Friday, 14 November 2014

Guitar Tone Secrets of the Pharaohs.

OK I fess up. That title is entirely misleading and designed to lure the unsuspecting guitarist into reading this blog and watching the video. The clue was the use of the word SECRET. It's a bit like when it says 'Rare unseen footage of player X' in a Youtube description. If it's on YouTube it's no longer rare or unseen! But I digress...

 Guitarist's are suckers for anything that promises to aid them in that endless quest for tone and the guitar mags are full of it.

'10 things you must do to sound like Eddie Van Halen'
1: Huff Schwinn cycle paint (it's what Eddie used)
2: Rewire your guitar only on a full moon and don't forget to bypass the tone pot.
3. Get some authentic Marlboro burns on your headstock etc....

And on it goes.....

Whilst a lot of this stuff us usefull and valid advice the fact of the matter is these mags are there to sell product whether it be the artists (their latest CD) or the manufacturers (their latest amp).
 Often I find the latest offering from Blackmarstarshall or whoever to be completely unusable but these products are aimed at a mass market and the key thing here is finding something that works for you.

So here's the real meat of this article - after this you can go back to watching Ukrainian midget tossing, pictures of donkeys wearing fedoras or whatever else you do with your internet time.

Okay so the tone secret of the Pharaohs is.......

It's at either end of the tone chain that the major changes can be achieved. The bit in the middle...well.....meh!

The beginning.
The player's ears, hands and heart.
They make the single biggest difference but you can't buy those.

Great strings are the heart of your sound and anyone that says they don't make a difference is frankly an idiot. For years I used Ernie Balls and thought they were the best you could get. Until I tried Newtones that is. They sound and feel better last far longer and because they're wound for YOU the gauges and core can tailored to your instrument and requirements. Over the years either through necessity or curiosity I've tried others but they just don't cut it. A big shout out to Kurt Mangan strings by the way who've come the closest!
Getting the right pickup for the guitar is crucial and handwound pickups are always better. More articulation and detail. In terms of bang for you buck it's hard get more for less. Amps only do just that...amplify. Feed crap in at one end and they'll throw crap out at the other end. Loud, distorted crap!
This is why I pay more attention (and money) to this stage than any other. I think that without the right pickup you're fighting a losing battle.

The end.

Finding a speaker you like sound of is critical and can transform the sound of an amp for better or worse in 5 mins. This is easily controlled by you and doesn't cost a fortune to experiment with.

Finally the listeners ears. People do hear things differently and there's nowt you can do about it.
Some have golden ears whilst some are made of cloth. my video and check out Catwhiskers Pickups.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Chromatic Harmonisation

A lot of people get confused when it comes to understanding to the difference between diatonic and chromatic harmony but it's actually pretty simple. 
   Diatonic harmony is any chord that belongs to the home key - chromatic harmony is any chord that comes from elsewhere. So for instance in the key of C major an A major chord is chromatic as it contains a C# and that's a note that isn't part of C major naturally.

The trick is seeing the wood for the trees so to speak. To that end we're going to experiment with a very simple melody line in the key of G major.

B - C - D - E 

A simple harmonisation of that top line would be 

I - IV - V - IV or 

 G major - C major - D major - C  major

Into this we're going to introduce a chromatic note so our melody line is now:

B - C - D - D# - E

The D# is non diatonic (does not belong to the key of G major) so any chord we use to harmonise it will be chromatic. There are obviously a lot of possibilities but the chords that will work best are the ones that have connections with the chords before and after it. This is where the idea of false relations come in but first we need to be clear about.....

Diatonic chord movement

Take for instance the idea of a diatonic relationship of two chords a 3rd apart:

C major moving to A minor

C major is C E G 
A minor is A C E

One sounds like an extension of the other as they share two notes and the one note that changes is only moving one scale step. Obviously they're going to sound well together - they are connected by common notes. 

This can be done in the opposite direction also:

C major moving to E minor

C major is C E G 
E minor is E G B

The same logic applies. Two notes 'stick' - the E and the G. One note moves one scale step in this case the C moving to B.

False Relations

A false relation subverts this idea.

                                                          C major moving to Ab major

C major is C E G 
Ab major is Ab C Eb

Here they share one note and the two notes that move each move a semitone (chromatically) - one up and one down nicely following the rules of counterpoint. 

We hear a connection between the two chords but it's more ear catching, dramatic or 'coloured'. Have a think about the root of the word chromatic at this point and it's appropriateness in this context.

Most of the examples below use this technique. Where dominant 7ths are used this heightens the sense of tension and resolution. 

Note that the approach chord to the chromatic chord varies. The D can be harmonised with either a D or G major chord. The choices were made to maintain a 3rds relationship and to avoid stepwise movement. 

All the examples are notated and were done of the top of my head in a lesson so are by no means exhaustive. Dissect each one and look at the individual notes as they move from chord to chord. i.e voice leading. No tab here by the way! That's for losers!

To explore this concept further you could replace the D# topline note with another chromatic note elsewhere. A C# between the C & D notes would be a good choice. 

Note also that I've limited myself to major chords only. Minor, diminished and augmented chords can all be used successfully. The underlying factors that determine whether it'll sound good are the root movement and the voice leading.  

Here's video of me playing through the examples.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Monday, 9 June 2014

Learning Songs

   Well if you viewed my post entitled "Getting your playing out there"  you'll no doubt have scored yourself the gig you've been looking for. Brilliant! The only thing is that now you've got another problem. Learning all the tunes they want you to play on the gig - next week! 
 Although I have a repetoire of hundreds of songs I still have to learn tunes at short notice all the time. After all, nobody knows all the thousands of songs there are out there. 

So here's how I approach learning sets quickly and efficiently. 

I create A5 sheets for each song containing just the critical information required to get through the song. A5 is more manageable on a gig but big enough to get most songs onto.

Roughly these are the steps I go through to distill the song down.

  • Identify the key center and the main chord progressions for each section of the song
  • Label these sections - Verse, Chorus middle 8 etc. It's actually not that important that your labels coincide with anyone else's as long as you know what they mean. 
  • Work your way through the tune getting the structure clear in your mind and down on paper. 
  • From there it'll be a matter of notating the exceptions to the likely Verse-Chorus repeat format. 
  • I include rhythmic notation and simple melodic directions - just note letters and a contour.
  • Stops are very important to get right. If you're playing when everyone else stops they're gonna notice! 
  • Include vocal cues and reminders of extended sections

Here's an example sheet and a line by line breakdown. The song is the soul classic 'Hold back the Night'

Normally I write the title at the top but forgot on this occasion!

From top to bottom, line by line:

Intro chord sequence which also happens to be the Chorus sequence (not uncommon).

A triplet ascending chord pattern (a major feature of the song) 

A reminder of a specific arpeggiated verse pattern (again - an important detail)

From there it's just structure and any exceptions to the regular verse - chorus repetitions.

By the time I've prepared this I'll already know the song but I'll practice with it front of me for a while and quickly start to ignore it. Chances are I won't need it by the time comes to play it with the band but if I do it'll be clear to read from and will guide me through - even with my hand writing! 

If there are sets that you don't play often it's good to keep these sheets as they'll serve as an excellent memory aid and you'll be back up to speed more or less straight away.
 Over time you'll find your own ways of representing the important information.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Harmonic Scales - Hearing chord tones

One of the trickiest aspects of improvising is negotiating chord changes. It's fairly straightforward when all the chords belong to the same key. In that instance one single scale will suffice but rarely does a piece of music stay in one key. Even a basic 12 bar blues uses chords belonging to 3 different keys and most jazz standards will migrate through several tonal centers. 
To be truly harmonically aware one must hear all the way up through a chord. 
A 7th chord comprises of a root, 3rd, 5th and a 7th but whether they're played or not the there's also the 9, 11 and 13 in there as well. This requires you to practice modes/scales in a harmonic fashion or what I term Harmonic Scales

Harmonic Scales
This is where you play up through a scale in 3rds - 1,3,5,7,9,11,13 and back to the octave again. As you're playing every other note in the scale this takes two octaves to complete and spells out the innate tonality of a given mode. I've seen these described as"super arpeggios" by Larry Carlton but I dislike the term and thus describe them as Harmonic Scales because they're exactly that: scales played in a harmonic manner, spelling out the tonality. 

  It would be hard to overstate the importance of getting these under the fingers and more importantly into the ears. Everything that follows in this lesson requires familiarity with them. 

Freedom through Discipline 

This exercise is just one of a group of exercises that I collectively refer to as 'The Disciplines'. Over time I will do videos for all them. Read the summary below and then watch the video. Like all of the disciplines it's very simple conceptually but can be practiced at any level of difficulty.

  • Position yourself on the bottom string anywhere on the neck
  • You will have 4 or 5 notes under your fingers 
  • When you hear the random chord play through the harmonic scale that sounds correct starting on one of the notes that are under your fingers.
  •  Play all the way back to the root passing through the 2 octaves. 
  • When the next chord sounds try and find the nearest note to the one you finished on to begin the harmonic scale descending. It may be the same note of course! 
  • I recommend singing the notes as you play them. 
You can either use the mp3's or better still have a friend play you random chords. 
These need to be either Major 7th, Minor 7th or Dominant 7th. 

To increase the difficulty use a metronome and do it in tempo, add altered chords or have someone fire ping pong balls at you whilst you play.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Pentatonic Bending done right!

Here's a quickie that came out of a lesson I gave this morning. In short:

When playing pentatonic based bends many guitarists will tend to avoid the minor 3rd intervals within that scale.
That tends to make everything sound a bit samey. This exercise will open things up a bit, improve bending strength and the accuracy of your pitching. It's pretty self explanatory!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Cyclic Harmony

More often than not guitarists lag behind other instrumentalists in one major area: Harmony!
They tend to rely on shapes and often don't have any knowledge of what notes are actually in any given chord and as a result don't understand how chords relate to one another in a sequence. 

This exercise will help address this shortcoming. Done correctly you will:

  • Learn all the diatonic chords in all their inversions
  • Learn what notes are in each of these chords
  • Recognise what the shapes tell you about the chords
  • Learn common movements from chord to chord
Starting on the tonic triad (C major) in root position move the top note up step in the scale. This transform the chord from chord I to chord vi (Aminor). Then move the middle note up one scale step. The chord will then transform from chord vi to chord IV (F major). Then move the bottom note up a scale step to change chord IV to chord ii.

  • Move the top note a scale step
  • Move the middle note up a scale step
  • Move the bottom note up a scale step
  • repeat........
If this seems confusing watch the video as I explain it clearly and slowly. 
Things to note:

  • Say each note of the every chord out loud as move into each new chord.
  • As each note moves it becomes the root of the new chord.
  • The order will always be Root, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion ad infinitum.

Here's the sheet - note that it's meant to be read down the columns from left to right. 

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Getting your playing out there

  If you're a guitarist looking for gigs it really helps if you've a quick way of showing people what you can do. A calling card if you will. This is even more important if you play numerous styles like I do. Generally people are resistant to the idea that a guitarist can be accomplished in more than one idiom.  To combat this it helps to have the different styles back to back as they are in the video below. This way you're on to the next thing before they've got time to think, 'I don't like/am not looking for rock'. You also benefit from a sense impact as one style bumps up against another.

 Making a video is a good idea even if there's no real visuals as sharing video on social media is a lot easier than just audio alone.
 Enjoy and yes, I'm looking for gigs, so please share around!

Chromatic 3rds - Putting exercises into practice

  At some point or another every guitarist will practice sequences. Usually the focus of these is the development of technique but there's a bit more to it than that. Or rather there should be...

    Playing with intervallic patterns can give you the raw material for improvisation. Short phrases that can be recombined in many ways to form longer musical statements that have their own internal logic and flow. At that point what started out as a dry, technical exercise becomes a creative act which is what all practice should ideally be. 

The genesis of this idea was hearing chromatic 3rds in the playing of Scott Henderson. He was clearly using them as a way of introducing an 'outside' kind of falling motion into his playing. I then set out to catalogue all the different chromatic 3rds patterns I could and notate them as part of my 'digital hell' series. The 3rd is a harmonically defining interval so it's good for creating 'outside' lines.

Here's some of the patterns I used in the video.

Here's a summary of the concept I explain in the video.

  • Start any of these 3rds patterns within the chord tones. i.e. Over Bm7 you could start the pattern on D and F# (the 3rd and 5th of the chord) 

  • Move it chromatically in either direction until you 'hook' back into the chord and resolve the tension created by the chromaticism. IN - OUT - IN again. 

It's a really simple concept and not the only way of applying these by a long chalk but it is very effective. The improvisation at the end is a little more repetive than I would have liked but I was really focusing on this one concept and as such it's a little unbalanced. Enjoy!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Digital Hell # 1

  Over 30 years of teaching guitar I've created many exercises for developing technique. These have turned into a whole series I've dubbed 'Digital Hell'. 

Here's an extract from number 1 in the series. This particular one focuses on 'squeeze-release', left-right synchronisation and economy picking all packed into nutritious bite sized exercises.

Here's the extract 

and here's the video. Skip to 0.45 to see the examples notated above.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Hybrid Picking and tempo delays

Hybrid picking is all the rage these days and why not?! It's great for developing patterns and rhythms that you might not play otherwise.
 Here's an example of it I used whilst composing the riff for the Dirty Fakirs tune, Highs and Lows. It was played with a stereo tempo delay which fills out the sound and gives it extra rhythmic energy but it works just as well without. 

 The Sound Here's a screenshot of the cubase arrange page showing the two plugins I used for this guitar sound. The guitar was recorded via DI and then I used Cubase's own Chorus plugin going into the wonderful Nasty DLA by Boosty. If you're not familiar with his work you're missing out big time. 
The tempo is 116bpm and you can see from the screen shot that I used quaver notes on one side and dotted crochets on the other. Any half decent processor should be able to replicate this sound for you.

  The Technique
I've annotated the picking/fingering that I used but don't feel compelled to follow them if something else works better for you. It's just that my ring finger falls nicely over the higher notes. Your index finger might work better if your hands are bigger!
 The riff works nicely because of the contrary motion and parallel 6ths. Note also that this is played and tabbed in P4 tuning although it's playable in standard. It'll just be slightly stretchy! 

You can hear the full track and a minus guitar version at the bottom of the page. Once you've got the riff up to speed try it with the delay and then play along with the backing track version.

Let me know how you get on and if you're feeling brave maybe I'll transcribe the solo!
Here's a video showing the riff in close up at various speeds.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Getting the most from your Capo.

  Virtually every acoustic guitarist has a capo. You know, that clampy thing that lives in your guitar case. 
  Every once in a while you'll get it out when your singer's complaining that the Oasis song he wants to sing "Isn't in his key". And let's face it, the poor lamb's only got one to chose from!
   So you slap it on at the 2nd fret and transpose up a tone and suddenly Wonderwall is in F# minor - a key the Gallagher brothers haven't even heard of let alone written in! 
 Well that's only a part of what you can do with a capo. We studio hounds know a few tricks for creating those lush acoustic textures you hear on the records - Here's one of them. 

It's all down to how the guitar is tuned. Here's the theory in short.

How it works:

Capoing at the 5th fret use the open chord shape found one string down from where you are. 

So D major is now an A major shape.

Capoing at the 7th fret use the open chord shape found one string up from where you are. 

So D major is now an G major shape.

The only thing to remember is the tuning break between the G and B strings. You need to add one note in that case.
Capoed at the 7 fret a G chord would be C shape not a B shape. 

It doesn't take a lot of practice to get used to doing this quickly. After all there's a finite number of possibilities. 

This trick is a great way of creating arrangements and variety when playing with another guitarist. There's rarely any point you both playing the same open chord shapes and if anything it'll cause problems.

Enjoy! For more free lessons subscribe to this blog or visit:

Monday, 14 April 2014


 I must confess to spending a lot of time on arpeggios. I've several 'systems' for them that I use in my own playing and much of that effort goes into disguising them, recombining them and generally trying to make them more interesting and melodic. All that stuff would fill a book so occasionally it's a good idea to go back to basics and look at simple, major key, diatonic arpeggios played in 'situ'. That just means that each arpeggio is played within it's corresponding modal scale shape without any position movement. 


I            G Ionian - G major

ii           A Dorian - A minor

iii          B Phrygian - B minor

IV         C Lydian - C major

V          D Mixolydian - D major

vi          E Aeolian - E minor

viidim  F# Locrian - F# diminished

Technical notes
These are technically very straightforward and the only difficulty you might find is my habit of using separate fingers the cross from the 5th to the Octave. It's trickier but gives proper control over note length and articulation so well worth working on. You could just use alternate picking as I did here or a combination of sweeps and alternate. You could even hybrid pick these, particularly if you require a specific repeating pattern involving a pedal tone. Go nuts!

 Here's the video

and here's the dots and complete with the devils own work - Tab :(

Practice advice.
Transpose this to every key, break into different groupings, string together top and bottom, change the rhythm and generally get creative with them. 
Also, as ever, sing everything you're playing. If you can hear it you can play it! 
This is so important!

I didn't do this in the video but it's a good idea to play the mode, then the arpeggio and finally the corresponding chord for each position. The chord can be a full barre chord or a simple triad. 

 Just because they're simple it doesn't they can't be cool!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

There's backing tracks and then there's BACKING TRACKS!

One of the advantages of running a commercial studio is that you end up with some great sounding versions of pop songs in all styles. One of the bands I play in is called the Mojo Party Band. We do a lot of ska and funk covers plus one or two unusual TV theme tunes. Obviously we use the to record website examples and that means that it's a moments work to create 'minus guitar' versions.
    This is great for Leeds Guitar Studio students as I teach them a song and then provide a cracking backing track for them to practice with. 
 Erstwhile LGS student Eamonn had been focusing on his rhythm and rhythm playing in general. Ska is great for developing an awareness of the off beat because that's all you ever play in a skank, the 'ands'! Knowing that we had a great version of Baggy Trousers by Madness that's the tune we chose. 

Here's the full version
Mojo Party Band - Baggy Trousers

and the minus guitar version
Mojo Party Band - Baggy Trousers minus guitar

and the original of course......