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Music DVD Review: Guitar World: The Alchemical Guitarist, Volumes 1 & 2

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Guitar World is an excellent resource for guitar players at every level. The magazine’s mix of instructional materials, tablatures, sheet music, and interviews consistently provide a wealth of information. I’m not sure if they will ever be able to top their new Alchemical Guitarist DVDs though. The 24 lessons contained on these two DVDs feature some of the best instructional material I have ever seen.

“The Alchemical Guitarist” was a Guitar World column written by Richard Lloyd—he no longer writes there. Lloyd’s biggest claim to fame is as a member of Television. Although Tom Verlaine gets the lion’s share of credit for the band’s success, the contributions of Richard Lloyd were an extremely important factor. His is the other guitar voice we hear throughout their oeuvre, including their finest moment, the nine-minute “Marquee Moon.”

The DVDs are an extension of Lloyd’s column. I was curious as to how he would come across as an instructor. As it turns out, he is a natural in front of the camera, and his relaxed style puts one at ease right away. Learning to play the guitar is not exactly easy, but Lloyd manages to demystify the instrument for us. It is the type of approach I wish my instructor had used when I was starting out. I took a few lessons, and quickly lost interest. Needless to say, I never got very good. But I have continued to play, and The Alchemical Guitarist has given me a whole new perspective on the instrument.

The cover of The Alchemical Guitarist modestly describes itself with such phrases as “The Ultimate DVD Guide!” and “Fretboard Secrets Unlocked!”  Each DVD contains 12 lessons, which last around 10 minutes each, giving us about two hours of material on each volume. Put the discs into your computer, and you are will find a wealth of written music as well.

The lessons are quite self-descriptive. Some of the more intriguing ones on the first volume are: “Demystifying the Modes with the Mystical Major-Scale Diagram,” “Magic Circles: The Cycle of Fourths & Fifths,” “The Dark Stuff: The Modes in Order of Descending Brightness,” “Breaking Free with Pentatonic Trees,” and “Hexatonic Blues Scales.” Some favorites from the second volume include: “Riding Satan’s Tritone,” “Walking Bass on the Guitar,” “The Secret Behind the Circle of Fourths/Fifths Progressions,” and “Using Pentatonic Bends to Make You Playing Mistake Free.”

A great deal of what the student will get out of The Alchemical Guitarist’s lessons obviously corresponds to their level of knowledge. For a person with basically no formal training (like myself) these DVDs provide are a treasure trove of information. In fact, there is so much that it is a little difficult to absorb everything in one shot. Thankfully, with DVDs you can go back and review the lessons over and over as often as you wish.

The manner in which Lloyd presents the material is very logical, and relatively easy to follow, but there is a lot of stuff here. Before ordering The Alchemical Guitarist, I happened across an online review of it. The review said something to the effect that Richard Lloyd was teaching calculus to fourth graders.

I disagree with this, but I do understand the point. As a guitar instructor, Richard Lloyd teaches us the basics. Scales, modes, and music theory in general are all covered. But he takes things further at times, including some of the fascinating history of the instrument. The very first lesson, “Magic Circles: The Cycle of Fourths & Fifths,” is a great example of this.

Lloyd goes all the way back to 500 BC and the discovery of the musical scale by Pythagoras. He built a single-string guitar, which he called the “mono-chord.“ With this, he fitted it with one fret, which could be moved up and down the neck, and measured. Thus he was able to break the instrument down to halves, two-thirds, three-fourths, and so on until we reach the ratio of 32:45. It is the tri-tone, also called “The Devil’s Interval.”

Lloyd elaborates: “If you happen to know that this is the most dissonant thing possible, you might open a song with it.” He then shows us an amazingly simple, yet brilliant example of the tri-tone. Playing the E (top) string open, then holding the string at the sixth fret, and alternating the two notes back and forth magically results in the opening section of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

Alchemy is an early, unscientific form of chemistry with connotations of magic. The quest to turn lead into gold is what alchemists have been known for down through the ages. It is an apt title for the guitarist Richard Lloyd is teaching us to be. Besides the lessons, each volume of the set contains PDF files with written music that can be accessed on both PC and Mac computers.

For players at every level of proficiency, I believe that The Alchemical Guitarist DVDs have something to offer. As that first lesson I described attests, Richard Lloyd has cracked open the secrets of the instrument, and is sharing them with us. I think that opening with a discussion of Pythagorean musical theory, and winding up teaching us the opening notes of one of Hendrix’s greatest tunes is a pretty cool way to start.

Not only does Richard Lloyd teach us how to play, he gives us a full understanding of the guitar, and music theory in general. The Alchemical Guitarist is the perfect title for what he accomplishes here. On a personal note,  I have not been playing much lately, and my little old Fender was collecting quite a bit of dust. But watching these DVDs has gotten me excited about it all over again. I have learned a lot from the lessons, and enjoyed them immensely as well.

I believe that there is something for every guitar player with this set, but for a beginner, the DVDs are true godsend. Not only that, but the price of the set is probably less than what you would pay for a single one-on-one lesson. The Alchemical Guitarist is the real deal, no question about it.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • Charlie

    I used to read Lloyd’s columns all the time (as I am a longtime GW subscriber). It is eye-opening stuff and I learned a lot from him. Glad you did too via these DVDs. Great review of them.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Thanks Charlie – Lloyd did a super job with this I believe.