Interview with Greg Hagan on Becoming a Better Guitarist, PT 1

electric20guitarThe main guitarist for our upcoming Risen album (due out in mid-March) was Greg Hagan. Greg lives in Nashville and when he’s not playing in the studio also tours and has had years of experience leading congregational worship in his local church. I appreciated his work ethic, his knowledge of chord voicings, his proficiency in different styles, and his sense of melody. But he’s not only a versatile and phenomenal player. He’s a humble man and was an absolute joy to work with.

I also learned that Greg had attended a GLAD concert when he was a teenager that helped open his eyes to the ways different kinds of music can be used to glorify God. What do you know…

In any case, I asked Greg if he could answer a few questions for guitar players. He got back to me with an email that was so long that I’m splitting it into two posts. Enjoy.

What would you recommend for guitarists to develop their timing?

1. Believe that you can play energetically and passionately while not rushing ahead. Understand that you need work on your time. You’re human and you play guitar; you are predisposed to error in this regard. Playing with great time should never make the song feel tired or “old”. Imagine what a drumline would sound like if some were rushing and some dragging. Your band will sound bigger if everyone plays together well.

2. Practice along with recordings and try to match the part and keep in time. Then record yourself in Garage Band playing that same part just to a click at about the same tempo as the recording. Keep working on it until it feels natural to play just to a click. Work on different types of songs at different tempos. Recording and evaluating is the best way to work on your time in the practice room.

3. Learn to adjust to the drummer. Understand that in a live situation the drummer needs to be trusted as much as possible with the tempo. Once everyone falls in to the groove, you need to stay with and follow the drummer’s tempo. The tempo may fluctuate during the song. This is normal and okay, just don’t freak out and break the moment if it means you have to re-tap your delays two or three times in the song. People won’t notice normal tempo fluctuations but they will notice if someone stands out by rushing terribly (acoustic guitar in particular) and they’ll notice people on stage getting tense if everything isn’t just right. Relax and groove. If you play acoustic guitar, you really need to make sure your strumming pattern very closely resembles the kick and snare pattern of the song and make it your goal to not get ahead of the drummer. Ease up on the intensity of your strumming and focus on groove.

What would you recommend for guitarists to develop their sense of melody?

1. Know your major, minor, pentatonic (major and minor), blues, dorian, myxolydian, and harmonic minor scale forms in at least two different positions on the guitar and be able to identify by ear and by looking at a chart what scale is predominantly used in the song. Sound like a lot to know? It’s easier than you think. A jazz guitar teacher can lay all of that on you in about 6 lessons if you are an intermediate level guitarist and highly motivated. If you have an accomplished saxophonist or trumpeter in your church, they are usually experts at knowing what scales to use in a song. Ask them. Knowledge is out there and it’s often free. Check out a book called, “Scales and Modes In the Beginning.” It’s what I used to teach myself these things as a teenager.

2. Know your chords in triads on the treble strings. Break out of the “jangly 5th’s with delay” thing by adding the third to the chord once in awhile. Simply jangling two notes over every chord and soaking it with delay is not what the Edge does. His parts always have an inner melody and follow the chords of the song. Listen to the melody of the song. If every one is playing a “G” chord and the melody is on a “B” and you are playing a jangly Gsus because that’s what you always do on V chords, it may be clashing with the melody. All of the parts in a song need to complement the melody and complement one another. Gsus, Gadd2, F/G, G7sus4, Gadd4, Gno3, G7, G9, G13 are not the same chord although if the chart says G and the song is in C you’ll probably have all of that at the same time if everyone in the band is interpreting “G” without regard to the melody and harmony. Work with your other guitarists and keyboardists in the band to make sure everyone is interpreting the nuances of the chord basically the same. This will make things sound less garbled and will make every note choice seem more melodic because it fits better with the melodic and harmonic structure of the song.

3. Try taking a simple melody like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and work on your own way of bending to the notes, sliding, trills, etc. until you can make it sound musical (a la Jimi Hendrix and the Star Spangled Banner). Hey, Mozart did 12 variations on Twinkle Twinkle. If you can do 2 then you are 1/6th as prolific as Mozart on that song and as a bonus you can reduce fractions to their lowest common denominator and understand simple ratios.

4. Listen to music outside of your favorite style to get melodic ideas. Here are some composers and bands that have affected me: Bach, Mozart, and Chopin, Scott Joplin compositions, early Louis Armstrong (before WWII), Miles Davis (anything from the 50’s or early 60’s), Sarah Vaughn, Beatles (middle to later period), 70’s Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, and Elton John, early/mid 80’s Toto, Chicago, Journey, and Police, Sarah McLachlan, Radiohead (particularly the Bends). Anything current I would suggest would likely be familiar to you already. This is just a place to start.

Part 2 coming tomorrow. For more guitar tips, check out my previous interview with Ben Gowell.

9 Responses to Interview with Greg Hagan on Becoming a Better Guitarist, PT 1

  1. Simon Steele January 25, 2011 at 2:14 PM #

    Great article looking forward to pt. 2

  2. Jim January 25, 2011 at 2:43 PM #

    Great read. Thanks so much!

  3. Steve Inman January 26, 2011 at 10:10 PM #

    First class advice. One of the easiest pieces to learn quickly and apply is the advice to learn the triads on the 3 high strings. This gives you the option to move your playing into an upper register, playing higher notes than the keyboard, to avoid getting covered up by the often “thicker” sound of the keyboard. If the song doesn’t call for power chords, consider leaving the low range to the bass and the mid range to the keyboard. Playing triads on the three high strings farther up the neck can yield fresh results.

  4. TroyP January 28, 2011 at 5:09 PM #

    Both articles are awesome! Thank you.

  5. AlexY January 29, 2011 at 4:11 AM #

    um, do you know that it’s spelled mixolydian?

  6. Greg Hagan January 29, 2011 at 6:34 PM #

    You know, AlexY, you’re right. I did misspell. But, in Nashville we’re doing well just to have some idea of what “mixolydian” is. It was a great experience working with Bob and hope this interview helps.


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