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Shawn Lane: So What?

By October 9, 2006 March 6th, 2018 Lessons

Centrifugal Funk was supposed to be just another one of those guitar compilations.  Released by shred pornographer Mark Varney in 1991, it featured a trio of hired guns laying down silicone-enhanced solos over processed covers of trad jazz tunes.  This was the era of Nirvana and Pantera, and the infomercially polished karaoke numbers on the disc were already dead on arrival.   But the formidable talents of the help bordered on necromancy.

The sorcerers in question were Frank Gambale, Brett Garsed, and Shawn Lane. Frank’s stature as a fusion soloist was and is well known, and despite his brief tenure in Nelson, so was Brett Garsed’s. Shawn Lane on the other hand was a relative unknown, this being a year before his seminal solo album Powers of Ten was released. All three turned in blistering performances on short notice, and in the process turned Centrifugal Funk from a corpse into a vampire.

Despite his performance on Centrifugal, the success of Powers of Ten, and a pair of top-selling instructional videos, Shawn’s increasingly obscure musical explorations and imminent physical decline ultimately sealed his fate as a player more influential than famous. Ironically, this leaves the blatantly cheesy Centrifugal Funk among the more influential examples of his output.

I understand that Shawn didn’t particularly enjoy the Centrifugal sessions nor favor their endproduct. And if he considered Powers of Ten the true expression of his art, then it’s easy to see why — the songs on that disc were, for lack of a better word, much more composed than his unrestrained shredding on Centrifugal. All the more reason, then, to marvel at the melodic forethought and supreme rhythmic awareness he exudes amidst the athleticism. Hey Tee Bone and Splatch are the most physical of those efforts, but they ramble. If you’re interested in seeing how much weight the man could bench, check out those tunes first. But a more satisfying testament to Shawn’s simultaneously muscular and musical mastery, and the one I’ve chosen for the lesson, is his solo on the Miles Davis cover So What.

I don’t know if Shawn was given time to review the song structure before the record button was pressed, and I don’t know if this was the first take or the tenth. The progression from A dorian to Bb dorian is transposed from the D dorian – Eb dorian of the Davis original — or perhaps intentionally modulated, since D dorian is relative to A natural minor anyway — but the unusual 32-bar structure remains intact and is widely covered in jazz circles. In any event, the abundance of signature Lane licks on So What suggests that it was mostly improvised. Despite this, the solo displays an engaging and intelligent dramatic flow. It begins with a legato scalar salute, and hustles through a series of licks which are by turns searing and space-age. Along the way, Shawn’s anticipation of the song’s occasional modulation is preternatural, frequently occuring at top speed and mid-sentence. In addition, the greasy blues riffing on this song is hermetically tight, and totally original. If you feel as though you’ve exhausted, or god forbid mastered, that humble box-position scale, Shawn’s creativity here will remind you that five tones are only two fewer than seven.

From a technical perspective, the So What solo includes archetypal examples of techniques that only Shawn used. Although much of Shawn’s playing on Centrifugal Funk is so fast as to be sonically indecipherable, when the licks are broken down, we discover the freakish cleanliness with which he executed his vast repertoire of legato, picked, and chicken-picked stunners.

All of this makes So What a superb vehicle for an excursion into the fascinating world of the enigmatic child prodigy. The accompanying tab is perhaps most interesting from sections 15 through 22. This physically unrelenting passage was transcribed with painstaking care using multiple audio and video references. Be sure and pay close attention to the pick instructions indicated below the staff (“u” for up, and “d” for down), as many of these phrases can only be reproduced confidently exactly as notated.

Lesson: Shawn Lane’s Legato Innovations

Top Comments

  1. Amazing post, thank you so much!

    How long did it take to transcribe those licks?!?

  2. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    Forever! Months I think - we’re going back a ways but that’s what I recall. I also recall, and I think I noted this in the accompanying article, that I spent a particular chunk of time on sections 15 through 22, cross-comparing with various sources where he may have played the same or similar lines. Of the various longer sections involving the “signature” hybrid type stuff, this is one where I’m reasonably confident in the accuracy.

    In general I haven’t looked at this in a long time until we dug up the old screen shots today. But doing so reminded me how much I really did not love doing this! Spending a lot of effort to learn and memorize every last tick of someone else’s musical vocabulary on something this long feels a little like trying to be Elvis impersonator - the result is similar enough to recognize but almost always worse than the original. And let’s be honest that’s the case here. Many props to those who enjoy learning solo covers and can pull them off with aplomb - that’s a ton of work.

    It’s unlikely I’ll do more complete play-through stuff like this, and I’m not interested in exhuming the videos from the original post and putting them up - I just don’t like them enough. However I’m sure we’ll do more Shawn Lane material in our current style at some point down the line. But for the mean time, picking and choosing a couple of these licks and then writing your own phrases in your own style, lots of value there. Easter egg: Eric Johnson actually plays m.22 somewhere on the Austin City Limits '88 show. See if you can find it the next time you watch it!

  3. @Troy now I remember you saying for the most part Shawn was a one way downward pickslanter with obvious exceptions for chicken picking and the hammer ons from nowhere giving more options, however one of the examples you give is a three note per string line that ascends and descends with pure alternate picking. Wouldn’t this not be possible in Shawn’s playing without switching to 2wps?

  4. This is a question I’ve often asked myself when trying to learn someone else’s solos. At what point is it ‘good’ to really try to nail their approach vs trying to adapt it to the way you naturally play. I guess there’s some argument to be made that your style of playing is largely a result of your personal idiosyncrasies. I remember Marty Friedman saying that you should always try to make something your own rather than just copying it verbatim which sure seemed to work for him anyway :slight_smile:

  5. This was a fun post, and a great look into the CtC past! I’ll have a try and some of these licks when I’m less exhausted. Shawn really loved the ‘Cliffs of Dover’ lick didn’t he?

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