Learn Nick Johnston's soloing secrets in this video masterclass

Nick Johnston
(Image credit: Press)

In this lesson, we welcome back Nick Johnston to play over an emotive track with plenty of instrumental rock and fusion vocabulary.

As Nick explains, performing over Guitar Techniques editor Jason Sidwell's specially written track, A Joy Fulfilled, was a creative challenge and the video captures a spontaneous approach without too much overthinking. The tempo is a cool 120bpm and several time signatures feature including 3/4, 4/4 and 7/4. 

Nick breaks this track down to have four main tonal centres. The chorus uses A Mixolydian (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G); the bridge uses A Major (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#) and this contains the same notes as the relative Minor scale F# Minor so you can view this whichever way is the most convenient. 

For the interlude section C Major is the main scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) and this pivots into C Minor (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb) To simplify this you can view the chorus and bridge section as being parallel tonal centres - the only difference between A Mixolydian and A Major is one note; where A Mixolydian features a b7 interval (G), A Major features a Major 7th interval (G#). Similarly, to change C Major to C Minor requires a flattening of the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees. 

During the video, Nick explains that he has started using the whammy bar a lot more. This provides a fluid, lazy type of effect to notes with scoops and doops. Nick likes to mix up the rhythmic subdivisions and the rhythmic feel; if you take a look at the transcription you can see that pretty much all the rhythmic conventions are used at some point. In addition to this, Nick plays ahead and behind the beat to add drama (this is a big part of his own music, too).

Another key part of his sound is the use of a relatively low-gain guitar amp setting. This allows the picking dynamics and changes of feel to really shine through. 

For the faster lines, Nick uses hybrid picking technique (pick and fingers) and this facilitates interval leaps, string skipping and chromatic passages. It is well worth watching the video to see which notes are picked with the plectrum and which are plucked with the fingers.

A really helpful part of the lesson is where Nick explains that he tries to internalise the harmonic changes so he can concentrate particularly on the timing. An important consideration with note placement is the use of space in the phrasing; Nick deliberately avoids burning through the whole solo. 

Articulation-wise, Nick uses a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs. This is combined with string bending and whammy bar scoops. The overall effect is a slippery, fluid and vocal sounding delivery. Nick also digs in with the pick and the flesh of the picking-hand thumb and this releases a slight, pinch harmonic edge to the attack. These have been notated as ‘semi PH’.

The audio and chord chart for A Joy Fulfilled is included for you to practise over in addition to a full transcription of Nick’s performance from the video. 

Hopefully there will be a new technique, lick or phrase in here somewhere for you to perfect. If you find one you like then memorise it and use it in future, especially if you aspire to faster phases and the semi-quaver or sextuplet feel is what you are after. 

Once you have mastered some of the concepts in Nick’s solo, why not try creating a solo of your own? Check out the chord chart below to see the sequences and changes, as this is vital to providing a mental roadmap for you to navigate. Have fun! 

Get the tone

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

Nick used his baby blue, Schecter Nick Johnston Traditional signature guitar equipped with a whammy bar. He also dialled up a Vox amp-style overdrive. His guitar is equipped with a bridge humbucker and two single-coil pickups and here Nick favoured the bridge. So, go for a thick bridge pickup sound (tame the treble if it’s a single-coil). Add smooth distortion pedal if desired, and some reverb or delay to taste.

A Joy Fulfilled: Chord Chart

Solo Analysis

Full Piece: A Joy Fulfilled

Chorus 1 [Bars 1-9] For the opening section Nick keeps the phrasing sparse, using the whammy bar to scoop into the notes. Depress the bar prior to picking the fretted note, then release it and an upward glissando (scoop) is produced.  

Bridge 1 [Bars 10-19] This section is in 7/4 time and may take a little getting used to. The scale of choice is the A Major scale (or  F# Minor as it has the same notes). Nick adds chromatic notes to link up the scale tones and add colour. 

Interlude [Bars 20-34] Nick keeps the phrasing sparse and there are plenty of scoops from the whammy bar. The use of string skipping provides big ear grabbing leaps. Nick uses hybrid picking for this, and plucks the notes on the first string with the second finger of the picking hand while maintaining a grip on the pick. This is a great picking technique for speedy string crossing, or picking double-stops together, as country players do.

Chorus 2 [Bars 35-42] Here the solo starts to ramp up in terms of speed and complexity. Again, the whammy bar and string skipping ideas are to the fore. 

Bridge 2 [Bars 43-60] This penultimate section features some eyebrow raising runs, which Nick performs with great fluidity. The semiquaver sextuplet rhythms sound impressive [bar 51-56]; these flurries are based around three-notes-per-string fingerings, and once you have these shapes it’s a lot easier.

Chorus 3 [Bars 61-end] This section starts with an idea that uses the first string to ring and clash with other notes. The string bending in bar 62 is more like a slow and wide finger vibrato. The solo ends with an interesting sounding double-stop, nicely augmented with whammy-bar vibrato. 

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Jon Bishop

Jon Bishop is a UK-based guitarist and freelance musician, and a longtime contributor to Guitar Techniques and Total Guitar. He's a graduate of the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford and is touring and recording guitarist for British rock 'n' roll royalty Shakin’ Stevens.