7 Elements of Neoclassical Guitar Playing

Let’s talk about 7 different areas of neoclassical guitar playing, that you can study to improve your skill, musicianship and creativity.

Neoclassical guitar is great fun to play. When most people think of neoclassical style, they’re probably thinking of guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Romeo or others. For a lot of people, neoclassical guitar playing is all about having blazing fast technique. While that is cool, there is a lot more to the genre than just how many notes you can play.

What does it take to play neoclassical guitar? Or write neoclassical songs in that style? 

Today we’ll take a look at 7 different elements of playing in a neoclassical style, some of which are widely used and some which have not been musically explored.

1) Develop Great Guitar Technique

Having well developed technique is vital. One of the hallmarks of neoclassical style is the impressive speed guitarists can play at. In order to play neoclassical metal, you need to be able to play through scales at high speed (3 note per string scales are good for this). This involves training your technique and developing your scale knowledge. Developing your picking technique to the level required can take years, so you had better get busy practising!

Neoclassical guitar solos often involve sweep picked arpeggios, so you’ll also want to develop your sweep picking skills. Many guitarists find sweep picking very challenging to learn at first, but once you develop the skill, it will stick for life. When working on sweep picking, it’s important to make sure your sweep picking sounds musical, and not just some hashed together arpeggios.

An additional benefit to learning sweep picking is that it can help your linear picking skills. The method by which you sweep pick will also help you smoothly transition between strings when using linear picking.

Some guitar players also like to use tapping in their neoclassical guitar solos. This technique is not ‘mandatory’ for learning to play in a neoclassical style, but it gives you a lot more options. 

Examples of using tapping in a neoclassical style are adding an additional note to the top of a sweep picked arpeggio. Possibly the greatest example of tapping in a neoclassical style is Eruption by Eddie Van Halen.

A benefit of tapping is that you can get a great legato across a large pitch range, keeping the sound consistent on a single string.

The best way to develop these techniques in your playing is very similar to how you increase your strength when working out – progressive overload. 

Start out with very simple exercises that gradually build up in complexity.

You will also need a serious approach to how you practice guitar, as developing these techniques to a high skill level takes methodical and dedicated practice. 

If you want to learn how to improve your guitar practice so that you can develop your skills better, then check out the free eBook on over 40 ways you can improve your guitar practice.

It’s worth noting that playing neoclassical guitar doesn’t equate to “only use triplet sixteenths”. Speed is just one element of music, and should always serve a purpose to your guitar playing, enhancing what you are playing. You do not want to play fast for the sake of it. Writing a guitar part that is just endless 16ths or a bunch of sweep picked arpeggios isn’t difficult, you always want speed and technique to serve your melody, and not to have your melody as an excuse to sweep pick.

2) Developing Your Note Ornamentation

When an intermediate level guitarist is working on improvising, ornamentation is an often overlooked area. And it is vital to developing a great neoclassical style on guitar.

What do we mean by ornamentation?

Ornamentation is your use of vibrato, string bending (and pre-bending) and slides. This would also include your whammy bar, for players that have one.

If you are wondering how developed your ornamentation skills are, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you accurately bend a string a semi-tone higher, several times in a row?
  • Can you do a whole tone pre-bend accurately?
  • Do you feel completely in control of pitch and timing when you use vibrato, or is it random string bends?
  • Is your vibrato consistent and smooth, or does it sound like someone is playing with your tuning pegs?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, then you know you have some weak points in your playing that could do with some work. To fix them, find training programs that develop these techniques gradually, one element at a time (if you are interested in such a program, leave a comment below).

Incorporating these techniques into neoclassical playing can be tricky and requires a lot of precision, with pitch and timing. Practising these techniques should be done intentionally and again, with progressive exercises. Develop your technical skill and then work on integrating these ideas into licks and solos of your own. Once you master the basics of each technique, and build up to combining them together in progressively more complex combinations. 

You will find that using these techniques will add another dimension to your playing that you, and any future listeners, will really enjoy.

3) Develop a Great Understanding of Music Theory

Developing a solid technique is a fundamental part of this style. However, once you’ve developed your technique to a high level, what do you do next?

If you are interested in writing your own solos or writing your own songs, then you are going to require a good understanding of music theory.

You technique will enable you to play fast, and understanding music theory and how it applies to the guitar will enable you to choose great notes to play.

After all, what’s the point in being able to play over 16 notes per second, if you are choosing notes that sound awful?

Ideally, you will develop your understanding of music theory in parallel to developing your technique. 

Understanding music theory for guitar will allow you to:

  1. Look at a chord and understand how arpeggios and scales relate to that chord.
  2. Once you know what chords and scales you can use, you will understand how to apply them on the guitar.
  3. Never run out of ideas or face “writers block”.
  4. Sit down and freely compose with paper and pencil.

Learning music theory means an end to jamming about hoping you “get lucky” finding notes that fit. It means you don’t have to rely on “divine inspiration” in order to write music. Learning music theory means you understand how music works on a fundamental level and gives you creative freedom to compose all day.

Once you understand music theory, the only limit to your creativity is the amount of time you have!

Music theory, for our purposes, can be roughly broken down into general music theory (melody, harmony, form, orchestration), and specifically for guitar can be broken down into the practical fretboard knowledge side, understanding chord shapes and scales. Studying counterpoint can also be a great way to develop your theory knowledge.

Neoclassical chord progressions can involve a lot of chromaticism, so understanding the chord-scale relationships with complex harmony is very important to getting your solos sounding good! There are also some great sounding neoclassical scales for guitar you can check out to add some spice to your composition and playing.

4) Learning to Write Neoclassical Chord Progressions

This is an aspect of neoclassical guitar playing that a lot of modern players tend to overlook, and really it falls under the above idea of developing your music theory skills.

Rock harmony tends to revolve primarily around the chords I – V, or i – V. Chord progressions tend to fall in two categories:

  • I – IV -V progressions (or i – iv – v in minor).
  • Moving between adjacent chords. Think back to some of your favourite power chord riffs, and you probably find the power chords move up and down by a fret or two at time.

This isn’t to say that you can’t write a great song using the above ideas, or that you can’t use the above ideas to write in a neoclassical style. However, when writing music, we can use chord progressions that revolve around what is known as “common practice” harmony. This was a set of harmonic rules used in the common practice period, roughly 1650 – 1900. 

A simple start involves using The V or V7 in minor key. For example, you could take the following rock chord progression:

          i - iv  - v
A minor: Am - Dm  - Em

And change the v to V7 to create:

          i - iv - V7
A minor: Am - Dm - E7

And you will get much more of a neoclassical feel from it. This chord progression would lend itself to the harmonic minor scale, which is a very typical neoclassical scale. 

There are huge categories of chords that we can look at incorporating into our music:

  • Incomplete 7th chords
  • Secondary dominants
  • Secondary diminished chords
  • Neopolitan chords
  • The piccardy third
  • Augmented sixth chords
  • Intermediary modulation
  • 6/4 chords
  • Borrowed chords
  • Variant quality chords
  • Linear diminished 7ths
  • Third relation
  • The omnibus

And more! We can look at chord tone resolution and strict 4 part writing (4 part writing is great if you are wanted to add orchestral elements to your music!)

There is a lot, lot more to this topic – whole text books have been written about it. Harmony by Walter Piston is a good textbook for giving an overview of this topic. 

Using these chords and styles of writing will add an enormous depth and colour to your music that is rarely seen in modern guitar composition.

5) Neoclassical Style Arrangement

The final major part of neoclassical style is the arrangement. When talking about arrangement in a songwriting context, we’re thinking about how different instruments are being used. 

A typical arrangement would be something like drums, guitar(s), bass, vocals and keyboards. Guitars playing a riff of some kind, bass playing the root note and counting eighth notes, keyboards playing a sustained strings patch much towards the top of the pitch spectrum. 

A great way to learn how to do this is to listen to some of your favourite neoclassical style songs. Analyse the songs from a songwriting perspective. Listen to the song several times in a row, listening specifically to a different instrument each time you listen.

Here are some questions you can use to help you start to develop critical thinking skills with songwriting analysis:

  • How is a particular instrument being used?
  • What is it doing?
  • What type of rhythm is it using?
  • What is it doing compared to the other instruments?

When doing this, listen to a song, listening to a particular instrument all the way through. You will probably hear the song in a new way!

As an example, let’s think of some questions we could use specifically for thinking about rhythm guitar in a song:

  • Is the rhythm guitar playing open chords, power chords, or a single note rhythm?
  • Why is it doing that?
  • Are there places with no rhythm guitar?
  • What is the rhythm guitar doing during the guitar solo?
  • What is the rhythm guitar doing during the vocals?

You will find that by listening with a focus on a certain instrument, with a pencil and paper there is an enormous amount you can learn from your favourite songs. 

6) Dynamics and Rubato

Let’s start with defining these terms. Dynamics refers to a change in loudness. Rubato is a slowing down of tempo. Both of these techniques are widely used in classical music, but not so much in rock / metal, or the neoclassical side of metal music.

Dynamic shifts in rock / metal tend to be quite dramatic, for example, shifting from a full band arrangement to a clean guitar by itself. In general, dynamic shifts are typically created by changing the instrumentation. However, in classical music, dynamic shifts would be created on individual instruments, whether they are solo or in an ensemble/orchestra.

In a rock / metal context, this is harder to do, especially due to overdrive and distortion which compresses the guitar sound. A compressed sound has the dynamics evened out or even removed from it. 

However, when using a clean guitar sound or an acoustic guitar, creating natural dynamics across the line you are playing can be done. Again, this tends to be heard more in classical guitar than rock / metal / neoclassical, but it’s an area that could be explored. 

A simple way to start exploring dynamics is to take a simple chord progression and strum it, gradually getting louder. You may find it quite tricky to stay in time at first, so make sure you use a metronome. Then try the same chord progression, gradually getting softer. Then try getting louder / softer with a picking exercise.

Dynamics are utilised most frequently when ending a song, and they are done in the studio – I’m sure you’ve heard a song with a fade out more than a few times! This is a classic modern use of dynamics, albeit at the studio level rather than at a musician level.

Rubato is a fun technique that you do hear a lot in rock  / metal and neoclassical playing. Rubato is a gradual slowing down. If you watch bands play live, they often use a lot of rubato when ending songs. 

However, in a rock / metal context, you rarely hear rubato at any other point in a song. If you listen to the work of Liszt, you can hear a heavy use of rubato. A lot of classical musicians use rubato heavily in solo pieces, throughout the piece, especially at cadential points in phrases. Using it this way in neoclassical music would require a very tight band – you’re all going to have to get a lot of practice at this!

Using programmed click tracks with tempo automation like you can create in Logic Pro would be a good way to practice this, as it keeps the rubato consistent for everyone.

7) Thinking About Lines When Composing / Improvising 

Often, when it comes to writing solos or improvising (improvising being ‘on the spot’ composition), guitar players tend to think in terms of scale shapes, arpeggio shapes, patterns and boxes. 

Now, while this is the correct way to think about scales on guitar, it’s only one way to think about writing melodies. 

Classical composers would think about the melodic line (or simply put the melody) of what they are playing. They would consider the movement of the melody across the pitch range and the movement from chord tones to non-harmonic tones and back. Scale patterns and shapes would be used to figure out how to play a certain melody.

Learning how to write good melodies, creatively using rhythm and non-harmonic tones will make an enormous difference to your playing, because your note choices will be a lot more creative than someone who is playing scale patterns by trial and error. It will also help you overcome any possible writers block, because you will always be able to sit down with a paper and pencil and write something.

The biggest benefit from thinking in terms of lines and writing melodies, is that you can think purely about the melody, which is very helpful in thinking of ways to refine or edit the melody. When you have a melody written out (whether on paper, Logic Pro, Guitar Pro or whatever), it is easy to intellectually consider the possible ways you can edit or transform it, then trying out possibilities on guitar afterwards.

Yngwie Malmsteen, the king of neoclassical playing, recently talked about this on Facebook, stating that he tends to think about melodies more in terms of lines rather than scale patterns:

The way I approach guitar playing and composing is more like a classical violinist would rather more than a rock/blues guitarist would. It’s a much more linear way playing rather than a box pattern. I’m not knocking anybody of course, I’m just illustrating the difference in my philosophy.

Yngwie Malmsteen

You’ll find that if you study melody writing and start to thinking about it like this, you will unlock a huge world of creativity.

Conclusion

Covering all the above in points in detail is enough material to keep any student busy for a few years. If this is a style you are wanting to learn, you will have to develop a productive practice environment and ensure that you are practising guitar as effectively as possible. Check out this free eBook on ways you can practice guitar more effectively

Which of the above topics are you most interested in studying? Leave a comment below and let me know what you want to learn. 

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