September 2010

In my quest for the “ultimate” Les Paul, I’ve been outlining in this blog the kinds of features I’d like to see if I were to have, say, my own signature model Les Paul from Gibson. Having studied Gibson’s lineup carefully, I can’t find a model that gets it just right. A number of other manufacturers have some interesting takes on the iconic Les Paul design, though.

Paul Reed Smith guitars offer some lovely looking models, that include a few of my dream Les Paul features: two humbuckers, and a volume control you can reach with your right pinky for doing volume swells, as well as a pickup selector switch that won’t get in my way on the upper bout of the guitar body. And yet, as lovely as they look, the ones I’ve tried so far just don’t have “it”. I have not had an opportunity to try the SC 58, though, and it is so close to what I’m talking about in a Les Paul. Too bad they put the pickup selector where they did.

I recently say a new Godin guitar online that looks very impressive, especially in the electronics. Its pickups can be run as humbuckers, single coils, or P-90s. Wow! That covers it. The guitar is not bad looking. I wonder what it weighs. It’s called the Icon II Convertible . Is that really the best name they could come up with?

But maybe there’s another alternative showing up from, could it be, Fender? Fender’s new Blacktop Strat has two humbuckers with a 5-way switch that includes a couple of single coil modes, a master volume control (is it logarithmic?) and two tone controls. It’s also got 22 frets. They’re inexpensive and with a couple of mods might be very cool. I know I’d want to swap the saddles out for something more modern, and maybe change the amp-style knobs. With any luck I’ll get to try one out this weekend when I’m in San Francisco.
Fender Blacktop Strat in red with maple neck

Right now in 2010, top 40 radio does not include a lot of epic guitar solos. Thanks to YouTube, though, the guitar solo has not gone away, and every day guitarists are uploading videos of themselves either reproducing a famous guitar solo, or showing off their own improvisational skills.
This YouTube guitar army is an awesome resource as a guitarist. In many cases you can see your favourite guitarist playing a solo you’re curious about learning, and you can see how they themselves played it. You can also find lessons and breakdowns of how a particular guitarist gets their sound, or how to play a famous solo in note by note detail.

For a lot of guitarists, the way into learning to solo is to reproduce someone else’s solo note for note. Another simple technique to begin playing lead guitar is to learn the melody of the song and just play that. Once you step beyond those techniques, you’ll want to start learning a few scales, or as is the case for a lot of lead guitarists in rock and blues, one scale in particular.

If you want to play jazz solos, be prepared to learn your theory. If you’re going to be good at it, you need to be familiar major scales, minor scales (harmonic minor, diatonic minor), and modal scales with exotic names like Mixolydian, Dorian, Ionian and so on.

The Pentatonic Scale
For rock and blues players, and even country, we can get away with one scale. I’m not saying this will make you a guitar god, but in combination with dynamics, vibrato and timing, you can go a long, long way with this one scale. The Pentatonic scale, as the name implies, is made up of just 5 notes. I’m not going to explain everything about that scale in this post, but here are a couple of pages you can visit online to get the basic information.
Pentatonic Major
Pentatonic Minor
Another way to express what the guy in these video links above is saying is that if you’re playing rock or blues in the key of, let’s say G major, use a G Pentatonic scale to build your solo. It will sound ‘bluesy’. So the rule is, whatever key the rock or blues song is in, play the corresponding Pentatonic scale, and that will always be a reliable place to start. This is what he refers to as the Pentatonic Minor scale.

If you’re playing a country song in the key of G major, use an E pentatonic scale, and howdy partner, you’re sounding kinda country. The same rule applies in any key. Without getting all technical or theoretical on you, think of it this way: Blues in A, scale in A. Country in A, go down 3 frets to F#. Works every time. This is what he calls the Pentatonic Major scale.

Here’s a quick reference chart:
Country song in the key of… play a pentatonic scale in the key of…
G -> E
Ab -> F
A -> F#
Bb -> G
B -> G#
C -> A
Db -> Bb
D -> B
Eb -> C
E -> C#
F -> D
F# -> D#

This is just a start to get you playing some notes that will sound OK. As you advance, there are other elements you’ll need to introduce that help define your signature style, like string bending and vibrato, which I’ll touch on in another post.

My interest in playing slide started with George Harrison. Guitar solos like the one in My Sweet Lord featured slide to great effect, and I wanted to get that sound. Learning to play slide involved a lot of experimenting on my part. I bought a big metal slide and started sliding around. The first thing I had to figure out which finger to put it on. The right answer is whichever one works for you. If you watch proficient slide players, you’ll see that different players prefer to wear their slides on different fingers, so it’s really personal choice. I’ve linked up some videos for you in this post featuring George (above) and Eric Clapton (below). They’re both using their pinkies, but peronally I use my ring finger. They’re famous and I’m not, so maybe you’ll want to consider that when you’re figuring out which finger to learn to use for slide playing.

Using your little finger for the slide leaves the other fingers free to do some fretting, so it’s a more versatile approach. Because I admire George and Eric’s slide playing so much, I’ve really tried to emulate their little-finger technique, but it just doesn’t work for me. I struggle to sound in tune, but with the ring finger I’m much more capable of playing in tune.

The other thing you have to sort out is what kind of slide to use, metal or glass? They have different tonal qualities, but again, it’s a matter of your personal choice. I used metal for years, but lately I’m using glass.

Finally, you’ve got to develop your fretting hand technique so that you’re kind of in tune, and not pressing too heavily on the slide and grounding out on the frets. I find that to play in tune, I have to aim to stop the slide right on top of the fret, as opposed to just behind it as your finger would be placed if you were fretting the note with your finger instead of a slide. Once you get that down, work on adding some vibrato (a little shaking of the slide on longer held notes), and you’ll sound cool as these guys.

If you’re shopping for a guitar amplifier, there are a lot of models to choose from, but they all fall into two broad categories; either the amp has tubes or it doesn’t. A lot of professional players choose tube amps, and it’s because of the tone. Famous tube amps by Fender, Marshall, Mesa Boogie and many other manufacturers, have set the bar for popular guitar tones – they’ve shaped the very idea of what we think a guitar and amp should sound like.

Over the years, there has been a vast array of new technologies brought to bear on achieving tube-like tone, without using tubes. Some of those technologies have been amazing. Check out amps that feature ‘modeling’ and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. They typically digitize the signal from your guitar, crunch and flavour the bits, and convert back into an analogue signal to come roaring out of the amp’s speaker(s). You can go from Marshall to vintage Fender to Mesa Boogie with the turn of a knob.

You might be asking at this point, if guitarists generally agree that tube amps sound better, then why doesn’t everyone just buy tube amps? Well, tube amps have a few characteristics that may make a player think twice:
• tube amps are more expensive than solid-state amps, feature for feature
• tube amps are heavier than a comparable solid-state amp
• tube amps require more maintenance, as tubes wear out and have to be replaced
• tube amps might be more prone to damage if handled roughly
• tube amps produce more heat

When it comes to features per dollar spent, a solid-state amp delivers more than an equivalent tube amp in most cases. For lots of players, the advantages a solid-state amp offers make them a better choice.

Personally, I’ve owned different amps over the years, both tube and solid state. My first amp was a small tube amp, and I moved to solid-state amps. I found they were much more reliable, and I could afford more power (RMS wattage rating = louder). The other key factor is they were a lot lighter, which at 2AM as you lug an amp up or down a long flight of stairs after 4 hours of playing your heart out, makes a difference.

At this point in my life, I own two guitar amps, and they’re both tube amps. I put up with the extra weight because for me, the tone is worth it. It’s hard to describe the difference, but it’s like when I play through a solid-state amp the sound is good, but it’s two-dimensional. When I play through a tube amp, it adds a third dimension. There is something there that I can’t put my finger on, but the sound is more satisfying to play into. If you blindfolded me and made me listen to someone playing through different amps and asked me to pick out which was a tube amp and which wasn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if you fooled me. But if I was playing through the amp myself, blindfolded, I think I’d be able to tell the difference. Hmmm, maybe I’ll have to try that sometime.