Why Sling it Low?

June 11, 2008

Dear Dude,

I was wondering why you wear your Les Paul so low. Is it for looks or is it just more comfortable? When I do it it’s a bit harder to play on both hands.

Why Sling it Low?

Dear Why Sling it Low,

Where your guitar sits while you play can have a huge impact on how you actually play it. I’m not sure how much thought most musicians put into, but it really comes down to one thing, personal preference.

Yes, it is harder to play your guitar with it swinging at your knees then if its choked up to your neck like an Ibanez necklace! If you’re going to be shredding faces off you’re probably going to want the guitar to sit pretty high so you can reach all those tight areas more freely and quickly. This is a stark contrast to the type of player who loves to just riff power chords and chug along. This player can wear his guitar where ever he wants and still get the job done because he or she doesn’t have to worry about hitting all those hard to reach places.

For me, where I sit my guitar is kind of more about my development as a guitar player. When Darkest Hour first started I was this second type of guitar player, I just riffed on some power chords. As I developed my style I became much better technically on the guitar, but since I was so used to playing the guitar low it never felt right to change it up. As my growth to an aspiring uber shredder began I adapted to shredding low.

When a sick shred part comes up during a live set, I need to make sure I have my knee up on something so the guitar is propped right in front of me to play it. I usually use a monitor, kick drum, kid that’s stage diving, really anything to be able to rest the guitar a bit closer. As soon as the shred part is done I can drop the guitar back down. Its funny, but Mr. John Petrucci of the band Dream Theatre has an actual step built so that he can put his leg up when he needs to get the rock out. Now that’s a little more elaborate than me, but it just goes to show that he likes his guitar a certain way, and has to compensated a little to shred all our faces off.

Some people think a guitar slung low just looks cool. I mean you can’t deny that James Hetfield, Zakk Wylde, or even Andy Willlams (Every Time I Die) look fucking badass with their guitars hung low. Shit I am sure the reason I started playing mine as low as I could was because I thought it LOOKED cool. But you know some people also think Ben Weinmen (Dillinger Escape plane), Tom Morello (RAGE), and Vernon Reid (Living Color) also look bad ass when they rock and all of them sit their guitars very differently. My point, be yourself and play where the guitar feels comfortable. Its not a fashion show, if you walk out there and look like Slash with your guitar hung low ready to slay and you just suck because you cant reach the fret’s, well your going to be embarrassed to say the least. Don’t try to emulate the way anyone holds a guitar because in reality the only thing that will matter to your playing is how you hold it.


The Practice Police

June 4, 2008

Dear Dude,

How many hours of practice do you devote to your guitar a day?

The Practice Police

Dear Practice Police,

Practice is something that I mention in almost every letter. Probably because it’s the single best, time tested, unmistakable act you can do as an artist to improve. There are not too many of those, so it’d be wise to heed to it. I would also like to take a moment to dispel a common misconception that most guitarists sit around and practice at all. In fact most guitarists I’ve toured with have confessed to me that they never practice. The grind of life can sometimes take its toll on your free time. Even as I write this I think, “FUCK I need to practice!” But it’s good to know everyone faces this challenge. Finding the time to practice is a hard thing to do, but it’s a must if you want to continuously get better.

When I am at home I spend anywhere from at least one to three hours a day practicing or playing guitar. Notice I didn’t just say practicing because at home I don’t do too much actual studying. I try to play and pull off shit I usually can’t. I spend time learning a few songs I love, but most of all I sit around and try to write music. I make sure to schedule that time into my day, because the first step to getting better at guitar is sitting down to start.

When I am on tour it’s a bit different. I play almost all day non-stop. I carry around little ripped off pieces of tab paper so that if I get a free moment I can run through an exercise or run I have been having problems with. To be able play stuff out of your range you have to able to analyze every detail and look at it in slow motion. It’s the combination of practicing and just jamming that has made me both a faster and cleaner player. Its best to split your overall playing time between repetition (straight practicing) and creation (writing, riffing, and working on your own jams). Each of these things is a separate cognitive process that will push your playing to the next level.

Practice takes time and as a musician you have to learn how to balance this time. It’s just that LIFE also need to play a huge role in creating music. All great songwriters need to not only be able to rock, but also have something worth expressing. So, the agony of wrestling between spending your time practicing and actually living is born. Let me tell you how many people I know who can jam the hell out of a guitar, but have nothing new to offer or express. And that just doesn’t interest me.

If you want to get better, you have to practice. This might be the most true thing written on the Internet right now. If you really love to riff, then the act of practicing shouldn’t be the hard part,  it’s finding the time to commit that is hard. A lot of dudes out there think they need to spend hours promoting their band, schmoozing with record labels, and being seen at all the right places, but in reality you need to make sure you don’t forget the one thing you know will actually make you better, practice.

The Dude

Down Picking Doom Rider

June 2, 2008

Dear Dude,

I’ve been working on my down picking technique a lot lately and I just can’t figure out why I have to work harder than other guys on this. I can easily play all those alternate picking, sweeping, tapping, etc. licks but fast down picking I have trouble with. It’s weird because I can alternate pick a note let’s say 220 BPM (Beats Per Minute) 16th notes but I can’t down pick 8th notes at the same tempo without some struggling. I am trying to relax my picking hand as much as I can. Also, to let you know, I hold my pick a bit different than other guitarists. I hold it with my thumb, index and middle like Steve Morse as I just find it easier this way but maybe this plays a factor in down picking? Did you ever specifically practice this or did this just come more naturally to you? Also, how much do you stress down picking? I know players like Mustaine, Hetfield and all those guys do. I read in a Guitar World that Devin Townsend had some trouble with this too so I don’t feel so bad now. Haha!

Down Picking Doom Rider

Dear Down Picking Doom Rider,

Down picking is probably the most important thing I learned how to do well when I was learning the guitar. It’s your wrist technique (or the way you pick) that affects your overall tone. I don’t care how many sick amps you try out, if you have a weak or soft wrist your shit is never going to sound thrashtastic! To me, if down picking is the holy grail of guitar skills than James Hetfield of Metallica is Jesus! He is my number one guitar idol when it comes to rhythm playing. Dimebag was sick and much respect, but no one lays the riffs down like the HET! I spent many a day researching and practicing Hetfield’s style, and I believe it is the reason why the guitars on the first 4 or 5 Metallica records are so crushing!

When I hold a pick I use my thumb and pointer finger bent with the rest of my fingers fist closed. This is how I learned to riff from my first and only guitar teacher. It always seemed normal and felt comfortable and it never even occurred to me to hold the pick different until I saw Marty Friedman play guitar for Megadeath. Check out this video of this dude, because he holds the pick in the most unusual way, and no one will argue that that mother fucker can riff with the best of em’. Unfortunately, Mr. Friedman is the exception not the rule. MOST instructional DVDs and clinics I have studied, on heavy metal guitar playing, all suggest to hold the pick the way I was taught. My first suggestion is to try holding the pick this way or the way James Hetfield does. Maybe this will make it easier, maybe not. I think a lot of playing guitar is about being comfortable with your technique, and you have to be willing and able to trust your first instinct.

Down picking hard, consistent, and fast are all things that I have had, and still have, to work many hours on perfecting. The ability to do it with ease comes form one thing, repetition. You have to keep playing all the time to build up those muscles. The best advice I can give to someone who wants to play something really well, really fast, is to perfect playing it SLOW first. So, I would say slow those BPM’s down and start practicing down picking consistently and evenly. If you’re looking for a fun way to learn try downloading some Metallica tabs and jamming along. I suggest the song Master of Puppets or Am I Evil (the Diamond Head cover). I must have played both these songs a million times. Like I said when it comes to down picking Hetfield is Jesus, and nobody fucks with the Jesus!

The Dude

Concerned Low End Provider

May 22, 2008

Dear Dude,

I play bass in a metal band, and we’re preparing to go record a demo in the next couple of weeks. I’ve been playing in bands and recording for about half my life, so I’m only mildly nervous about the whole situation. Our guitar players are both very talented and consistent players, but they both seem freaked out about going in and recording our first demo.

I suppose my question is this; is it normal for dudes to get so wound up over a recording? If it is a common occurrence, is there anything I can say or do to help? I want these guys to know that they’re going to be fine and that their guitar playing is top notch without seeming like I’m patronizing them.

Concerned Low End Provider

Dear Concerned Low End Provider,

Recording can be the biggest head fuck of all time. Many times when I was younger I would find myself freaking out in the studio over the most mundane little details. I remember one time being so afraid that one of the producer’s cats was going to hit the knobs on my guitar head that I would meticulously cover it every night before we went home. Needless to say it’s pretty easy to lose your cool in the studio. I have seen some pretty big rock stars lose their shit in the studio and it’s not really as funny as you think it would be.

Is it normal for dudes to get so wound up over a recording? Yes, totally. It’s pretty common for at least one dude to be nervous right from the beginning, and we’re not even talking about the dudes who get wound up once you get there. Be not afraid. Many other dudes have fought this battle. Here are some things you might want to try.

1. Suggest your dudes practice: I know, I know, it’s redundant, but it’s true. I have seen so many professional bands make up shit on the fly in the studio it would make your head spin. I mean do you think Born in the USA was written after the drums were tracked? Ah, No Sir! It’s sad, stupid, and fucking lame when you think that there are some bands out there who get thousands of dollars from record companies and show up with half written songs, while other bands work at taco bell all summer just to get into a studio. Anyway, make sure you have all your songs written. Like I said, you would be surprised at the amount of bands I have worked with who hadn’t fully finished every note and lyric before they started recording.

One suggestion you can make is to try practicing with a metronome. Tell them you heard that playing with a metronome a few hours a day can greatly improve your ability to play in the studio by improving speed, tempo, clarity, and rhythm, amongst other things. Ask if they have ever done that. Then mention that you were thinking about doing the same thing, but only on a few songs that you don’t feel that confident with.

This will show them three things:

a. You are thinking about practicing and the upcoming recording process.

b. You found that a solution for your nerves is practice.

c. They might be able to cure their nerves the same way.

2. Take them by the studio to check it all out: Some dudes who haven’t spent a lot of time in or around recording studios think it has to always be this religiously laborious process. You need to be able to mentally envision the home studio inside the professional one. Maybe you can check out a session for a second (you, of course, have to check with the studio to make sure that’s cool before you just roll by). Really, what you’re trying to show them is that the studio can be a pretty normal place. All those knobs, lights, and chords, can be intimidating at first (I still to this day get intimidated by fancy gear sometimes), but they need to remember they are all just instruments. If you look at it that way it’s just like being in a room with access to an endless assortment of instruments. There’s no way any musician wouldn’t think that’s exciting.

3. Record at home: This might be a little complicated to pull off at first, but there now are ways to record anywhere, at any time. Even if it’s recording on a laptop in Garage Band (that’s free for apple users), it just helps to get your brain in the mode of ‘recording’. I suggest a Digidesign MBOX. Every guitar shredder should have one. It’s the best way to document your ideas and get super comfortable with the recording process. It’s really easy to use and was for me the gateway to start producing bands. If I hadn’t bought that first MBOX I wouldn’t be even able to think about recording anything! It will bring both you’re playing and writing up a level, just being able to analyze and document your playing like that is so valuable, especially for a guitar player.

In the end you can try any of these suggestions, but they all require you to do one thing; communicate. Look, you have had the experience before so you can take the lead and help facilitate a really good first recording experience for your dudes, you just need to open that first line of communication.

Play-By-Ear Guitarist

May 16, 2008

Dear Dude,

I’ve been playing guitar seriously for about 2 years. I had my guitar before that but, I didn’t play it much. It’s not my first instrument so it wasn’t that hard to start. Ever since I’ve started I’ve been absolutely obsessed. I taught myself how to play, and got a little advice from the Internet. However, I’ve run into a couple problems. I tried to take lessons once and the guitar teacher basically told me that whatever is comfortable is right. I mean, as far as I’m concerned I could have been playing the guitar backwards and he wouldn’t have known. So I stopped. Ever since I’ve worked really hard on playing with good technique and rhythm. However, sometimes I worry that no matter how much I practice, and no matter how good I get technically that I might not ever join a band (I’m only 16) because I have never learned or studied music theory. I mean, I know music theory as cello goes… but I never took the time to learn music theory for guitar. I can’t read treble clef so I wouldn’t be able to read the music. So my question is, do you think that I have to learn music theory if I want to join a band? Did you? Because I have no problem playing’ stuff by ear but I’m afraid that’s not enough.


Play-By-Ear Guitarist

Dear Play-By-Ear-Guitarist,

To learn theory or not to learn theory that is the question. Or at least, one I hear all the time. It’s just so fashionable to be a classically trained musician (fuck especially in metal). Although it may be fashionable, learning theory can be a lot of work. Very rarely do I meet someone in a band that actually has any musical training or has studied music theory. Does that shock you? Well it’s the truth. Most dudes who rock in pro metal bands have not taken formal classes in any type of theory. So is it better to have learned or not learned theory? Do those guitarists have an upper hand? Are you going to have problems joining a band because you can’t read or don’t have an understanding of music theory? These questions all demand answering as soon as we open this Pandora’s box.

Have I had studied music theory? Yes, the high school I went to had a very progressive music program and I took as many as two music theory classes. It’s funny because we really just used the class as a chance to torture the teacher for an hour or so. See it was me, a few punk dudes, a few metal dudes, and a few band dudes (band as in the band camp kind of band). While I may have absorbed some of the classes by just being there, really we just fucked around most of the time. My point is that no matter how focused and into music I was I just couldn’t translate that passion or understanding into music theory.

Did I learn by playing by ear? Yes, and more importantly I communicate my music to other musicians by ear as well. Where some people might write music down I tend to record or even play music when I need to communicate an idea to another musician. Actually, most bands I have worked with communicate this way too, although some use a combination of writing and riffing. So cast those fears aside little man. There are plenty, plenty, dudes rocking in bands worldwide who have never studied or even understand the first thing about music theory.

On the other hand, I have also observed musicians who not only can communicate in the above ways but, have also studied music and are able to communicate with other musicians in that way. In my opinion those musicians have an advantage. I think its fair to say that regardless of many wasted hours in that music theory class there is a bit of knowledge that sunk in. So yeah, you definitely don’t have to learn music theory if you want to join a band. But, you’re probably better off at least taking a shot. You obviously have learned music in some form (you mention the training on the cello) so you should be able to apply at least that same sort of thinking (or learning pattern) to learning the guitar. I mean as you put it yourself (your only 16) you got a lot of rocking ahead so don’t fear learning theory. Just try it out, you may find it helps your music grow while giving you another voice to communicate with other musicians.

The Dude

Sweep’n Maniac!

May 12, 2008

Dear Dude,

I have been working on my sweep picking for a long time now. What pick gauge thickness is better for sweep picking? 3.0 or 1.0?


Sweep’n Maniac!

Dear Sweep’n Maniac,

Sweep picking is the new black, but if your not just running up and down the neck as fast you can (and actually doing something musical), it can be a really cool and useful technique. Many people don’t realize how much pick density, hardness, and size can affect your playing. So, to answer this question I just had to ask a few shredders I know.

First things first, I use the Jim Dunlop 1.14 (although mine are provided by In Tune guitar picks) If you’re not into numbers it’s the dark purple pick Dunlop makes. I have used this hardness pretty much since 1996 and really cannot play with any other gauge. I would rather play live with a penny as a pick than use a thin pick. I just don’t get the control I want, I just can’t rock with a limp pick.

But, don’t just take my word for it. One quick phone call to my main man, (and co-guitarist of Darkest Hour) Kris “Weenie” Norris, reveals a slightly different outlook. Surprisingly, Kris uses a very thin .66 gauge pick. To a dude like me that feels like a piece of paper, but believe it or not I have seen Kris melt some frets with that little flimsy thing. However, Kris still suggests a heavy pick for sweeping even though he uses such a thin gauge. He attributes his wrist problems and chronic pain to his decisions to go against his own advice and still use a thin pick.

Kris and I agree that the harder the pick the better the control, even though we both actually use two different gauges. To settle this I had to call the only other dude I knew who could put this question to rest. And that’s no other then Mr. Devin “Fucking” Townsend. Now if you don’t know who Devin is, well he’s a sick ass producer, shredder extraordinaire, and (even Kris would agree) a badass motherfucker on the guitar. Devin’s advice is to go the middle road. Too thin and you don’t have enough control. Too thick and there’s not enough give. He suggests the Dunlop Green .88 picks. He likes the real big kind, not the old standard size picks. Dunlop calls it the “triangle pick.” Now I tried to jam with this pick once but it felt to me like I was playing with the top of plastic coffee lid.

Now, even though we all actually use different gauges, we still agree on two main points. One, the harder the gauge pick the better the control. Two, don’t use too hard of a pick gauge or the pick will have no “give.” If you’re not sure where to start, go with the standard size Green .88 picks. It’s a good middle road. Now you can play around with hardness after you get used to that (If you want more give go a bit thinner, if you want more control go harder). My personal feeling is stay away from anything harder then 2.0 unless you really feel it. In the end you need to feel what’s right for your playing and try every size and thickness. Once you feel the pick that’s the right thickness, you’ll know it right away. It just will feel, right

The Dude

Shredder Looking to Open His Horizons

May 7, 2008

Dear Dude,

What is the best way to learn how to play chords and scales on guitar?

Shredder Looking to Open His Horizons

Dear Shredder,

Learning scales and chords on the guitar can be a very daunting task. It’s a lot to memorize, let alone learn. As a little dude I remember reading interviews with Eddie Van Halen and Dimebag Darrel (two of my favorite guitarists) who both claim to have practiced or studied the guitar very little. As much as I would love to claim that I share in their super powers and need little or no practice, it just wouldn’t be true. Unlike the aforementioned shredders I try to do as much practicing as I can. For me rock didn’t come as easy as it must have for those mega dudes and that has meant many long hours of shred time.

The first thing to keep in mind is that learning chord shapes and scales is all about memorization. Figure out what tuning you’re going to be jamming in most and start there. I started in E flat (because Slayer, Pantera, and Van Halen all riffed mainly in that tuning). Later I migrated to the drop C shape, which I do most of my writing in now. Once you determine which tuning you want to start in its best to make a diagram or chart. There are millions of free scales and chord charts out there. You can really use any memorization technique you want, anything from putting stickers on the neck (which actually works awesome!) to flash cards like in grade school. I have found for me that using a method that involves the guitar helps immensely. So try to come up with something that will help you remember what the notes are playing as you play. Even if it’s as simple as saying them out loud as you play each note.

There have been so many books written about chords and scales that it could make your head spin. Do some research, get out there and look around, see what makes sense to you. A book that worked really well for me and speaks to metal heads in general is The Guitar Grimoire by Adam Kadmon. It has almost everything you would need to know about metal chords, scale shapes, and basic music theory.

There are many computer programs that serve the same purpose. I use the program Guitar Pro to do all my tabbing and notation. It contains a really awesome scale tool that is very helpful. Guitar Pro is not the only program like this out there, it’s good to try a few different ones. I suggest Guitar Pro but its really about finding a program, book, or method that works with you and how you remember. Music doesn’t work the same for everyone that’s the real magic of it so you need to find a way that makes sense to you.

Jamming with someone you know, who already understands how notes and scales work, is without a doubt the fastest way to not only memorize the notes but also learn how they work in conjunction with music. As I said in the beginning it starts with memorization but ends at understanding.

Learning anything on guitar is always about repetition so it’s going to take some long hours of wood shredding to get those scales memorized and fluid sounding. Make sure to take it slow, practice with a metronome, and just do each step over and over again. I used to read this all the time when I was younger and never paid attention to it. Its called muscle memory and it really works.

Remember it’s a three-part process: Memorization, Repetition, and Realization. It’s by taking the path towards learning scales and chords that you will stumble upon the ability to not just know them but understand them. And that ultimately will push you and your playing to a place you never thought possible.

The Dude