One might say that GuitarMasterClass instructor and prolific YouTube video creator Todd Simpson is a man on a mission: To get every aspiring shredder to learn to speedpick quickly and cleanly in a short time using a systematic and highly efficient method.
Or as Todd puts it, "one step at a time, one shape at a time, one pick stroke at a time."
With his Techniques With Todd series just crossing the 100th video mark, Todd Simpson sat down with The Guitar Column for this email interview.
The Guitar Column: Thanks for doing this interview Todd!
Todd Simpson: Thanks very much for having me. And thanks for creating The Guitar Column!
TGC: What motivated you to start your Techniques With Todd series on YouTube?
TS: My style of learning is very visual so when I first started playing I was looking for an instructor to teach more visually, not so much using the traditional approach of sheet music etc. Not that there is anything wrong with learning sheet music, it's just that as a young player I wanted to learn some actual playing. So when I started created videos, I wanted to make them in the style I was looking for as a student. Minimal on theory, maximum on where do I put my fingers.
Theory will come, you can't progress without it, it just wasn't what I was looking for, especially at first.
TGC: Paul Gilbert's Intense Rock 1 was the shredder's bible when it first came out in the late 80s. While a huge number of shred videos have come out since Intense Rock, none I felt could match its organized approach to taking almost any aspiring shredder from zero to hero. But I think you've come pretty close with your systematic approach to alternate picking with your Techniques With Todd series.
TS: Thanks very much. That means a lot to me as I have a great respect for you and your work here on the site. Also, I am a HUGE Paul Gilbert fan and from the start of playing dreamed of being able to one day pick anywhere close to the way he does.
I'm still working on that, but coming up with a way to learn how to do it was how I started developing my Techniques With Todd series. One step at a time, one shape at a time, one pick stroke at a time. I've condensed my own journey as a learning musician and distilled it into my lesson series. I try to keep each one to just a minute or few focused on task at hand. To be mentioned in the same breath as Paul is quite an honor, and to have my videos compared to Intense Rock is also huge as that video was one that I watched so much that I could quote every line!
TGC: If we may backtrack a little, who were some of your early guitar influences?
TS: Paul Gilbert of course was a HUGE influence on my playing. I was also greatly influenced by Tony MacAlpine, Yngwie, the usual suspects you might say, but also by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.
TGC: An incredibly melodic player!
TS: I've always wanted to combine the melody and style of David Gilmour with the technical mastery of Paul Gilbert. I've always believed that your technical ability should not limit your creative expression so being technically adept is just something you have to get to in order to be a complete player.
But you can't neglect the emotive side or you're still incomplete. That defines my continuing journey as a student of music.
TGC: Name the guitarist/album that started you down the slippery slope of intense woodshedding.
TS: I remember hearing Paul Gilbert's live solo from the Racer X Live CD and just being blown away. It was almost inhuman, the level of mastery of the instrument. Like listening to Mozart and Paganini playing electric guitar. Mozart himself was accused of using 'too many notes' in his compositions, a barb often leveled at 'shredders', but in fact he was using only as many as he required, and people were listening too slowly. Learning to appreciate complex music is something that takes practice. Just as playing it does.
TGC: A question about your introductory Shred Journey alternate picking lessons on GuitarMasterClass.net. I noticed that you started with 'inside picking' in Lesson 3, Reversing Patterns/Changing Strings. Inside picking is one of the most challenging alternate picking techniques but I notice that some people are quite natural with it.
TS: You're quite right there. Some players take to it right away, while others struggle with it. Every player learns differently and at a different pace though. In addition every player faces the 'right hand / left hand' issue of which hand is faster/more precise on the way to getting them both on the same page.
I start using inside picking pretty early in the series to start exposing players to it as soon as we get some basic mechanics down. Then we progress and switch around, inside, outside, alternate, economic, etc. By the time you make it to the end of the series, or really once you get past the first few with success, you are ready for serious private instruction in shreddery and it's probably a good time to start attending live video lessons with instructors at GuitarMasterClass.net
These lessons happen every day and anyone can view them for free which is great. I teach on Saturday's @ 5pm EST and guests are always welcome.
TGC: How important is good thumb position to playing at speed?
TS: That is a brilliant question. One that I never get asked but one that I focus on when teaching. It's something that players rarely consider in many cases. The thumb often wants to do it's own thing and often gets in the way of getting better as a player. It tends to squeeze/press the neck far to hard, and tends to ride over the top of the neck which can wreck your ability to play evenly during a long scale run.
The thumb is the foundation of your grip. It's crucial. It's important to develop the right pressure and position. Put simply, try to keep your thumb lightly planted in the middle of the guitar neck, so that you could play a scale from high E to low E without having to move your thumb. Readjusting hand position mid-scale usually results in an audible flub in a scale run for example.
TGC: You also advocate playing 'thumbless', as an exercise, with the left thumb off the back of the neck of the guitar. How does this technique help.
TS: I often use 'thumbless' technique in my video chat lessons. Which is to say I have the students play the lesson without using their left thumb. We pull the thumb off the neck and play with our fingertips. This resets the thumb and when you apply it to the neck, the hand can remember it didn't really need the thumb and the pressure gets lighter and playing gets faster and more precise.
TGC: Tell us about your V-Pick Switchblade pick.
TS: I love those picks! Vinni from V-Picks.com is a great guy to work with. We developed this pick after I'd tried the unbuffed version of the same pick. I suggested we buff it and refine the point to make it an ideal 'Shredder' pick and he sent me the results and I've been using them ever since.
It's also an ideal pick to work with while learning alternate picking, even if you don't end up using it as your primary pick. For a pick to be really good for fast/precision play, it really helps if the pick is 1.5 mm or even a bit thicker as it reduces 'flex'. When a pick bends or flexes, you've lost fine control of it. At speed this can cause missed strokes.
Also, the point on the Switchblade reduces the amount of pick that must address the string and reduces the time between strikes, simply by having less pick at the point to move out of the way and re-address the string. Also, reducing the size of the tip aids in precision. So I"m very happy with how the pick turned out.
TGC: Do you use the V-Pick exclusively now?
TS: I alternate between the V-Pick and the Clayton 1.5mm which I sharpen myself. Both picks have a very different tonality so depending on the sound I want for a given piece, I'll switch back and forth. I'm thrilled to see vendors finally offering sharp picks across their lines.
The Tortex Sharps are an option for those that really love Dunlop Tortex and the Jazz III XL is an option for those who love the Jazz III but wish it was bigger. Vinnie has all manner of sharp picks. The boutique shops like V-Picks seem to be leading the way and the bigger vendors seem to be moving in that direction now.
TGC: How important is pick angle to fast playing?
TS: Also a great question. Another thing that is often taken for granted. Pick angle is crucial.
I use sharp picks so I can still pick smoothly when the pick isn't flat to the strings. I tilt the pick about 45 degrees from horizontal and sometimes it's nearly vertical depending on where I am in a given lick based on where it starts and ends. This angle allows the tip to almost glide across the strings and not get caught up in a single strike. Overcommitting to any one pick strike can cause hiccups in what might have been a smooth run. Of course, when not playing at speed, it's far less of an issue.
TGC: Almost all the great shredders play with some sort of angle, some more drastic than others. The only guy who seems to hit the string flat on with the pick seems to be Yngwie.
TS: That's very true. Yngwie plays with a quite flat angle on his pick. He does choke up on the pick quite a bit, and strikes using only the tip when playing at speed. So he's using some of the same approach we are talking about.
It does go to show though that with enough practice, you can use standard rounded picks played without angle, single coil pickups, heavy gauge strings, a thick guitar neck -- in short, all the things many shredders avoid like the plague -- and still shred it up like a monster.
In the end it really does come down to the player. Many of the things I suggest in my lessons and videos are to help people break through the technical barriers that are holding them back. Once you break though those, you can really follow your own patch and make a lot up as you go. For example, I can shred using my Les Paul guitar, or even a bass guitar, or a nylon string guitar. Once you reach a certain level, you can translate those skills.
TGC: Name three guitarists whose technique you're envious of.
TS: To name some players I have yet to mention:
John Petrucci - for his flawless technique and expansiveness.
Frank Gambale - a master of sweep picking and arpeggios. I only found out about him fairly recently and some of his work from the 80's and 90's is still almost shockingly good.
Christopher Parkening - an amazing Classical guitar player who's put out some astounding stuff over the years. Just listening to him can make anyone a better musician. You can hear the effort he has put in when he plays. The control, the precision -- just scary good.
These last two names are a bit more obscure but both are worth checking out. There are some great vids on YouTube featuring them.
In addition, I have to say that I'm learning and growing by leaps and bounds by being exposed to the lessons and video chats generated by the other instructors at guitarmasterclass.net and in many cases I learn from the students themselves. It's such a great place for guitar players. There is always something new to learn and since the staff and students are from all over Planet Earth, there are no limits to what you might come across.
TGC: How did your association with GuitarMasterClass.net come about?
TS: No matter how much I learn or know I always consider myself first and foremost a student of music. I was in search of a place on the web that was a community of musicians open to teaching and learning from each other. Not just an instructional site, or a forum site, but some of both. After about a year of searching, and trying out different sites, I found guitarmasterclasss.net and was so impressed that I approached them about joining the faculty. I knew that this was the type of place I wanted to learn and teach at.
TGC: As of 10th March 2012 you've hit your 100th lesson with GuitarMasterClass.
TS: Yes. We just did out 100th lesson and it was a blast. The chat room was packed and we did a lesson about Paul Gilbert style shredding using a backing track written by our very own Ben Higgins which was actually a Racer X inspired collaboration project.
Speaking of Ben, he was recently interviewed here at The Guitar Column and he is honestly one of my favorite players currently. His style and balance are great and I attend his video lesson chats every chance I get.
TGC: What is your gear setup for your online lessons?
TS: I'm using guitar emulation (Guitar Rig 5, Overloud TH2, Amplitude Metal) for all my teaching and videos right now. I love the flexibility and potential of software rigs. Especially since you can share custom patches from a given lesson with students.
I'm using Guitar Pro for tablature and that works with my Fretlight guitar which I use in several of my YouTube lessons. It lights up on the frets baed on the Guitar Pro tablature file. It's a great learning and teaching tool. I"m using a Sony HDcam for video and Final Cut Pro for editing, and Logic Pro and Reaper for audio.
TGC: Are you into the recording and engineering aspect of music as well?
TS: Very much so. I've built my home studio up to the point where I can do multi track recording and mixing, live and midi work, video editing in full HD, DVD authoring, as well composing music for film.
I recently composed music for a foreign feature film and it was quite an experience. I just loved it. I'm actually looking for my next film project as we speak.
TGC: What gear would you bring to a gig?
TS: I'm not yet to the point where I'm going to consistently trust my laptop/software and emulation for gigging, so I'd bring my trusty Digitech GNX3 (I still love the Tube Screamer emulation in that little pedal board) and either a guitar cab/power amp or my Bass Combo amp, which I use when I'm playing extended range guitars. So my live rig has gotten way more simple over the years while my recording rig has gotten way more complex.
TGC: What are you up to these days as far as band and recording projects?
TS: I've got two recording projects in the works, one called Krestfallen and one called Primal Scene. Both of these are leveraging the internet to bring together various players from all over the world for the purpose of collaboration.
As I mentioned earlier I've recently gotten into soundtrack work as well and hope to branch further into that and scoring for games as well. I've taken a break from live gigging for a while to focus a bit more on teaching and composing. But the bug to play out/live bit me a long time ago so I've recently started looking for a live situation again.
TGC: What else would you like to develop in your playing and where do you see youself in 5 years?
TS: I've embraced social media and hope to continue to learn and grow in the area of social media marketing. I've been consulting in that capacity on a show called indieATL.com which features national/regional/local acts, is shot in full HD and recently got picked up for distribution by Comcast after a couple of seasons on YouTube.
In five years I hope to have scored several more feature films, some videos, and maybe tried scoring things I haven't ever tried or considered. Also, I'm working on tracks to release with both recording projects and I've got a plan for a new series of YouTube videos to serve as an intro to the shred videos as well as a follow up set to pick things up where the current set leaves off.
I'm going to compile a DVD release of the videos as well. In short, onward and upward. By then I"ll be on Lesson 750 at guitarmasterclass.net!
TGC: I asked Kristofer Dahl and Ben Higgins this question as well. Describe a typical day in the life of Todd Simpson.
TS: I usually wake up and check the new posts on guitarmasterclass.net. It's almost a compulsion, to see what I've missed overnight. I'll size up the day and make a rough plan as to how many hours I can spend on whatever is on deck for that day and then deal with things on a per project basis as much as I can to try and maintain tight focus.
It may include working up a lesson plan/materials/files for a video lesson on GMC, or pitching a score to a director/producer, maintaining relationships with the fab folks whose products I endorse (V-Picks, Fretlight Guitars, Minarik Guitars, EMG pickups etc.), or responding to questions from my YouTube lessons and from students in my social media sphere, or sitting in on a last minute gig for a friend.
But no matter what the day brings, or how crazy it gets, I carve out part of it for practice. It's almost like meditation. Even after playing for many years, I still run scales to find weak spots, test myself against the clock, experiment with new techniques, etc. I"m still learning and I hope that never stops.
TGC: Thanks so much for taking the time out to do this interview Todd! All the Best in your future endeavours!
TS: Thanks very much for the invite. Keep up the great work your doing here at TheGuitarColumn and as I always say, PRACTICE!