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Michael Angelo: The Art of Playing Lightning Fast

By September 17, 2004Lessons

My favorite parts of Michael Angelo‘s seminal instructional video Speed Kills are the impromptu, undocumented solos that pop up occasionally throughout the DVD. There are precisely four of them, and I like to think of them as being named by the huggably cheesy dialogue that invariably surrounds them. If you’re familiar with the video, you might recognize such basement-tape classics as The Art of Playing Lightning Fast, The Keys to the Lamborghini, You Can Just Kick Back, and Tendonitis.

These solo-ettes are exciting because they display Mike at his most instinctive and uninhibited. When you tell an experienced guitar player to rip, what emerges is that player’s subconscious view of the fretboard. In other words, there’s simply no way to control every note in real-time at shred tempos, so your hands settle comfortably into patterns that were burned in through hours of practice. In Mike’s case, those patterns usually involve alternate-picked scales that cover huge expanses of fretboard territory and frighten away small furry mammals like you and me.

The Tab

Take for example the very first of the Speed Kills mini-solos. Right after the video’s intro, Mike leans purposefully toward the camera, peers through his massive permed mane, and intones: “What I’m going to show you in this video is how to master the art of playing lightning fast.” With that, he unleashes sixteen vicious seconds of three-note-per-string fury, and Lightning Fast is born:

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At first glance, Lightning Fast may look like nothing more than a long string of alternate-picked notes, starting on a downstroke and finishing 11 scary staves later. But if we dig beneath the surface, we’ll see there’s a lot more going on here.

Harmony

For starters, this piece is played in E Dorian, which is what happens when D major and E minor decide to share an apartment in Park Slope. In slightly more technical terms, it means the principal scale used in Lightning Fast looks equivalent to D major on the fretboard. Like so:

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…but instead of using this scale to solo over chord changes in D major, you use it to solo over changes in E minor. In such a scenario, what you’re looking at is no longer D major, but really an altered form of E minor that sounds ever-so-slightly major. This works because E minor and D major are almost identical to begin with. In fact, the only difference between them is that D major has a c# where E minor has a c natural. Thus throwing a c# into the E minor scale introduces chordal possibilities that are normally found in D major and not normally found in E minor. The reason we call it E Dorian, and not D major, is that the song itself still hovers around E and the E minor chord as a tonal center.

That’s one way of describing it, anyway. A better way is to just listen. To hear the classic Dorian rock sound, try strumming from E minor, to A major, to E minor. The Amaj chord is not normally available in E minor, because it contains a c#. Hence deliberately juxtaposing an A major chord against a riff in E minor will create Dorian-ness (Dorian-osity?). Like so:

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Throw in some groovy rhythm, and it sounds like Stayin’ Alive, or maybe The Wall, eh? The Dorian mode was popular in the disco era for extended vamps with a feeling somewhere between major and minor. But there are no backing tracks in Lightning Fast, and the overall effect isn’t particularly disco-like (or “cowboy-like”, as Vinnie Moore once described the Dorian mode). So why bother?

In this case, believe it or not, Mike’s rationale for picking the Dorian mode probably has more to do with fingerings than anything else. If you’re familiar with the E minor fingering at the 10th/12th fret, it’s a little squirrely:

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This scale position is not as popular among shredders as it could be, mostly due to the awkwardness created by its motley grouping of fretboard shapes. The scale starts with three identical shapes on the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings. So far so good. But it follows with two different shapes and two position shifts on the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings. That’s a bunch of movement in a short period of time. Compare this to the Dorian fingering we saw earlier:

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Ah, fresh air. Here we’ve got only three fretboard shapes, and they occur in pairs on the strings, directly across from one another. This means that the left hand can cover two strings at a time without any change in fingering or position. There are still three positions in total, but they’re evenly spaced, which gives the left hand some breathing room. Overall, it’s much easier for the left hand to play the E Dorian scale than the E minor scale in this position, and that’s why Mike uses it. Yes, this gives the solo a “Dorian” sound instead of a “minor” sound, but there are no backing tracks to highlight this. Mike’s solo lines don’t dwell on it either, so the change in tonality is not really noticeable. In his free-form improvising, Mike frequently combines the Dorian scale with the blues scale because they work well together for the left hand.

In the rock-paper-scissors world that is guitar playing, easy fingerboard shapes beat out musical concerns every time. (Can you say Nirvana?) In fact, notice that if you use the Dorian scale, and stick to just two strings at a time — the ones with the identical, or parallel fingerings — the left hand barely moves at all. If you look at the tab for Lightning Fast, you’ll see that with the exception of only three measures (15, 16, and 17), Mike uses parallel fingerings for the entire freakin’ solo. Armed with this knowledge, and a few astute observations, we can actually sketch a formula for making your own solos sound just like Lightning Fast.

Rule #1:  Parallel Fingerings

So here we’ve stumbled on the first rule of the Michael Angelo style: parallel fingerings. Parallel fingerings are when your left hand plays the same frets on more than one string. Remember that Mike chose the E Dorian mode for Lightning Fast because it created pairs of parallel fingerings across the fretboard right around the 12th fret. Upon closer investigation, we see that Mike continues this concept of parallel pairs throughout the entire solo, even when he starts switching positions.

Let’s take a walk through the tab, counting the strings and frets between the measure markers. Although Lightning Fast has no specific time signature, I chose to break it into measures at the boundaries of each repeating motif, because this is probably the way Mike “sees” the neck when he’s improvising. When you do this, the following outline emerges:

Lightning Fast Parallel Fingerings

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Now, if you weed out the duplicates, you discover there are really only seven fingerings in the whole solo:

Lightning Fast Unique Parallel Fingerings

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Not bad, considering seven fingerings really buys you 42 notes. That’s a 600% return on your investment. At the very least, it cuts the left-hand effort in half, since your brain only has to process changes once every two strings. This means you can play twice as fast with the same amount of mental energy. On top of this, it’s much easier to memorize seven little patterns (Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful…) than one big complicated pattern. It’s also more flexible, since you can mix and match the patterns to create different kinds of licks. Playing an ascending or descending scale, for example, becomes nothing more than connecting three patterns together. This is exactly how Mike finishes the solo:

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Rule #2: Sixes

As we saw in our discussion of parallel fingerings, Mike’s scale technique involves slicing and dicing the fretboard into pairs of strings with identical fingerings. Like most shredders, he usually sticks to playing three notes on a given string. This means he often ends up playing a particular kind of musical motif: sixes.

The term sixes usually refers to six-note scale fragments played in one direction on the neck. Here’s an example of an ascending six that occurs in measure 3 of Lightning Fast:

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And here’s a descending six from measure 9:

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Sixes frequently form the building blocks of shred solos because they fit so well over three-note-per-string fingerings. Mike tends to use them in three different ways. Most commonly, he repeats them in one position:

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…second most commonly, he repeats them in different positions:

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…and least commonly, but most dramatically, he repeats them across different pairs of strings in the same position:

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What’s cool about playing sixes across the strings is that they create grand scale passages that cover four strings at a time. In other words, twelves. In the example above, measures 2 and 3 are a twelve, and measures 4 and 5 are also a twelve. You and I know that these are nothing more than sixes played back to back. But in the audience, panties will fly at the dramatic, swoopy sound they produce.

Rule #3:  Mirror-Image Picking

One of the things that should be clear by now is that there’s a tremendous amount of structure in Mike’s playing. What often seems like an unbroken stream of notes is really a collection of patterns, stuck together like Legos. Mike engineered these fingering patterns and scale choices to connect seamlessly with the least possible mental effort during live soloing.

The same is true for Mike’s picking technique. One of the consequences of using sixes as building blocks is that a six always finishes on the pickstroke opposite the one on which you start. For example, in measure 9 there’s a descending six which starts on a downstroke. As we’d expect, it ends on an upstroke:

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In theory, a six-note pattern like the one above must end on the opposite pickstroke because it contains an even number of notes. This allows you to repeat the pattern using the exact sequence of pickstrokes you used the first time. One of the principal attractions of playing sixes is that once you nail the picking, it repeats right along with the fingering.

A lot of the patterns in Lightning Fast start on downstrokes. This makes sense, since most guitarists are used to thinking of the downstroke as the “default” pickstroke anyway. So you might be wondering why the lead-off six pattern of the solo actually starts on an upstroke:

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The answer arrives in measure 9, when we realize that the ascending sixes we’ve been playing are nothing more than descending sixes played in reverse:

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As we move from measure 8 to measure 9, our ascending pattern turns around and becomes a descending pattern. But the picking doesn’t change. For example, notice that in measure 8 we played the 15th fret of the B string with an upstroke. The same is true for measure 9, even though we’re going in the other direction. The two patterns connect seamlessly because Mike planned ahead and started all his ascending sixes on an upstroke. One is literally the mirror image of the other.

The way I transcribed the solo, I chose to write measure 8 with only five notes. This way, the last note of measure 8 could become the first note of measure 9. I could have done it the other way, but then measure 9 would have had only five notes. I figured it would be better to end the previous pattern one note short than to start a new pattern on the wrong note. In reality, that note belongs to both measures. It’s the end of one six, and the beginning of the next one. There’s no need to repeat that note to keep the picking consistent — just turn around and go the other way. If you scan the tab for Lightning Fast, you’ll see that the general picking rule is this: Ascending sixes start on an upstroke, and descending sixes start on a downstroke. This ensures that a given note on the fretboard is almost always played with the same pickstroke, no matter whether you’re coming or going. Pretty sneaky sis.

Rule #4:  Signature Licks

If a Michael Angelo solo is like a chocolate chip cookie, then sixes would be the dough. But what about the chips? Mike and his helpful team of elves periodically mix in healthy helpings of short, pattern-based motifs to add flavor and color. Lightning Fast features four of these “signature” licks, without which no Angelo solo would be complete.

Descending Fours

The first signature lick occurs at the very beginning. Measure 1 features the dreaded descending fours lick:

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A lot of famous people have played descending fours — everyone from Yngwie to Shawn Lane. But there’s a big difference in the way each of them has executed the lick. Yngwie does it on a single string, fully picked. Lane did it across the strings, with legato. Michael Angelo is one of only a few guys I can think of who play it across the strings, fully picked.

As with his ascending and descending sixes, Mike is extremely consistent in the picking he uses to play descending fours. He almost always begins each four-note sequence on an upstroke:

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By starting on an upstroke, most of the string crosses in the lick work out to be outside string crosses, which many guitarists consider easier than inside crosses. This is not exactly true, and Cracking the Code will explain why in great detail. But it’s clear from analyzing Mike’s playing that he does have a strong preference for the “outside” variant of this particular lick.

Notice also from the example above that when you play descending fours against three-note-per-string fingerings, both the fingering and picking repeat after three iterations of the sequence. This makes sense, since you’ve got one group of four notes for each note on a given string. By the time you reach the fourth repetition, you’ve moved to the next lower string. This is good news. It means that if you can learn to play the sequence on one string, you can play it across all of them. Here’s what that looks like:

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Because of the strict picking rules Mike follows for ascending and descending sixes, upstrokes only occur at certain pre-defined points in his scale playing. One of those points is in the middle of a descending six, which makes it a good attachment point for the descending fours lick. An example of this occurs in measure 13:

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Mike almost always starts descending sixes on a downstroke, which means that he hits the second string with an upstroke. Halfway through measure 13, he uses this upstroke to launch the descending fours lick (12th fret of the D string). This is another one of those examples where placing the measure marker accurately was impossible because the patterns overlap. In reality, it pays to see it both ways. The last three notes of measure 13 are the end of measure 13 and the beginning of measure 14. In Mike’s free-form improvisation, you’ll almost always find the descending four connected to the midway point of a descending six via an upstroke.

Sweep Arpeggios

The next little nugget of goodness occurs at measure 15. It’s a sweep picking example where Mike uses a combination of sweeps and alternate picking to outline three arpeggios. The lick starts on a downstroke, so we interrupt the preceding descending fours lick right after an upstroke to attach it:

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For the musically inclined, the arpeggios in question are Emin7 (m.15), A7 (m.16), and Bmin7 (m.17). These aren’t the most face-melting, heavy-metallest of arpeggios. In fact, they’re rather jazzy, which may reflect Mike’s early studies in that genre. Otherwise, given that they don’t relate to any chord progression outlined in the surrounding scale lines, we can assume that their appearance here has more to do with the convenience of the sweeping pattern and a general desire to mix it up a little.

Odd Turnarounds

The next signature lick appears in measure 18. It’s a cool little turnaround that appears often in Mike’s playing. The trick of the turnaround is that there’s a note missing. See if you can spot which one:

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If you blink, you’ll miss it. Notice that the first six notes are essentially an ascending six, but with the 12th fret of the G string missing on the way up. What this does is reverse the direction of the picking. The lick starts on a downstroke and would normally finish on an upstroke. By leaving out that note, we can cause the lick to have an odd number of notes, and finish on the same pickstroke we started with. This is necessary because the following measure is another ascending six, and you know by now that Mike likes to start those on an upstroke. Here’s the whole sequence:

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This turnaround appears in many other incarnations in Mike’s playing, where he frequently uses it as a device during ascending scale runs. For example, you can stack the turnaround to create interesting patterns. Like so:

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Mike plays a lick almost exactly like this one in his recent instructional release Speed Lives, the follow-up to the original Speed Kills video. It’s the ascending scale run that ends in a tremolo on the 24th fret. You can hear another nearly identical lick in the solo to Mike’s song I Do For You, an excerpt of which you can download from the audio section of Mike’s web site. It’s obviously something he’s been playing for a while.

Pedal Tones

The last of the signature licks appears in measure 20. It’s a pedal-tone lick, which is a lick that repeatedly juxtaposes one note against a range of other notes. Yngwie is undoubtedly the best-known purveyor of pedal tone licks, and his creativity in that area was one of the great motivating forces behind the neoclassical movement of the ’80s.

Pedal tones do not play nearly as significant role in Mike’s playing as they do in Yngwie’s, so we can classify this lick as a cute little one-off. It’s more jazzy than neoclassical, and very cool nonetheless. Before I sat down to transcribe it, I assumed it would be trickier to play than it is. Ultimately, it’s just a clever extension of the sixes we’ve been studying:

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The lick really has three parts: the pickup (the three notes on the B string), the pedal sequence (the five notes on the E string), and the final descending six. The pedal sequence holds 12th fret of the E string against the 14th, 15th, and 17th fret, and sets up the final descending six. As we’ve seen before, the first note of the descending six is also the last note of the pedal sequence.

Like the turnaround lick, you can stack the pedal sequences for extra flavor. In “Example 3” from Mike’s 1986 Star Licks instructional video, he does exactly that:

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Putting It All Together

Amazing the amount of information you can extract from 16 seconds of riffing. Taking what we’ve learned, we should now be able to build our own Lightning Fast-style solo bonanza. It should be composed generally of sixes, the fingerings should be parallel, and the picking should be consistent between ascending and descending motifs. We’ll use the Dorian mode. We’ll throw in a couple signature licks to give it that special Angelo flavor.

I’m going to hit record on the sequencer, and just blaze and see what comes out. I’ll transcribe it all afterward. Stand back!

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2 Comments

  • Vernon Nielsen says:

    Not really crazy about the website design and lay out. If you can afford it I would suggest you talk to the web design department at full sail university, I am currently a student in music production there. The college was ranked 7th by Yale in media production study. This isn’t an add trust me,, I’ve done web design myself, i dunno i guess if people like this, it seems really constrictive , layout wise. Im here for your insight but man this layout bugs.
    Vern

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