Let me preface this post by saying I have never experimented with drugs, nor do I have any interest in ever experimenting with drugs, nor do I have any interest in legalizing marijuana, etc. On the other hand, I have seen enough episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music to be bored by the mere thought. This may sound self-righteous, but believe me, I have my vices. For one, I’m addicted to guitars. I’m a recovering Pez addict (not the candy so much, I don’t care for the candy. I have just purchased a few too many cartoon character candy dispensers.). Unfortunately, buying guitars (and other guitar related gear) is a much more expensive habit than buying Pez dispensers, but I digress.
This song certainly comes from the psychedelic era, but I would argue that it still rocks even when you’re sober. I can’t say that it rocks harder when you are sober, but like I said, I have no interest in finding out. I consider myself a guy who appreciates music for what it is. I love the beauty of a good melody, the pulse of the beat, the brilliance of rhythms, the tension of dissonance, the relief of resolution, the agony of a tortured chord progression, the span of emotion that music conveys, the power of a tight groove, the tone of a beautiful instrument, the crack of the snare drum, the acoustics of a beautiful cathedral, the hum of a loud amp before the pick hits the strings, the range of dynamics, the feel of nylon strings, even the beauty of the notes on the page (kind of the same way that Shoeless Joe felt about baseball).
Honestly, even before I learned what a dominant chord was, I would wake up to my mom practicing the piano accompaniment part for the choir anthem that coming Sunday morning, and I would just lie awake letting “the sound take me away.” I just thought it was incredibly moving. I would listen to my friend Jim play blues licks, and I don’t know if he was sad, but I know that he could get his guitar to cry. All that to say, music needs no “performance enhancing drugs” to move you to tears. Okay. Rant. Over.
Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” has never moved me to tears, but it is definitely groovy. Michael Monarch was one of Steppenwolf’s guitarists in those days and said in regard to the intro, “I cranked the amp and just beat up on my guitar for awhile.” After that, the band comes in with a tight groove. I’m going to focus on the main rhythm part that repeats throughout the song. It utilizes muted strums and staccato syncopated rhythms. Let’s look at a few techniques necessary to playing this song well:
- Muted Strumming: This is when you press on the strings with your left hand just enough to completely mute the notes (not to be confused with palm muting). When you do this well, there should be absolutely no audible pitches, just the percussive sound of the pick hitting completely dead strings. Make sure not to over-press causing certain fretted notes to ring out. Muted strums are notated with an “x” in place of the standard note heads.
- Staccato Notes: Short or detached. This is notated with a small dot over (or under) the note. To play staccato notes, strum the chord, and then immediately after, release the tension of your left hand fingers on the strings (without taking your fingers off the string completely). So you should hear the chord ring and then immediately stop. Also, make sure that the notes completely stop. Pick one of the chords from this song and try just playing steady staccato quarter notes to get the hang of it. It should look like your left hand is pressing with each strum. On a side note, experiment with under-pressing the strings, or pressing just enough that the pitch barely ekes out. This can result in some hyper-staccato awesomeness. Essentially, you’ll just barely hear the notes. The sound that results is very percussive as well.
- Subdividing 16th Notes: To pull off busy syncopated grooves like this one without sounding clumsy, you will need to be able to move your strumming hand up and down in a constant 16h note pattern, or what I call “subdividing.” On the score above, I notate down strums (strumming down to the ground) with an arrow pointing down, and up strums (strumming up to the ceiling) with an arrow pointing up. You will also see down and up arrows with parentheses around them. This means bring your pick up without touching the strings. Notice if you do this right, it should feel like your arm is in constant steady motion. Sometimes you connect with the strings, sometimes you don’t. For a very detailed description on this process, click here.
- The “F-Shape”: The guitar has five unique major chord shapes. They are C, A, G, E and D. Without going into too much detail about the CAGED System (look it up, you will never be the same), let me just say that the “F-shape” is really no more than an abbreviated E-shape barre chord. That being said, it does offer some unique qualities that the normal E-shape is not capable of when using a full barre, thus the F-Shape deserves honorable mention. This riff uses the so-called F-shape exclusively. If you struggle with getting an F chord to work, than this song may help you improve. In fact, anytime you have trouble with a new chord shape, it will help to try moving it up and down the fretboard while keeping the shape intact. This riff does just that. Here are a couple of tips about playing this particular barre chord:
- Use the side of your left hand index finger (that is closer to the thumb) to press down on the string.
- Try letting your first finger tip joint buckle backwards to help put a little more pressure on the string with less effort. Letting any left hand joint buckle backwards is frowned upon in most instances, but for small barre chords, it can actually be a good thing. Keep in mind, however, this approach isn’t for everybody. Not everyone is capable of bending their tip joint backwards. Also, only allow your first finger to buckle on this particular chord, the other two fingers should be be rounded properly in order to get the best possible leverage and to avoid touching other strings.
- Finally, if you really struggle getting the notes to ring out, try to barre three strings, even if your first finger is only needed on the top two strings. Then try barring four strings. In short, just experiment moving your first finger up and down until you find that “sweet spot” on your finger that effectively gets the highest two strings to work.
- If you are really struggling to get the strings to ring out, don’t get frustrated. Just practice barre chords a little everyday, and one day you will wake up playing them perfectly. At least that was my experience after 6 months of frustration.
- Finally, say no to drugs. It’s a common misconception that everybody has to try drugs at least once. Use the money that you save, and go buy yourself some Pez dispensers.