. Play the various designs to find one where the neck feels comfortable, and the sounds and functionality fit your style. But don’t be afraid to go off piste and try the ‘wrong’guitar - like a Tele for rock or jazz, an ES-175 for blues or a PRS for country.
Get a good set-up
02 The set-up of your guitar can make a big difference to both tone and playability. Light gauge strings and a low action is great for fast legato, while heavier strings and a higher action is better for picking resistance and bending clearance. Many factors contribute to the set-up of your instrument so using a professional technician is well worth the money. A good tech will adjust the truss rod, nut, pickup height, neck tilt, fret work, bridge saddles for height and intonation and the vibrato arm action if your guitar has one. Remember if you fancy experimenting with string gauges your guitar may need to be adjusted to accommodate this. The intonation on an electric guitar is vital to have right and is achieved by moving the bridge saddles closer (sharp) or further (flat) from the nut. This adjustment changes the relationship of the strings’length to the frets, making chords and scales sound more in tune.
Han d Maintenance
03 Preparing and maintaining your hands and nails is an obvious, but regularly overlooked aspect of preparation. Aim to keep the fingernails of the fretting hand short to help with easy fretwork. You may find longer nails on the picking hand can be helpful for certain styles but rough edges can lead to ragged tone and fluffed notes. Aim for a nice rounded shape on the picking hand nails so they can be used for finger style and hybrid picking. Nail clippers are preferable to scissors, as scissors tend to rip the nail leaving an uneven edge. Always keep some clippers and a nail file in your gig bag and wash your hands prior to playing. Clean hands run more smoothly over the neck, but also lead to longer string life and better tone in the long run.
04 Warming up prior to playing is an essential yet often overlooked aspect. Warming up will help to boost performance and reduce the risk of injury. Start with some light stretching of the upper body, forearms and shoulders. Get everything nice and loose and ready to play. One finger per fret style exercises can act as great warm-ups and work on both the alternate picking and one finger per fret techniques. For a brilliant warm-up feature with exercises at every fret in various styles, see last month’s issue.
MAINTAIN A GOOD POSTURE 05
It is important for all musicians to avoid injury. Consider these key points before beginning a session of playing:
• Don’t let yourself get away with bad posture. Stand or sit with a straight back, don’t hunch, and use a strap with a sensible adjustment.
• A high strap will make fingering easier, but the picking arm will be bent into an awkward shape. A low strap may look cool, but will hamper easy fretting and put stress on the fretting-hand wrist.
• Angle the neck of the guitar up to help with stretches and fingering.
• Place your music on a music stand and adjust the height to eye level. • Stretch all the muscles of the upper body, arms and neck prior to playing.
PICK CHOICE AND TONE
06 Tone is the by-product of many factors: the pick you use, the angle of attack, fretting-hand touch and the location you pick the string. Experiment with where and how you pick the string. Angling the pick will produce more attack while hitting the string flat on will provide a fatter tone. A heavier pick transmits more energy to the string. A pick with a sharp tip can make speedy runs easier to articulate. Try various different plectrums made from various different materials until you find some that fit your overall style. Some players use a big, light pick to strum acoustic and a smaller, thicker one for picking electric; others happily compromise with one all-rounder.
USING A THUMB PICK
07 The fingerstyle technique provides great facility and tone. Adding a thumb pick provides a more defined attack to bass notes, but still maintains the facility available with the fingerstyle technique. The more pronounced attack works well with a country or rockabilly style slapback delay setting especially if combined with a palm mute. The thumb pick allows a lot of freedom and also facilitates regular picking when required.
PICKING WITH YOUR FINGERS
08 Fingerstyle and hybrid picking are a great way to increase tone and dexterity. Many players such as Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck and Richie Kotzen have adopted a fingers-only approach with jaw-dropping results. For hybrid picking only the thumb and first finger are required to hold the pick, so the second and third fingers are free to be used to pluck various other notes and strings. The sound of flesh and nail on the string provides plenty of tone and is useful for both lead and rhythm guitar. Country pickers like Brent Mason (a thumb pick user) are particularly fond of hybrid picking.
Which Pic kups?
09 There are four main types of electric guitar pickups to chose from and each one has its strengths and weaknesses. Pickups have become very much a holly grail item and many custom, aftermarket pickup manufacturers are meeting the demand with a plethora of lovely designs.
Single-coil pickup The narrow single-coil style was originally found on Fender guitars and provides an open sound that works great with clean tones. It does suffer from hum and background noise in certain environments.
Humbucking pickup The humbucker was original found on Gibson guitars from 1957 on and features two coils wired together which helps to‘buck the hum’! This type of pickup has a pronounced middle and works well with natural amp overdrive and provides punchy lead tones.
P90 pickup The P90 is another Gibson design and has never been out of production since 1946. It’s a large single-coil and has a much warmer, rounder and much more powerful tone than Fender-style single coils. Slide players are especially fond of the P90 as its huge tone works very well with the slide.
Active pickup The active pickup uses a different design to that of magnetic pickups. Therefore it has certain advantages such as noiseless operation and no magnetic pull on the strings. Famous brands like EMG require a battery to operate. Some players find the tone is too clinical and precise for their taste but others, like Steve Lukather, rejoice in it.
Open -positi on ma jor chords
10 Learning these five open chord shapes will also help you to navigate the whole fretboard with the CAGED system. It is possible with just this handful of chords to write great songs and accompany yourself and others. You will notice in our diagram that there are five possible major triad chords fingerings (C, A, G, E and D). We have taken out the 3rd (B) from the G chord, as the G5 fingering is more common and sounds much stronger, especially with an overdriven tone. The beauty of the open chord system is that the fingerings sound good and are easy to play. Once you have perfected these in the open position try playing them as barre chords. Some shapes will be easier to finger than others, but playing the shapes all over the neck will allow you to access all keys. You can also access other keys with relative ease by using a capo, which is a device that clips around the neck and holds down the strings across any fret to provide a new‘zero’fret.
Open Positi on min or Chords
11 Just as with the five major chords there are also five possible minor fingerings. However the ones for C and G are tricky to play and often don’t sound that good - especially for strumming as certain strings need to be omitted - so most guitarists avoid them. The most popular three open fingerings are the D minor, E minor and A minor shapes so make these a priority in your practice (but don’t ignore the trickier Gm and Cm shapes).
USE THE GUITAR’S CONTROLS
12 Many electric guitarists have the guitar’s tone and volume knobs full up and this is where they stay. If this sounds like you try experimenting with your volume and tone. The volume knob can be used to temper the saturation of an overdriven amp. Reducing the guitar’s volume knob with an overdriven sound also provides a very different sounding clean tone. Guitarists like Brian May and Eddie Van Halen achieved a fantastic array of iconic tones with just a tube amp and the guitar’s volume control. A Strat with a tone control on the bridge pickup (such as on many newer models) provides a wondrous sound as it tames that spiky top end; humbucking guitars can sound brilliant with the tone down too - think of Clapton’s ‘woman tone’.
USE DROP D
13 The drop D tuning has become a classic trick over the years due to the opportunities it presents to the guitarist. The detuned sixth string has a deeper and darker sound. This is due in no small part to the reduced tension of the string. The drop D tuning creates a powerchord on the lowest three strings; it’s easy to play, as only one finger is required. The only real down side to drop D tuning is the reduced tension on the sixth string which can provide intonation issues. You may also find you need to be careful with fretting pressure and picking attack, as it is easy to knock the low string out of tune. One way to overcome this issue is to fit a heavier gauge sixth string if you plan to play in drop D tuning a lot. This is a good strategy and many string manufacturers now make string sets specifically for this purpose.
USE A SLI DE
14 Slide guitar has a couple of significant barriers to entry. The first is establishing a good consistent contact between the slide and the string. You may find heavier strings and a higher action can help here. The second is to be able to mute unwanted strings from ringing both behind and in front of the slide. Once you have mastered these two you can then work on the intonation of the slide positioning. Slides are made from different materials and come in many different shapes and sizes. The material and size of the slide will affect its tone and feel. You can also experiment with the finger on which you wear the slide. Aussie slide virtuoso and friend of GT, Brett Garsed favours the second finger so he can angle the slide and incorporate fretting-hand fingers behind and in front of the slide. Derek Trucks favours the third finger, which provides good control and a free vibrato style.
15 The string bending technique is widely used in many genres, but was originally developed in jazz, country and blues and was quickly adopted by rock guitarists. Today string bending is used in pretty much every style of electric guitar playing in one way or another, from faux pedal steel effects (check out Brett this month!) to bending behind the nut.The key thing to practise is intonation (tuning). Using a fretted target tone can be a good way to practise string bends and make sure they are in tune. A popular issue is bending the note sharp (over bending) and this is particularly easy to do on the third string due to its lower tension.
PRACTICING AND TIME MANAGEMENT
16 One of the barriers to practice can be locating the relevant materials and setting up. A dedicated practice space that remains set up is a great way to make the most of your time when you feel the urge to go to work. The key with productive practice is to focus on a perceived weakness. Try practising in short sessions of 20mins, with a break. Practising slowly is great for developing consistent, accurate results. Practising a lick or riff slowly often gets ignored as it’s not the most exiting way to spend time on the instrument and requires focus and patience. But by practising slowly you are programming your brain with the correct information and from this position it’s much easier to up the tempo. By practising too fast in the early stages there is more chance that mistakes will be made and learnt. A good way to set a slow enough tempo is to take a tempo that seems slow and then halve it. Slow practice also helps with that common fault - running ahead of the beat.
USE OPEN TUNING S
17 Changing the tuning of the electric guitar opens up a world of sonic possibilities. Retuning the strings makes ideas that would be very hard to play in standard tuning relatively easy. Open tunings are also handy when using a slide as no tricky angling is required to play full sounding chords. Two of the most popular electric guitar open tunings you may wish to try are: Open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E), as used by Derek Trucks for soulful slide work; and open G (D-G-D-G-B-D) employed by Keith Richard ever since he used it for writing Jumpin’ Jack Flash in 1968.
THREE NOTES PER STRING
18 Placing a consistent three notes on each string helps when applying various patterns to a scale during solos and improvisation. Rock guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are particularly fond of three-notes-per-string especially if used for seven-note scales or in a modal setting (Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian, etc). We have written out a nice easy fingering for C major using the three-notes-per-string fingering. Here the same fingering is repeated twice on adjacent strings as you ascend so it’s nice and easy to remember. Try playing a simple pattern on one strings and then play it on each string as you ascend or descend.
MIN OR PENTATONIC
19 The Minor Pentatonic is a guitarist favourite due to its easy fretting pattern and the fact that all the notes sound good together. Guitarists often stick to the E string rooted ‘shape one’ as a home base. But learning all five positions will provide more fluency and will help you to find the sweet spot in a variety of keys. We have written these shapes out as fretboard diagrams. These fingerings are moveable so once you have learned them all in the guitar-friendly key of A, feel free to shift them around the neck to the key of your choice. Luckily these ‘shapes’ also work for the Major Pentatonic. It’s just the location of the root note within the shape that changes.
20 The Major Pentatonic scale is often overlooked in favour of the Minor Pentatonic but it’s really worth learning to use the two together, as blues players like BB
King and Eric Clapton do so well. By doing this your blues will sound more informed, and you will be able access
Major Pentatonic-heavy styles like country and rockabilly more easily. As mentioned the Major and Minor Pentatonic scale share the same fingering shapes; it’s just the location of the root notes that changes - Major is three frets down.
Any electric guitar will work well as it’s all about applying the techniques covered here to your own personal playing situation. For the recording I used my James Tyler Variax guitar. This was plugged into and recorded via the Line 6 Helix pedal board. We have listed the pickup selections and pedals used at the start of each tabbed example for reference.