John Petrucci: Rocket Man
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, July 2008
John Petrucci shows you how to take your playing into the hyper-speed realm in this Guitar World lesson.
When I was first learning how to play fast, I emulated guitarists like Steve Morse, Al Di Meola and Allan Holdsworth. The funny thing is that these players represent two totally different schools of thought when it comes to note articulation. Morse and Di Meola alternate-pick every single note in order to achieve a rhythmically driving staccato (percussive) attack, while Holdsworth picks as rarely as possible, relying mostly on fret-hand pull-offs and hammer-ons to sound the majority of the notes and achieve a softer note attack and a fluid, rolling sound—what’s known as legato phrasing. Back in those early days, I thought you had to do one or the other, so I would practice picking every single note, like Steve and Al, and go into legato mode, like Allan, playing just about everything with just the left hand.
The fact is, I thought using hammerons and pull-offs was cheating, even though it did sound smooth and fast. I soon came to realize that it’s not cheating. What's more, you can play a lot faster when you use a combination of alternate picking and legato phrasing. Just look at Eddie Van Halen, who combines these two approaches brilliantly, and the late Shawn Lane, who was the king of playing in this style.
In this lesson I’m going to show you some effective technical approaches to this way of playing and help you elevate your chops to the hyperspeed level. I’ll start by demonstrating a few different ways to combine alternate picking with hammer-ons and pull-offs, beginning with small, compact melodic shapes, and then build from there.
Here’s an Yngwie Malmsteen–style percussive lick that’s articulated with alternate picking throughout (FIGURE 1a). It’s based on a rhythm of 16th-note triplets, and the picking pattern is downup- down, up-down-up for each pair of triplets. If I were instead to play the same lick picking only the initial note and sounding the rest of the notes with hammer-ons and pull-offs, it would sound like this (FIGURE 1b).
A great way to combine the two techniques with this note sequence is to pick the first four notes, ending on an upstroke, and then sound the last two notes with pull-offs (FIGURE 1). Ending the picking pattern with an upstroke allows you to snap the string against the fretboard and achieve a “slap” effect. This effect is much more effective in the higher register than the lower register. When played really quickly, ending on the upstroke creates a whipping sound. If you have enough gain (preamp distortion) and use your guitar’s neck pickup, as I like to do for this kind of lick, you get a “fluttering” kind of sound. Played this way, the lick sounds like it’s broken up into “spurts,” as opposed to hearing the evenly percussive attack of consistent alternate picking (FIGURE 1a).
Let’s take this concept a bit further and build more licks using this approach while introducing some string crossing. Instead of playing the first note on the G string, let’s begin the lick with a note on the D string (FIGURE 2). Start slowly and then build up speed gradually while striving to play as cleanly as possible.
A big part of being able to play this lick fast and clean is to have good dexterity between the fret hand’s ring finger and pinkie, which is difficult to develop. An effective way to do this is to play hammer-on/trill exercises with these two fingers. It’s a little grueling, but practicing licks that use this fingering combination—as opposed to favoring one that’s easier to play with, such as the more commonly used index-middle-pinkie combination (FIGURE 4)—is great for fret-hand dexterity. Ultimately, you want to be able to do both with equal comfort.
Let’s take this idea and move it up the fretboard in a series of alternating “shapes,” not necessarily staying diatonic (within a fixed scale structure) to one key. Here, I’m using three shapes (FIGURE 5a): I begin with the index-ring-pinkie shape from FIGURE 4, followed by index-middle-pinkie, and then index-middle-pinkie with a stretch, covering a five-fret span, from the fifth fret to the ninth. When doing five-fret stretches higher up the neck, you can use an index-ring-pinkie fingering combination.
Play these three shapes in sequence, moving from second to fourth to fifth positions, and then start the pattern again, moving from seventh to ninth to 10th. Then play the sequence twice more, moving from 12th position up to 20th, and then back down (FIGURE 5b).
At this speed, I’m pretty much playing near the limit of how fast I can alternate pick. If I really wanted to go any faster, I could pick back by the bridge saddles and really get into it, but it’s much easier to instead use this “hybrid” approach of alternate picking combined with pull-offs. This technique enables you to move up to the next level without putting too much strain on your picking hand. And equally important, it sounds less strained.
Let’s kick it up a notch and add more notes on the B string. This next pattern (FIGURE 6) alludes to a hybrid A Dorian/blues scale (A B C D Ef E Fs G. Here, I’m playing three notes per string in fifth position using the index finger, ring finger and pinkie. You should be able to see that each successive “shape” presented throughout this lesson is built upon the previous technique, so it’s imperative to work diligently on the first two shapes so that you’ll be able to execute this last one with speed and precision.
Once you’ve become comfortable with these patterns, try expanding upon the ideas embodied in them by moving freely into more standard rock-type licks, such as this (FIGURE 7). After all the intense hours of diligent practice, the fun part comes in applying new techniques to freeform musical expression.
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