Taking Bites

An essential method in mastering technically challenging music.

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Ultimate Guitar
24
When comes the time to execute a difficult guitar passage, it is usually better to break it down into small, isolated sections instead of trying to pull the part off in one shot. Doing this is like putting a magnifying lens on the whole situation. Analysing all the little details and problems becomes a lot easier as our concentration is focused on all the things that keep us from playing the passage properly. One of my favorite guitarists of all time is Steve Morse, and I've always been into his views on practicing and developing consistent technique. The main riff of "Runaway Train" (video), a fast-paced country tune from his 1992 recording "Coast to Coast" serves as a good example for this. Below is the main riff:
E|-----------------------------------------------------3---|
B|-----------------------------------------------------3---|
G|-----------------2---4---2-----------0-------0-------0---|
D|-----0-----0-3-4---4---4---3-2-0-4-5---2/3\2-------------|
A|-4/5---4/5-------------------------------------2-0-------|
E|---------------------------------------------------3-3---|

E|---------------------------------------------------------|
B|----------------------------------3----------------------|
G|------------------------2---------2----------------------|
D|-3----------------2-4-2---3-2--0--0----------------------|
A|----------3-5-3-4----------------------------------------|
E|---1--3/5------------------------------------------------|
From this, we can create 4 isolated cases:
Part 1: 
E|----------------------------| 
B|----------------------------| 
G|----------------------------| 
D|------------0---------------| 
A|-----4/5---------4/5--------| 
E|----------------------------|
The first step is to master the quick slide between the C# and the D, followed by the repeated open D string. This simple but effective lick is used a lot in country music, and a certain swing has to be applied to the phrasing of the notes. Strict alternate picking is involved, starting on a downstroke, with the repeated D played with an upstroke.
Part 2:
E|-----------------------------------------------------| 
B|-----------------------------------------------------| 
G|------------------2-------4-------2------------------| 
D|----0----3----4-------4-------4-------3----2----0----| 
A|-----------------------------------------------------| 
E|-----------------------------------------------------|
Because slides were involved in the first part, we find ourselves beginning with an upstroke here. This is where the "inside the string" picking phenomena will be encountered. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, (Dream Theater's John Petrucci provides a good explanation of this in his "Rock Discipline" DVD), this is when there is a downstroke followed by an upstroke on a lower string, or an upstroke followed by a downstroke on a higher string. Executing fast, precise melodies in these types of situations is very difficult because the pick seems to be trapped between the strings. Using strict alternate picking starting with an upstroke, work your way through this section slowly. Notice that the challenge is when the notes alternate between the D and G strings. If you want, you can zoom in even further by praticing it alone starting with an upstroke:
E|-----------------------------------------------------| 
B|-----------------------------------------------------| 
G|------------------2-------4-------2------------------| 
D|--------------4-------4-------4----------------------| 
A|-----------------------------------------------------| 
E|-----------------------------------------------------|
 
Part 3: 
E|------------------------------------3--------|
B|------------------------------------3--------|
G|---------0----------0---------------0--------|
D|-4---5------2/3\2----------------------------|
A|------------------------2---0----------------|
E|--------------------------------3---3--------|
This part begins with a downstroke, and the challenge is to not only get by the inside the string from G to B, but to skip the D string at the same time.
Part 4:
E|---------------------------------------------------------|
B|----------------------------------3----------------------|
G|------------------------2---------2----------------------|
D|-3----------------2-4-2---3-2--0--0----------------------|
A|----------3-5-3-4----------------------------------------|
E|---1--3/5------------------------------------------------|
The last section is in fact the entire second part of the riff. It is pretty straightforward, but make sure that you are still using clean and consistent alternate picking throughout. Another piece by Morse on this album is called "Flat Baroque" (video), and the intro melody has Celtic/Irish flavors, being in E mixolydian. To me, this little intro is an excellent picking workout. Once again, the only way to properly master and memorize it is to break it down into parts. Here is the intro:
E|-12-0---------9-0-----0--7-0--------4-0-----0----------------------|
B|------9----0------7----------3---0------7---------------0----------|
G|--------11----------7----------6----------7----------2-----2h4-----|
D|-----------------------------------------------0--4--------2-------|
A|-------------------------------------------------------------------|
E|---------------------------------------------------------------0---| 

E|-------------------------------------------------------------------| 
B|-------------------------------------------------------------------| 
G|-4--2--------------------------------------------------------------| 
D|-------4-2----2----------------------------------------------------| 
A|-----------5-----4-2--------2--------------------------------------| 
E|---------------------5--3-4----0-----------------------------------|
Now, we divide it into 6 sections:
Part 1: Part 2: Part 3: Part 4:
E|-12-0---------| E|-9-0-----0--| E|-7-0--------| E|-4-0-----0--|
B|------9----0--| B|-----7------| B|-----3---0--| B|-----7------| 
G|--------11----| G|-------7----| G|-------6----| G|-------7----|
D|--------------| D|------------| D|------------| D|------------|
A|--------------| A|------------| A|------------| A|------------|
E|--------------| E|------------| E|------------| E|------------|
The way to isolate bits and pieces of a passage is simple. Start at the beginning and work your way through. Every time there is something difficult, unorthodox, or strange for you from a technical standpoint, label what you have been playing including the difficulty as part 1. Then, continuing from there, proceed with the same method with parts 2, 3, 4, etc. If there is no challenge for you present, then dividing into sections can still be helpful if there is a large amount of notes involved. In "Flat Baroque", things kickstart into high gear with four back-to-back inside the string picking patterns reminiscent of one-note-per-string arpeggios on the top three strings. The parts alternate between ending on the open B and E strings, so you'll need to skip a string twice. Plus, because the parts are in sixteenth-notes with each of them ending on an eighth-note, you'll begin each part with a downstroke when it is time to connect all the sections together.
Part 5:
E|--------------------------------------------------------|
B|-----------0--------------------------------------------|
G|--------2-----2h4---------------------------------------|
D|--0--4--------2-----------------------------------------|
A|--------------------------------------------------------|
E|-----------------0--------------------------------------|
Part 5 is pretty simple and straightforward. The only possible difficulty is the double-stop followed by the open low E string because there's some string-skipping involved.
Part 6:
E|-------------------------------------------------------------------| 
B|-------------------------------------------------------------------| 
G|-4--2--------------------------------------------------------------| 
D|-------4-2----2----------------------------------------------------| 
A|-----------5-----4-2--------2--------------------------------------| 
E|---------------------5--3-4----0-----------------------------------|
The entire second part of the intro can be viewed as a descending pattern back down to the low E. The rhythm is syncopated, alternating between two eight-notes and two sixteenth-notes twice in the beginning. Again, strict alternate picking is required, but because the A at the 5th fret on the E string is an eight-note that is followed by two sixteenth-notes, you are repeating a downstroke twice. Once on the A and once on the G. Doing this allows a better flow of the melody and it enables you to play the two quick sixteenth-notes fluidly. The thing that I really like about Steve Morse is that not only is he proficient technically, but he is also always trying to come up with different sounding melodies and new approaches to phrasing. Here is a final example taken out of "Rally Cry" (video) from his 1995 recording "Structural Damage":
E|-----9-----7----------------------------------------------|
B|-------------9-----7--------------------------------------|
G|---------9---------------9-8-6-----4----------------------|
D|---9---7---------9-----6-------------6-4------------------|
A|-7-------------------------------7---------7-6-4----------|
E|---------------7-----9---------5---------7----------------|

Part 1:
E|---------------------9-----------|
B|---------------------------------|
G|---------------------------------|
D|---------------9-----------------|
A|---------7-----------------------|
E|---------------------------------|
When looking at this melody, the first immediate thing that jumps out is the amount of string-skipping involved. Memorizing the location of the notes on the fretboard can be very difficult because the notes are scattered on the strings without any particular pattern. Plus, the picking pattern becomes extremely confusing as we are using strick alternate picking as well. So, the only way to learn how to fret the melody as well as to surmount the technical challenges is to break it down into parts. Here, we begin by skipping two strings at once to go reach for the C# on the high E string.
Part 2:
E|-----------------7---------------|
B|---------------------9-----------|
G|-------------9-------------------|
D|---------7-----------------------|
A|---------------------------------|
E|---------------------------------|
After, we master this part beginning with an upstroke (there is an odd number of notes in the first part), and we are skipping the B string also.
Part 3:
E|---------------------------------|
B|---------------------7-----------|
G|---------------------------------|
D|---------------9-----------------|
A|---------------------------------|
E|---------7-----------------------|
In part 3 we start on an upstroke again, and there is two consecutive string-skips.
Part 4:
E|-------------------------------|
B|-------------------------------|
G|--------------9----8----6------|
D|---------6---------------------|
A|-------------------------------|
E|----9--------------------------|
We commence this part with a downstroke, and once again, there is string-skipping.
Part 5:
E|---------------------------------------|
B|---------------------------------------|
G|-----------4---------------------------|
D|---------------6---4-------------------|
A|-------7-------------------7---6---4---|
E|---5-------------------7---------------|
The final part begins with an upstroke, and of course, there is some string-skipping involved. Notice how Morse makes this whole melody from "Rally Cry" sound a lot more interesting and "open" by transposing certain notes to a higher octave. This is the reason why we end up with so many string-skips in the first place. Also, we skip some strings in an effort to prevent too many position shifts that would make the passage even more difficult to play. In the end, we have this incredibly wide and intervallic sounding melody that grabs your attention and is sure to turn heads.

31 comments sorted by best / new / date

    christoffer323
    Mhm, very good lession; I remember when i didn`t know anything about tabs or Guitar pro, i learnt songs faster, cuz i were isolated to be trying out new songs every frkn day ...
    Psychopath90
    good advice but i hope that most guitar players are taught this to begin with. Its kind of a life lesson; tackle challenges little by little one step at a time.
    learninclutch
    really good lesson, I'm gonna use these tabs here for exercises. I never heard of Steve Morse. But i'm gonna check him out. When I first started playing I used common sence and broke a riff down or a solo in parts, to learn the song easier.
    freemoney
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    Karasu 382
    Useful lesson. I'm nowhere near playing it as fast as its meant to be heard (the link to the video doesnt work by the way, so I had to check out a cover version on youtube). However with the steps given I was able to get used to the pattern and am gradually playing it faster.
    rokstar666
    ^hey contagious (and ne one else havin the pause after sections problem) after you learn a part with an easy section and hard section, re-learn the solo and add the easy sections after the hard parts to eliminate the pauses. i mite of explained that a bit shabily but i hope it helps good lesson tho
    naitrose07
    :demanufacture: wrote: Breaking it down is really the most efficient way to practice. Nice lesson. The guitar prodigies and the more advanced could scoff at something like this, but for the rest of us, this really helps.
    Even the Rock Gods and Guitar Prodigies probably use this...look at John Pettrucci, in all of his lessons he says to break things down, Dimebag Darrell and Zakk Wylde even state this. It's just like memorizing school material, you cram in little bites. This was an excellent lesson.
    Ace-o-spades
    Great job, u really went into depth. It can easily be picked up, a lot to do with common sense. i learnt this from my own experiences before i ever saw this. good for the begginers tho
    contagiousfury
    To be honest, breaking down riffs can be a critical mistake for me sometimes. If I get too used to stopping after the hard part there is an automatic pause after that "hard part". But this lesson is pretty good, I just personally can't apply it lol.
    chocobo rally
    nice but inst that a bit of a no-brainer cuz ive been playin for bout 2 years now and that was the first thing i was told but either way good advice (:
    :demanufacture:
    Breaking it down is really the most efficient way to practice. Nice lesson. The guitar prodigies and the more advanced could scoff at something like this, but for the rest of us, this really helps.