Guitar students frequently ask the question, “How do they do that?!” when they hear their favorite guitar player rip an amazing line. In response, veteran guitarists usually say, “It’s all in their hands,” or something similar. And they're generally right. However, this does not always help the guitar student who is trying to figure out the specifics of how to mimic their favorite player.
So, today I am going to share with you a very simple exercise that will help you begin to understand what it is you like about your favorite guitar players and how to start emulating them. The process is simple— choose your favorite guitar solo or melody performed by this artist (15-40 seconds) and begin listening intently for these individual variables separately:
4. Legato vs. picked notes
5. Speed picking
7. Special effects
8. Whammy bar
9. Double stops
10. Two-hand tapping
These phrasing elements likely make up the majority of what your favorite guitar players use to sound really fantastic. If there is something they do that is completely different then anything listed, find out what it is and add that to your list of things to listen for when analyzing their playing.
Listen to your selection one time paying attention only to how many times you hear vibrato. Write it down. Now go back and listen again, this time only paying attention to bends. Go back and listen a third time and listen carefully for any slides.
When analyzing legato vs. picked notes, you do not need to make a note of every single pitch that is performed with the legato technique versus how many exact notes are picked— instead, focus on sections or groups of legato or picked notes and write down that area as one set. If your favorite guitar player combined a mixture of legato and picked notes in a short flurry of notes, make a note of that as well.
For speed picking, note any time it sounds like the picking hand is moving as fast as possible. This may include sweep arpeggios as well, or you may choose to make a separate section for sweeps.
Regarding harmonics, this can be natural harmonics or artificial harmonics, but with most lead guitar players in rock music, it will be the latter.
Special effects can be either weird, bizarre sounds the guitar player makes that is unique to them (for example, Buckethead’s frequent use of a killswitch or Joe Satriani’s crazy whammy bar harmonic dives— which could also go in the harmonics section, you decide!), or more common “in-between-note” ideas like picks scrapes or raked strings.
A double stop is a fancy way of saying, “Play two pitches of the same time.” This is a common lead guitar phrasing element, so listen for multiple notes being played at the same time throughout guitar solos and lead lines.
Your list might look different from the one I have provided. The point is not to strictly adhere to my guidelines. Rather, the purpose is for you to start listening with a critical ear to individual elements of your favorite guitar players.
Now, this is where it gets really fun. Tally up each section’s total, then craft your own solo using the exact number of elements from each section. For example, if you heard 2 slides in the solo you analyzed, include 2 slides in your solo.
Most guitar players will never engage in this exercise, which is why most guitar players are average. The best guitar players are those that listen with a keen ear and spend more time analyzing what is happening than they do mindlessly searching for more licks to play on YouTube. Which kind of guitar player do you want to be?
About the Author: Eric Bourassa began playing the guitar at age 13. He mindlessly searched for more “stuff” to learn for years before discovering that the key to great playing lies in using your brain as much as it does your fingers, much of this under the tutelage of Tom Hess. Now, Eric helps guitar players in Fort Worth Texas during guitar lessons at his guitar academies. His mission in life is to get guitar players off of YouTube and thinking more critically all the time.