Quick Licks: Descent into Madness

I don’t normally improvise just relying on my fingers. But, sometimes they come up with something really cool that my ears never would have never imagined on their own. The other day I stumbled upon this angular pentatonic lick. It involves a bunch of wide intervals, cool pick maneuvers and some funky counter rhythms. This is the first in a new series of posts in which we’ll dissect new licks to expand your playing.  Let’s dive in!

Basic Pattern

Let’s start with the basic pattern which is based off of the most-commonly used pentatonic scale pattern:

E-minor pentatonic scale

E-minor pentatonic scale

The lick looks like this:

The lick

The lick

At first glance, this probably looks like a jumbled mess, but there is a method to this madness. But here a few observations to clarify what’s going on here:

  • If you look at the first note in each three-note group, you'll see that it’s just descending the pentatonic scale in order
  • The groupings come in two flavors:
    • one which skips a note in the pentatonic sequence at the beginning
    • one which skips a note in the pentatonic sequence at the end
    • The first type of grouping uses two strings
    • The second type of grouping uses three strings

Picking Details

Once you have the basic pattern down, it’s time to focus on your picking. Since there are a lot of two-note sequences on adjacent strings, this is an opportunity to use economy picking (sometimes also called sweep picking) in which you pick two or more notes on adjacent strings with a single up- or down-stroke. How you parcel out your pick strokes is a little bit like working out a puzzle. There is no single “right” way to do it, only ways that work for you and ones that don’t. Now this part is going to get pretty detailed, so hang with me…

The opening three-note group starts with notes on two adjacent strings. This is a perfect place to do a little sweep and pick those two notes with a single up-stroke. Now your only choice for the third note is a down-stroke. The next sequence of notes is three notes across three adjacent strings. Taken by itself it would seem that the most efficient thing to do would be to hit all three notes with a single sweeping up-stroke.

Ah, but there's a catch! We finished the last note of first grouping with a down-stroke so our pick is somewhere between the first and second strings. In order to hit the next three notes with a single sweep, we'd have to jump our pick over the first string so we could hit that first note with an up-stroke. That seems like too much motion to me, so I switch to a downstroke and catch the last note of the first group and first note of the second group in one motion. With me so far?

After hitting the first note of the second group with a down-stroke, my pick is now south of the first string. To catch the last two notes of the second group (on the second and third strings) with an upstroke, I have to jump my pick over the first string. Hmmmm. This is sort of excessive string-skipping is the same problem we tried to address earlier.

Stop right there.

You have no encountered an unsolvable puzzle. There's no "perfectly efficient" way to pick this lick without your pick having to do a little string-jumping. This is perfectly fine. If you only played “perfectly efficient” licks, life would get pretty boring. Instead, you need to figure where you’re going to compromise your perfectly-engineered picking a little bit. Developing the skill to gracefully adjust your picking technique in a single line is a big part of stepping up your game.

Personally, I try not focus too much on maximizing my sweeps. I find that hitting too many notes in a single sweep alters the timing of the lick and "clumps" the three-note groupings together rhythmically. What I‘m really shooting for is a steady stream of evenly-spaced notes. I've included notation indicating how I pick this lick. You may find a better way. It’s up to you to stay up all night to figure out the right approach for you.

Rhythm

In an earlier post, I showed you how to play odd-numbered note-groups as sixteenth notes for cool rhythmic effects. This lick uses three-note groups played as sixteenth notes which makes the start of each group poke out in a different place as you move from measure to measure. To really get the feel down you need to practice this along with a metronome or click-track.

If you're still trying to get your head around this lick, just play it as triplets first.

The lick, in triplets

The lick, in triplets

Get that foot tapping along and make sure that your three-note groups are lining up nice and even on the beat.

When you're ready to graduate, play them as sixteenth notes:

The lick, as sixteenth notes

The lick, as sixteenth notes

You may find that you need to drop the tempo a bit on your metronome when you play them as sixteenth notes. That’s okay. It’s better to be slow and clean, than fast and messy.

Accents

Whew. If you’ve made it this far you won’t walk away unrewarded. You have the pattern down. You have the picking down. You have the timing down. Now it’s time to work on accents. Put simply, an accent is a note that gets a little extra emphasis by being a little louder than its neighbors. On the guitar you can accent a note by picking it a little bit harder.

In this example the accents fall on the first note of each three-note group. When they’re played as sixteenth notes, that accent note will move around the four beats in a 4/4 measure and emphasize a cool counter-rhythm. Again, the way to really get this down is to play with some kind of tempo reference (metronome, click, whatever) and start out slowly until you can nail the notes and the accents.

The lick, with accents

The lick, with accents

Before I go, I’ll leave you with one little bit of extra credit. Here’s the pattern reversed and played as an ascending pattern. If you’re kicking the descending pattern up and down the street, try this one on for size.

Reversing course

Reversing course

Until next time, keep rocking!