Eddie Van Halen reinvigorated ’80s rock guitar with a double shot of blazing energy and subversive creativity. In the process, he kickstarted a kind of breathless arms race in guitar technique — a promise of stardom via innovation — that was sometimes a little like a Silicon Valley guitar bubble. But out of the melee of technical competition, something ironically straightforward actually happened: we all got better.
A particularly stunning product of the generational advance of musical technology is fusion virtuoso, and Cracking the Code viewer, Derryl Gabel. The archetypal modern lead player, his total command of the guitar’s many colors is both highly enjoyable as a listener and terribly scary as a fellow player. Derryl employs his seemingly effortless dominance of the instrument’s physical mechanics, both left hand and right, in service of an encyclopedic and endlessly tasteful command of modern jazz and fusion harmony. His blazing speed and tasty phrases have won a number of celebrity admirers, from George Lynch to Dweezil Zappa — with whom he’s set to release an album later this year.
When Derryl sent us a note saying he watched the show, we wasted no time in peppering him with questions about the development of his space-age array of fretboard superpowers. In the process, we also requested a peek behind the technical curtain, and boy did we get it. Derryl graciously forwarded not one, but two awesome technical tutorials — one mechanical, and one harmonic.
Check the sidebar for a head-spinning breakdown of the fantastic outside flavors in Derryl’s solo on David Wallimann’s “Forty Year Journey”. And once you can stop yourself from hitting “replay” on the SoundCloud player, see below for a demonstration of some very clever sweep pentatonic fretboard shapes in an excerpt from Derryl’s instructional DVD, SuperSonic Sweeping. Derryl graciously provided complete tab for both of these lessons, and the “Forty Year” transcription even includes backing tracks. Amazing. I’m waiting for the next rainy day to dig into some of those tasty legato lines.
For more examples of Derryl’s exceptionally clear pedagogical approach, his Ultimate Virtuosity collection offers a staggering array of immediately useful stuff. I’ve only just begun to dig into this and I’m trying not to get too sidetracked because I know we have episodes to produce.
In the mean time, Derryl was expansive in his response to our questions, and that very fun read appears below. It’s surprising that someone with a daunting command of jazz grew up listening to much of the same music we feature in Cracking the Code. And it’s encouraging to rock players who’ve ever had a passing interest in broaching other styles.
We’d like to thank Derryl for sharing his thoughts on music with us, and look forward to more staggering playing from him in the future.
How did you find your way to guitar? What was your progress as a player like in the early stages?
My dad gave me a red cedar acoustic guitar on my eighth birthday, that he told me later he found in the dumpster near our house. At the time I really wasn’t interested. He thought I would be only because I was always listening and singing along to his albums. When I was 10 he bought me a Casio VL-Tone — it only allowed for single note playing but you could sequence on it, and it had a tempo adjustment so when I got into Van Halen I started creating my own solos on the keyboard and then I could play it back at faster tempos.
I got the guitar out of the attic when I was about 13, but that didn’t last long because the bridge came unglued. My next door neighbor ended up selling me his mini nylon string acoustic. I got a hold of a mic and put that in the guitar and would plug it up to the stereo system. Later my dad bought me a Peavy Backstage amp and I would plug it into that. I would also mic up the Casio and play it through the Peavy and use my tape recorder to tape all these solos I was creating. I would compose these cool solos on the keyboard and then try to learn them on the guitar. I played that guitar until the bridge came unglued and then saved up for an electric that my mom helped me buy when I was 15. In the early stages I was just playing melodies on a single string.
I think when I was 14 one of my friends showed me the power chord and I started figuring out songs. I think I discovered Van Halen when I was around 13 — a friend played Van Halen’s first album, and it kind of scared me. Later, when I started seeing VH on MTV when the 1984 album came out I went and bought all their albums and I listened to VH all the time. I suppose when I was 15 I heard Yngwie. I was over at a friend’s house and he played me the intro to “Hot on your Heels” from the Steeler album. I was shocked! Then he played the Rising Force album, and I was hooked. When I was 16 I could roughly play some tracks off Rising Force like “Black Star”, “Far Beyond the Sun”, and “Icarus Dream Suite”.
Using an old TEAC reel-to-reel two-track recorder, I’d hold a mic up to the stereo system and record the tune and then play it back at half speed, then transfer it to cassette for stop and go playback. I also was getting into the players coming from the Shrapnel label like Vinnie Moore, Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouliett, Joey Tafolla, and probably my favorite at the time, Tony MacAlpine. And I was listening to Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Warren De Martini and George Lynch, figuring out solos of theirs here and there. Even though VH was my first guitar hero I never really figured out much of his stuff. By the time I had the chops to pull off one of his solos I was getting into the Shrapnel guys.
Did you work specifically on picking at a point in your playing career? What was your early experience like with alternate picking? Were there things you immediately had success with, and others things you did not?
I started getting into my picking technique more heavily after hearing Yngwie but there was no one to show me the “correct” way so I naturally used economy picking except when it was impossible I would naturally shift to alternate. I remember getting a call from a friend telling me to come over and check out the issue of Guitar Player magazine with Gambale on the front. He said, “check out his picking technique”. I’m like what’s so weird about that? That’s the way I thought everybody played. When you’re going in one direction using an odd number of notes you economy or sweep pick. When you are playing an even number of notes going in one direction you use alternate picking. Anyway, on the weekends my dad and I would rent movies and watch one right after the other. The whole time I would be doing different picking drills that I made up. During the summer I would stay home most of the time and play and practice guitar.
Did you ever specifically practice for speed? Metronomes, exercises, that sort of thing?
Yeah, I had to in order to play with the Shrapnel stuff. There was one guy that really inspired me and showed me a few things. His name is Victor Cross. He said “look Derryl, I’m just going to show you a one octave major and minor scale, and a one octave major and minor triad. The rest you are going to have to just watch me play and figure out on your own.” I guess this was around the time I was 15. He could play Van Halen, Rhoads, and Schon. He would write these really cool songs and would use cool voicings as opposed to what I saw other local rock players using. He would play add9s, and instead of power chords he would play major and minor 6s. He would do this with distortion.
We talk a lot about “edge picking” in Cracking the Code, which is the act of rotating the pick so that the edge slices across the string. It makes the pick slide more easily over the string, and of course it has a tonal effect as well. Do you have a particular edge picking amount that you like to use, and how did you develop that preference?
First, I was really impressed with how much work you put into the videos. Also, it was nostalgic for me to watch because it was almost like watching a movie about me in some ways. Then lastly you are sharing your research with the world which is commendable. You could have kept your findings to yourself but you were compelled to share what you discovered. That’s great! I remember in the early stages of playing, the older kids would not show me stuff because they saw how fast I was progressing I suppose. I didn’t like that too much. In my videos I don’t hold back. I show everything I can to help other players. Sure, I get paid but I have to support myself and my family. So I really could relate to what you were doing. In regards to your question, yes, I basically angle the pick the way you say to do it. It came naturally over time. I suppose my brain subconsciously was trying to figure out the path of least resistance. Although, when I’m picking an ascending scale my pick has a downward slant like you show in the video but when I descend there is an upward slant.
We’ve talked a little bit about your experience watching the show. Obviously, the big reveal of Season 2 as far as Yngwie’s technique is concerned is downward pickslanting. It seems to be something that many players do, often without necessarily realizing that they do so. Had you thought about this before, or used it in your playing, before seeing it in the show?
I’ve been using that ever since I could remember and didn’t really notice until I think it was when I was around 20 when my friend and guitar monster Derek Taylor pointed that out to me. He was having trouble picking so he watched closely what I was doing.
Because we didn’t have the internet in the ’80s, I feel like my experience as a player was pretty idiosyncratic. There were entire musical styles, players, and techniques I simply didn’t know about. It really all boiled down to what magazines you read or didn’t read, what friends you had or didn’t have and what they listened to. It’s kind hilarious in an old-fashioned romantic kind of way that I’m sure I will sit on the porch and tell stories about when I’m 85. Sweeping, for example. I simply just did not know how Yngwie was playing arpeggios until the early ’90s. Had I bought “Intense Rock” in High School, who knows how things might have turned out. When did you first experiment with sweeping, and how did you learn about it?
My friend Matt Vandel had all the instructional videos and took lessons from the top guitarist in town, Jerry Dawson. I forget when Matt started playing but when he was 14 he could play along with the Vinnie Moore album and Steve Vai solos. Anyway when I was 16 I would go over to Matt’s house and watch Yngwie live in Japan, Michael Angelo Batio instructional, Vinne Moore, etc… I think I saw the Gilbert Intense Rock when I was 18 or 19 though. That’s probably when I got serious about working with the metronome. I think I got sweeping down when I was 16. I remember I was at band rehearsal and we were taking a break. I was letting my mind wander day dreaming while I was doing that sweeping motion slowly on a two octave A minor arpeggio at the 12th fret and then I started doing it fast and I was like “Woah!!! Guys check this out!”
When I was 21 I won a contest held by GFTPM magazine to play on George Lynch’s track Tierra Del Fuego from the album Sacred Groove. George flew me out to LA and right when I walked in the door George was like “how do you do that man? Show me how you play those things that sound impossible?” When Warren Di Martini showed up to the listening party a few days later George played him my track that won and Warren was asking me the same thing. Here’s the original track with all my solos:
My solos are at:
Your sweep technique is super fluid, and your movements are super economical. How did you develop that?
I think it kind of came natural. I mean I wasn’t doing it immediately but it just happened like I described earlier. Once I had down the coordination I just started going off with it.
Yngwie pretty much only ever does ascending sweeping, and that’s mainly because of downward pickslanting. But if you watch someone like Frank Gambale sweep, the emphasis on two-way pickslanting is very apparent. Ascending (i.e. physically downward) sweeping is always downward pickslanting, and descending (i.e. physically upward) sweeping is always upward pickslanting. It’s partly a function of the picking dragging across the strings, and it’s totally natural in that respect. Is this something you ever specifically worked on?
That’s one of those things that just started happening in my playing through hours of picking drills watching TV. I had that down when I was 16.
Do you ever switch strings using alternate picking in the middle of a swept passage, or do you tend to add/remove notes on a per-string basis so that every string change can be swept?
Hmmm… I don’t know really. I just play what I hear in my head and my mind subconsciously tells me how to pick using the formula of when you go in one direction using an odd number of notes you economy or sweep pick. When you are playing an even number of notes going in one direction you use alternate picking. If you change direction you just go with whatever stroke you’re on. If I end with a down stroke I will have to jump over the string. If I end with an upstroke I economy pick.
I feel like the challenges of alternate picking are more athletic — getting over a string and getting to the next one. Whereas I feel like the challenge of sweeping is fluidity — making sure the rhythm is even. How did you approach the challenge of playing smoothly while sweeping?
Playing with a metronome and backing tracks. Lots of drills while watching TV : )
All my High School friends listened to Depeche Mode, the Cure, and the Beastie Boys. Maybe the Dead Milkmen once in a while. I was the only one listening to hair bands. And nobody was listening to any kind of jazz. How did you get interested in fusion?
When I would read interviews of my favorite players they would always point to the fusion guys as the best or what they listened to. Van Halen would say “Holdsworth”. MacAlpine would say “Henderson and Scofield”. I’m like if these guys are saying that these fusion dudes are the best I have to check them out. The first time I heard Allan was from a sound page in Guitar Player Magazine with Steve Vai on the cover. It was “Devil Take the Hindmost”. I heard that and I was like “What? I don’t get it.” The notes sounded weird and he wasn’t playing super fast. It wasn’t until a few years later that I had the epiphany. I recall going into the music store where I taught and I saw this guy playing jazz on a nylon string. I’m like “Man, you gotta teach me.” His name was Rich Medel. He taught me for about 2 years. He mainly taught me chords and chord melody, how to analyze standards for improvisation, and he figured out how to take every inversion of the 7th arpeggios and use Gambale’s sweeping system so he showed me that.
Afterwards I figured out how to sweep sequence different rhythmic groupings of the arpgeggios and I showed him that. I also showed him the 313 stuff. Anyway, Rich told me to go buy a Charlie Parker album. At the time I was 19 or 20 I think and I was into Becker and Friedman. I got the Best of Bird and didn’t really like it. I was expecting to hear Jason Becker on the sax kind of thing. I wasn’t ready for it yet. Then, a year later I met this old guy where I worked and he let me borrow some Parker and Coltrane albums. I would record them onto cassette but not listen as I was recording. I had the volume turned down. Later I went back and listened to “The Essential Charlie Parker”. I thought the recording sounded too dry and I ran it through my Yamaha FX900 processor and added some reverb.
Then I sat back in awe and dumfounded. Talk about awesome, that was the most melodic, rhythmic, beautiful soloing that I had ever heard. I was just in utter amazement. I was thinking why didn’t I “hear” this before. After that I listened to that and Coltrane, which sounded a little stiff, for a long time. I preferred Cannonball over Coltrane. I bought an album with Cannonball and Coltrane ( I think that was the name of the album) and I always preferred Cannonball. His phrasing and vibrato had more feel. He was like the extension of Parker to me.
So, a little later on I listened to Holdsworth and then went out and bought every album of his. A little after that I met a guy and now long time friend Robert Rainey who turned me onto Tribal Tech and Scott Henderson. At first I didn’t take to Scott. He sounded dated to me. I remember trading Rob Tribal Tech’s Nomad for Holdsworth’s Sand album. After about a year or so I was constantly listening to Scott and Tribal Tech. Still one of my favorite players. I also got into Pat Metheny. I would say out of all the players I have more of a connection with Pat Metheny. His music hits me on a spiritual level. Although I’ve probably studied Allan the most because I was trying to figure out where he gets his note choice and uncommon chords. He was always a Rubik’s cube and I’m trying to crack his code.
BTW, I also have to include Greg Howe. I’ve always been a fan of Greg’s and have worn his albums out. Greg could do something and I would be like “how in the world did he do that????” Not to mention his feel, phrasing, and timing is tremendous.
I think part of the intrigue of the Holdsworth sound, and the sound of the players he inspired, is the challenging harmonies involved. If you grew up listening purely to mainstream rock records, it can be a pretty daunting listen at first. How did you learn to approach that kind of harmony?
I suppose being around Rich Medel and then having the epiphany with Parker kind of “tuned my ear” into those harmonies. It’s an acquired taste. You know when you’re little and you don’t like certain foods. Maybe they made you gag but when you got older you love them.
Did you ever study more traditional jazz styles, like bop, modal/quartal, and so on
I first started my studies with Rich Medel and then later I just went on my own studying books, more instructional videos, learning solos, etc…
When did you first start developing Holdsworth-style legato technique?
I suppose it started after I met Derek Taylor. He wasn’t playing Holdsworth but his legato at the time was more developed than mine. While I was working 5 days a week outside working on sprinkler systems, Derek was practicing for an insane amount of hours at home. He worked part time at his parent’s theater but he would just load the projector and sit in the booth and practice his guitar during the movie. I was introduced to Derek by John Stix the editor of GFTPM in around 1990. I sent him my tape to be in the Resume column and he said I sounded similar to Derek and gave me his contact info. Derek and I became best friends. He came to stay with me for 2 weeks. After seeing him play I’m like, if I want to play like that I’m going to have to practice hard and even when I don’t feel like it. I’m going to have to do some ‘boot camp’ training and train like Rocky. From that time on I worked really hard on my technique. I would come home exhausted from work and then practice for 4 to 6 hours. On the weekends I would practice 8 to 12 hours.
What was the most challenging aspect of developing your legato technique?
Getting the sub divisions even and the accents in the right places.
Your fretting hand is also super economical. Did you specifically work on keeping movements small and near to the fretboard?
Yes, but not overtly. I knew, the further I take my hand of the fretboard, the further I was going to have to travel to get back.
How did you minimize the “flying pinky” syndrome. Was that ever a challenge for you?
I think, playing along with the Shrapnel guys and practicing those solos it was something that I think my brain worked out subconsciously. In order to play that fast you have play efficiently. So when you play something a gazillion times your brain figures out a way to do it on a subconscious level even if you are not consciously aware of it.
Do you use pulloffs, or are you shooting for the “hammer-only” sound?
I use both and I use what some players call “hammers from nowhere”. This is where you use a hammer-on on a string that you haven’t picked.
Example, if you were to play a G major triad using the A and D string. Use your first finger on the B note, 9th fret of the D string and pick that note. Next hammer on the D note at the 12 fret with your fourth finger and then follow that with a hammer on the the A string on the G note, 10th fret with your middle. That’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s my opinion that the myth of Allan only using all hammer-ons is just that. A myth. I think he does use pull-offs but they are subtle like what Brett Garsed talks about in his Rock Fusion video. They are not very hard pull-offs . It’s almost what you might call a “lift-off” and in some cases that might be what he plays. I know I do.
When you’re playing legato lines, do you have a specific strategy for when you pick versus when you don’t?
Maybe in the beginning I did but now I’ve been playing for so long that I don’t have to think about it. It’s like speaking. You don’t think about when you are using figures of speech or when you are using an adverb or an adjective. You just speak.
How do you go about minimizing the pick attack in legato sequences, so that it blends better with the actual legato notes? Do you ever use fingers for this instead of the pick?
Train yourself not to pick so hard. I always say this. The lighter the strings and the lower the action, the lighter you must play to get a good tone. The heavier the strings and higher the action, the harder you can play. Look at Holdsworth versus Martino. As far as hybrid picking I only use it when I find that it’s too difficult to maneuver or it just makes more sense to do it that way rather than practicing for an insane amount of hours.
Do you use a hair scrunchie or other kind of string dampener for muting? What generally is your muting strategy?
I use Gambale’s strategy for muting. He’s had a big impact on my playing too. I highly recommend all his instructional material. Anyway, Gambale showed me via his videos how to use both hands for muting for example. If you were playing the A string, use the tip of your index to mute the low E and the underside of your index to mute the other strings. If you are playing the B string, use the tip of your index to mute the G and the underside of your index to mute the high E. Use your pick hand’s palm to mute the Low E, A, and D. The scrunchie I use is for when I do tapping stuff that would be impossible to mute. Most of the tapping stuff I do I can mute without a scrunchie but when I start doing stuff like the opening arpeggio sequences for Outside Secrets 2 I have to use it.
I’ve seen you cover Holdsworth tunes note for note. In fact, at first I thought there was some kind of feedback in your recording chain. Then I realized the slight echo was the original recording playing behind you. Amazing! When you do that, are you actively attempting to use the same fingerings that he’s using, or are you simply playing his lines using your own shapes
I watched his video very closely and slowed it down to get his fingerings. I wanted to play it exactly the way he does or as close as possible.
When you’re playing through changes, do you have certain fretboard areas or chord shapes that you prefer? How did you develop those preferences?
I would take a standard and break the guitar down into seven parts as opposed to the 5 part CAGED system. I would practice improvising in each of those seven parts until I had mastered each area. Then I would break the guitar into 5 parts and play just the best pentatonics for each chord or each progression depending on how fast the changes are going by.
That’s the short version.
Are you constantly building out that fretboard map? And how do you approach that?
I have exercises I do to help me see the map as it were. I talk about these in my FIT video. I use a 12 key study, 3, 4, and 5 note per string ( 5 notes would be 3 from my left and my 2 tapping fingers on the right ), zigzaging, vertical shifting, and 2 diagonals to get it in my minds eye.
When I interviewed Mike Stern, he spoke a lot about transcribing ideas from players on other instruments like horn players and piano players. He played a tremolo lick that he stole from Jimmy Smith on organ. Of course they all end up sounding like Stern when he’s done with them. Do you ever transcribe lines from other instruments?
Yeah, mainly sax players like Parker, Coltrane, Cannonball, and Brecker.
Now that your technique is pretty well-rounded, what kinds of things do you work on when you sit down to practice? Is it technique practice, or is it all creative and compositionally oriented at this point?
Mainly just trying to know my instrument better. I’ve mainly been an “ear” player. In other words, for the longest time when I would play over a standard I would just think about the key centers and not each chord individually. I would let my ear tell me what notes to land on and emphasize. Now, I’m training myself much more like a horn player would. For instance, I’ll take a standard and play just the chord tones in eighth notes. Then I might just play the root over every chord, then just the third, then the 5th then the 7th, then the 9th. etc… Then I might enclose the third. I might start the motif with the 2nd and then the 4th and end on the third. Or the #9 to the 4th and then the third. I will play just a half step above or below a target note and then slide into the note. I have to thank Tom Quayle for this. Watching him play and progress over the years inspired me to do this (or lit a fire under my butt). Thanks Tom! I knew for me to take my playing and ear to the next level from a harmonic sense that I needed to do this. I’ve known about these approaches for years but was too lazy to make myself do it. I can’t play as fast as I used to but I know how to get those chops back. They’re still there I just have dust them off and sharpen the blade.
So I’ll do stuff like that or work on chord scale comping which I need to be more consistent with. I’ll reharmonize and make an arrangement of a standard. The last thing I was going to work on was transcribing a Tribal Tech tune. I was going to transcribe the bass, rhythm, and lead guitar for Mango Prom but then I decided to put that on the back burner and put out some more DVDs before I go broke.
Is there a Derryl Gabel sound, and how would you describe it? What are you shooting for stylistically in your ideal song or solo
I want to connect with the listener in a spiritual way. I want them to feel what I’m feeling. I think this can be done. I know this can be done. I suppose the most unique thing that I’ve brought to the table is different ways of doing stuff that I learned from other players. For instance, the 313 that I learned from Gambale and totally did new and different stuff with like Heptatonics or legato 313313 pentatonics. When Derek showed me the two finger tapping technique he was only doing it to extend an arpeggio line on the high E. I was like, I gotta do that on every string with scales, pentatonics, and arpeggios. With Allan I have come up with my own Allan-sounding things, but they are mine. I showed one to Dweezil and now that’s part of his lick bag. I’ve also discovered ways of sweep sequencing that is different than what Gambale does. Or tapping on adjacent strings doing different consecutive intervals like fourths and fifths (like the arpeggio sequences in the beginning of OS2).
You know, another player that had an impact on me is Marshall Harrison. A friend of mine sent me a video of him in 1999 I think it was. Back in ’93 I started working on playing three and a half octave pentatonic scales, 3 notes per string, straight up and back down using all strings, at super high speeds. After a while of practicing I gave up because my eyes were crossing. I figured that it was most likely just not possible and I had the 313313 anyway. In ‘99 I saw Marshall doing this in the video and then I knew it was humanly possible. I started working on it again and had it down in about a month. I invited Marshall over and was really impressed with his technique. He came over again in 2002. He’s about 6 or 7 hours away.
So I guess my sound is an amalgamation of all my influences and experiences over the years. I’ve figured out my own ways of doing things based on what I learned from my favorite players, and I think more conceptually than lick-based. I suppose I have a vocabulary of licks and or lines, but it’s not in a sense that I have to play the same lick or line every day to maintain this in my memory. All I have to think about is the concept, and it’s the framework in which I weave my melodies and speak.