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School of Shred: Paul Gilbert on the Art and Science of Playing Lead Guitar

School of Shred: Paul Gilbert on the Art and Science of Playing Lead Guitar

Blazing Pentatonics

Many of Gilbert’s licks are based on patterns that he moves around the fretboard, as he demonstrates with the climbing A minor pentatonic legato run in FIGURE 11. The initial melodic pattern is eight notes long and is repeated with different notes across the remaining strings.

Although Gilbert has long fingers, he uses his fret-hand pinkie a lot. It’s a point worth noting, because you might think that he would rely on his extended reach and not use his pinkie much at all. Gilbert advises students with similarly endowed hands to develop the use if their pinkie because it will pay off in the long run.

The earlier you build its strength, the sooner it can become useful. Be sure to use the pinkie to finger all the eighth-fret notes in FIGURE 11.


When playing this example, it’s easy to start thinking in triplets, as the grouping of the first three notes suggests. Keep in mind that you’re playing 16th notes; tapping your foot, or at least nodding your head on each downbeat as Gilbert does in the video, will help you feel the 16th-note subdivision.

FIGURE 12 is a descending, pattern based A minor pentatonic lick that Gilbert demonstrates, this one incorporating more hammer-ons than pull-offs. Notice the wide interval jump between the fifth and sixth notes (C down to E). Gilbert begins this lick with a downstroke and alternate picks the notes that aren’t slurred, avoiding the use of two consecutive downstrokes or upstrokes, which in this case would slow him down. Try moving this lick to other areas of the neck and repeating it in different octaves, as Gilbert often does.


Natural Harmonics

In FIGURE 13, Gilbert demonstrates how a scale, in this case C major, may be played melodically in diatonic thirds. The pattern is “down one note, up two notes,” and it stays within the scale. Gilbert does something similar in FIGURE 14. Here, he uses a symmetrical fingering pattern across the strings, but the notes don’t comprise any particular scale.

Players like Eddie Van Halen and Dimebag Darrell have used symmetrical patterns like this in their lead playing. Be sure to concentrate on the fingering pattern used in this example and notice how it’s similar to the first example, in terms of contour.


Gilbert then takes the same fingering pattern from FIGURE 14 and plays natural harmonics (N.H.) instead of fretted notes, creating a very cool and unusual note sequence with lots of wide intervals. When executing each natural harmonic, be sure to lightly touch the string with the fret-hand finger directly over the fret rather than press the string down to the neck behind the fret. The harmonics at the fourth fret are a little more challenging to nail and must be performed accurately. Otherwise you’ll just produce a dull mute.


Piano-Style Licks

FIGURE 16 is a cool piano-style lick that Gilbert plays, and it’s a pointed example of his efficient picking technique. As in FIGURES 7 to 10, the guitarist begins with an upstroke to economize the movement from the high E string to the lower strings.


16 17.png

A lot of Gilbert’s super-fast alternate picking is based around this principle. When playing this example, keep the alternating notes on the high E and B strings separate so that they don’t bleed into each other. You can do this by releasing each fretting finger’s pressure against the string immediately after the note is picked. Also, avoid moving your fret hand excessively; it should move very little, in fact, so work on keeping the movement as efficient as possible.

Three-Octave Licks

Gilbert points out that a 24-fret guitar has a four-octave range (not including harmonics) and that the fretboard’s layout lends itself well to repeating note sequences in different octaves up and down the neck using the same fingering shape. A cool technique the guitarist likes to use is to take a short melodic idea and transpose it up and down and across the neck in octaves, as he demonstrates with the three-note A major arpeggio shape in FIGURE 17.

This technique helps develop your skill at shifting positions quickly and offers a great way of extending a short lick into a mammoth one. Notice that the initial three-note sequence is repeated on the next two higher strings using the same pattern, two frets higher and then on the top two strings, three frets higher.

This two-string concept is particularly useful for guitarists since it relies on each pair of adjacent strings, except the G and B, being tuned the same way, in fourths. FIGURE 18 is another example of this technique that Gilbert offers, this based on a more interesting six-note pattern in the A Mixolydian mode (A B C# D E F# G), which works well over an A7 chord.


To help switch from his fourth finger to his second finger between each six-note group, Gilbert uses a subtle finger slide, which is easier than trying to perfectly nail each position shift “from the air” and sounds very cool. You’ll find it helpful to first practice each six-note group separately before stringing them together. Also, keep your fret hand arched high, be- cause flattening your fingers will cause noise and slow you down.

Untranscribable Lick

“Here’s my secret lick that’s been impossible to transcribe,” says Gilbert. “I know the mental process involved and can teach your brain how to get it. There’s this kid in Japan who’s apparently an expert on my style. He plays all the stuff that I’ve done, which is kind of frightening for me! Every time I see him play, I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta learn something new!’ And so I came up with a seemingly untranscribable, lightning-fast legato lick that I’m hoping even he can’t play!”

Not letting Gilbert’s “untranscribable” tag deter us, we’ve tabbed out the lick he plays on the video in FIGURE 19. The best approach is to start with you fret hand only, which maps out the initial 11-note pattern upon which the lick is based. Gilbert uses this pattern all the time, so it’s worth getting to grips with it before adding the tapped notes.


The general principal behind the taps can be a little bit confusing at first, because Gilbert doesn’t quite do exactly what he thinks he does; even though he starts of by tapping the B note at the D string’s ninth fret on the video, when the lick is in full swing he begins taps the E note at the same fret on the G string instead. When he moves to other positions and strings, he then alternates the tapping between the two strings, but for our main lick, stick to tapping the ninth fret E on the G string.

This tap will serve as your “pulse” as you ramp the lick up to speed. Paul demonstrates this on the video, alternating between the original legato lick and the tapped lick. Listen for the rhythmic accents of each tap in the lick. This is the key to working with the odd set of notes and making the lick flow.

We can see why this lick has never been transcribed before, but it’s reassuring to see that even a player as precise and technically accomplished as Gilbert finds the lick so intuitive that it’s hard to explain.

One of the trickiest parts of playing FIGURE 19 is executing the fret-hand tap with the pinkie. This needs to be done quickly and firmly in order to generate sufficient volume for the note to be heard in balance with the other notes. Try practicing the first eight notes as a separate lick, aiming for even volume and tone between the notes. This will help with the transition between the third and fourth strings.

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