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

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

Shredder Dilemma

April 22, 2008

Dear Dude,

My friend and I are on different levels of guitar playing. Some of the stuff that I bring to the table, he has no idea what to do with. The first thing that comes to mind to him is “Hey! Let’s harmonize it!” Then he says that he can’t because the string switching action is too much for him right now. He’s willing to play chords that go along with the bass notes I’m hitting but we both agree that can get a little boring. What would you do in a situation like this?

Shredder Dilemma.

Dear Shredder Dilemma,

The guitar duo, ala iron Maiden, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, etc., has become a staple in metal music. I have seen this situation (guitar players at different ability levels) many times. I mean, we all can’t be Dimebag! And sometimes a good metal band needs that duel guitar work for their live show. Working with another guitar player can be both amazing and debilitating as egos collide. All you need is two guitar players in a room and you’ve got yourself an ego stew ready to boil! I, myself, have actually had the honor of being on both ends. I have been the master shredder in the band and I have also been the weak link. There is a two-part process I think you should try. It’s what works best for me and may very well work for you.

Step One; Documentation and Experimentation. The problem is your guitar partner’s physical playing ability hasn’t caught up to your creative needs. So, you need to slow the whole process down. You need to demo your music one-guitar part at a time. What works for me is this; we set up in our practice space and I use a Digidesigns MBOX and my computer to record with one little mic. A lot of times if I cant play the riff or the idea I will just play the bass notes, or just not play at all. At the end of practice we get our drummer to lay down just the beat of the song, it takes some imagination but a good drummer can pull this off easy. I then take that beat home and record a guitar riff or two, and so does the other guitarist. See, by recording it you are actually giving yourself the ability to look at every detail in slow motion. So lay all those ideas down, and experiment because no one is limited to their ability. Both of you can take your time. You can now bounce ideas off yourself because you can record one track and then start on another idea right over top of it. I swear you will see there are more options then just harmonizing, and you will both be able to be involved in the writing process.

Step Two: The Big Pull Off. So, after you’ve found all those sick harmonies and you’ve got your rock opera all recorded over your practice space demo you ask yourself: How are we going to play this live? And that is where step two comes in. To be able to pull it off you are going to have to get your guitar partner/band mate to do one thing… practice! The demo is the best tool to help him do that. It’s his guide. You can even tab the entire riff out for him; right down to every little detail. Try to communicate exactly how you want the riff to be played, and make sure you can play your end of the harmony clean. Lastly, be encouraging! Guitarists can be awful to each other, sometimes. I have seen some dark stuff in my day, and if you’re both encouraging and willing to work together, you will both progress as players and be able to pull things off neither of you thought possible.

The Dude

Writer’s Block

April 4, 2008


What do you when you hit a wall in writing music? What do you do to get over obstacles or hard times writing stuff? I mean, you just can’t fill gaps and be good? So how do you do it?

Writer’s Block

Dear Writer’s Block,

Every time I finish a record I just look at the fret board and think, “that’s it!, there are no more possible combinations of notes, I will never be able to write another riff”. Then sure enough a month or two later I’ll have the guitar on, it will come to me, and a new riff is born. It’s then that I am reminded there are millions of sick riffs out there waiting to be rocked! Keeping that spirit in mind there are 5 rules I follow that always help get me back in the game. Now they may not be the best for you and are definitely not the only ways to fight off writers block but, they have all proven to work for me time and time again:

Rule 1: KEEP TRYING. Riffs, songs, parts, solos, none of them are going to write themselves. So the first rule is crucial. You have to put the guitar on (or whatever you decide to write with) and go to it.

Rule 2: TRY TO KEEP YOUR MIND OPEN. The best way for me to do this is to try different tunings, different time signatures, and tempos. I write in E, Standard, Drop D, Drop C, Open C, B Standard. All those tunings force me to play different patters, note choices, and it changes up the entire sound of the guitar. When I find something I like I see if I can move it to Drop C (which is the standard tuning my band normally uses). If I can’t move it because the shapes are too hard or it just doesn’t sound the same (or better) then I try to write a few more riffs or themes in that tuning. If I can do that, well then a song is born with a different tuning. Its important here not to go crazy. I mean the idea is to trick your hands into playing something you wouldn’t normally stumble on to. You don’t want to have 300 songs in different tunings because live that is going to be just insane to deal with.

Rule 3: FIND INSPIRATION OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE. Its always good to look outside your genre. I hear things all the time in pop, rock, hip hop, hell, even ambient noise music, that sound like cool ideas to incorporate. Its just important to really listen to music you like. Maybe you hear a chord change, maybe you hear a quiet part get loud a certain way. The goal is not to copy it, it’s to find inspiration and use your mind to give it your own interpretation.

Rule 4: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. I am constantly recording demos, riffs and songs all the time. I have a way to do it on the road, at home, even in the bathroom. See, a good idea can come anywhere and sometimes you have an ok idea and with fresh ears it turns into an amazing one. It’s important to be able to write something and then get emotional distance, that way you can really tell if it’s good or not.

Rule 5: TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. There is nothing more lame then an artist that doesn’t do this. It doesn’t mean you always have to change songs and riffs around a million times in order to make a riff rip! It also doesn’t mean write a riff and stand by it to no exception. It actually means find a moderation of the two. When something feels right it is; when it doesn’t feel right it isn’t.

Writers block isn’t easy, its actually fairly common and usually strikes all of us at some point. But it can also be the beginning of an amazing song. Its from that point of nothing that something is born and as long as you are willing to try, keep an open mind, listen to the music around you, document everything, and trust your instincts those magic riffs will come a flowin’!