Open String Blindness
That's lucky, it's still April... so, in between gorging on chocolate eggs, I've been reflecting a little on a malaise that seems to afflict many intermediate and advancing guitar players – open string blindness. When we begin our journey with the guitar, the first things we learn are all open string based – open chords, open position scale patterns and melodies, open string blues riffs – but as we begin to progress up the fretboard and master moveable chord and scale patterns, it's almost like we lose the ability to use open strings in our rhythm and lead playing. This is a great shame, as many of the all time classic rock riffs are built around open string patterns. Think of AC/DC's “Back In Black” or Stevie Ray Vaughan's “Scuttle Buttin'” as perfect examples of open string lead or rhythm playing that creates something truly thunderous.
So, what's the problem?
Primarily, it's a simple physical problem of hand synchronisation. As we begin to uncover the secrets of sequencing basic scales such as the minor pentatonic or blues scale, it becomes progressively easier to build speed with the metronome, and one of the main reasons is that both hands are doing something at the same time – both fret hand and picking hand are synchronised and moving to the same metronome pulse. When we start using legato techniques (hammer-ons and pull-offs), the fret hand's relationship to the pulse becomes even more important and so therefore does physically referencing the pulse with a movement.
When we add open strings into the mix, however, that synchronisation goes out of the window. Try a basic E minor pentatonic scale, in open position, sequenced in groups of three or four. Most intermediate players will find this much more challenging than a fretted box position – not only the issue of hand synchronisation, but the simple fact that the open strings lack the tension of their fretted counterparts makes it very easy for the pick hand to get “lost”. Add hammer-ons and pull-offs into the mix and things get even more confusing!
This is a shame, because open strings can impart a fantastic rootsy “twang” to your playing, and also the higher string tension and lower action down by the nut of the guitar make fast legato runs easy and clear – a couple of great examples of this are Steve Vai's “Jiboom” and Brad Paisley's “The Nervous Breakdown”.
The solution? The same as always – focused practice. Program these movements into your hands and have them learn to feel their way around the open strings instinctively.
The payoff can be very impressive – try mapping the E minor pentatonic scale (E, G, A, B, D) along the top E string. Hammering on from, or pulling off to the open E root from any of these notes straight away gives a completely different slant on this familiar scale. Next, try developing the idea – map out the notes along the B string and play them against the ringing open E. This is a great way of creating a fuller sound for solos, especially useful when playing in a trio.
Next time: Some exercises to start seamlessly incorporating open strings into your rhythm and lead playing. Chord voicings, scale/arpeggio ideas and more!
In the meantime, look at the licks and rhythm parts you currently play. Any time you're playing a fretted note that is the equivalent of an open string, try adjusting the part to incorporate the open note instead of the fretted one. This simple idea can freshen up your playing no end!