When we’re in the imitation phase of learning, there are usually a few specific licks and tricks that we zero in on for study. Once we’ve got those under our fingers though, we tend to get restless and start to look for fresh new ways of playing them. That’s only natural. Even if its super-fun and fulfilling to 100% nail ‘Eruption’ exactly like the record every time you play it, eventually you’ll start changing a phrasing element here and there. And eventually that new element you’ve introduced will work its way into your natural playing style to the point where it becomes part of your guitar vocabulary. This month I take a look at some three of the players who inspired my unique playing style.
THE STEVE VAI SLIDEY PINCH HARMONIC THING
Okay, so I’m a Vai geek, or rather I was a Vai geek. I used to obsess over every little element of his playing, and I considered Vai mimicry to be my ultimate goal. I didn’t consciously shift from this goal to develop my own voice, it was more of a gradual, subconscious progression. Still, one element of my Vai-clone days that has stayed with me, it’s the way he will often start a musical phrase with a pinch harmonic but then immediately slide or hammer out of it into another note. When you do this you get a bizarre effect where the note attack is extra bright and loaded with harmonic overtones and when you slide into the next note you’ll hear these overtones rapidly give way to the more pure, ‘unharmonic’ note.
THE EDDIE VAN HALEN BAR-AS-PICK THING
It seems every time I turn around there’s another article saying “Everyone loves Eddie for his lead work but nobody ever talks about his rhythm playing.” There are more articles saying that about his rhythm playing than there are about his lead! So although I’ve ‘borrowed’ all sorts of EVH rhythm tricks over the years, let’s have a look at one of his lead lick tricks. In a similar way to how Vai will start a lead phrase with a pinch harmonic and then get right out of it into straightforward picking, EVH often employs a cool technique where he will hammer on the note with his fretting hand while dipping and releasing the whammy bar. This gives you an almost slide-like note attack and is useful and musical whether you’re using a Floyd Rose, a Strat-style bridge or even a Bigsby. In fact, this technique rocks for Bigsby players if you use a tonne of analogue delay and spring reverb. You have to have a decent amount of strength in your fretting hand to ensure a consistent volume between hammered and picked notes, especially if you’re playing with a clean tone, but it’s worth the extra effort.
THE FRANK ZAPPA WAH-WAH THING
When I was in high school I used to rent Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels movie during the holidays and spend some time in that weird freaky quirky world. Frank’s guitar playing was otherworldly, and maybe a bit shocking to those who only know him for his more mainstream, novelty-ish songs. His solo on “Any Kind Of Pain” from 1988’s Broadway The Hard Way is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in my life. But one thing I borrowed from Frank was his wah-wah technique. Frank never really used the wah-wah as a typical rhythmic ‘wakka-wakka’ kind of effect. Instead he would hover around specific frequencies, maybe rocking the pedal back a little to allow some notes or phrases to become a little smeared, then edging the pedal forward to put a bit more edge on others. But for the most part he seemed to stick within a relatively limited range of the pedal’s travel. This is especially great for psych or avant-garde styles.