Flashback 1983: Learn 3 Rock Licks


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When we think of guitar in the ‘80s, the conversation usually starts with hard rock. In my high school, the Randy Rhoads vs Eddie Van Halen debate was a constant discussion among my guitar-playing friends. The 80’s witnessed the birth of shred, the rise of the uber-virtuosos Vai and Satriani, and a whole lotta big hair and spandex. On the earthier side, Stevie Ray Vaughan exploded out of Texas and single-handedly brought the blues back to the mainstream. Stanley Jordan and Bill Frisell were blazing new trails in jazz, and Michael Hedges did things with an acoustic guitar no one had ever heard before.

Rock Licks, Andy Summers and the Police

But one of the most influential players of the 80’s made his mark by painting with swaths of sound and texture. Andy Summers’ guitar work with the Police is so subtle and inventive that it’s easy to miss the fact that you’re hearing guitar. To my teenage ears in 1983, their biggest album “Synchronicity” was just a cool pop record. But listening all these years later, it’s full of great guitar tones. Swirling layers of sound and angular, edgy lines that influenced players as diverse as U2’s The Edge and Rush’s Alex Lifeson.

The Police’s earliest recordings combined a reggae vibe with a punk attitude and a pop sensibility. As straightforward as the guitar parts to “Roxanne” might sound, a deeper listen reveals chord voicings and the alternation between chop and chime as Summers varies his attack. “Walking On The Moon” introduced a generation to the wonders of a chorus pedal and layered delays. But the coolest thing about his playing on “Synchronicity” is not the effects, although there are plenty, it’s the lines themselves and the way they drive the music without ever overshadowing the song.

Let’s take a look at the most straightforward example first (and biggest hit from a record that generated four hit singles and won three Grammys). “Every Breath You Take” is driven by a clean, muted eighth-note guitar part that’s as much the hook of the song as anything in the vocal. The coolest thing about it is that it’s polyphonic and polyrhythmic! (Huh? That’s a lot of syllables!) Hold on! I’ll explain, but check it out first:

Exercise 1

This example is based on the song’s primary guitar hook. The polyrhythmic aspect comes from the fact that while the guitar plays steady eighth notes, we actually hear other rhythms at the same time. This is a reflection of the African “worldbeat” influence on the Police’s music and on Summers’ playing in particular. In a polyrhythmic part, a steady beat is played with different accents to create different groupings of notes. A simple “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” becomes something totally new when we accent it like this: 1 AND TWO and THREE AND 4 AND. Play this part with a clean tone and light palm muting, bringing out the emphasized beats above (marked in the tab with accents).

Then there’s the “polyphonic” aspect. This means “multiple melodies.” In other words, there is a distinct melody contained within the larger part. The chords themselves are variations on the familiar major and minor, but with finger extensions to create the melodic movement. For the Gadd2, Csus2, and Dsus2, work off a basic power chord shape and extend the pinky to play the moving line. Add a short “slapback” delay to really get the flavor. Set the delay time to a sixteenth, with just enough feedback to let the note repeat once. Set the blend low enough that the repeated note sounds like a light echo and doesn’t dominate.

The use of effects is a huge topic in itself, and something we’ll need to dig into more in the future. For a nice introduction to the use of delay, though, check out this JamPlay lesson from Nomad:

The Key of A by Michael "Nomad" Ripoll

Taught by Michael "Nomad" Ripoll

Nomad once again deals with the nuances. Delay is used in too many settings to count. In this lesson, you'll hear and see how the funksters and R&B masters use delay in both a musical and special effects context.

Rock Lick ala King of Pain

King Of Pain” was another monster hit, and while it’s full of great guitar parts they’re so subtle they don’t reveal themselves until a closer listen. The opening of the song is all keyboard and marimba; we don’t hear guitar until the drums kick in at the top of the second verse. The guitar enters with a staccato rhythmic cycle based on the vocal melody, and the muting and attack make it sound much like the marimba we heard in the opening.

Example 2 is based on the verse pattern. Note once again how accented higher notes create a counter melody that jumps out from the steady eighth-note rhythm. Play with a clean tone, palm muting, and repeated down strokes on all the notes except when a note appears twice. Notice also how the repeated E’s are played alternately on the 5th fret of the second string and the open high E. The unaccented open E’s should be played muted with an upstroke.

Exercise 2

This part also reflects the “worldbeat” influence on the Police. Their early music has a strong reggae influence, but “Synchronicity” is full of Afropop-influenced guitar. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, African musicians like Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and South Africa’s Johnny Clegg were making vibrant, percussive pop music built on layers of repeated short rhythmic patterns. The combined sound of these simultaneous layers creates a pulsing, polyrhythmic beat, using electric guitars and keyboards essentially as tuned drums. This was a fresh, new sound for pop and rock musicians, influencing bands like the Talking Heads and King Crimson.

Andy Summers & Robert Fripp

Andy Summers made two instrumental records in the ‘80’s with Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp, who may have also influenced some of the sounds Summers was exploring. Listen to the opening of “Synchronicity 2,” the model for our third example:

Exercise 3

The basic chord is an F#m7, played with an added B to create an accented 11th. (This chord could also be seen as a suspended chord resolving into a minor 7th). The same figure is repeated on different beats, creating a cool syncopated groove that wouldn’t be out of place on a King Crimson record. The repeated chordal figure becomes an “ostinato,” or repeated rhythm pattern, again reflecting the African rhythmic approach. Try this one without a pick, using the picking hand thumb to play the bass F# and three fingers to pluck the chord. Fret the 12th fret B with your pinky and play the pull-off while sustaining the rest of the notes. The riff ends with a simple 4-note figure that wraps things up neatly, landing solidly on beat 4 and setting up the cycle to begin again.

There’s lots more to talk about on “Synchronicity.” For a dose of complete Summers weirdness, listen to “Mother” with its creepy ostinato and layers of feedback. But these three examples make for a good introduction to one of the most creative players of the last forty years. By emphasizing rhythmic patterns, textures, and layered tones instead of traditional rock riffs and solos, Andy Summers popularized a stealth approach to great guitar playing and created some of the greatest pop music of the 80’s in the process.

Listening to this record now, I’m struck by how much I’ve learned from his approach. Most of all, that putting the song first doesn’t mean you can’t play something cool and interesting. Enjoy this taste, and see if you can apply this minimalist, textured style to some of your own playing.

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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