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There's a Freight Train Comin'

By May 16, 2005Lessons

This lesson appeared originally as a master class at InsaneGuitar.com.

It’s always exciting to get your hands on something you can’t get anywhere else. So as a measure of thanks to Joel Wanasek for inviting me to do a guest column at InsaneGuitar.com, I offer up a transcription you won’t find anywhere else on the internet. It’s none other than the guitar solo to Nitro’s Freight Train, the most over-the-top ’80s metal song you never heard.

THE DANGEROUS ’80s: Michael Angelo plays Nitro’s Freight Train

Why never? Unlike their more radio-friendly forebears, Nitro’s mission, according to their various press releases, was to be the “fastest, highest, and loudest” band alive. It was a lofty goal considering the competition, yet with athletes like Jim Gillette on vocals and of course the mythic Michael Angelo on guitar, they arguably succeeded. But O.F.R. (short for “Out Fuckin’ Rageous”, of course), the album on which Freight Train appears, was released in 1989 — a full two years after Axl and Slash’s grittier take on hair metal signaled the genre’s descent into grunge. By the time the first crate of O.F.R. CDs hit the trucks, it may as well have been delivered directly to Kurt Cobain for safe keeping in his basement.

However fleeting the band’s commercial success, they did achieve a musical milestone of sorts. Michael Angelo’s soloing on the album was probably the most virtuosic example of pure alternate picking ever to appear on a rock record, a title which it just might retain today. As such, it merits a serious look by all of us who are fascinated by the development of unearthly guitar technique. So without further delay, let’s dive into the out-fuckin’-rageous sounds of the Freight Train solo:


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It turns out that there are at least two versions of the solo in question. One version appeared on a Nitro EP called Gunnin’ For Glory. The Freight Train solo on Gunnin’ For Glory is similar to, but not the same as, the one that shipped on the actual O.F.R. CD. Since the O.F.R. version is the one most Nitro fans will be familiar with, it’s the one we’re going to be looking at in this lesson, and it’s the one I’m playing in the clip above.

If you own O.F.R., now’s the time to pop it back into the CD player. If you don’t, obtaining it might be difficult since the original disc is to my knowledge no longer in print. However, you can still hear this version of the solo in a clip of the original Freight Train music video that has been floating around the file sharing networks erroneously labeled as a “Nitro concert clip”. Above you’ll find an edited version of the clip that contains just the solo itself. Note that it’s included it here as an educational resource for the evaluation of Mike’s incredible technique, and also because the video itself is long out of rotation and generally unavailable for purchase or study through any other means.

Harmonic Choices

The Freight Train solo is based on what we might at this point simply call the Angelo Fingerings. The most important of these is the classic pentatonic or blues box-position fingering. Because Freight Train is written in G, we find this fingering at the 15th fret:


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The second component of the Angelo Fingerings overlaps the blues scale at the 15th fret. It’s a Dorian fingering, which utilizes the classic three-note-per-string format:


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The final component of the Angelo Fingerings is a group of three symmetrical Dorian patterns that connect to the original Dorian shape:


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Together, these three scale components form the entirety of the scale choices in Freight Train. While there is a tendency in the music major crowd to over-intellectualize the scale and chord choices used by pop and rock players (“Clapton’s use of the altered Lydian scale in this tune…” — sure, right), in this case I’m certain that Mike does in fact employ modal thinking. He is actually a music major in real life, and he expresses his preference for Dorian licks in both his Speed Kills and Speed Lives instructional videos.

That said, Mike’s rationale for choosing this combination of fingerings is also mechanical. For one, it’s convenient that the Dorian scale pattern lives in the same fretboard location as the pentatonic pattern. This allows Mike to switch from blues to shred phrasing without moving the fretting hand to another position. Furthermore, of the seven possible three-note-per-string diatonic scale patterns on the fretboard, the particular one used in the Dorian fingering is among the easiest to play fast because it contains only three fretboard shapes:


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Note how these shapes appear on adjacent strings. This allows the left hand to play two-string patterns and sequences without changing position or fingering at all. Note also that these three shapes closely resemble, and connect to, the symmetrical Dorian shapes that round out the Angelo Fingerings. Together, the elements of the Angelo Fingerings create a convenient interconnected map all around the blues scale, making them super useful for varied soloing with minimal left-hand effort. As a result, these are frequently the only shapes you’ll need to know to decipher Mike’s songs, solos, and brief improvisational sequences.

Phrase 1: Two-String Patterns

A series of two-string patterns combine to create the first of the solo’s six melodic phrases. In this case, it’s a multi-octave display of scalar picking prowess:


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The phrase opens with perhaps the most famous two-string pattern in shred, none other than the much-vaunted Paul Gilbert Lick:


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The Paul Gilbert lick isn’t so much a lick as a picking pattern. Specifically, it’s an alternating combination of five notes on one string and a single note on an adjacent string. The pattern earned its name, and its fame, by virtue of its central position in Paul’s seminal 1987 REH instructional video, Intense Rock. Unbeknownst to many, Mike’s 1986 Star Licks video actually featured this pattern as an exercise a full year before it appeared Intense Rock. So did Paul rip off Mikey? That depends. Many players have used the pattern (DiMeola, Morse, to name a few others), and to be fair, Paul himself does not claim to have originated it. On the other hand, it’s possible that Paul’s decision to feature the lick prominently in Intense Rock was influenced by the popularity of Mike’s earlier Star Licks effort. Apparently Mike thinks so.

But I digress. The solo’s opening phrase continues with another two-string pattern that also uses identical, or “parallel” fingerings — the dreaded descending fours:


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While many players have used descending fours, Mike’s particular variation of the pattern sets up a unique looping structure on two adjacent strings. To do this, he uses a five-note pickup to connect the end of the lick with its next repetition:


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As is almost always the case when Mike plays descending fours, the actual descending portion of the lick begins on an upstroke. We can see this more clearly by eliminating the five-note pickup and extending the fours pattern across all six strings:


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Starting each descending group of four notes with an upstroke is an Angelo hallmark, and is precisely what allows the two-string variant of the lick to start on a downstroke (as shred licks often do), and to connect neatly with itself, like a dog chasing its tail. Fore more on Mike’s use of descending fours in his improvisational playing, check out the following discussion of Angelo signature licks.

The solo’s first phrase concludes with a bi-directional scale run that is itself a kind of two-string pattern played across octaves:


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In this example Mike is using a common shred device whereby a given fretboard shape is moved across pairs of strings as a way of changing its register. Specifically, the following six-note group is played on strings 1 and 2, and then moved to strings 3 and 4 precisely one octave lower. The net effect is that of an extended scale with one of its notes missing:


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The advantage of such a device is predominantly one of economy, since the left hand is now able to cover a full two octaves of scalar territory by memorizing only one fretboard shape.

Phrase 2: Tremolo

After a brief breather, Mike attacks the fretboard with a barrage of repeated notes and another impressive multi-octave scale run:


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The opening statement of this phrase is something of an anomaly in shred. Not quite metal, not quite blues, a series of pedal tones on the E string are held against notes from the blues and Dorian scales to create an almost amplified bluegrass feel:


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The practice of juxtaposing fast right hand picking with a generally stationary left hand is called tremolo picking. It is commonly employed by players of various acoustic stringed instruments (mandolin and bouzouki, for example) where it is used to create a kind of faux sustain. In shred, the tremolo is often regarded as an entry-level technique designed to build picking speed. When it is used in solos, it most often appears a simple dramatic device wherein the left hand gradually ascends the notes of a particular scale as the right hand hammers away. Eddie Van Halen is probably the single greatest innovator of pure tremolo licks, and the following E minor run from Feel Your Love Tonight, off Van Halen’s eponymous first album, is an Eddie trademark:


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It is relatively uncommon, however, to juxtapose repeated notes with individually fretted notes in a repeating structure as Mike does in the solo’s second phrase. This also turns out to be surprisingly difficult to do. The trouble is that repeated notes tend to blur together at high speed, making it tough to hear exactly how many of them you’ve played. This, in turn, makes it difficult to hit the individually-fretted notes with the proper pickstrokes. The best way to practice this is to break the tremolo lick into its three components and practice them separately:


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The advantage of breaking the lick apart this way is that each of the subunits can be practiced as a repeating pattern. Starting out slowly and accenting the first note of the pattern will help you feel its repeating structure despite the harmonic monotony. Once you’ve nailed the patterns individually, reconstituting them into the original phrase is relatively trivial.

Phrase 2 ends with the same two-string shape that we used to complete phrase 1. In this case, however, it’s extended across a full three octaves — all six strings of the guitar:


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Again, the advantage of such a phrase is that of economy. Once you’ve memorized the fingering for the original two-string shape, moving it to another octave is a simple matter of sliding the hand down or up a few frets. Sonically this creates an illusion of grand complexity that belies the simplicity of the actual pattern.

Phrase 3: Sixes

While violinists frequently utilize four-note-per-string fingerings, the greater scale length of the guitar means that three-note-per-string fingerings are most often the rule for shredders. As a result, many common shred licks measure their length in even multiples of the number 3. By far the most common of these is the venerable six. The third phrase of the solo is built to dramatic effect upon an ascending sequence of sixes:


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The phrase begins on the G string with what is essentially a two-string lead-in to the sequence of sixes that finishes the phrase. This pickup pattern is composed of a combination of blues and chromatic tones again taken from the Angelo Fingerings at the 15th fret:


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The purpose of the pickup is to force the ascending sixes section somewhat counter-intuitively to begin with an upstroke:


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While most shred building blocks begin with downstrokes, Mike’s logic here is more subtle: he’s thinking ahead. Mike commonly uses ascending sixes as bridges to other licks, and by beginning each six on an upstroke, he knows he’ll finish each one on a downstroke. This sets him up to begin his next lick on a downstroke without repeating any notes and without pausing to repeat two of the same pickstrokes in a row. Since many shred licks do in fact begin with downstrokes, this strategy is useful. One common example of this in Mike’s playing is his frequent linking of ascending sixes directly to descending sixes:


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In this example, the downstroke that finishes the final ascending six also serves as the initial note of the sequence of descending sixes. Beginning the descending section on a downstroke serves as a mechanical “marker” to the right hand that the lick is about to change direction. Similarly, phrase 3 of the Freight Train solo ends on a dramatic, three-fret bend which is really best executed with an emphatic downstroke:


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By beginning the sequence of sixes on a upstroke, he ensures that this final, most powerful note in the phrase, is executed with a downstroke. The bend also falls on the downbeat of the measure, and is backed up by a pair of unison stabs by drummer Bobby Rock and bassist T.J. Racer. As a result, the sixes section is both the rhythmic and melodic apex of the solo.

Phrase 4: Alien Blues

The fifth phrase is all about the blues — if we imagine that the blues originated on the bizarro anti-gravity world where Michael developed his extraterrestrial chops. The meat of the phrase is a lick that adds a particularly alien sound to the proceedings:


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The phrase begins with the effective application of a simple blues bend. It takes place in what is probably the most common location for such a bend — the second string:


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Specifically, Mike slides up the B string from third-fret box position to the 15th-fret box position, hits the bend, and slowly raises it to pitch over the course of approximately one searing measure. This episode is really the response to the three-fret bend at the end of the solo’s third phrase. Together, the two dramatic bends form a call and response which add some necessary space amid the furious bombardment of picked notes.

After the coffee break, we are immediately transported to E.T.’s home planet by way of an unusual two-string pattern:


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As a guitarist, your spider sense should immediately become active whenever something sounds too weird. In this case, your skepticism would be well rewarded. The secret to this lick is a clever gimmick that many players have employed: take a common picking pattern and apply it to an uncommon fingering. The picking pattern at work in this example is once again our friend the Paul Gilbert Lick. The difference is that it is applied to a wide freboard stretch that results in unison notes being sounded between the G and B strings:


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This is a great little trick which can be adapted to all sorts of fingerings and picking patterns. Michael himself does so with suitably alien results in the solo to the song Time Traveler, off his album Planet Gemini:


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Although it sounds pretty strange at first, all the Time traveler lick does is apply the now-familiar ascending sixes pattern (starting on an upstroke, of course) to a couple of wide stretches on adjacent strings. The width of the stretch produces the odd result that the first note on the E string is actually lower in pitch than the note that immediately precedes it on the B string. You might even think of it as an “alien unison” of sorts:


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At high speed, this creates a brief warble as the pattern moves from the lower string to the higher string. Switching from the ascending sixes picking pattern to the Paul Gilbert picking pattern midway through the lick milks the warble for all it’s worth:


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Similar weirdness can be had by taking this fingering pattern and creating other simple sequenced licks. For example, descending sixes produces some funky Atari-like noises:


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In the full Time Traveller lick, just be sure and watch the doubled note on the B string in measure 4 as the pattern switches from ascending sixes to Paul Gilbert — it’s necessary for the Paul Gilbert lick to start on a downstroke.

Finally, phrase number 5 wraps up with a brief Dorian scalar segment based upon the Paul Gilbert-like pick structure of the alien lick that preceded it:


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The string crossing involved in this section may feel awkward, but practice slowly and, whenever possible, check your playing with some sort of time-stretching tool to listen for errors.

Phrase 5: Jazzercize

The final scalar phrase of the solo employs a little chromaticism and a little arpeggiated sweeping, the overall effect of which is more jazz-like than metallic:


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The phrase begins by taking a blues-based Paul Gilbert picking pattern and moving it chromatically from the 15th to the 17th frets — in other words, up a whole step. If you’ve made it this far in the solo, this sort of motion should be no problem. It’s merely a matter of shifting up one fret with the left hand each time the pattern repeats:


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What follows is an ascending/descending dorian scale run that includes a swept major seventh arpeggio taken straight from the George Benson (or Joe Pass, or Django Reinhardt, or…) playbook:


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The decidedly bebop overtones of this particular lick aren’t entirely surprising, since Mike frequently cites the influence of 20th-century jazz greats on his playing. What is surprising is how well the lick fits into an over-the-top glam solo without sounding particularly out of context.

Phrase 6: Sweeping Beauty

Phrase 6 concludes the solo to Nitro’s Freight Train with a lick that is in every way as preposterous as the band itself. It’s one of the fastest examples of arpeggiated sweeping you’ll likely ever hear in a rock song — or any song, for that matter. The lick requires a full 24-fret neck to execute, but since my trusty Washburn N2 only has 22 frets, in the video to this lesson I’m fretting the highest notes on strings and air. This produces an approximate pitch which is acceptable under the cover of the backing tracks, but for the sake of clarity I’ll play it here two frets lower than written:


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This lick was actually profiled in the January 2005 issue of GuitarOne Magazine in their Return of the Shred column. GuitarOne is a decent magazine, not just for its generally pragmatic orientation (I believe their tag line is “The Magazine You Can Play”), but also for the copious tabs and slickly-produced multimedia CD they supply with each issue. All the more surprising, then, that they got the tab for Freight Train‘s climactic lick wrong:


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GuitarOne gave the lick a difficulty rating of 9.8 out of 10 — which the actual lick certainly is, but which the entry-level Yngwie pattern above is not. In the article, Mike describes the pattern as the “open A” shape, by which he actually meant the full open-string fingering of the A minor chord we all know and love:


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Translating this shape to a sweep pattern an octave up produces one of the most fundamental five-string arpeggio shapes in shred:


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The difference between the five-string shape and the three-string shape from the magazine transcription is significant. Although it’s only two strings bigger, it’s twice as many notes (12 vs. 6) and easily more than twice as difficult to play at the indicated tempo. Specifically, Freight Train chugs along at approximately 200 beats per minute, and the arpeggio pattern repeats approximately twice per measure. This makes it sixteenth-note triplets, which are 50% faster than sixteenth notes. In other words, this lick in sixteenth notes would be — drum roll please — 300 beats per minute.

Doh!

At this kind of truly insane tempo, economy picking really earns its name. The open-A shape is a highly optimized Formula 1 vehicle that only a shred guitarist could have devised. Ingeniously, the right hand plays 13 notes with only two pickstrokes: one up, and one down. Two legato notes are included in the passage as well, but the pick moves right through them:


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Ascending, the left hand pinky hammers the 15th fret of the A string. On the return trip, the left hand pinky pulls off from the 17th to the 12th fret of the E string. In both cases, the pick pauses briefly to let the legato action happen, but never actually rises above the strings. It accomplishes this by resting against the next string it is about to play without actually plucking it. When the legato passage finishes, the pick charges ahead again through the strings. This action of resting against a particular string is called, appropriately enough, a rest stroke, and is used heavily in many styles of picked acoustic guitar music.

There are a number of obstacles that make it tough to play this lick with clarity. One is your ring finger, which barres two strings in the middle of the arpeggio. Like sweep picking, a barre is a form of mechanical optimization that can promote speed. The down side is that both the middle and index fingers will also try to flatten out like barres when fretting the B and E strings. This creates both mechanical and aural slop. To avoid this, be sure to fret all notes precisely with your finger tips. This is not easy, particularly for the middle finger, which directly follows the barre. Starting slowly is the best way to build the dexterity.

Another enemy of clarity is harmonic noise. When you crank up the amp, any strings left open will produce stray harmonics that can totally ruin the sound of the arpeggio. This is particularly problematic when you play high up on the neck, where harmonic nodes are spaced closely together. There’s an unusually nasty node at the 19th fret which is almost impossible to avoid in the Freight Train lick. Even on my el-cheapo Washburn N2, which is a bolt-on neck, this particular note sustains forever:


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Not only that, but it rings across three whole frets — 18, 19, and 20:


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The solution to the problem is muting. Take a look again at the sweep section of the video clip, and you’ll notice that I’m using a different pick motion than I do for the scalar parts of the solo. This is an exact emulation of the sweep technique that Mike himself uses, and it is achieved by sliding the pick across the strings with the shoulder and forearm. This allows the heel of the palm to become a string dampener that closely trails the pick as it sweeps across the strings. During the ascending phase of the lick, the palm heel automatically deadens the low strings just after they’re played. During the descending phase of the lick, something else happens: the underside of the left hand’s fingers naturally damp the high strings just after they’ve been played. By combining these two muting techniques, only one or two strings are able to ring at any given moment.

The sliding mute technique is an effective way to combat string noise, but when you’re just starting out with arpeggios, you’ll make life easiest for yourself by practicing on parts of the neck where harmonic nodes don’t interfere. For the Freight Train lick, try the following variation:


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Whereas the original lick moves the pattern chromatically from the 17th to the 19th frets and back again, this variation goes from 16 through 14. There’s much less nodal interference on this part of the neck, and playing the lick here will also allow you to do so on Stratocaster-style guitars with only 21 frets.

Once you’ve got the basic open-A arpeggio shape under your fingers, you can begin to experiment. For example, combining Mike-style five-string sweeping with Yngwie-style three-string sweeping produces the following cool multi-octave arpeggio lick:


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You can also take certain liberties with muting to create special effects. For example, you can take the lick to warp speed by ditching the sliding mute technique and using a speedier wrist-based pick action:


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Here, I’m playing the shape at the 13th fret, which produces a Bb minor arpeggio. The 13th fret is a particularly nice place to practice the open A shape because almost none of the notes coincide with strong harmonic nodes. As a result, I can still achieve reasonable clarity with only “standard” palm muting and a more traditional wrist-based pick motion. This combination is lighter and faster than plowing vertically through the strings with the entire forearm. The left hand touch is equally light, which results in the slurring of certain notes. Depending on the effect you’re going for, this degree of slop may or may not be appropriate. In this case I find the sonic result pleasingly Atari-like.

Epilogue

It’s shocking to think that a song like Freight Train, which was created at the peak of the shred era, is now over 15 years old. Though Nitro’s AquaNet and Pleather fashion statement may place them firmly in the days of the Iran-Contra Affair and handbag-sized cell phones, Michael Angelo’s playing on the track is still state of the art. And therein lies the challenge for 21st-century guitar. Even if the clarity and precision of Mike’s playing cannot meaningfully be surpassed, it’s up to the current generation of players to understand why. Thanks to desktop multimedia and the vast reach of the internet, there are better tools for this quest in the hands of more players than ever before. With any luck, the next Michael Angelo will be a fifth-grader.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these insights as much as I’ve enjoyed putting them together. Thanks again to Joel Wanasek for having me. If your metronome and your wrists haven’t mounted a mutiny yet, feel free to head on over to my site for a monthly dose of similarly detailed lessons, audio, and video. Also check out my documentary movie project, Cracking the Code: The Secrets of Shred Guitar, which will attempt push humanity that much closer to a true understanding of “insane” guitar.

Thanks!

Troy

Troy Grady

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