Composing with Advanced Rock Guitar Techniques

I want to say “thank you” to my good friend Adam Moore for writing this article about getting bogged down in your own technical cleverness that your song’s structure suffers… Talk about a great guitar player. You need to check out his music with the links provided. Good song writing doesn’t start with flash and frills. These decorations should be the icing on the cake… not the whole cake. Your songs need a good foundation and structure. Technical cleverness should be used to embellish the song and not kill it. Once again, I wanted to give an article for the guitar players out there who are stuck on flash but have no sass. You know… the ones that can play cool licks but can’t put three chords together. Don’t get me wrong… I went through this process too! I could play Randy Rhodes licks but couldn’t play the rhythm parts to save my life. Or, I could always play the intro to cool songs, but would get stuck when it came to the meat of the song. If you have any questions about this topic, please give me a shout and we’ll talk more. - Scott

Composing with Advanced

 Rock Guitar Techniques

By Adam Moore

The guitar world is filled with excellent information and articles on all manner of technical and theoretical subjects. We can go to teachers who will show us all manner of fantastic techniques, styles, scales and chords. We can read books and magazine articles and watch DVD tutorials on everything from eight-finger tapping to the Romanian and Enigmatic modes, to methods for abusing your whammy bar. This is wonderful, and the modern guitar community seems one of the most active in sharing ideas and information. In short, with a bit of cash and plenty of enthusiasm, the student guitarist can acquire virtually all the knowledge there is without having to hike up a mountain in Tibet to track down some ninety-five year old grand master in their chosen craft.

However, all types of knowledge are not the same and the sorts of idea that can easily be expressed in a smallish magazine article or are just easy to express period get the most coverage. Even with the profusion of on-line guitar tutorials we still tend to find that exercises, scales, concise bits of information make up the vast majority of what’s available.

Thus, what we are to do with all in this information may often remain something of a dark art. The subtle skills of the composer/arranger often go unaddressed, because they are not easily explained, and the guitarist attempting to write something new is left with an imbalance between the techniques at their disposal and the knowledge of how and when to use them. Some authors are very good at giving examples of a technique in use, for example Guthrie Goven’s two books Creative Guitar Techniques 1 & 2 are very helpful, but generally speaking there isn’t much discussion of how we might use our skills subtlety and gracefully, and that’s all composition really is; fixing bits of ideas together to make something unified and complete. Frequently, the result is music that comes across imbalanced or indulgent or in which a certain technical idea completely overshadows and undermines the music. This may partly be the fault of the musician, but quite often the guitar press compound these imbalances.

I’m sure we can all find examples of, say, a track that opens with some blazing, impossible guitar riff only to be followed by a rather weak, unmemorable hard rock tune. It seems that, in these cases, it would have been better to just stop after the introduction and leave it at that. A couple of tracks fell to this imbalance in guitar magazines in the 1990’s. Remember Van Halen’s Judgement Day where EVH used that clever little left-hand-over-the-neck idea to open the solo section? That riff appeared in hundreds of guitar magazines around the world but the actual track never really got a mention, which is a shame as it was really good, I thought. Moreover, all those articles didn’t result in the development of a new way of playing guitar with the left hand the other way up. Another example is Mr. Big’s Colorado Bulldog, which opened with a couple of bars of Paul Gilbert playing a devilishly fast, huge-stretch riff. Again, transcribed endlessly in the guitar press but the other four minutes of music haven’t exactly become the stuff of legend. Of course, I’m not trying to tell you that Edward Van Halen and Paul Gilbert are inferior players, that would be silly, but those tracks did suffer because of the way a technique got used within them. Also, if you’re a guitar player who’d be totally happy to receive recognition for a riff and not a song then none of this applies! But maybe you’re looking for something deeper…

What it is, I believe, which sets a few players apart from the endless ocean of average guitarists is their ability to write songs and compose structures/frameworks which have the kind of quality and consistency equal to the techniques they showcase. For example, Joe Satriani uses a great many advanced techniques but his ability, frequently with the help of a producer, to organise his songs in such a way that they don’t lose energy, get boring or over-do a trick is of equal importance. Often his tracks that focus on a really prominent technical idea, like Midnight or Day at the Beach with their two-handed tapping, are that bit shorter than a full song, maybe a minute, minute and a half. Notice also that when Joe uses that technique in a longer song, New Blues, it’s used for the rhythm part, kept in the background and isn’t allowed to steal the limelight from the dark, groovy melody lines. The effect is equally striking and very musical but doesn’t take you away from the tune, which is ultimately more important to the track as a whole.

When using advanced techniques its important that they’re slipped seamlessly into the musical whole. An extreme example is Mattias Eklundh, a great player whose next-to-impossible technique just seems to slide by inside the songs; songs which stand up even with all the guitar wizardry taken out. Listen to Freak Kitchen’s Look Bored or Vaseline Bizniz where his fantastic use of natural harmonics and absolutely loopy tapping ideas appear in the middle of other lead lines or within the rhythm part. A weaker player might have to almost halt proceedings, do the neat new trick and then start the song again.

So the point of this article is: Learning how to use your carefully perfected technique in the service of music is as important, if not more important, than the technique itself. Fretboard burning playing needs to be appropriate, proportionate, balanced, gracefully deployed and all sorts of words that we perhaps don’t hear enough in rock, but be assured its these things that set the great songs apart from the common crowd. If you tend to write music that tends to get bogged down in its own technical cleverness you might try writing a song and deliberately ignoring all the riffs and flash bits until you’ve got the whole structure down. It’s much easier to think clearly about the frills and decorations if you’ve actually built the thing their going to embellish.

To use a strange furniture making analogy, you can build a chair and decorate it with gold, diamonds, and peacock’s feathers all you like but if you can’t sit on it when its finished it no good to anybody. Same with music, there’s very little point in decorating music if its more basic elements haven’t been constructed. 

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