The Power Of Polyrhythms

Often, when the topic of “lead guitar” trickery is raised, what follows is a discussion on how to add exotic jazzy licks into a solo or how to play blindingly fast licks with the minimum of effort. But one aspect of playing a great solo is usually overlooked – that of timing. What I’m going to show you today is a great little method of making an otherwise mundane repetitive lick sound a little more interesting, and all you have to be able to do is count… no scary technique!

Let’s begin by defining what a polyrhythm is. It’s easiest to describe it by looking at a lick with just three notes. Something like this for example:


You could play this repetitively, once per beat which would sound like this:


Whilst this sounds OK, it does get a little bit boring after a few repeats. Simply by messing with the timing, it can sound that little bit more interesting. How you could do this would be by grouping this repeating cycle of three notes into groups of four. Instead of going:


It would now go:


You can see that it’s still the same notes in the same order, but we’re now playing four notes per beat rather than three.

And here is the TAB:


And this is how it would sound:


You can do the same thing, in reverse, if you start with a four note lick… like this, for example:


Played with four notes per beat, it sounds like this:


But, once again,we can rearrange the timing so that instead of going:


It would be grouped into bunches of three notes per beat, like this:


Once again, here is the TAB:


And here is how it would sound:


These are examples of the kind of polyrhythms found everywhere in popular music. With a little bit of practice you can make use of them too. Here’s a couple of handy hints for counting groups of notes:

  • If you want to know what four notes per beat sounds like, just say “PepsiCola” on each beat & that will give you the correct rhythm to fit your notes into.
  • If you want to hear three notes per beat, say the word “Evenly” on each metronome click or beat, and that will give you the sound of three notes per beat (or a “triplet” as it is known).

I hope you found this useful & until next time…


Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist


The Cheapest Guitar I Ever Bought

The cheapest guitar I ever bought was a Woolworths Top Twenty in the late 1970s. It cost me £25.00 from the classified ads in the local paper. Well… I think I’ve just beaten that record, even allowing for inflation. Here’s the story:

Don’t forget to check in on Monday morning for the 2nd in the series of “Lick of the Week” by the way.

Until then,

Have Fun!


John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

James Bragg Guitars

“________” Makes Perfect

If you play guitar (and as you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you do), ask yourself the question “what is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to master?” Which technique is the one that stopped you in your tracks the most? The one thing that, more than any other, made you question whether or not you were cut out to play the guitar.

For many players the answer is “mastering my first barre chord”. Cast your mind back to when you got your first ever guitar. It was probably some cheap thing with an action like an egg slicer and which made your fingers feel like you’d been attacking them with a meat tenderiser. You got your first few chord changes down & even mastered a couple of songs but then then came the dreaded F chord & suddenly all progress seemed to stop. It was an impossible challenge, wasn’t it? Made even more so by having a guitar which seemed to be fighting you. But, assuming you didn’t quit, you eventually mastered it and now it seems easy-peasy right? Seeing an F chord (or any other barre chord) in a song doesn’t make you abandon that tune in favour of something easier these days. Why? Because you practised your way out of the difficulty.

And therein lies the point of this particular blog post. KEEP PRACTISING! I was having a conversation with a semi-pro guitarist friend of mine recently who told me he would love to play some fast, shred-type licks in the style of Joe Satriani but (in his words) his fingers just weren’t capable of playing that fast. I pointed out that once upon a time his fingers weren’t even capable of playing an A to D chord change, but practice meant that he did eventually conquer this and many other things. His response was the classic “Oh, but that’s different though…”

Well, he was right – it IS different. When you are learning the first few chords on the guitar, or even getting to grips with your first barre chords, you have no back catalogue of easy stuff to retreat into. You haven’t yet built up a sufficient “comfort zone” to take refuge in when the going gets tough. You are faced with a stark choice – practice the stuff you’re finding difficult or give up playing. Some people do give up – playing a musical instrument isn’t for everyone, after all. But those who grit their teeth and keep at it eventually succeed in their ambition to play the instrument they love.

It is at that point that a curious thing happens. A lot of guitarists get to a point when they no longer consider themselves a “learner” any more. They get out of the habit of practising and striving to conquer new techniques. Now they no longer face the choice of either tackling something they find ridiculously difficult or giving up altogether. It’s now a choice between tackling something ridiculously difficult or playing something easy that sounds pretty good. It takes a lot of self discipline to pick up your guitar and confront the frustration of a tricky new technique when you can just as easily play something which makes you feel good about yourself because you are good at it. This is especially true if you play as a hobby – you come home from work after a hard day and you want to relax by picking up your guitar. Who would want to do anything which feels like “work” in that situation? This is what puts many people off sitting down and working on expanding their skill set.

Well, here’s the thing… it needn’t be a chore to practice. The common misconception is that you need to do hour upon hour of dedicated practice in order to make any headway. This is not the case! You have worked very hard to get to the level of proficiency you are currently at, so enjoy it! Play your favourite easy pieces and have fun doing so. Feel justifiably proud of what you’ve achieved but set aside a little time – say 15 minutes per day – to work on that niggling difficult technique you are struggling with. That’s all it takes, trust me. The key with practice is to focus it. Focus on what exactly it is that makes the thing you’re finding difficult, difficult. Analyse what you’re doing in minute detail and, if necessary, enlist the help of a good tutor to cast an impartial eye over your playing. Whatever it takes, identify the root cause of the problem you’re encountering and then do a few minutes each day to eradicate it.

You’ll need to trust that, although it’s going to take some time, you WILL get there. You did it with barre chords (or whatever else slowed you down in those early days of your guitar playing adventure) didn’t you? Well you will do it again if you keep at it. It’s going to mean being methodical, practising to a metronome, setting yourself small achievable goals along the way, and accepting that some days you might just be having an off-day when it just isn’t happening. Just don’t give up. I’ll guarantee that within a few months to a year (yes… that IS the time-scale you need to be thinking in) you will notice real, genuine progress. Once that happens, you will be more enthused about your playing than ever before. Remember that thrill you got in the early days, when you finally mastered your first song? When you could actually play along with some of your favourite tunes? When you first got into a band and realised you really were a “proper” musician now? Well, get ready to re-discover that feeling all over again. It’s addictive.

As it happens, I’ve been tackling one of my big-bears recently. I always had a problem with sweep picking. I can do it, but not brilliantly – I can do a single arpeggio this way, but stringing together numerous sweep-picked arpeggios in a solo (a la Yngwie) has always been a bit of a struggle. Last Christmas, I decided that 2015 was going to be the year I remedied this, so I’ve been setting aside 10-20 minutes a day to work on this technique. In January I was plodding away at metronome speeds of 60-65 B.P.M. Now, as I type this at the back end of July, I’m up to speeds of 100-110 B.P.M. That, ladies & gentlemen, is progress. I’ve got a way to go yet, and there have been times when I’ve thought “Am I REALLY getting anywhere with this?” But the advantage of using a metronome is that, as well as making sure your timing is accurate, it gives you a way of quantifying your progress over time. When I have an off-day, I just tell myself that even though I can’t manage the speeds I was doing the previous day, I’m still a long way ahead of where I was two months ago. This provides me with the necessary reassurance to maintain my enthusiasm & keep me at it.

So… to summarise. Practice every new, tricky, difficult and even seemingly impossible technique with the same zeal you applied to mastering your first tricky chord change and there will be nothing you cannot play. That’s a promise. Now, where’s that metronome. I have some arpeggios to work on.

Until next time, have fun & KEEP PRACTISING!


John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Soloing

Playing a great solo is something that every lead guitarist aspires to. It’s your chance to shine and put your own stamp on the song. Many players, especially those from the world of rock & metal, focus on technical prowess and speedy runs as a way of impressing. Whilst having a good command of technique can help you realise, on the guitar, the sounds you hear in your “mind’s ear”, it does not, in itself, guarantee that your solo will be memorable. What follows are some tips to help your soloing sound better whatever level of technique you’re comfortable with.

Think about how the notes you use relate to the chords you’re playing over:

Once you’ve got to the point of sussing out which pentatonic scale or collection of licks fit best over the backing you’re playing over, it’s tempting to just jam away without much thought. Everything sounds in tune and you can let rip, right? Well, that’s fine but if you do this, then you’ll notice that every now & then a certain note you land on will just sound somehow “sweeter” than you expected & give you that warm glow which comes with knowing you’re playing a killer solo.

Imagine being able to do that to order… that’s what note awareness can do! In this example I’m soloing over a two chord vamp of Em to A7 in a vaguely “Pink Floyd-esque” way. Now, I happen to know that the notes in an Em chord are E G & B, so whenever I hit a note which is going to be the main focus of the lick over an Em chord, it will sound best if it is one of these three notes.

Likewise, the notes in an A7 chord are A C# E & G, so when it comes to emphasising a note over this chord, those are my strong choices. You’ll notice, too, that most of the time when I land on one of these “target” notes, over either chord, I’m doing so at the beginning of the bar. Obviously, you’ll find this quite hard going if you don’t know where the notes actually are on the fretboard so here’s a little map of the notes around the 12th fret Em pentatonic position:


Click HERE to here me solo using this technique.

Think like a drummer:

When I first got into home recording I began to take more notice of what the drums were doing in songs. This was because I was having to programme my own drum parts on my trusty old Boss DR5 drum machine. The other members of the band I was in at the time also began to comment on my soloing, saying it had somehow got more “effective” (whatever that meant). It dawned on me that the reason for this was because I was now bringing a little of my new-found drumming sensibilities to my guitar playing. Take a listen to the drum track from the backing you heard me solo over earlier & see if you can spot what the drummer (albeit a virtual one) is doing. Click HERE to listen.

Did you notice that the drum pattern is pretty constant & unremarkable until, in every 4th bar, there is a bit of a fill? Try playing like this yourself – solo in a restrained manner for 3 ½ bars, then put a bit more “oomph” into the lick which sits in the last half of the 4th bar. It doesn’t need to be anything fast or flashy, it just needs to be a little more “busy” than the rest of that 4 bar section up to that point. This has the effect of creating a little tension which is then resolved when you put the brakes on at the start of the next 4 bar segment. Click HERE to listen to me doing this.

Don’t be scared of “wrong” notes:

The temptation to sit inside that comfortable little pentatonic box is very seductive. It’s almost like a medieval map of the world with uncharted areas carrying the dire warning “Here Be Monsters”. However, as you’ve already seen, sometimes it works to (quite literally) “think outside the box” – the C# note in the A7 chord from the example on note targeting springs to mind. The C# isn’t within the framework of the Em pentatonic, but because it fits the A7 chord, it is a strong choice of note to land on when playing over that chord. You can take this a stage further by using chromatic runs which contain notes that would sound horrible if you were to land on them and stay there. The point is that you’re NOT staying on them – you’re just using them to link up other “safe” notes. If you do this as part of the runs you’re using to sync with the drum fills (see previous point), this will add a little colour and further enhance the sense of tension which is then resolved when you land on a “safe” note at the start of the next 4 bar section. Click HERE to listen to me doing this.

Play to your strengths:

In no particular order here are my five favourite guitarists:

  1. Gary Moore
  2. Joe Satriani
  3. Mark Knopfler
  4. Barney Kessel
  5. Jeff Beck

Now, what makes them all sound unique? It’s the fact that they all play differently! It sounds obvious when you say it like that, but it’s true – they each have certain techniques they are renowned for which define their individual styles of playing. Think about it, have you ever heard Gary Moore finger-tapping? What about Jeff Beck rattling off a string of Yngwie-type sweep picked arpeggios? Can you imagine Mark Knopfler slithering around the frets in a Satch-style legato fashion?

You get my point. To be a great guitarist, you don’t have to be able to do everything that every other great guitarist does. No-one is better at being you than you are, so find out which techniques you find the most comfortable and practice the living daylights out of those: develop them and hone them until you can cover any musical situation.

Here’s an example: I found out pretty early on that fast alternate picking was one of my weaknesses. I can do it, and I can even teach the techniques necessary to develop it – it all boils down to certain exercises which you need to practice rigorously to a metronome. However, I will always look for another way of playing something which calls for this particular technique.

In the ’80s I was in a rock band which was doing a cover of Gary Moore & Phil Lynnot’s “Out In The Fields” and there is that infamous run in the middle of the solo, where Gary fast-picks like a man possessed. This was beyond me so I sought an alternative. I knew the scale he was using; I knew where the run started and I knew where it finished, so I used a technique I was comfortable with (legato) to concoct a run of the correct length & speed which began & ended in the right places. Because my legato technique is pretty well developed (it’s one of my “comfort-zone” techniques that I’d developed & honed), I could add the necessary “percussive/aggressive” quality to the run by palm-muting with my right hand even when using hammer-ons, pull-offs & slides. The proof of the pudding was when one punter at a gig said he’d seen two or three bands do that song, but I was the only guitarist who nailed the solo! I didn’t feel it necessary to let on that I’d actually cheated. So there you have it, develop what you’re good at and build your style of playing around it. As I said… play to your strengths & don’t get too hung up on your weaknesses.

Understand what you play:

If there’s one piece of advice I would give which (to my mind) is more valuable than any other it would be this: make sure you know not only what does or doesn’t work but WHY this is the case. Music theory can be a daunting subject & it’s true that there is a heck of a lot of it. But here’s the rub – you don’t have to know it all immediately. As you’ve seen earlier, knowing which notes are in the chords you’re playing over can help you sound melodic & tuneful, so getting a little bit of knowledge about chord construction can help with this. You’ll also, as a by-product, learn a little about harmony which is useful if you want to work out some backing vocals or twin lead guitar parts. If you know about how chords are put together, sooner or later you’ll stumble on key theory, which then leads to learning about modes, which puts more notes under your fingers when you’re soloing etc. etc…

The point is that if you learn one, seemingly isolated, bit of theory to deal with a particular situation, it will usually lead somewhere else: it can be built on, in other words. All you need is an inquisitive mind and a desire to understand. Before you know where you are, you’ll have amassed a wealth of knowledge, one little piece at a time and you’ll truly understand what you’re doing. The sense of freedom you feel on the neck is liberating – no more “forbidden zones” on certain parts of the neck; no more wondering if that cool lick you learned will work in your big solo; no more thinking “I’d love to play that song, but I don’t understand what [insert name of favourite guitarist] is doing.”

Imagine ridding yourself of those kind of shackles! That is what understanding music theory can do & the best bit is, it’s FUN to learn – you’ll see, in a matter of months, progress you’d think would take years to achieve. Find a good book on the subject – I recommend “The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists” by Joseph Alexander or, better still, find a good local teacher to help you on your journey (if you live on Teesside see the link to my website, below), and watch your playing take off.

Until next time, here’s a backing track to jam over using the techniques discussed (click HERE)

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition