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You’re a drunkard. You feel hopelessly depressed, you’ve put on 25 pounds and the music career you once loved is on the ropes due to your band mate (who you haven’t talked to in several months) hating your wife and planning his own solo project. The wife, who you’ve been married to for 2 years and with for 9 has been sleeping with your best friend, lying and manipulating you, pushing you down and running around. But things are set to change. In mid-2009, you make the call, end things with the wife and organise a beer with the estranged band mate, you hug and make up and start planning how to become the biggest band in the world.  

This story hits home too hard right? Well, this was reality for Patrick Carney, the drummer for the Black Keys prior to ‘Brothers’. We can start learning from the band before even looking at the songs; never give up on the dream and if your bandmate thinks your partner’s bad news, listen to them, they care about you (and by ‘you’ I might just mean your playing ability). Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach recorded ‘Brothers’ in mid to late 2009 and released it in 2010, with a now classic album cover design directly influenced by Howlin Wolf’s 1969 release, which read ‘This is Howlin Wolf’s new album….’. This album established them as underdog rockers with growl and attitude and, despite having their feet firmly in blues rock, it won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2011. Although during 2011, something else was ready to fuel their fiery career. 

‘El Camino’, which ironically has a Plymouth mini-van on the front, dropped like a bomb in 2011 and secured their status as blues rock heavyweights. The album was written all during recording, so the songs are often short, with apparently the structure of each being the hardest part to decide on. The songs on the album are noticeably more to the point, faster and pull no punches when delivering catchy hooks. Well, apart from ‘Little black Submarines’ which kind of channels ‘Stairway’ vibes. This was an artistic decision as apparently the duo found it hard to maintain energy and do some of the slow burners off ‘Brothers’ justice in a live setting. Once again, another lesson to be learnt, always plan ahead as to how it will sound live. Adding a string section in the studio? Nice, but now try replicating that live with your power trio, you’ll probably need to alter the instrumentation and edit sections to compensate. 

In 2014 The Black Keys released ‘Turn Blue’, which although not as commercially successful as ‘El Camino’ garnered very positive critic reviews and was said to have marked a mature turning point in their career. According to the duo, parts of the writing and recording process were incredibly hard with most of the lyrics inspired by Auerbach’s then ongoing divorce and the two disagreeing on whether to pursue radio friendly straight forward hits or take a new melancholic, 70s inspired direction. In the end, the album is a lot more downtempo in comparison to El Camino and features some luscious instrumentation. 

To discuss how we can learn from the smart, sharp snarling guitar of Auerbach, we’ll have a look at one track from each of their most successful albums, covering the different ideas which go into such tight blues/garage rock hits. 

Tighten Up 

Maybe a surprise pick considering ‘Howlin for you’ resides on ‘brothers’, but ‘Tighten up’ is a great blend of how the Black keys kept a current rock sound mixed with the perfect blend of nostalgic soul and blues influences. The song is a built around a simple chord progression in F# minor, starting on the 1=F#m, then to the 3rd=AM, to the 4th=Bm and finally to a C#7 to pull us back home to the root chord. Due to how the chords are played, as upstroke stabs, a higher registered voicing works better, cutting through and helping them stand out. I just used the d to e strings and missed out root notes leaving that for the bass. Watching Auerbach live he commonly does the same, keeping all of the shapes between the 7th and 11th frets, using what looks like a simple barre on the 9th fret then 7th for the AM and Bm respectively, just watch out for the B note on the 9th fret as that will alter the sound of the AM to a add 2 sound. The other guitar parts in the track are single note lines built from F# minor pentatonic, being either descending pattern based lines down the scale or a repeated phrase built from the same notes, relying on a thick guitar tone to keep momentum. These simple yet catchy minor pentatonic riffs are an integral part of the Black keys sound and are easy to play/take inspiration from. The accessible nature of the parts is a reason why garage/blues rock is such a popular genre to play, with the riffs catchy and fun to play, being easy for fans to chant along to at a gig.  

To create your own Black keys style riffs you’ll need the minor blues scale shapes, a thick fuzzy yet not overly distorted tone and strong melodies. The minor blues scale is just the pentatonic with the flat 5th added and perhaps the major third, but only used to play the ‘blues curl’ and add tension.  When constructing chord progressions, once again, not many Black keys songs use more than four chords and mainly use straight forward minor/major/dominant harmony without many extensions or substitutions. The songs often utilise a 1-4-5 and show that there are endless possibilities with just a few chords and great song writing. The Black keys draw heavily from the classics, with artists like Credence, Zeppelin, Free and Freddie King being noted as big influences, so they might be worth a listen to get more into Auerbach’s head. 

Gold on the Ceiling  

Arguably the biggest hit from the Black keys entire back catalogue, ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ is really just a ‘best of’ compilation of all the magic ingredients which make them such a catchy riff laden powerhouse of a dynamic duo. The song is in the key of G minor and starts with a very Credence/Cropper intro phrase using power chord or 5th chord shapes descending down to launch into the riff. The song is very hook based, relying mainly on the swagger and strut delivered by a punchy riff to back up the vocals during the verses and the choruses, switching between single notes and power chords. The song has a few catchy solo breaks, where Auerbach uses a very ‘are you gonna go my way?’ style G string bend up in the 15th fret G pentatonic shape. Once again, very simple yet effective note choices. The solos are used when coming out of the choruses, a fairly common place for catchy solo parts in instrument-based pop tracks - think ‘Fire’ by Kasabian or even ‘Adore you’ by Harry Styles, a structure choice that we could play with when writing our own songs. Using a hooky solo part in such a way not only takes the overt, sometimes ill-placed full on solo out of the equation whilst keeping a focus on instrumentation, it allows for the momentum of the chorus to carry on, giving the crowd something to sing along with. The other main hook in the song is the fuzzy synth/guitar part which again uses a catchy G minor phrase to great effect being repeated throughout the song, sometimes under the vocals, so as to remain a recurring theme. 

Weight of Love 

The opening song from the duos third, most adventurous album, ‘Weight of Love’ channels Floyd and 70s psychedelic rock influences to make one of the bands most interesting tracks to date. The song follows a similar structure to ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ in an odd way, going; intro, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, solo, outro, so minus the double chorus at the end, shares the verse, chorus, solo break pattern. The song is in G major/E minor with an ambiguous Asus2/Major voicing played under the instrumentals. The intro and breaks are very trippy, spacey sounding with a big lead sound that was inspired by Neil Young, live Auerbach recreates this using old Reverb tanks and slap back delays. The acoustic rhythm is a great example of how simple shapes and open strings can be used to create a big sounding part that fills a lot of space sonically. The verses use classic chord shapes, Asus2, G, D, C with sparse strums and added tremolo. The lead in of bass and drums to the verses is particularly cool giving space that builds into the big crashing wash of the first chord. The chorus sections I played as power or 5th chord shapes and went E, D, A, G then E, D, C, B giving the second round more edge with the semitone movement between the C and the B. The choruses give way to the lead breaks, where Auerbach uses a mix of B minor and E minor pentatonic shapes heavily utilising the area between the 7th and 10th frets to resolve or incorporate a lot of the A note on the 10th fret and the D on the 7th fret. These notes work well because of the rhythm playing the Asus which uses a D hammer on from the major 3rd at points.  

Things to think about from this song would be the use of non-diatonic chords, or merely making them sus to sneak them into key. Also the use of seemingly ‘simple’ chords in the verse to make a washy thick foundation for the vocal lines. The tones used in the lead breaks are really gorgeous, with a live set at Austin City Limits being an example of this. The big delay, reverb sound can also be heard on the soloing of Andy Timmons who famously brings his delay in with an expression pedal, a great idea for sculpting your lead tone. Also in this live performance, the Rhodes sounds and the bass tone are also phenomenal, with the keys part after the first verse sounding incredibly cool.  

Tones and Takeaways 

The Black Keys are a tour de force of song writing talent, showing how catchy and fun to play parts work with well written songs and how fuzz fried guitars can still feature on radio friendly hits. Dan Auerbach’s vocabulary is drawn from all of the great blues and garage rock bands, containing elements reminiscent of the Kinks, Zeppelin and (in an interesting way) Weezer. Some ideas present in Black Keys songs which we could use would be those concerning structure, song writing, catchy, sing-able guitar parts and how the minor blues scale can be used to create everything from crushing riffs to emotive solos.  

Recommended listening would definitely be the bands big three mid-career albums, each of them has a unique flavour of the same refined, hooky, garage rock juice. The band’s first album ‘The Big Come Up’ is also a real treat with exceptionally raw production, it features almost distorted vocals and a guitar which sounds straight from an RL Burnside album. The overall vibe and sound of the album is far from the radio hits or the slick production on ‘The Weight of Love’ for example, but it’s one for the real blues fans who enjoy Auerbach’s snarl and gritty guitar tones.  

Let’s look at the gear Auerbach uses during live shows and to get some of those classic tones. The Black Keys are known for their great guitar tones and Auerbach is often regarded as a guitarist’s guitarist. He knows what sounds good and what gear works, whether it’s when he’s producing for the likes of Lana Del Rey or dialling in a great guitar tone, having a signature vintage inspired touch which he brings to any project. 

Guitars; 

  1. Harmony H78 – Produced between 1965 and 1972, Auerbach acquired his Harmony from a guitar shop employee in the mid 2000s. The guitar is entirely hollow like an ES-330, fitted with gold foil DeArmond pickups and is mostly original aside from some inside electronics. Auerbach primarily uses the bridge pickup, whose tone has featured on some of the albums. Due to the sheer number of guitars Auerbach owns, a fair few get used on each song, let alone each album. Auerbach’s use of Harmony guitars, plus the revival in popularity of gold foil pickups in general, Harmonys have enjoyed a big increase in value over the last ten or so years. These days a used Harmony semi hollow will set you back anywhere between £800-£1.5, I say any used Harmony semi hollow because with the demand for the ‘Black Keys model’ so high, they sell so quickly. With this in mind, most hollow body, gold foil equipped Harmonys will get you in the sonic ball park and that cool vintage aesthetic. Looking at cheaper alternatives, a budget semi hollow body with a gold foil will do the job, so Epiphone, Ibanez or Grestch all do semi hollows under £400 and mojo pickups do gold foils for around £100 each. Another alternative would be an old Kay or Maestro, who both have used models currently selling between £300-600. 
  1. The ‘Glenn Schwartz’ Guitar – This is an incredibly custom guitar basically hand built by Glenn Schwartz of the bands the James Gang and All Saved Freak Band. The instrument has a single pickup and an extra 4 strings added across on of the F holes, and despite watching through a few live performances I have no idea what they sounded like or whether they were just cosmetic. Glenn passed away in 2018 and now the guitar goes with Auerbach on tour and gets used on different songs each set. To get anything close to this instrument aim for a semi hollow body with a mini humbucker, the central, angled position of the pickup is hard to replicate, a three pickup in middle position is the best bet.  
  1. Pre-law suit guitars – Auerbach currently tours with an Ibanez pre-Gibson law suit SG custom with a maestro and three pickups and an unbranded Les Paul with retro fitted filtertrons, a bigsby from Neil Young and new tuners. Law suit guitars vary in quality with year of production and the price reflects this, with some brands and years being worth a few hundred and others even a few thousand. A trawl through the second hand market will definitely get you something good, with brands like Tokai and Aria being great brands to look for. 

As mentioned before, Auerbach has a lot of guitars and is quite the collector. This list is based off of his current live selection, with other notable inclusions being the Guild Thunderbird, a ’59 Gibson Les Paul and a range of Supro guitars. Auerbach seems to favour the quirky offset styles of guitar, generally vintage, with older voiced pickups or gold foils. Probably the best takeaway from Dan’s guitars is to always go with what you think looks and sounds the best over what is trendy or the most expensive, however cliché it may sound. Also don’t be afraid to customise your instrument, if it’s a work horse that you don’t intend to sell than why not try different pickups or whack a trem on it? If you don’t like it you can just remove it and the screw holes and dings just add character. 

Amps;  

  1. Fender Quad Reverbs, which are used as cabs for a Fender Bandmaster – Auerbach used to use a Marshall Head to power the cabs, in conjunction with a Fender Twin or Quad reverb, but in his more recent rigs has switched the Marshalls for Bandmasters due to the tube vs solid state rectifiers. Auerbach now prefers the tube rectifier sound due to the softer sound and although the Quad reverbs have their own amps, they are bypassed in favour of the Bandmaster. These days a Quad reverb will set you back £700 to 1.1k and a Bandmaster Amp head will cost £600 to 2k dependent on age and condition. Looking at alternatives, a Fender Vibrolux combo will be the closest at the thousand pound mark, whilst a Blues Deluxe will get you close for £800 to 1k. The session player uses a Super Reverb, so that could be an option. 

(Auerbach’s amp set up is incredibly complex considering it’s only for one guitar so we will miss the various attenuators, pre-amps and extra reverb tanks which help power Dan’s Tone-Henge and mainly focus on the amps themselves) 

  1. Danelectro Challenger – The current gigging rig uses two of these, one ran into two Marshall cabs and one dry into the desk. Ridiculously rare amps that use 4 6L6 tubes and rarely show up for sale, made in the late forties through the early fifties they currently cost around £300-600 used as the quoted market price, but the last one I could find sold for £900. For alternatives, most vintage Valco or Danelectro amps can get you in the area for anywhere between £300-800, so although not cheaper, they are definitely easier to find. 

Pedals; 

  1. Fuzz pedals – Auerbach uses three main fuzz pedals with others coming and going so we’ll discuss the main three in one entry. The Shin-ei FY-2 Companion is definitely the most interesting fuzz on the list, with his model not having any controls it’s ran through an EQ pedal to give more control over the signal, mainly boosting the mids which it naturally cuts and adjusting the overall level. Another pedal made by the same Shin-ei company is the rosac fuzz wah, which Auerbach only really uses for the fuzz which is treated as more of a different flavour of ‘big muff’ style fuzz. The last of the three main fuzz pedals Dan tours with is an electro harmonix sovtek ‘Green Russian’ big muff, although he has been seen with a black Russian era big muff and countless other varieties. To get any of these exact pedals is going to require time and money, all discontinued and all rare the Big Muff alone sells for around £350 these days. So in terms of alternatives, electro harmonix still make the big muff in countless flavours, most have probably crossed Auerbach’s board so definitely try a few and find the one that speaks to you. His session guitarist, the player from Buffalo Killers uses an MXR CSP038 Custom Shop Brown Acid which was a gift from Dan when they started touring, these normally retail for around £150 but currently at some places they are on sale for around £120, so definitely worth checking out. 
  1. Boss Phaser, Delay, Tremolo, Tuner and Octave – Although only alluded to in a rig rundown video when the guitar tech discusses Dan’s signal purity, these may have been made true bypass but are otherwise stock, still in production pedals. New models can be found for around £80, with the octave being dearer at £120. Used you could probably get all three for just over £200. 
  1. Cry-baby Wah – needs no introduction and can still be bought new in a variety of flavours, look to spend around £80-180. 

Auerbach is as much a pedal fiend as he is a guitar and amp enthusiast so many different brands and models see their way on to his board. He has used Catalinbread belle epochs, Strymon El Capistans and a range of Earthquaker pedals so it’s really a case of reading interviews he gives, looking for vintage replica style pedals (like the belle epoch) and finding which works for you. Remember that versatility matters when we don’t all have the Black keys style budget or connections so always think about how much usage you’ll get out of a pedal before parting with serious money, as I don’t know about you but I have a few ‘used for one band or gig’ pedals that I probably put too much money into that I can’t resell for anywhere close.  

To find out more, check out our courses here.

Hank Marvin is marvellous. I remember in my early days of guitar wonderment being obsessed with Buddy Holly. My parents got me a tape of ‘Hank Plays Holly’ which featured instrumental, guitar lead versions of Buddy Holly’s most favoured tracks. My parents didn’t dig it, but for me it provided a spark that started a flame which is still burning now in my playing.

Hank is a famous British guitarist who became incredibly popular in the early 60s with his group ‘The Shadows’; they would play guitar centric instrumental music and back up Cliff Richard. It was around this time that Fender produced the Stratocaster, a guitar with 3 single coil pickups, a ‘tremolo bar’ (a whammy bar in today’s language) with awesome paint jobs. The guitar was often described as a futuristic spaceship compared to other electric instruments of the time.

The Gear

Hank loved using Strats, he loved using the whammy bar. His phrasing is so crisp and articulate, and a lot of it is down to his musicianship and fingers, but it’s safe to say the Strat enabled him to create a sound that had never before been explored and still remains instantly recognisable today.

The tone Mr Marvin uses is clean, very clean. He’s known for using Vox AC15 and AC30 amps – a British clean(ish!) amp with a unique mid-range compared to the American amps Fender made which were more scooped and a little more clinical. Often this clean tone was embellished with a lush reverb and various echo effects. Hank liked tape echo style delays; this gave him a classic slap back sound. Often the reverb, or another longer delay, would be used on top of this core tone to create more space and sustain for the clean melodic single note lines he was playing. Reverb is like ‘gain’ for a clean sound, it gives the note a ‘memory’.

So, the setup is quite simple… get a Strat style guitar with a nice whammy bar/trem. Single coils will get you the right character. Nice clean amp and a simple reverb (spring will work nicely) and tape echo. There are tonnes of both cheap and expensive options available for these bits of gear, you can’t go to wrong. The most important thing to work on is the delivery. Let’s look at the key elements of Hank’s style.

The Technique

Hank knows the fretboard. Often his melodies are based around triads fitting around each chord. Good knowledge of the CAGED system and how the Pentatonic & Major scale lay out within it will help. He very rarely bends more than a half step, but when he does, it’s very in tune and accurate. Vibrato is almost always articulated with the whammy bar or very subtlety with the fretting hand. He’s a master of the bar. Adding subtle and extreme effects to the pitch, often mimicking a pedal steel player or slide guitar, gives his melodies a much more vocal like phrasing. His attention to detail in phrasing is immense, every note gets attention. Check out his cover of the Beatles ‘Michelle’ on his 2017 album ‘Without a Word’. Not too much, not too little. It’s a beautiful and haunting sound.

His pick attack is also very dynamic and subtle. It sounds like he’s picking with the pick tip at a fairly parallel angle to the string, this gives a thicker and more blunt attack. It’s also possible he uses classic picks and fairly heavy strings. Mixing this with a sensitive touch gives the notes a nice bloom. It also often sounds like he’s using the bridge pickup on the Strat for his single note leads, he may also be playing with the tone control on the guitar to get rid of some of the ‘shrill’ top end that the bridge pickup can add. But it’s equally possible he’s EQing from the amp end and most likely mic placement is a big part of the mix, creating warmth and clarity in his more modern tones.

One more thing…

One more thing to add, it’s noticeable at points that Hank is also really handy with the volume control, subtlety controlling the attack of each note with the volume. This may be done with a volume pedal or with the volume control on the guitar itself. It’s likely that he originally did it with the volume on the guitar. This became one of the many selling points of the Fender Strat when it first came out, the volume control is quite close to where the picking hand little finger might be hanging out. Making it easy to reach for volume swells and picking switching.

So there we have it, in a nutshell. A quick how to guide on the amazing Hank Marvin and how to get his sound with gear, technique, and theory.  Hank certainly put the Strat on the map and is a master musician. I’m off to buy a jacket, some wayfarer glasses and a fiesta red Strat, see ya later!

To find out more, check out our courses here.

Before I dive into some of my top tips for singers, I’d like you to think about something. As vocalists, we don’t just commit to the physical act of making music and sound, we are an entire human being. Whilst studying vocal health education further I came across the term,

“You are a whole human being, not just a voice.”

And this really struck me. We must look after the physical, technical and psychological aspects of ourselves as human beings in order to achieve our vocal aspirations. Our mind and body must work in harmony for us to sing with ease and freedom.

Singing is a journey. In order to develop we must understand that practice really does make perfect. Like honing any skill, there is no quick solution. As unique beings we all work at varying speeds and travel along our own timeline. There is, however, an opportunity to watch yourself go from strength to strength and experience how some simple steps can see big results when you commit to yourself.

What do you want?

I always ask vocalists to first identify what it is that they are looking to get out of vocal lessons/study or performance. This can be anything from wanting to gain more confidence with their voice to wanting to achieve a bigger vocal range. Having an idea of where you want your main point of focus to be will allow you to witness your own development. Taking stock of where you are and where you want to be will help to inform you when you finally get there! Of course, you may not know specific goals yet and that is also fine. Getting started and simply singing is the best place to start.

Warm up and warm down

It’s important that vocalists make sure they are fully prepared to sing to keep the voice safe, well looked after and well supported. Now, each vocalist will be different – each is unique and no one singer the same. Even though we have the same internal mechanisms that allow us to sing, our bodies are different and should be embraced for that fact.

Dependant on what you have experienced the day before, for example, will mean each vocalist will need a different level of warm up. Some voices need more time than others. The most important thing is that we find balance otherwise either too little or too much vocal warm up can put our voice at risk of tiring or potential damage. What your warmup consists of however, can be the same for all of us. It doesn’t need to be fancy and involve lots of vocal acrobatics!

The Technique

SOVT

SOVT stands for Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract. In simple terms it means the mouth is partially closed. During SOVT exercises there is less impact, collision and stress on the vocal folds.

A popular way to approach SOVT is with straw phonation. There is less impact and stress on the muscles while still allowing them to stretch. Can’t find a straw? No problem! You can use a tongue/lip trill, MMM or NNNGGGG sounds to achieve the semi-occluded vocal tract exercise. See some steps below!

  1. Firstly, test making sound through the straw.
  2. Now go from your lowest range to highest and then down again. (Slide)
  3. We are then going to vary the exercise by making progressively larger hills within the pitch and volume of your voice.
  4. Then pick a song of your choice and sing this through your straw.

Time to get singing!

Preparing the voice is key, so using all the above can become a consistent part of your practice. Granted, warming up and preparing the voice isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. But when it comes to singing it is important that you feel you can just let go and let out your sound!

Start by singing through some of your favourite songs whether these are covers or your own. What you want will direct your focus here. Having an awareness of the full experience is good, however we also want to make sure that by the time we get to performing our muscle memory can kick in with all the technique stuff and we can just let go and have fun.

Our bodies are amazing

Our instrument is our body. This is something that I find incredibly fascinating and has been a big reason behind so much of my interest in singing. Your voice will develop and go through many changes. You will have great days and bad days. There will be times you feel out of control of your sound and times where everything just falls into place.

Remember, the key is your initial drive and love for your instrument. If you care, you will commit. And it is that commitment that will allow for a more open-minded and incredible experience for your voice.

Check out these useful videos to further your vocal knowledge:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZfCJ4xBYdY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lqiiYh_ZA4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8R4f4bSxofs

https://youtu.be/0xYDvwvmBIM

To find out more, check out our courses here.

Carlos Santana perhaps needs no introduction. He has been one of the main public faces of guitar herodom for many years. His unique style mixes blues, rock and Latin elements of music in a way that hadn’t been heard before.

The Gear

First of all, let’s take a look at what he uses in the guitar and amp department. He is known for playing PRS guitars - he has his own signature model guitars with PRS which is based on a Les Paul style design. He appeared at Woodstock in 1969 equipped with a Les Paul and two P90 pickup and his current signature PRS guitar features two Humbucking pickups.

The Les Paul/PRS sound itself is a lot thicker and warmer than a Strat or Tele sound which is, of course, a key element of Santana’s core tone. He was also known for using Mesa Boogie amps, however he has also plugged into multiple amps such as Dumble and Bluetone. His association with Mesa Boogie really put the Amp company on the map, even putting the ‘Boogie’ in Mesa Boogie - legend says he tried a Mesa amp and said “this thing really boogies” and the name stuck. The Mesa Boogie Mark 1 is mixed with a Dumble ‘Overdrive Reverb’ amp to get his core tone.

Don’t worry, we don’t have to break the bank to get a similar sound to Santana. What we need to ‘emulate’ his tone is a humbucking guitar, something with a thickish neck, and an amp with a nice amount of gain/sustain, but not a metal type sustain. This can be done by focusing on using the amps drive channel alone if you have a Fender Blues Junior or something along those lines. You could also use a Fuzz Pedal on a medium setting to get a similar vibe. A tiny bit of hall reverb and you should be there. Rolling the tone control back on the bridge pickup should help warm up the sound. The rest is in the hands and the music.

Technique

Articulation is everything. In his best moments, Santana sounds like he is singing through the guitar. So, focus on developing dynamic control of the left and right hand through pick attack, fretting hand hammer ons and pull offs. My advice is to learn his lines, play along to his solos and really lock in with the timing and dynamics of his phrasing, this will teach you more about how to ‘sound like’ Santana than buying any pedal or learning licks from TAB would do.

Santana is great with ‘embellishing’ phrases. Another aspect of his phrasing within Minor Pentatonic is that he’ll use notes from the mode around it to add details. Often, he’ll articulate these with quick trills and hammer ons. Bending within the diatonic scale is something else which gives his sound some distinction for the time. Mixing these diatonic melodies with pentatonic blues licks. Sequences are also important, being able to move up and down diatonic scales following a melodic pattern of 3 or 4 notes. This creates a cascading effect which again offsets the bluesy phrases.

Harmony and Vocabulary

His vocabulary on the guitar is based in blues and Latin styles of music. Blues, of course, uses a lot of Minor Pentatonic & Blues Scales. So understanding how to navigate this pattern will help when picking up some Santana phrases. He often adds the 9th to the Minor Pentatonic which is a way of expanding that tonal pallet. However he goes further with diatonic scales, in particular Dorian, which is the second mode of the Major scale. This scale is basically a pentatonic (1, b3, 4, 5, b7) with an added 2nd/9th & 6th/13th.

A lot of his songs follow this mode and the chords that come with it (for example Am7 to D7 which is an ii to V movement in G Major). This scale is used in many different styles of music, but is perhaps most ‘obvious’ to the listener in this Latin blues rock style. Santana will also use the Natural Minor Scale (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) - Black Magic Woman is a good example of this with the chordal movement of vi to ii (for example Dm to Gm). Often songs will also include an interchange of modes moving between different tonalities based on these basic sounds.

One Final Point

It’s important to use space! Leaving space between phrases, developing themes, repeating patterns using the scale approaches from the last paragraph. When you want to add some heat, you speed up a little or simply play phrases closer together. Again, focusing on the singing aspect of phrasing will help you improve in the right ball park.

I can’t stress enough, however, the importance of learning licks by ear from your favourite artists to get a deeper understanding of their phrasing. Not only will you learn some cool licks, you’ll pick up the rhythmic and melodic habits of the player. The information won’t just enter your fingers, it’ll enter your melodic tool box in your brain! So endeavour to learn by ear, slowly, bit by bit, aand try and understand the core elements. Before you know it, you’ll be able to emulate your favourite players convincingly.

Good luck!

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

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