Learn 5 licks in the style of one of the fastest guitarists who ever lived, Shawn Lane

Shawn Lane guitar lesson
(Image credit: Press)

Shawn Lane was born in Memphis in March 1963. Shawn started playing the family piano and developed a style very similar to his guitar technique, with waves of fast notes and structures more akin to modern classical music. 

After picking up the guitar he joined southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas, with whom he played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as Governor of Arkansas in 1979.

By his late teens Shawn had developed his mind-boggling speed, and it is at this point that shred guitar producer Mark Varney invited him to appear on the 1991 album Centrifugal Funk, alongside Brett Garsed and Frank Gambale. 

His 1992 solo album Powers Of Ten put Shawn on the map, his esoteric combination of jazz, classical and rock styles showing a depth beyond mere notes-per-second. Written primarily on piano, the album’s influences are as broad as Coltrane, Debussy, Hendrix, Oscar Peterson, Chopin and Holdsworth.

Powers of Ten put Shawn on the map, his esoteric combination of jazz, classical and rock styles showing a depth beyond mere notes-per-second

Shawn was soon to collaborate with Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg; a musical kinship that lasted from 1995 until Shawn’s untimely death in 2003, aged just 40. Hellborg and Lane produced seven albums together, from Abstract Logic in ’95), to A Transcontinental Gathering in 2003. These albums were a form of Indian inspired classical fusion, during which Shawn would often play and sing lines simultaneously.

Our five examples cover the range of Shawn’s history, starting with a wide stretch Half-Whole Diminished lick, using Minor 3rd stretches between first, second and fourth fingers. He would often take this shape and move it around the fretboard at impossible speeds, creating a collage of sound, uniquely his.

Example 2 is a shred fusion A Minor Pentatonic lick phrased in fives, instead of the regular four notes per beat. This squeezing of extra notes into the beat creates a more improvised feel. Example 3 is an extension of the odd-note grouping concept, with a clean-toned lick using groups of six, seven and eight notes per beat, which makes for an alternate picking challenge.

Our fourth example explores Shawn’s Indian music with Jonas Hellborg. This rhythmic lick uses an E Mixolydian (E-F#- G#-A B-C# D) tonality which, in Indian music, is called Raga Khamaj. It focuses on the intervals 1-3-4-5-b7, which you can also think of as Minor Pentatonic with a Major 3rd. This shape has a very nice Indian flavor and is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields sitar melody, too.

Our final example is an Augmented lick using legato with Major 3rd stretches between fingers. Make sure your fretting hand is warm and feels loose before attempting this, and, as with all of the the examples, start slowly and build up the accuracy before speeding up.

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 7, Bass 6, Middle 7, Treble 7, Reverb 3

Shawn, like Guthrie Govan after him, did not use an exclusively high-distortion ‘shred’ tone, instead preferring to use whatever sound he felt suited the music or even the moment. 

So, set your amp (or model) to its ‘sweet spot’ where it’s just starting to get ‘warm’, then use whatever drive or distortion tone you feel suits our examples. Add just a little reverb to taste.

Example 1

Use first, second and fourth fingers to hammer-on two Minor 3rd stretches on the third string, then skip a string and repeat the shape on the first string, to create a Diminished 7 arpeggio (1-b3-b5-bb7). Next, move the shape up a semitone, then a tone, then a semitone for a Half-Whole scale (1-b2-b3-3-b5-5-6-b7) lick.

Example 2

This lick superimposes the A Minor Pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G) over a Dm7 chord, to create a cool D Dorian fusion sound. Start with third finger and pull off to first finger on first, then second string, then land on the third string with second finger. 

Repeat this five-note fingering throughout the scale shape all the way down to the sixth string. Finish the lick with some triplet phrased string skipping and a tone-wide bend.

Example 3

This lick is based in C Major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) using three-notes-per-string scale patterns. 

Start with the typical descending sixes, using alternate picking, then on beat 3, add an extra note at the beginning to create a seven-note phase. Alternate between the sixes and sevens and finish with a flurry of 32nd notes.

Example 4

Play the descending five notes in 16th notes, followed by a rest, then repeat the same five notes an octave lower; then again an octave lower on the bottom two strings. 

In bar 2, ascend through the same scale shape using a mixture of two and three-note phrases, each with a rest in between. The challenge here is playing the odd rhythms while maintaining 16th-note phrasing; keep your pick moving in alternate pick strokes throughout to keep the timing even.

Example 5

For this Ab Augmented (Ab-C-E) legato lick place your first, second and fourth fingers on 13th, 17th and 21st frets - these are extremely wide, Major 3rd stretches, so take care. Position your thumb low on the back of the neck and point it towards the headstock to allow your fingers to spread more easily.

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Charlie Griffiths

Charlie Griffiths plays guitar in acclaimed prog-metal outfit Haken, and has a wealth of experience handling corporate and session gigs for genres as diverse as rock, heavy metal and pop. He has been a regular contributor to Total Guitar, Guitar Techniques, and Guitar World for over a decade, and released his debut solo album Tiktaalika in 2022.