1. Hot For Teacher – Van Halen
This classic rocker from Van Halen’s 1984 album certainly sounds tough to play but let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here.
The Tapping: The tapping intro isn’t all that complicated; the trick is to start off real slow and work it up to speed. Make sure you’re tapping the correct pattern and not an approximation of what you think is the correct pattern, otherwise it won’t sound good.
Verse and Chorus: These parts are mainly double stops in fourths with a couple of power chords thrown in for good measure, nothing too complicated as long as you start off slow and bring it up to speed. The fills are mainly pick slides with a few harmonics over the D, G and B strings at the 7th fret.
The Solo: The solo is almost entirely F#m Pentatonic (with a couple of 9ths thrown in) with Eddie switching between the 2nd and 14th fret positions. There’s also some tremolo picking which could easily be learned. It’s by no means a classic Van Halen solo that you have to learn so feel free to experiment here.
The Sound: You’ll need a clean and dirty sound for this one which can be achieved with a distortion pedal or through a plain old amp using the volume knob of the guitar to clean up the overdrive, which is probably what Eddie did.
2. Summer Song – Joe Satriani
Hard to believe this track is 23 years old at the time of writing. I tackled it in the late nineties when I’d probably been playing for around 5 years. I remember having to put in the time but the sense of achievement was well worth it.
The Intro: Harmonics at the 4th and 5th frets, a nice little motif, and nothing too complicated. The version I used to play along to was the G3 live one, where the intro is a little different.
Verse and Chorus: Crank the wah wah pedal and get stuck into the carefully crafted phrases of the verse and chorus. It might be a good idea to get the parts down without the wah, in order to concentrate on getting them right, and then add it in later.
The Solo: Here’s where things get a little tricky but hang in there as Joe’s phrasing, especially on fast runs, has always seemed mathematical to me. Work through it slowly and you’ll see a lot of symmetry going on, plus it’s one of those solos that sound a lot harder than it actually is as it was probably performed rather than improvised on the spot.
The Sound: You’ll need a quality wah wah pedal for this one and a Satch-like tone with a generous helping of delay, reverb and compression.
3. Cult of Personality – Living Colour
I’m a huge fan of Vernon Reid’s playing as he’s one of those improvisers that just goes for it, and really gets to that level of reckless abandonment. You probably won’t want to learn the solo note for note (just go for it in a kind of G tonality if you want the same effect, though if you listen closely to the solo you’ll hear a method to Reid’s madness) but the main riff and chorus are well worth getting down. Here’s Vernon explaining the riffs and how he came up with the tune.
This is a great one to learn as an intermediate guitarist as you almost inevitably have to learn it note for note, even the fills, but it’s very doable if you put the effort in. You could even attempt this one with just your fingers a la Knopfler himself or with a combination of pick and fingers. The solo is actually easier to play with your fingers as the picking pattern lends itself better to fingerstyle playing than alternately picking it. Break the tune down and take it bit by bit making sure that you’ve mastered each lick before moving on. If you rush through the tune you’ll find yourself forgetting some of the fills so take it slow.
5. The Spirit of Radio – Rush
Probably Rush’s most commercially successful song from back in 1980, which means this track is now an incredible 35 years old; it still sounds incredibly fresh though, and will go down well at your local drinking haunt.
The Riff: The riff is made to sound more complicated than it is due to the insertion of a triplet into a sixteenth note pattern. There are a few time signature changes too but you should be able to feel your way through them by taking it slow at first then building up speed.
The Chord-work: The rhythm part is fantastic with lush sounding chords that fall under your fingers nicely. Since Alex is the only guitarist in the band he tends to go for this kind of chording to fill as much space as possible as well as incorporating open strings. Make sure you can play it cleanly before you drench your guitar sound in chorusing as it’s tempting to rush through this one, no pun intended.
The Solo: Alex Lifeson is not really one for high wire solos; he tends to just go for it although he does like to tug on the wang bar sometimes. You could either learn the solo or even make up something as it’s probably the least memorable part of the song.
Feel free to suggest other songs in the comments to help get past that intermediate plateau.