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WaterBear are giving one of our musicians the opportunity to win a 1-1 with the one and only Chris Buck!

Chris has enjoyed success in the iTunes album rock charts with his new band Cardinal Black, and has been voted ‘Best New Guitarist’ and ‘Best Blues Guitarist’ in successive years by the readers of Guitarist Magazine

This is going to be an hour session to use for whatever you’d like, a 1-1 guitar lessons, a career chat, maybe just grabbing a coffee with this incredible guitarist.

If you’d like to apply for the 1-1 slot with Chris, please follow
the instructions below;

  1. Email [email protected] with:

This 1-1 session will be happening during October. Closing date to apply is 17th September.

Good luck!

The year is 1984, you watch Dynasty then head to the cinema. There, the glorious sound of one of the greatest guitar solos of all time fills your ear, how does he do it? How can I learn from this? How can I play like Prince? 

Well you don’t need to ‘go crazy’, do a montage to ‘When Doves Cry’ or even have a puppet monkey reinforcing that “life is a b**ch” to emulate the Purple one.  The legendary performer, actor and creative powerhouse that was Prince had mastered twenty seven instruments and released his debut album at the tender age of twenty. Truly in a class of his own, his career spanned from 1978 to his death in 2016.

The Style

His musicality was unmatched, influenced heavily by funk and disco, as evident in his first records, his music grew over the years to incorporate hip hop, rock, punk and jazz elements. Along with the eclectic and intense nature of the music, the lyrics often dealt with themes of sexuality, desire, troubled relationships and social issues. As described by a biographer, “The whole thrust of Prince’s art can be understood in terms of a desire to escape the social identities thrust upon him by simple virtue of his being small, black and male.”  

To bring us back to topic, the same intensity and conviction can be heard in every note he struck. Playing since the age of 7, he was a very accomplished guitarist in all areas of technique, theory and feel. He taught himself at first, the batman theme being the first tune he worked out (ironically a franchise he would later work on thanks to Tim Burton - check out the track Electric Chair for a funk rock fret-ripping rollercoaster), he later got lessons from a local gigging guitarist. His understanding of music and immense talent can be heard in all his recordings and live performances, some we’ll have a look at here and see what we can glean from the mercurial genius of Prince. 

Purple Rain 

Let’s start with arguably his most famous ballad, although one that ironically he probably plays least on and which isn’t funk. The track has a near legendary intro, which along with all the rhythm parts is played on the recording by The Revolutions Wendy Melvoin. The chords are fairly simple, a I-VI-V-IV progression with some colourful extensions, Bb(add9)/D to a Gmin11 to a F(add9) and a Eb(add9).

Although these chords can present a challenge at first with big stretches and fast shifts required, especially to articulately fret the Eb in its full root A string voicing. Once nailed, there is nothing to fear as the verses and the chorus share the same chords just in a different order. Like in much of Princes playing, the progression and number of chords is rather tame and commercially viable, it’s the colourful extensions that add the melancholy and emotion, and is an idea worth stealing when writing your own progressions.  

The Solo

The fills and solo on the track are delivered with conviction and passion, epitomising Prince’s lead playing. The solo takes place in Bb major, same as the rest of the song, so G minor pentatonic is a good place to start. The solo starts with a loose and wild double stop idea using a C and an F which comes in where the break occurs in the chorus, juxtaposing the silence or usual BV delivery of the song’s title.

The rest of the solo is largely improvised changing from performance to performance, some melodic devices stay the same though, like the famous melody at around 5:40 (in the official music video) which uses the 1st, 7th and 2nd of Bb, reminiscent of the Jurassic park theme. Using motifs like this in your playing is a great way to add coherence to solos, create something people can sing along with and add more emphasis when you do decide to add a faster passage. The note choice of the motif also helps, the 7th and 2nd are very emotional notes, especially when put over the chord progression, which uses Bb(add9). The same notes are used in the faster passages of the solo when Prince employs the root 15th fret shape of G natural minor, for rapid repeating licks and runs, it creates a sophisticated descending sound, like falling rain, purple rain.  

A great live recording, the first actual recording of the song, can be found here, it shows what Melvoin plays and Prince playing ideas that would help form the recorded version. 

Kiss and Lady Cab Driver 

To keep this article from becoming a novel, we’ll discuss Prince’s funk mastery by just looking at these two tracks and see what we can add to our groove arsenal.  

One of the Purple ones most recognisable tracks and probably the most famous use of an Adom9, ‘Kiss’ is a masterclass in funk minimalism, showing that a tight drum groove and attitude can go a long way. The song uses the I, IV, V chords of the key of A, using dominant voicings throughout and pausing in the choruses to emphasise that A dominant 9 chord. There is slight variation with the bridge where the song moves to a 14th fret E9. The track would change regularly live, so it’s a great piece to learn and practice your funk rhythm. The chords are simple and the feel makes it, try playing the rhythm part with ‘chickas’ or without and see what sounds better.  

Almost an evolution of these tight funk ideas is ‘Lady Cab Driver’, the song is mainly one repetitive groove around B minor 7 and E minor 7. The song has plenty of space for improvisation and includes a simple yet pretty melodic idea that uses E min pentatonic with the added 2nd, reminiscent of some of the melodies in ‘Purple Rain’. The rhythm parts are very Nile Rodgers, cleanly executed with deftly placed ‘chickas’. Here is a great live version. 

Tone and Takeaways 

So what can you learn from Prince and use in your own playing? The biggest takeaway would be the value of a part. He was a master composer who understood every instrument and his guitar parts were always placed with purpose, he rarely or never overplayed. His rhythm parts utilised space and his lead playing balanced melody and flair. And remember, the bigger the venue, the less notes you need. A slightly out of tune unison bend played like Prince is worth a thousand notes. 

Other tracks to listen to for more inspiration would be ‘Raspberry Beret’ for the funk intro, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ for the two guitar solos and an exceptional live performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, linked here.   

In terms of tone, here is the equipment the man himself used, with alternatives. 

Guitars:  

  1. Hohner Madcat telecaster – A Japanese designed telecaster released in the 70s, its alternative bridge design meant the pickup was closer to the bridge itself, and it allowed a certain ‘honk’ that Prince thought was perfect for funk. Discontinued these days, used examples sell for anywhere between the 1.2 and 2 thousand mark, although for us mere mortals, any telecaster will get us in the ball park. Check out the squire classic vibe series for serious value for money, now all you need is a leopard print pickguard… 
  1. David Rusan Cloud Guitar and Jerry Auerswald Symbol guitar – These instruments were custom pieces and were normally saved for music videos, movies or huge shows like the Grammys. Prince seems to have favoured the Hohner for most live events, possibly due to the versatility it offered when compared to the EMGs of the Cloud guitar. Master built replicas exist for mortgage rivalling prices and cheaper replicas can be bought at around the £500 area. Although for distinctive looks or tone, many companies make offset style guitars, and they can always be fitted with EMGs. 

Amplifiers 

  1. Soldano SLO 100 – Used in his early career, they were very popular in the 70s. With a clean and a gain channel they offer great versatility. These are still being produced today for around three and a half thousand. Alternatives would be most valve amps with 6L6 tubes and two channels, alternatives are offered by the likes of Blackstar and Orange for £600+. 
  1. Mesa Boogie Lone star – One of the most famous amps in history, being used by the likes of Andy Timmons, Dave Grohl and Two Door Cinema Club, it’s truly capable of most styles and has a creamy compression when pushed. Prince used these with 3rdeyegirl, and the amps can be found online for 1.5 to 2 thousand, worth every penny. 

Pedals 

  1. Prince was a classic Boss pedal man through and through, using them for all his vibrato, distortion, flanger and driving needs. Seeing as these are all still being produced, unless you’re looking for vintage, they can be bought at most stores. 
  1. Dunlop Cry baby – The only wah pedal you need. Still readily available with an array of flavours to choose from. 
  1. Octave pedal – Prince used a Digitech Whammy and various line six multi effects through his career. An electro harmonix POG is a modern way to nail the intro tones on ‘When Doves Cry.’ 

To find out more, check out our courses here.

We all want to be better, right? But what exactly does ‘better’ mean for you as a guitar player? The answer depends on your priorities. This blog will help you narrow your focus so you can effectively work towards being the best possible version of yourself.

Where players often go wrong

Younger players are very often preoccupied with technique, speed and flash and there’s definitely a place for that in my heart. I love to hear someone take a room apart with some fierce chops. However, our bodies and nervous systems are all different. In the same way that no matter how hard I trained I could never beat Usain Bolt in a sprint, I could also never have the accuracy and speed on guitar that say Guthrie Govan has. My body isn’t made that way and my nervous system won’t transmit messages or process musical information at the speed Guthrie can, no matter how many hours of practice I put in.

But that’s okay, because this isn’t a competition and, as guitar players, we are all selling our personality as much as anything else. We all have the same notes at our disposal and largely the same harmonic choices, what makes a lick or a song or a part, is the way we make it our own. There’s an awful lot of guitar players out there, but there’s always room for players with a sense of themselves and something to say on the instrument.

I’m going to divide these tips in to two sections: tips 1 and 2 are about improving your craft and honing your skill and 3-5 are centred around refining your own personal style. I’m talking about ‘musical branding’ if you like. Finding your direction on guitar is a very personal journey, everyone has their own path to tread, and by doing so you’ll learn many wider lessons along the way. Understanding guitar is a way to understand life.

So here we go...

Tip 1 - Timing

Ever wondered why an experienced pro player can play something super simple and yet the performance has gravitas and transmits unshakable confidence? I liken this to a comedian telling a joke. It’s all in the timing. And specifically, the level of control the performer has over that.

If you spend 3 months sorting out your timing, then you won’t believe how many compliments you’ll get from people. An average person in a crowd might not be able to describe how you’ve just pulled a lick back behind the beat, or sat right on a groove, but rest assured they will absolutely understand that ‘here is a serious musician’.

So how do we develop great timing?

Play with musicians who are better than you

Don’t edit so much when recording - try for complete usable takes

Spend the majority of your practice time with a click, or drum loops, and devise routines that really test your skills such as dropping the click out for 1, 2 or even 4 bars and see if you can stay in time.

Pay attention to rhythm guitar (all guitar is rhythm guitar!) Nothing downgrades a shredder and makes them sound like a bedroom player more than them getting excited and getting ahead of the beat in an uncontrolled way. Listen to the control top players have even when ripping it up. Listen to the groove masters like Rob Harris or Steve Cropper to understand what ‘simple done well’ sounds like.

Test yourself: Play a slow shuffle at 60 bpm and see if you can sit on the click without rushing - not easy!

Tip 2 - Sort your tone out

There’s basically two sort of guitar sounds, and I’m not talking class A/B or analogue/digital. I am talking about a) real tones with sonic integrity - the sort you hear on great recordings and the sort of sound that will still work next to a live kit and through a big PA - and b) poor approximations of the real thing. Whichever direction you go in devising your own signature tone, try and tune up your ears so you don’t get a nasty shock first time you go into the studio with an experienced producer and engineer.

So how do you develop great tone?

Collect reference tones from great recordings and performances, and really listen hard to what is going on. Try to separate what is coming out of the cab and what elements of the final tone are post speaker eg. room ambience. Research what the ‘raw’ recorded tone was, if you can, as this trips up so many players who think that the sound they hear through the PA or hi-fi speaker is the guitar sound from the cab. The original source tone is often much dryer, has more midrange, has a harmonic richness and has the sonic integrity to hang in there right through it being mix and mastered (and being compressed to bits on some radio station!).

Practice with a bare tone, no reverb or delay and minimal compression and gain. This will do wonders for your tone and you’ll figure out how to get the most tonal response from your guitar. No pedal can save a weak right or left hand, and you can’t boost frequencies that aren’t there. That’s why great amps and pickups often sound awful in the hands of someone inexperienced. They just give you a more detailed sonic picture of what you are putting into it.

Test yourself: Try playing bone dry with a simple lead, no pedals, into something unforgiving like a Hiwatt Custom 50m, a plexi, an AC30, fender twin or a digital version of those amps. This will feel terrible at first as every detail is so ‘in your face’ but stick with this and you’ll discover a whole world of tone in your fingers which will build your confidence. When you revert back to your normal setup, you’ll be amazed at the difference. And so will everyone else.

Tip 3 - Copy great singers to firm up your phrasing

Guitar, as we know it, came from the blues tradition and often in early blues recordings the lead guitar would take over from the vocal, in a similar register. This worked initially on slide and later on standard electric bends and vibrato could mimic vocal delivery. This is a big plus for the instrument. We can make it sing.

But on top of that, it’s noticeable how many stand out players are also singers. There are the obvious examples with Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green and B.B. King, but also check out the more primitive but effective guitar work of Marc Bolan, Jeff Lynne (ELO etc.) and Neil Young or the lo-fi garage-style work of Kurt Cobain. One thing they all have in common is they have a singer’s approach to note choice and an effective use of space and rhythmic patterns.

How do we develop a more vocal style of phasing?

Copy people speaking and replicate their conversations on guitar using bends, whammy bar etc. Also concentrate on the rhythmic aspects of speech and the nuances of pitch and dynamic in the questions, answers and statements of everyday conversations.

Apply that learning into a solo but limit your note choice. Try entire solos on the root note for example. Notice how singers often bounce around on two or three notes, whereas a guitarist might feel the need to move round the neck more.

Look at your picking hand and copy the dynamics of a few great singers. Amy Winehouse could go from a roar to a whisper and maybe you can too. Go back to a single note and see how many tones you can get from one note by adjusting your pick attack, angle and placement.

Test yourself: Try tremolo picking and change the volume from very quiet to very loud without stopping the flow of the picking. See how consistent and controlled you can be.

Tip 4 - Play less

When I tour and I’m on a bill with load of other guitar bands, I get to listen to a lot of sets. That’s a lot of guitar. After every festival I make a mental note: Play fewer notes. There’s an awful lot of guitar notes already floating around, before we add to that let’s be clear what the purpose and point is. Play less but make sure what you do play counts.

Try the Jimmy Hendrix/Eddie Kramer/Chapman trick of playing lead around your breathing. Stop playing when you inhale. It’s a simple trick that forces you to leave space and make use of silence. If you have a super grainy tone you might want to use a noise gate to nip the feedback in the bud or, better still, learn to control the vol pot like Eddie Van Halen whose little finger was forever on the vol pot - dialling it back and forth like a set of gears as he played.

Tip 5 - Develop your own style

Okay, so this is the big one. In a world full of guitar players, what hope do we have of planting our own flag creatively and doing more than just playing good guitar? Here are some ways you might approach this (but remember, it can take a few years to know what you want so take your time and enjoy the journey):

Listen back to recordings of your own playing and look for small motifs, signatures and techniques that you like. Pick a few of your favourites and try and develop them further. For example, if you have a heavy right hand and favour down strokes, then ask yourself if you could make more of that - could that right hand be even heavier? If you have a big vibrato, could it be even bigger? That sort of line of thought might help you find some exciting lines of stylistic development. The goal is to be ‘more you’.

Identify your three or four main influences and think about why you are drawn to their music. You can take inspiration from aspects of their approach without directly lifting licks. For me, I’ve tried to take a little bit of composition and hot plexi tone from Randy Rhoads, the blues base from Hendrix, a smidge of early Van Halen’s spontaneity and elements of the economy and detail from Peter Green. To that I add in my own personality, my drive for simplicity, and I try to turn limitations into positives. What you don’t do defines you as much as what you do do.

So that’s the Bruce guitar recipe. But more importantly, what’s the ingredients in your guitar… cake? Guitar pie? I think I’ve taken this analogy as far as I can so I think I’ll stop there and go play some guitar!

Take it easy.

Bruce, 2021

To find out more, check out our courses here.

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