Are You Suppressing Your Inner Speed Demon?

Steve Morse Chromatic Octaves. Yngwie Triplet Sweeps. Paganini Lick. Petrucci X Lick. Gilbert Symmetrical Sequence. Terry Syrek 5-String Legato Sweep. Spider of Doom Lick. Rusty Cooley Video Game Death Lick. Buckethead Roller Coaster on Space Mountain Lick.

You could say I had a little preoccupation in my late teens. Looking through my old practice logs I’m amazed I actually finished high school. I am also amazed I didn’t lose my mind while tracking progress for about 70 licks and their variations right down to the beats per minute. If you saw the sh*t I wrote, you would likely wonder the same.

Fortunately, I have learned a few things since my teenage speed crusade. One of those things involves a device that’s popular with guitarists (read: shredders) worldwide: metronomes.

First of all, this is not another rant about metronomes (Zzzz) but rather an observation about my own playing (particularly alternate picking) I made a few years back. Also, I believe the element of speed in music is, just like everything else, a tool that can be manipulated to create excitement. Slow and fast playing is just like different colors on a painter’s palette; they are used to stir up certain emotions. That being said, there are many guitarists who want to develop their speed but cannot seem to break past a certain point. If you’re a speed-seeking missile who has slaved away on every shred routine in every guitar magazine to no avail, read on.

In the realm of lead guitar, metronomes are great for pretty much one thing and that’s mastering the mechanics of a technique or lick at any speed. Start at a slow bpm and gradually increase the tempo until you sound like the record. This is generally how shredders get fast.

After using this approach for a few years, I eventually moved to Los Angeles and got heavy into…wait for it…nope, not that…not that either…ready? Songwriting. I got a small Pro Tools rig and spent many hours writing and recording songs. I also started watching other guitar players in town. My friend Dave and I would go see guys like Jason Hook (pre-Five Finger Death Punch) and Phil X (pre-Fretted Americana) perform at small clubs in Hollywood. This was huge. Seeing dudes who played rock n’ roll just peeling off these super fast licks from 10 feet away was very inspiring.

Over time, I noticed that whenever I’d start noodling around on the guitar, I would picture all these guitarists in my head and think: I’m gonna play this sh*t f#©king fast…

It was about two years since I had done any serious technique practice, let alone with a metronome. Apparently, none of that mattered because I started picking faster. Way faster. This also came at a time when I began to overcome the social stigma of playing fast licks onstage. Every new band I was in gave me the experience to go further and further with my lead work. Outshine the other guitar player? Check. Keep up with the drummer while picking the keyboard solo to “Highway Star?” Check. Going for 32nd notes during a solo in an acoustic shuffle that I had absolutely no business playing? Check freakin’ mate. These things forced me to play faster but I can honestly say it all started with the visualization that it could actually be done.

I won’t delve into the metaphysical here but visualization can be a powerful tool. For the reader, the only requirement I will add to this practice is that what you visualize should be fueled by inspiration. Inspiration makes everything easier and in this case, it will have a greater impact on how you internalize and manifest the characteristics you desire.

Now, data that you can measure is certainly helpful for seeing your progress. Metronomes and bpm’s have their place but they just don’t tap a raw nerve. The key to breaking through your speed plateau is actually in your head. It’s deep down in your amygdala, screaming for attention…

Time to meet your speed-ego.

A carefully developed relationship with your inner speed racer can skyrocket you through subconscious limitations you may have imposed on yourself over years of growing up.

Numbers and other musical minutiae won’t help.

You need to get pissed.

While you’re at it, start combining synergistic behaviors. As I mentioned in a previous post entitled “Destroy Your Heroes,” you will never play exactly like your idols. This should excite you. Dig into all your little playing eccentricities and embrace your unique coolness. These things will grow with you the longer you play. Even after playing guitar for more than half my life, I continue to evolve. It’s like my fingers are constantly looking for new ways to play the damn thing. I believe that allowing myself to be comfortable in my own skin additionally helped me to tap into my speed-ego, or speego, if you will.

You can do the same. Speed doesn’t care who chooses to harness its glorious power. If you want speed then you must get out of your own way and choose it. Don’t ask for it or hope a metronome will take you the entire way. At some point, you will have to assume the mentality and identity of a guitar player who does play fast (while developing other important musical skills as well). Just like bending strings, playing fast guitar licks is just another tool that can be veiled, or unleashed, at your disposal.

***

Below is a lick that changed the course of my lead playing forever. It’s Paul Gilbert’s famous “outside picking” triplet lick on the top two strings from his first Intense Rock video. Try it out but remember, playing it with attitude will increase its benefits twofold.

d = down stroke                                                                                                                   u = up stroke

    d   u   d   u   d   u
E|--------------12-----------|
B|--12--13--15------15--13---| repeat in a loop

Modes: Easy as Pizza

Slice of PizzaRemember back in elementary school when your cafeteria, auditorium and gymnasium were all in the same room? Yeah…the all-purpose room. Depending on the time of day that room got used for everything from pizza to dodgeball to latchkey to the sock hop. You could say the room had a few modes…

In music, the major scale is like an all-purpose room. We use that freakin’ thing to make many different sounds and emotions. It is the basis for everything ever created in western music. Yer good ol’ fashioned C major scale has seven notes and thus, seven chords. This is what those chords look like in order:

C maj

D min

E min

F maj

G maj

A min

B dim

I

ii

iii

IV

V

vi

vii˚

…and if you wrote a progression with these chords that went…

C maj/A min/D min/G maj (I/vi/ii/V)

…you would have yourself a tidy little progression in the key of C major. Play through this progression and your ears will easily hear the C major chord as “home.”

That’s just chord chemistry—it’s been working the same way for centuries. Don’t question it. Don’t ask why. Just accept it and internalize it. Finished internalizing yet? Ok good. Moving on…

Now, let’s say you want to put a wonderfully self-gratuitous solo over this progression. You already know that the key is C major so what better scale to use than a C major scale? This scale will work perfectly over all four chords. Why? It works because all these chords are related in the key of C major (also said to be diatonic to C major).

So remember how we said the major scale is an all-purpose room for different uses? Well when you play a C major scale over the C major chord in your progression, that scale is functioning in the C Ionian mode because Ionian is the traditional pure major mode. But over the A minor chord, that very same scale will then function in the A Aeolian mode. Over the D minor chord it will be in the mode of D Dorian and over the G major chord it will be in G Mixolydian.

If your brain is starting to overheat at this point, take a moment to cool down. You also might be asking yourself “Ok but why complicate life with these ricockulous Greek words?”

Think about it this way: If you could get away with playing one scale over four chords instead of four scales over four chords, life would be a heck of a lot easier, right? Hell yes. Not only does it require excessive thinking, changing scales every time there is a diatonic chord change will actually obscure the key center “home base” (in this case C major). An experienced improviser will recognize that all the chords in the progression are diatonic to C major. Therefore, he or she will use the C major scale to play over all four chords (knowing that as each chord changes, the scale will be functioning in a different mode).

In this progression, the C major scale (like an all-purpose room) changes its function constantly. The modes it functions in can even be compared to the different uses of a real all-purpose room; we’ll call Ionian pizza, Aeolian dodgeball, Dorian latchkey and Mixolydian sock hop.

Now before you go off improvising in the ancient and glorious mode of C Pizza, realize that the real power of modes is in knowing how to make your scale choices and ensuing improvisation most efficient. Learn to analyze chord progressions so that you can spot chords diatonic or native to the same key. For many songs, most of the chords will be in the same key. For these chords you would use the same scale for soloing.

Here’s the complete order of modes over their corresponding chord in any given major key:

Ionian

Dorian

Phrygian

Lydian

Mixolydian

Aeolian

Locrian

I

ii

iii

IV

V

vi

vii˚

Using the chords from our nifty progression above:

C maj is the I chord and so the C major scale functions in C Ionian mode when played over it.

A min is the vi chord and so the C major scale functions in A Aeolian mode when played over it.

D min is the ii chord and so the C major scale functions in D Dorian mode when played over it.

G maj is the V chord and so the C major scale functions in G Mixolydian mode when played over it.

Here’s a different progression:

C maj/E min/F maj/G maj (I/iii/IV/V)

Our ears and knowledge of key centers and modes tells us that this progression is in C major and all the chords are diatonic to C major. This means we can use a C major scale to blaze over this one too (it’s a very straight-laced ditty so blaze gently).

The C major scale you play will change modes with every chord change starting in C Ionian and going into E Phrygian then F Lydian and finally G Mixolydian…or G sock hop if you prefer.

So the next time you see a progression, analyze the chords to determine:

1)    The key and I chord of the progression

2)    For all the chords diatonic to this key, use the scale based on that key/I chord (like the C major scale for a C major progression).

That’s how you use modes. If you are utterly perplexed by this information, reach out and ask for help in the comments section. If you got this stuff down, don’t worry; this is only the beginning. So until next time, grab your favorite instrument and make some beautiful music.

The world is waiting.