The question we’re all asking: Is there a simple recipe to turn us into certified guitar gods overnight?
The answer is almost certainly – Yes there is! (Fact-check: ❌ No, there’s not)
Alright, so there’s no quick fix to becoming a rock icon, but there are some ingredients that go into making one – and that’s what we’re looking at today.
We’ll discuss what makes iconic guitarists sound the way they do and look at a few techniques to get us closer to replicating their individual styles.
- Before you get mad at us for not including your favorite guitarist, keep in mind that this is not a list of the best guitar players ever.
- Our aim is to highlight certain aspects of a few iconic rock guitar players and help you get a better understanding of what they do.
Hundreds of pages could be dedicated to analyzing each guitar player and their style in great depth, but the purpose here is to explore a few key elements.
Who we’ll cover in this article:
- Brian May
- Keith Richards
- Jimi Hendrix
- Synyster Gates
Slash is perhaps one of the most recognizable guitar players of all time. His contribution to the world of rock music is undeniable.
- His initial stint with Guns N’ Roses was fairly short-lived.
- He recorded three full-length albums with them (not counting “The Spaghetti Incident”).
- Even so, Slash managed to cement himself as an icon of the genre.
Let’s take a look at what makes Slash sound like Slash.
- While he’s not known for being a “shreddy” player, he does play some fast licks and runs.
- Like most rock players, the minor pentatonic is the scale of choice, but Slash adds some extra notes for color.
Slash’s go-to scale shapes
Slash has some go-to shapes and patterns that he likes to use, but most of them gravitate around the humble pentatonic scale.
Every guitarist feels at home here. The standard minor pentatonic scale in its first position – root notes are highlighted in gray.
This is what we’ll use as our foundation for the other scale patterns.
Slash likes to add a unique flavor to his playing by adding notes from other scales into his pentatonic shapes.
- Like many blues and rock players, he often adds the flat five (b5) – highlighted in blue.
- Slash also likes to borrow notes from the Dorian mode – highlighted in green.
- Adding these notes creates three-note-per-string patterns which allow for faster, more fluid runs.
- Slash uses a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs to play those speedier licks.
The ending to Civil War is a good example of Slash’s faster style and incorporates this hybrid blues/dorian shape.
Another great solo to analyze is the ending to November Rain, the scale used for this exotic-sounding outro solo is the harmonic minor – another of Slash's favorites.
- You’ll notice there are some similar note groupings to the previous shape.
- The interesting note in this scale is the major/naturalseven (7) – highlighted in purple.
- The presence of the major 7th within the context of this minor scale, gives an interesting sound.
Almost all of us bend strings, but there are so many variations and nuances within this technique that many iconic players have their own unique “bending fingerprint”.
- Slash has a very recognizable bending style, and there are some elements we can focus on to try and get closer to his sound.
- He often likes to start solos with a huge bend.
- We hear this is Sweet Child O Mine, November Rain, and Don’t Cry.
Sweet Child O’ Mine
Instead of opening the solo with a flurry of notes, Slash uses a big bend to give a more human, emotional sound.
- A typical Slash bend can involve bending the string, bringing it down, and bending it again.
- We hear this double-bend style in the early stages of the November Rain solo.
- Sometimes he doesn’t hit the string until it’s already been bent, then he brings the note back down – this is known as a pre-bend.
- These different techniques create a more fluid, vocal-like sound and can add an extra layer of emotion to a solo.
#2 Brian May
Brian May is another guitarist whose sound is instantly recognizable, and although one of the most important aspects of May’s sound is his tone, we’ll only focus on his techniques today.
- Being the only guitar player in Queen, he must fill the role of both lead and rhythm player.
- He tends to use layering of individual notes to create rich chord sounds even when distorted.
- This allows him to create big harmonies while playing melodic phrases.
Most people don’t necessarily focus on the guitar when they think about Queen’s We Will Rock You but the ending is very typical of Brian May’s style.
We Will Rock You
Filling the space
Besides the multi-tracked guitar harmonies, May finds ways to make one guitar fill the sonic space.
- Right before the solo kicks in, he plays a C power chord on the A string, then an open A chord.
- Then he slides up to the 14th fret of the D string and plays this interesting lick.
- He creates depth by covering the lower register with the open A string, while simultaneously playing a solo-like melody in the higher register.
We’ve added the tab below so you can try it out for yourself:
May’s solos often alternate between licks and chords to keep a full sound.
Even though he has to cover both bases of rhythm and lead, he still puts everything he has into creating iconic solos.
- People know his solos so well that they can sing them – that’s the mark of a great player.
- He leaves space and chooses each note carefully,
- Each line is akin to a vocal melody.
- This is part of what makes them so memorable
Let’s listen to the Bohemian Rhapsody solo as a perfect example:
The solo from Killer Queen also showcases his care in writing a great solo:
- Each phrase is distinct and his lines always sound intentional – He never just hits notes for the sake of it.
- This can be a rare trait among lead guitar players and is something worth thinking about when writing your own solos.
#3 Keith Richards
The Rolling Stones are legends of classic rock, and Richards was a driving force in creating their iconic sound.
His style is heavily influenced by early blues and country but is still undoubtedly rock n roll.
The first thing to note about much of his playing is that he tunes his guitar to open G tuning.
- Open chord tuning means that all the open strings are tuned to a specific chord.
- Commonly with Richards, it’s an open G Major.
Here’s what the notes on the strings are in an open G tuning:
*Richards is known for omitting the 6th string altogether – making the lowest note on the guitar a G.
Much like how drop-D tuning allows you to play power chords using one finger, open G tuning lets you play an entire major chord with just one finger.
Chord shapes for open tuning
This is how easy it is to play full-sounding major chords in this tuning – just bar the whole fret with your index finger and move it up or down to change the chord.
You’ll often hear Richards play a 6Sus4 chord in his rhythm playing.
- Although this is an unfamiliar chord to most guitarists, it’s much more straightforward in this open tuning – fingered just like a m7 bar chord.
- The 7th fret on the 4th string is the 6th scale degree.
- The 6th fret on the 2nd string is where we find that suspended note.
If you want to experiment and retune your guitar to open G, you can get a feel for Richards’ style with this simple progression.
As you can see, the 6th string isn’t played. Richards doesn’t really use it, so many of his guitars only ever have five strings.
Start Me Up is a great example of this type of chord progression and style of playing:
The verse riff in Jumpin’ Jack Flash uses these chords, too:
Gimme Shelter is another classic Stones song in open G tuning and contains these types of chords:
#4 Jimi Hendrix
It would be a crime not to mention the late, great, Jimi Hendrix. Although he’s been gone for more than 50 years, his influence on guitar players is still as powerful as ever.
A true pioneer of the instrument, his unique blend of rhythm and lead playing was groundbreaking.
- He used his thumb to fret bass notes – freeing up more fingers to play chords, and embellishments.
- His mastery of the relationship between chords and scales on the fretboard allowed Hendrix to move seamlessly between the two.
- A great example of this middle ground between chords and lead playing is the double stop – which can be heard throughout his playing.
The double stop
Playing two notes at the same time adds an extra harmonic texture to a melodic phrase. Any interval within a scale can be used as a double stop.
Some commonly used intervals are:
The double stop is a key feature of Hendrix’s sound and one all guitarists should explore. Try this example:
Hendrix’s rhythm parts flow naturally and are filled with decorative nuances. He didn’t just play chord progressions, he added movement and melodies within the rhythm.
His playing doesn’t fit neatly into one genre – he’s a great example of different musical styles merging to create something unique.
Elements Hendrix used from certain genres:
- Funk rhythms
- Blues licks
- Rock attitude
- Psychedelic sound
Listen to the verse of Hey Joe
- He uses a mixture of open chords, thumb chords, and bar chords.
- Hendrix would often play the same chord progression in a variety of ways.
- Being aware of all the possible voicings for each chord opens up a world of choices.
This can be swapped with your typical E major shape bar chord, with your thumb taking the root note position. Try implementing it into your chord progressions for a different sound.
Try this relatively simple chord progression, but aim to play it slightly differently each time.
Get creative! Here are a few pointers to start you off:
- Try to use the thumb chord shape we’ve just shown.
- You can also omit certain notes, or replace a chord with a double stop.
- Throw in some short melodic phrases between chords.
For example, here’s a short moving phrase that works when transitioning between Em and the B chord.
#5 Synyster Gates
Synyster Gates has become a modern guitar icon with his soaring melodic lines, blistering speeds, unbelievable technical ability, and harmonically rich style.
- Gates is well educated in jazz guitar, which gives him a great understanding of the instrument, and music theory in general.
- This knowledge is demonstrated in the music of his band Avenged Sevenfold.
- Such complex structures and harmonies are uncommon in the genre.
Gates often plays a quick succession of notes a half step apart. We hear this in many of his solos. For example in Bat Country:
This is another one of Gates’ favorite techniques and it can be heard in many of his solos.
Listen to the fast part of the Afterlife solo: it contains the explosive burst of chromatic notes and sweep picking:
- If you want to learn sweep picking, it’s crucial to take it slow in the beginning.
- Below is a four-string sweep pattern. Make sure to focus and “sweep” with your pick across the strings as you go down.
- Holding the pick at a slightly diagonal angle can help it move over the strings more smoothly.
This is when you hit two strings and bend the lower note up until you hit the same pitch as the top one.
- Guitarists in many genres use unison bends and they’re frequently heard in blues licks.
- It’s the sound of the movement up to the unison bend that gives color and effect to this technique.
- When bending up, you can sometimes hear a strange pulsating tone within these bends.
- This is known as a beat frequency – when two pitches are slightly out of tune with each other.
Here are some examples of Gates using this technique:
Beast and the Harlot
God Hates Us
He’s clearly a big fan of this sound and with a heavily-distorted guitar tone, you can really hear that cool phase-type sound.
There are of course many other guitarists to check out, and much more to be said about each player and their individual approaches.
This is only a tiny look into some techniques used by these iconic players. They’re not only part of their signature style, but also part of our shared vocabulary as guitarists.
- To learn how to emulate someone else’s sound, you must develop an analytical ear.
- It’s important to study your favorite players so you can incorporate some of their techniques into your own unique style.
- As you do this, you’ll start to blend your favorite techniques together into your own unique sound.
If you’re looking for guidance in your guitar journey, check out a free 14-day trial to Pickup Music. Our guided guitar Learning Pathways feature an ultra-guided, step-by-step approach to leveling up on guitar for all styles and skill levels.
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