Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed: Back to Basics

I've had a few requests lately for some less advanced lessons, so we're taking it back to basics in Doctrine of Woodshed to talk about chops.  Time for some Woodshed Boot Camp.

Speed on guitar is as much about control and precision as it is about sheer physical speed.  To develop speed is to develop accuracy.  So, how do we develop accuracy?  

It's all about playing SLOW.  Anyone who has ever taken lessons from me knows this is my go-to  solution for everything - slow it down.  If you can't play a passage, practice it slow.  In the same manner, if you are learning a new technique, the way to develop it is to work on it slow.  

Really slow. 

No, seriously.  S-l-o-w.  

Here's the idea - there is a bunch of stuff that goes into playing guitar.  Have you ever thought about it?  Where is your picking hand in relation to the length of the strings?  How about the angle of the guitar?  Or the angle of the pick - is the side closest the bridge or the neck pointing up?  Which parts of your hand/arm/wrist are moving and which ones are stationary? What about your.....

It's a lot to process.  You need all these things to be second nature.  You don't want to have to consciously think about them when you're shredding through a passage at full speed.  So we break things down so that we can think about them, make sure everything is working together properly, and increase the tempo in small increments.  

Seems boring, doesn't it?  Yea, maybe it is.  It's much more fun to just dive into a passage and start playing it.  "Hey, I can play it halfway decent at almost full speed!  This is fun.  All I have to do is keep plunking away like this a bunch of times and I'll be playing it full speed in no time!  Look at those egghead losers with their 'metronomes.' Pffft. I'm playing twice as fast as them!"

Yes, that is a seductive thought - one that most musicians have at one point or another.  But here's the thing - if you are playing it "halfway decent," then you're playing it "halfway indecent" - musicians call this "dirty."  It means you are making mistakes.  You may not even notice these mistakes, but the listener does.  You have no time to think about these mistakes when you are trying to "play fast." You think are you getting away with them. Worse, if you don't notice them because you are too busy focusing on speed, then how can you be expected to fix them?!  

That's why it is imperative to play slow.  I'm going to say it again.

Practice slow.

I cannot emphasize this enough.  

Let's take a look at two passages - one a simple exercise that just about any guitarist should be able to do, another a slightly more advanced etude - and go through how I would practice them.  Then we'll talk about some of the hidden problems that would be hard to notice if you jump in too fast.  

First, we'll take a simple scale fragment in E minor.  I used this type of passage quite a bit when first developing my shredding technique.  It is useful to practice it both picked and legato, but today we're just going to focus on picking.

The exercise is only two beats long, repeated ad naseum, with strick alternate picking. (As a side note, bass players could play something similar, focusing on alternating plucking fingers)

If you just jump into it, and try to play it full speed, I can almost guarantee you that you are going to make one specific mistake. When you change strings, you will use two successive downpicks.  Like this:

You'll be able to play the lick once, and wonder why you always have trouble when you go back to the beginning.  It will be because you are getting caught up in the picking pattern and trying to start the lick on an upstroke.  Playing the lick slowly will allow you to pay attention to this potential hangup and make sure you do it right.  Once you have the picking correct, speed is just an issue of cranking up the metronome.

But wait, how much do I change the metronome each time?  When do I change it?  How do I know? What do I start it on?  Good questions, glad you asked.

Remember when I said start slow?  I wasn't kidding.  60 BPM is my go-to starting place, but don't be afraid to start even slower than that.  Most metronomes go down to at least 40, and you should get familiar with what that feels like.  Try playing along to this:

Try to pay attention to every little detail.  Think "down, up, down, up, down, up" when you play.  Are you smooth and in time, or is there hesitation when you change strings?  Is each note sounding clearly? Do you feel rushed when you play it, like you are barely hanging on - or does it flow effortlessly?  Only when all of that is correct should you change the metronome.

How much, you ask?  As small an increment as your metronome will allow.  1 BPM, if possible -  many metronomes only go in increments of 3 or 5, and that's acceptable as well.  Then you ask yourself all those questions over again.  Play the exercise again and again at 41 BPM until it is perfect.  Then 42.  Then 43.  Don't skip over some.  Don't move on until it's perfect, every time.  The harsher you are on yourself at these low tempos, the easier it will be once we really start cooking.

It's also important to have a goal tempo in mind.  I first showed you this exercise at 120 BPM, so let's say that is our goal.  You don't necessarily have to stop there, but having something to shoot for is important to the practice process, because now you have quantifiable proof that you have accomplished something.  You couldn't play it at 120, and now you can.  You are better now than you were when you started practicing.  Achieving goals we set for ourself helps us remember that structured practice is more efficient than blind noodling at improving technique (though noodling definitely has it's place in the creative process - remember, today we're talking about chops, not creation).

Now let's look at a slightly more advanced etude.  We're going to take the exact same approach, and once again when we slow it down we're going to be on the lookout for potential "gotcha's."

When presented with a piece like this, you have to make a few decisions.  If it was on a record, you might endeavor to reproduce the recording - picking, slides, accents.  This time, all we have is sheet music.  So I'm gonna provide the rules, just like I would a student in lessons.

1) Alternate picking
2) No slides or hammer ons
3) Every time you repeat a measure, you have to use the same fingerings - but measure 1 and measure 2 can have different fingerings
4) Accent beats 1 and 3

There are a couple of different fingerings that work, but all involve a shift.  For our practice technique to work, we need figure out for sure which fingers are going to play which notes so that we can use the slow speed to develop muscle memory.  Here's the one I use:

Now for the picking.  The first string change is pretty easy - moving from the notes C to E.  You'll be tempted to do two downstrokes, but just make sure you play the E with an upstroke and it'll happen easy enough.

But the second - moving from the notes E to A - is a bit trickier.  An upstroke followed by a downstroke while moving up strings.  Some guitarists call it "inside the string picking," and it restricts your movement and can be a non-obvious cause of problems when playing fast passages.  When practicing the passage slowly, make sure you aren't cheating on the alternate picking.  This will likely be something I call a "speed limit" - that is, something you personally find difficult to play that restricts how fast you can play a passage.  You should only play the entire passage as fast as you can play all the "speed limits."

Since this is a slightly more advanced etude, I won't hold your hand.  Go through the remainder of the passage, figuring out anything that might be tricky for you (what fingering are you going to use going from measure 1 to measure 2?  Don't let there be any hesitation), and then once again, break out a metronome and start it at "annoyingly slow."  Play it perfect ten times, and then turn the metronome to "annoyingly slow +1 BPM."  You know the rest.

So, now that you know how to learn a fast passage, you can apply this to all sorts of music.  The only thing standing between you and the solo from "Stairway to Heaven," or "Eruption," or even "Through the Fire and Flames," is time, patience and a metronome.  Go on, then.  Shred it up.

And as an added bonus, the first person to send me a YouTube video of the "A minor Etude" played clean at 120BPM gets a signed copy of Doctrine's EP.  Becha' Can't Play This:

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Been a while since I've had a chance to update - don't worry, new Doctrine of Woodshed and Theory of Ethos lessons are coming soon.

In the meantime, Doctrine has been busy.  February 15th at The Sound Hole we debuted a brand new song, "Pressure" that I teased a few weeks ago.  The first run went awesome, and I hope we can get this on a record soon, along with some new material we're working on.

As for upcoming shows, Doctrine is going to be at The Rock Shop, which is an awesome venue, on April 12th.

Chico's World will soon be back to regular schedule.  We've covered rhythm for several weeks, so I think next I'll go back to some harmony concepts.  Once again, let me know if you have any requests for lessons or videos, and be sure to subscribe to the blog, and check out me, and Doctrine, on all your favorite social media.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Writing in Mixed Meter

For the past two weeks we've been looking at rhythm and meter.  If you aren't familiar with odd meter, make sure to check out Lesson 2 and 3.

Now we're going to get into one of the most definable elements of progressive music: writing in odd meter.  We've covered how to read odd meters and the basic drum beats that outline them, finally now we're going to get back to guitar and talk about some riffs!

The simplest and easiest way to write in odd meter is to take the groups of 2s and 3s and simply play straight eighth notes over them.  This is the exact thing I do in Wake Up, which we talked about briefly last week.  Here's my guitar part laid on top of Corey's drum part.

You can easily see the 3-3-3-2-2 grouping.  13/8 is a highly unusual time signature, but ignoring that and simply feeling the groupings makes it feel much simpler than it appears at first look.

However, that is not the only way to make a part in odd meter.  Just as 4/4 can have syncopation (notes off the beat), odd meter can also have syncopation.  An obvious way to do this is to leave some of the main beats out.  What would "Wake Up" look like if the first note of every grouping in the guitar was gone?

A little more interesting, but also a little strange.  If that illustrates a mechanical way to make odd meter syncopated, then how do we make that syncopation musical?  That's a loaded question.  There's no quick answer to that question, but simply asking it is a step in the right direction.  Getting away from being so mechanical is a good start.  Let's put the downbeat of each measure back in, so that a listener is not so disoriented by the syncopation.

That's a little less strange.  It isn't the effect we wanted on "Wake Up" (or it would be on the album!), but it is a decent, musical riff in odd meter.

So far we've dealt exclusively with 8th notes - that is, the notes that make up the groups of 2s and 3s.  We can also create some syncopation by placing notes in between the 8th notes.  Here's a riff in 7/8 with some 16th notes.

Not bad, but it's a little busy.  Let's take another look at that tab.  In the "Wake Up" lessons last week, we left out the notes at the beginning of groupings.  The tab below takes the 7/8 riff and leaves out some of the sixteenth notes. creating a similar kind of syncopation.

Again, we have that disorienting sensation of not having a downbeat.  If we add that back in, we end up with a riff very similar to the opening of "The Demon."

Actually "The Demon" is really in E minor, not A minor.  Seven string players can just take above example down one string to play what I played on the album.

Creating this kind of syncopation is FAR from the only way to vary up the rhythm in odd meter, but hopefully this lesson will give you some ideas of ways to create new things in your own writing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Guitar World and the Rock Guitarist

Part of the purpose of this blog is to figure out exactly what it is that separates a guitarist right now from a pianist 200 years ago.  It seems obvious, doesn't it?  One is a ruler of the stage, playing loud, raucous music in front of cheering fans while the other was a stodgy old man who sat alone writing the kind of music that gets played in elevators.  Their differences should be easy to find; what could they possibly have in common in the first place?

But it isn't so easy.  Mozart was a grand showman in his day.  His correspondence and writings speak of audiences exploding into applause at certain points in his music (of course, the exact points he intended, so the letters say).  The idea of an audience sitting in solemn silence through a performance wasn't so rigid until Wagner.  

And what of the guitarist?  Do we not spend hours on end practicing?  We study past "literature," just as the masters of old - only our "literature" is our brother's/uncle's/older friend's CD collection instead of manuscripts of orchestra scores.  Perhaps the line from Mozart to Tom Morello does not have such a clean break as it first appears.  

But then, neither is the line so clear.  Most of the "great masters" of Western Classical music were drawing principally from their own tradition - that is, the music continued to sound like itself; there was little outside influence.  Later eras would find inspiration in folk music and other sources.  Stravinsky loved Russian folk music, and Dvorak showed Americans they could sound like America instead of Europe.  Yet still, even in the Romantic era, the music was still fundamentally derived from the Western Classical tradition (music theorists call this the Common Practice Period - CPP).  

Which is all a long-winded and winding (and lacking citation) way of saying that the contemporary rock guitarist comes from a much more varied and globe-trotting tradition.  Appalachian folk, negro spiritual, spanish flamenco and Western CPP all influence his playing - wether he is aware of it or not.  Bach would have taken only a surface idea from another culture - a folk melody gets harmonized into a chorale - but a rock guitarist can choose to absorb any amount of another culture into his style, and many cultures are already there. 

So here's what I want to know, guitarists: how did you learn to play guitar?  Did you read Guitar World (hey, remember Guitar One?  How about Performing Guitarist?) Did you take private lessons?  What songs did you learn first?  Or did you learn any at all until you were "better"?  Tell me about the early steps in your journey.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed: Left Hand Tapping

Welcome back to Doctrine of Woodshed.  This week we’re going to talk about some more interesting and unusual left hand technique.  Actually, the technique we’re talking about this week is ALL left hand.  

Left hand tapping is something we’ve mentioned before.  It involves playing a note by hammering on with your left hand without any picking.  If you can do more traditional tapping then it is the same concept with your other hand.  

You can use this to play scalar or melodic passages.  This will create a legato that sounds significantly different than the legato we talked about last week with hammer-ons and pull-offs. This is what we talked about being the Allan Holdsworth legato technique.  But that’s not what we’re talking about today.  

If you mix up left hand tapping with pull-offs to an open string you can create interesting, fast licks with minimal effort.  You are probably familiar with this sort of thing.  It is what Angus does in “Thunderstruck” through almost the entire song.  Here's the beginning:

This YouTube video is not mine. I claim no copyright, and send me a message if it goes down.

The only note in this that is picked is the very first open string.  After that it is all left hand.  You can even see Angus raising his right hand to the crowd in some videos.  (Of course, you can also see him picking through this lick in some live videos.  So who knows)

I also use it in a Doctrine song that is not on our EP.  The song “Revelation” uses a technique similar to “Thunderstruck” to create a blistering melodic passage.  It will also give me a chance to talk about some of the pitfalls of this technique and how to overcome them.  

Unlike “Thunderstruck,” my left hand is shifting positions quite quickly during this passage.  Practicing it is going to first depend on having the shifts down.  Try playing it without the pull-offs, even possibly picking the notes.  Like this: 

Once you have the idea of hammering and then pulling off to an open string plus the shifting down, the next thing to do is start slow and gradually build up speed.  However, what you’re quickly going to find is that you make a lot of noise.  Pulling-off requires that you flick your finger in one direction to get the open string to sound.  This will inevitably mean you accidentally hit neighboring strings.  

The way to get around this is by muting those strings with your right hand.  So no, I don’t get to raise my hand to the crowd like Angus during “Revelation,” but in return I get to play a faster lick without fear of unwanted notes.  

Take the thumb of your right hand and mute the G string, and then take your index finger and mute the high E string.  Like this:

You can even lay your thumb across the rest of the lower strings to make sure they don’t ring out.  Here’s an excerpt from the solo.  Hopefully “Revelation” will be on a record soon, but in the meantime you can hear it at a Doctrine show.  It’s always in our set.  We’ll be at The Sound Hole in Myrtle Beach Friday, February 15.  

All tracks were recorded direct using a Line 6 Pod HD 500
Backing tracks made using GarageBand
Special thanks to Corey Holden

Blake Graham exclusively uses (and is not endorsed by):
Carvin Guitars
Line 6
Jim Dunlop

Doctrine of Ethos on Facebook
Our debut album produced by Jamie King (Between the Buried and Me)

Joe, Corey, and myself all have lessons available through Star Music. Send me a message or call Star Music at 843 448 2819 for more details.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tomorrow's Lesson

I've been pretty busy lately working on a top-secret Doctrine-related project, so I haven't had time to do the filming and editing for tomorrow's Doctrine of Woodshed.  The lesson will go up on time, with the examples provided through Noteflight as usual, just no YouTube videos.  I will make the YouTube videos as soon as I possibly can and add them to the lesson.

In the meantime, I'm excited to report that sometime very soon (possibly tomorrow) I will have some info on that Doctrine project that has been taking so much time away from Chico's World lately.

Guitar players get ready!  Tomorrow's lesson is going to cover a pretty unique left hand technique that I use in "Revelation."  Even without YouTube videos it is going to be an interesting lesson.

Please leave me a comment in the blog or send me a facebook message with what you would like to see me cover in a future lesson.  It could happen as early as next week, as I don't have that lesson planned yet.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Theory of Ethos 3: Mixed Meter

Theory of Ethos 3: Mixed Meter

Last week on Theory of Ethos we looked at a basic rock beat and some basic ways to vary the meter.  Every beat we looked at contained nothing but groups of either 2 or 3 eighth notes.  Now we’re going to see what happens if we mix and match 2s and 3s.

Let’s start with ¾. Here’s the drum groove again from last week. 

If we take the first group of eighth notes and add one we end up with 7 eighth notes also known as the time signature ⅞.

Let’s stay with ⅞ for a minute.  The above pattern is one that musicians call “3-2-2.”  It obviously refers to the grouping of beats.  If we move the added note to the second or third grouping we still end up with ⅞, but different patterns.  “2-3-2” or “2-2-3”

Musicians often think of odd meter in groups of 2s and 3s.  Every time signature, no matter how exotic, can be broken up into 2s and 3s.  The more pedestrian meters we talked about last week were consistent 2s or 3s as opposed to mixed meter, which combines them.  ⅝ would be either 3-2 or 2-3



Other combinations of 2s and 3s yield other time signatures.  Some Dream Theater songs string them together in long combinations.  The verses of “Wake Up” are in 13/8, grouped in 3-3-3-2-2.  Here’s a transcript of Corey’s drum part from the album.  You can see that it outlines the groupings very clearly.

Of course, groupings don’t have to be so obvious.  The main riff of “The Demon” is in ⅞, but the groupings are a little harder to spot.  However, a closer look still shows a 3-2-2 group defining the riff.  Next week’s Theory of Ethos will break down this riff, and then I’ll talk some more about how to construct melodies and rhythm parts in odd meter using 2s and 3s.  

Leave a comment below if you have something you’d like me to cover in Theory of Ethos or Doctrine of Woodshed.  It can be a Doctrine song, a specific problem you’re having, a guitar technique, or just a general topic you’d like to see an article on.  

Check out Doctrine of Ethos on facebook and our debut album on

Joe, Corey, and myself all have lessons available through Star Music.  Send me a message or call Star Music at 843 448 2819 for more details.  

Blake Graham exclusively uses (and is not endorsed by):
Carvin Guitars
Line 6
Jim Dunlop