Becoming a Better Guitarist, One Step at a Time!


Welcome back!  As promised we will be exploring new ways of playing the ‘same old’ riffs.  Guitarists are notorious pattern players – letting your fingers select the notes instead of allowing your EAR to guide your fingers.  There are a few things we can do in order to play what’s in our head, not what’s familiar to our fingers.   The tabs show the plain, naked riff.  You must add the flavors (vibrato and half-step approach). Lets begin with a simple rock riff based in the A MINOR PENTATONIC SCALE.








So now what?  The first technique we can apply to this riff is called a HALF-STEP APPROACH.  This is just what it sounds like; sliding up to the note from a HALF-STEP, or one fret below.  Let’s apply it to the last note.  Can you hear how this gives the last note more emphasis?  Well if one is fun, than two must twice as fun!  So let’s repeat the last note twice, sliding in to that note both times. Damn, that sounds like music!

Now another technique we can use on this (or any) scale is to start a lick with any note EXCEPT the root or tonic.  In the key of ‘A’ minor the root is ‘A.’








Let’s play six notes in the scale starting with the note ‘E’, (for those of you counting, this is the 5th of the A minor scale). Just by starting on a note that isn’t the root, it sounds more interesting.  Here is a great place to use the HALF STEP APPROACH; let’s use it on the first and fifth notes of our riff.  Now for some extra flavor, add some VIBRATO to the last note and make that note sing like Pavarotti.  Try letting the note ring for a moment before adding vibrato, as well as giving vibrato right away.

This is a great time to experiment and test your VIBRATO technique – you should have both a slow and fast vibrato.  Vibrato is one of the signature elements of any great guitarist’s playing.  Listen to some of your favorite players and note the different sounds of their vibrato.  I remember reading a great interview with BB King where he described his vibrato technique (especially with his first finger) as your hand trying to shake/rattle a loose doorknob.

I believe that most guitarists rely on their third finger for bending and vibrato.  Practice bending and shaking notes with your first finger as well, and you will find yourself playing more musically, I know I have!

Okay, now let’s swap out the half step approach with vibrato from the last example, so we are shaking the first and fifth notes, instead of sliding up to them.  Most likely this will feel awkward, since we are used to making the third finger do all the ‘dirty work’.  Remember change is not only good, but crucial if we are to improve our playing.  Comfort zones are the enemy, and if we aren’t constantly challenging ourselves as players we will simply NOT improve our playing.

Here is another simple riff that can be nicely dressed up with the HALF STEP APPROACH.








By sliding up to the first and third notes (same note) we give a feeling of movement to the riff.  Finally let’s add some of the big V to that last note.  Now I want you to take these concepts and apply them to your own playing and riffs; if it gives you trouble or doesn’t sound quite right of the bat, don’t give up – you WILL get the hang of it, I believe in you!

These are just a few of many techniques we can use to dress up and breathe new life into any riffs we play.  The key to using these ideas is to think of them as adding salt and pepper to our food/riffs.  We don’t want to dump all our salt in one place, rather used sparingly and tastefully we can enhance the flavor of our musical meals.  Now for the sake of PRACTICE, I do encourage you to play scales by sliding up to every note, and then shaking each note, for working on your techniques.  Just know that when you are actually playing, not practicing think ‘salt and pepper,’ ie use for flavor/less is more.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you back here next week.  If you have any questions or would like to see something covered here, please post it below.

Andy Bukstein is a staff writer for SMG. A consistent exception to all the rules, Andy is living proof that not every great guitarist gets paid and laid. Alongside a passion for music, Andy moved to LA in April 2010 to pursue a career in writing sketch comedy, allowing his failures to become grist for the comedy mill. Email

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