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


May 27, 2008

Dear Dude,

Throughout the years you have had an array of guitars, pickups, amps, cabinets, etc… I saw you in 2005 and thought you had some crushing tone. Les Paul customs with “Dimebuckers” in the bridge. I ran out the next week installed it in my guitar and have been rocking it since. The past few months I feel like my tone could be better though, and I was thinking about trying out EMG’s. Should I stick to the “Dimebucker” in the bridge or test out the 81’s?


Dear Dimebuck-enier,

I have been experimenting with different pick ups ever since I started tinkering with my guitar, which was about 20 minutes after I picked one up for the first time. I think experimenting with your tone is a must for any musician; it is how you will eventually find your own tone & style, after all. So, to answer your question first; yes, absolutely experiment! In fact I would suggest you put in pick up after pick up until you find the tone that’s yours. It’s simple, put those pick ups in and start riffing! Since we all don’t have a million dollars, or free pick ups flying our way, you have to know where to start. Here are a few thoughts on pick ups that I have had good luck with.

In 2004 Darkest Hour performed on the summer’s Ozzfest and around that time I secured my sweet little endorsement with Seymour Duncan. Up to that point I had been playing nothing but Duncan’s for about 5 years, so let me tell you it was a coveted endorsement for me to get. I even got a chance to meet Mr. Seymour Duncan himself. He was amazing, a rock star to rock stars. To this day, if I had to go to Guitar Center and buy picks up, Duncuns are still what I would buy.The specific pick up I would buy would be without a doubt the Seymour Duncan JB. I have recorded at least one guitar with a JB on almost every record I have been a part of. To me it’s the perfect blend of rock and metal, and the mid-range of the pick up just makes my wrist sound the way I like. I cant explain it, but there’s a reason it’s the definitive rock pick up!

Although I have a personal favorite I have experimented with all sorts of pick ups and even experimented with different wiring options. I went the EMG route but it just seemed to flatten out my sound. Don’t get me wrong, we use guitars with EMG’s all the time in Darkest Hour (our other guitarist, Kris, swears by them). They are great pick ups. Shit, you can’t deny that Zakk Wylde sounds fucking amazing, so don’t let me tell you those pick ups can’t sound good. It’s just I haven’t found a pair that speaks to me. (One quick note if you’re switching out pick ups to try out EMG’s it’s going to be a bitch. Your going to have to change all the electronics because of the way they wire so get ready for that. If you don’t know how to do it, pay someone who does. Its worth it, I have burned myself and many a guitar, not to mention spent way too many hours trying to solder a guitar back together. Working on a guitar is not nearly as fun as playing one, let me tell you that.)

A good alternative to the EMG line is actually the Seymour Duncan Blackouts. They came out recently and are built for kind of the same application. I have a pair in a red Les Paul Custom I use sometimes and until I found those pick ups I couldn’t get anything to sound good in that guitar. See, guitars themselves have a sound so not every pick up works perfectly with every guitar. I almost sold that red Les Paul but I kept the faith and one day popped those Black Outs in. Now no guitar sounds like it and it’s smoking hot! I’ll never get rid of it, It’s the guitar I pull out when its time to get the shred out!

The Dimebuckers are sick because they have more gain then JB’s. I also like that they seem to “metalfy” (I know its not a real word but fuck it!) the sound. You know almost flatten it out but not in a bad way. I swear it makes my playing sound a bit more controlled but maybe I’m crazy! I have at least two guitars in my touring rotation that use Dimebuckers. They are perfect for high gain use but have their own sound; it doesn’t have the same pitfalls to me that the EMG’s do so it was always my solution for getting the JB sound with more gain and balls.

If you’re into the Dimebucker you also have to check out the Bill Lawrence 500 ML’s. This is actually the pick up that Dimebag first used. It is sometimes referred to as the original rail pick up, I am not sure if that is true but, I can tell you that it’s a sick motherfucker! It looks just like the Dimebucker and sounds almost exactly the same. If you can find one of these I suggest buying it and checking it out. You wont be disappointed, trust me there is a reason Dimebag swore by these things! Bill Lawrence also has a site where you can read more about pick ups and tone.

Sometimes when I am layering guitars or just riffing in general I like to have the sound of a single coil pick up. It’s very different from a humbucker and when used to layer with other guitars fitted with regular humbuckers it adds a nice overall thickness. Its just different and whenever I need a sound like this I turn to the Seymour Duncan Little ’59. It’s the perfect sounding single coil; It’s got a nice clear low end and nice full tone to it. I would suggest this pick up to any metal head that is looking for a cool sounding single coil. Also, if you want a single coil that sounds like a humbucker don’t fear. Seymour’s got your back too with the Duncan Hot Rails. I have this in a Fender Tele that I use for Darkest Hour sometimes, it holds the super low tunings really well. If you can believe it this little pick up took my cool indie rock sounding Tele and made it a metal riffing beast!

Ok so I know what you’re thinking, this reads like one big commercial for Seymour Duncan. Look, I know, but like I said it just works for me. Why switch brands? They have a ton of cool sounding pick ups and they all wire relatively the same so switching them out is really easy. The main point is there is never one right pick up for everything! It’s more likely that you will like the sound of a few and change from time to time. That’s ok, change is good. I have my staple pick up’s but I also change it up just for fun all the time. So don’t be afraid to experiment, explore, and create with many different sonic pallets, you may just find something new you like and if your really lucky you may just find something original!

The Dude

12 (String) Gauge Shredder

May 20, 2008

Dear Dude,

I’ve been playing guitar for 5 years now and I love thrash, death, speed, and black metal! My band plays in drop C tuning just like yours and I have been trying to find out what string gauge is best for that tuning? Does it even matter? I just buy whatever size is cheapest right now. It would be really awesome if you could answer this question I have always wanted to ask a touring guitarist.

12 (String) Gauge Shredder!

Dear 12 (String) Gauge Shredder,

Finding the right string gauge for me started the day I picked up my first guitar. I will never forget the strings were dirty feeling and seemed so tight I couldn’t imagine being able to move them the way I had seen Angus Young and other sick guitarists move theirs. String gauge can affect the way a guitar plays and feels in a big way. If I picked up a guitar that has some light 09 – 44 strings on it, I can’t keep it in tune. And if you cant keep a guitar in tune it doesn’t matter how fast or sick you can shred cause it will pretty much always sound like shit. So what’s the right gauge for Drop C.? I don’t think the answer is that cut and dry but I can tell you one metal heads journey.

The first guitar I played actually had something like 09 – 46 gauge strings on it. It never stayed in tune and played pretty terrible (although I also had a lot to do that). When I finally got good enough to even know what the hell string gauges were I bought my first pack, Ernie Ball 10 – 46. I went heavier because I could already tell the thinner strings sounded thinner and didn’t have as much balls as the heavier, thicker ones. Later as my playing progressed and as I experimented with other strings and sizes I came to love the Ernie Ball Light Top Heavy Bottoms (10 – 52). I had been playing in drop C for a few years before they came out with these and it changed my life. Before them I had to buy individual strings to get sets that had thicker bottom strings and thinner high ones. I like the thick bottom end but wanted to be able to push around the thinner strings real easy.

A few years later I stumbled onto the idea of using a wound G (or in our case F) string. It’s a bitch to solo on but it really does make the guitar stay in tune better. The wound string adds more tension and allows the guitar to hold the tuning just slightly better. Recently the dudes in Senses Fail turned me onto Ernie Ball 11 – 54 Beefy Slinky strings. It actually says “Optimal for Detuning” right on the pack now! These are the strings to use if you want your guitar to hold that tuning in drop C. They’re not that glamorous and it takes some work to move that old wound F string around but like I said it will sound golden.

Now there are many, many other brands of string makers than Ernie Ball. I have also used and love: Blue Steel Strings, Di’addario Strings, and SIT Strings to mention a few. At one point you will get a chance to use them all. I suggest you bring a good amount on tour if you go. You don’t want to end up in some random ass town and realize you’re out of strings and have to play with some mismatch of sizes. Right now, live, I’m actually using SIT strings. They play the same way to me as the Ernie Ball’s but I find they have a bit nicer tone. Another interesting thing is that live I don’t use the .11 – .54 strings like I suggested. I actually use .10 – .52’s I don’t like the way a guitar plays with a wound F string, so live I still use the standard three wound, three regular set.

There you have it my advice and then a whole paragraph about how I don’t even follow it! Why? Because in the end its about two things: environment and feel. If I’m in the studio tracking some rhythm guitars I will probably use 11 – 54 gauge strings with the old wound F string. If I’m tracking some leads or solos I will use the same gauge set as I do live (.10 –52’s) with no wound F string. As with most things involving the guitar a lot of these choices come down to personal preference. Just take it from a dude, try them all, once you find that gauge that feels good under your hands you’ll know it.

The Dude

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

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

The Dude’s Live Rig

April 11, 2008

Dear Dude,

Is there any place I can find info on the gear you guys use? I was at the last London gig you played and noticed you had a rack setup under your 5150.. if it isn’t any hassle can you please tell me what you go through etc, pedals and stuff… and what les paul you use?

Damn awesome show by the way!!

Cheers in advance

From the UK

Dear UK,

Only a musician can spot those kind of details but yeah, at that show I did have a 5150 and a small rack (Wireless and Noise Suppressor).

Before I get into my current set up let me just say that the 5150 is my safety amp. Whenever I travel abroad its usually the easiest and safest amp to bring. It always sounds pretty good, but most importantly it always sounds the same. There are tons of amps that I prefer in general but there are none that are more consistant and reliable. If you own a 5150 I suggest making sure you look at the last time it was retubed. I have found that replacing the stock power tubes in a 5150 makes a HUGE difference in the overall sound. I always replace the power tubes whenever I go overseas and use a rented amp. Fresh powertubes can make all the difference.

My current live set up is as follows from Guitar to Speaker:

Guitar > Senhieser G(2) Wireless > Zack Wylde signature Dunlop Wah > Turbo Ratt > DigiTech Whammy Pedal > Boss Tuner > MXR EVH Phaser > MXR EVH Flanger > Dunlap Little JR Volume Pedal > Line 6 Delay > Decimator Pro G Noise Suppressor > (2) Randall RH 100 Heads > (2) Randall RH 100 Guitar Cabs with Green Back Speakers.

I also run in a separate chain an old Alesis Quadraverb. It’s an effects processor from the 90’s, but I have also run a boss DD6 Delay pedal there too. Effects through the effects loop sound much different then through the front of the guitar chain, so I use a little bit of delay here on all my leads and basically any part you want to sound beefed up or filled out.

As far as guitars, I have used every type of Les Paul. I usually prefer the customs but have fallen in love with a Les Paul Gold Top. Its funny because its way newer and totally not vintage, like my other guitars, but a guitar just speaks sometime. It doesn’t have to be expensive or super vintage you just have to love it.

I have also used Dean, Washburn, ESP, and Gibson: Explorers, V’s, RD Artists, and shit I am sure there are a few I forgot. Oh yeah I once had a guitar shaped like a machine gun! Anyway, my new favorite is a few of the Washburn Idols. You will see me playing them live now. They sound as sick as the Les Pauls, no lie but also stay in tune way better. No one is going to believe that those guitars play and sound as good as the Pauls but all I have to say is pick up one of those guitars up and it will speak for itself.

That’s the basic breakdown if you want a full run down on my thoughts on most of this gear then check out the reviews section.

The Dude