My name is Michael. I’m 42 and have been playing guitar for about 30 years. Looking back, I guess my journey started when I was about 8 and my mother bought a cheap electric guitar at the local pawn shop. Although I only learned how to play “Smoke on the Water” and “Wipe-out” (wrong BTW) and the guitar sat in a corner for a few years, it served as a platform to later build build on.
That time would be the summer of 1991 when I was transitioning from middle school to high school. MTV was huge back then, and I remember watching all the videos of the 80’s guitar gods and wishing I could play like that. The day before school let out for the summer of 8th grade, I remember a classmate telling me about how he saw Slash playing an incredible guitar solo on TV, and later had a dream where he was playing just like it and it was amazing. For some reason, that was enough to motivate me to actually want to learn how to play guitar. After pestering my mother, she enrolled me in lessons with the local music store’s guitar teacher where I was put on the then-typical lesson plan - Mel Bay Guitar Method 1!
As the weeks went by I learned where E, F, and G was on the high E string, and how to play some obscure tunes like “Can-can”, but this really wasn’t what I had in mind when watching my guitar heroes on MTV. Right about this time a band released a new album whose videos were getting a lot of play: Metallica’s Black album. Once I heard the guitars on “Enter Sandman”, I knew that was the sound I wanted to make. I immediately walked to my music store and ordered the Hal Leonard Metallica Black album Tablature book. A few weeks later it finally had arrived: the moment that I was waiting for where all the secrets of these new (to me) incredible sounds were to be given. Except there was a catch - I didn’t know what TAB was and couldn’t read it. So I shuffled through the pages and found the one-page TAB explanation; it seemed fairly straight forward, and off I went.
After about 9 months I learned every Metallica song from Kill 'Em All to The Black Album. I starting hanging out with the older kids in high school, who were basically metal heads, and was exposed to Megadeth, Testament, Slayer, and a bunch of other cool stuff. I quit taking guitar lessons too. There didn’t seem to be a benefit to learning Mel Bay when I wanted to play metal. It was also during this time I noticed a trend; no one either wanted or could play leads or solos. This sparked me to start tackling the solos of the Metallica songs I already knew and I figured I’d start with the easiest one, “Nothing Else Matters”.
A few years go by and I could play many of the leads in the songs I was listening to, but not well. There were things that I seemed to excel in, mostly left-hand legato, but fast and accurate alternate picking seemed impossible to me. I just couldn’t comprehend how someone could play so cleanly and quickly. Listening to Alex Skolnick or James Murphy was simply mind blowing and I thought that there must be some trick to it that I just haven’t discovered yet.
Around this time I was putting together a band playing some original metal that my friends and I wrote, and our 16 year old bass player’s dad pulls me aside and tells me how I’ve got to check out this dude from the 1970’s named Al DiMeola. One listen to “Race with the Devil on a Spanish Highway” and I’m floored. At that time I’d listed to a few really phenomenal players, but none yet on this level. I immediately tried to do what I did previously with metal but it was very obvious that this new style of music was way beyond my skill level. Not only was I unable to physically play the licks, my brain and ear couldn’t even comprehend the melodies, phrases, and chord structures that were being played. It was like hearing an alien language and I was stuck.
During my senior year I was hanging out with a great guy who was one of the best players in my school and he turned me on to a bunch of stuff, music and gear wise, that transformed my playing. We were really into Satriani and were totally immersed in left hand legato. But as much stuff of his that we could play, we both struggled with all of the faster alternate picking stuff. It really did seem like there was this barrier that separated us regular players from the amazing ones. It was also around this time where I got turned on to Jason Becker. I knew Marty from Megadeth, but this was long before the internet so I never knew the connection until discovering Cacophony. Hearing these works were so mind blowing that I literally could not fathom how anyone could play like this. I remember at one point thinking that there must be some kind of recording trick, because it was impossible for me to comprehend being able to play like that.
During the summer of 1997 I was lucky enough to go to the Berklee School of Music’s 5 week summer program and this was such a life-changing event that I 100% recommend anyone of any age to attend. It was there that I was finally able to see, in person, some really fantastic players. I was placed in private lessons with Joe Stump and watching Joe play was out of this world. He had this metronome that looked like it was made in the 1960’s, and it had been dropped so many times that it actually clicked faster than it was set it at. At the end of the lesson, if you asked Joe about how fast could he play, Joe would max it out to 240 and play sextuplet sixteenth notes without stopping or mispicking a note. After I would go back to my dorm room and woodshed the photocopied hand-written, neo-classical licks that he’d pass out like they were hints to a larger riddle of fast, articulate alternate picking. There were other’s too like Jon Finn who is another incredible player and improviser that I recommend everyone checking out if you haven’t already.
During that 5 week course I was also lucky enough to learn from some of the amazing students. There was an incredibly talented young man at the age of 17 named Jim who had played violin for 8 years, but had just been playing guitar for about 2. Let me tell you something, this boy could play! He was the first person that I had ever seen play flawlessly “Eugene’s Trick Bag”. In fact, he played it for his scholarship audition and earned a full ride. It was from him that I learned so much in so little time, but primarily he taught me how to sweep pick, and for that I am forever grateful.
There was also another young man in attendance from Greece who would go on to have a pretty impressive career. I remember asking him if he could play anything from Al DiMeola and he effortlessly whipped out a quintessential Al alternate picking run without missing a beat. He would also go on to earn a scholarship but he wouldn’t stay at Berklee long as he had a name to be made as, “Gus G”.
Unfortunately, I did not earn a scholarship. And to be fair, it was the right decision. I went back home from Boston with a feeling that I never really had with guitar before. I’m not sure what exactly it was but it was like getting punched in the gut, then kicked in the face. The hard truth was that there were dozens of younger, better, more talented guitar players than me. And that I had a lot of work to do if I ever wanted to be remotely considered part of what I just witnessed. So I went back at it and made a promise that if there was anything that I was going to be able to do, it was sweep pick like Jim had showed me.
Now, I know this is contrary to what’s preferred in CTC but this is how I learned it. First things first, I started using a metronome. IMO, this was crucial because before this my brain had no concept that notes fit into a concise frame of time. Initially, when playing along with the metronome, it felt like it was speeding up and slowing down. I quickly realized that it was ME who was speeding up and slowing down! Playing in time was much more difficult than I had previously imagined and it seemed that mastering this was imperative, if I was going to be able to play anything of any speed and precision over a long period of time, (say 4+ bars 16th notes 140+ bpm)
Second, Jim introduced me to diatonic arpeggios with his sweep picking exercise. So not only was I learning how to play in-time (before I, and still do to some extent, want to play ahead of the beat) I was learning one-note per string arpeggio shapes. The exercise is quite simple, the hardest part was playing in groups of 5. Looking back, this isn’t something I’d suggest as a first time sweep picking exercise but this is just what I practiced.
After about 10 weeks of practicing variations of these arpeggios with the metronome, and slowing increasing tempo (as I figured out how to mute unwanted strings by slightly lifting my finger to deaden the note between note changes, or how to roll my fingers to sweep barre shapes, etc, etc.) the technique had finally come together. I was sweep picking just like Jim and it sounded GOOD! The technique seemed to transfer over a bit to economy picking as I was also starting to get some of these D-U-D 3nps ascending scale patterns down. But even with all this headway, one thing still eluded me: fast, articulate alternate picking. So I tried the same approach I took with sweep picking and started wood shedding what people call the Gilbert pattern even though I got it from Al’s playing.
Time went on and I did make improvements but it was obvious that I was missing some key ingredients. It was hard to traverse strings as speed picked up and at some point effort would overtake precision making these licks sound like a sloppy mess.
Right around 20 years old it was time to make some life choices and my chances of having a significant career in music didn’t really seem viable. I was also evaluating what skills and experience I might want out of life that were outside of the realm of music. College was out because I couldn’t afford to pay for that on my own. So in December 1998 I enlisted the Marine Corps.
As you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of time to play your guitar in the military. The jobs that I seemed to like made for little time to do much of anything outside of being a professional infantryman. From 1998 to 2014 I would serve as a Scout/Sniper, Infantry Squad Leader, Infantry Platoon Sergeant, Scout/Sniper Platoon Commander, Infantry Platoon Commander, and deploy six times; four to combat zones.
I did, however; find time to play. In fact, I always took a guitar with me on deployment, even if it was a cheap Ibanez that I could disassemble and throw in my seabag along with a cheap amp. Over time I continued to make improvements. One thing that stood out was that it seemed that taking time off of guitar helped me become a better player. When I couldn’t play, and time allowed, I would imagine myself playing all kinds of licks and patterns on my “mind’s” fret board. I would picture in every detail me playing all of the great things that I wanted to play but yet couldn’t. Once I was able to come back to a real guitar, ideas would flow and techniques were sometimes just a bit easier to perform cleanly. Over time, the improvements added up.
In November 2014 I was medically retired. Since then it’s been a rough journey but I’ve still been playing now and then. It’s not nearly as much as I should, and there’s times where months go by and I don’t touch a guitar despite on being within arms’ reach almost all the time. But it’s true, depression is MF’er. It makes you not excited to do the things you love. But I won’t let that stop me.
I’ve watched almost all of CTC’s content on YT and it’s amazing. Thank you Troy! In the few years since my retirement, I’ve continued to make improvements in my playing and confirm or deny my previous concepts and ideas pertaining to technique… and this is all think to you and your team. I look forward to sharing and gaining knowledge with the great community here, and to continue to improve my playing.
If you made it this far, thanks for taking the time. Hopefully I can upload some basic stuff soon for the CTC community to critique. Until then, take care!