Sunday, December 16, 2007

Carpet Bombing vs Sniping

Q: How come even though I am using the right scales, my solos sound wrong?

A: Ha! We're back to the old scales vs arpeggios argument again! First off, let me explain how guitarists tend to approach improvisation. Since scales are relatively easy to remember on our instruments, they are our usual weapon of choice. The nature of the guitar makes it so. I mean, we don't even have to remember scales by note names, we just do it by fingers and frets. For example, a G minor pentatonic scale is just our 1st finger on the 3rd fret of the 6th string followed by our pinky on the 6th fret, etc. Once we have it down we just move the same pattern up and down the fretboard to accommodate key changes. We think in geometric patterns more so than intervals and notes. This is not such a bad thing though, it gets us playing solos early but it can also be our downfall in the long run.

Other instruments don't have it so easy. They have to actually think in intervals or notes and don't have the advantage of having everything laid out where they can see the patterns. The fingerings change as the keys do as well, meaning there are no transferable patterns. That is why we guitarists like to approach everything by scales, they are easy for us to use. I call it carpet bombing.

You see, when we improvise we have a bunch of targets. These targets are the chords we have to play over in the progression. You can't ignore them and expect to play a meaningful solo. We carpet bomb, meaning we throw all the notes (like bombs in an airplane) out at once and hope that they hit the targets. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Let's say for example you are playing over an A minor progression like this: Amin-G-F-Dmin-C-G. Logic pretty much dictates that we need to use an A minor or an A minor pentatonic scale. Yes, it will work. The problem is hitting the targets. For example, a D note played on the first beat or held out for the bar over the A minor chord isn't going to sound very good. Simply because it isn't in the chord. It will work in passing but it isn't really something you want to lay on. On the other hand, it will sound great on the D minor or G chord. Why? Because it is in both. It is the root of the D minor and the 5th of the G major chord. Yup, rock solid.

Now, other instruments tend to think in chord tones rather than scales. In the same progression, a saxophonist would tend to think in chord tones: Amin = A-C-E, G = G-B-D and F = F-A-C. There is no risk of hitting a lame (or weak) note. This is the sniping method of improvisation. The disadvantage of this method is it seems a little harder to express ourselves using only arpeggios.

One way to use a combination of carpet bombing and sniping is to practice playing scales from the 1-3-5 of each passing chord. In other words, play the A minor scale from A over the A minor chord, from G over the G chord, from F on the F chord. Next try playing from the 3rd of the chords: from C over the A minor chord, from B over the G chord. Last but not least practice playing from the 5ths: from E over the A minor chord, from D over the G chord, etc. You could also try playing up and arpeggio and down the scale or up a scale and down an arpeggio.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Getting my students interested

I teach guitar to mostly beginners. Mostly young 14, 15 and 16 year old boys who want to be thrash metal players. (gotta love those kids, they fall sooo deeply in love with guitar). I start them on Pentatonic scales and blues chord patterns and of course all the right hand speed exercises. They seem to love this and are willing to practice for hours. But when I start to tell them about major scales and modes and music theory in general they rebel, especially if I mention Jazz (you should see their eyes glaze over). I think it's very important for them to learn this stuff, after all once they know it they will use it.

Q: Do you have any tips for getting these young guys excited about the modes? Anyway, thanks in advance for any help you can give. Love the lessons on your web site, keep em coming. -Mike

A: It is a challenge to get younger inexperienced players into playing the major scale and the modes but as you said, it is important. One reason is simply because using only the pentatonic scales will not lead to any great technical skills. Two notes per string scale patterns fall short when trying to build chops (not that the pentatonic scales are not important). The other reason is of course that the modes open up a lot more choices.

I would perhaps start them on the minor scale. Don't forget, it is still a mode, the aolian mode and you will be tricking them into learning the major scale at the same time. After all, it is great for rock. Have them start working on a few patterns and have them play over some typical rock progressions such as an E minor scale over a Emin-C-G-D progression. Show them how they can add in their pentatonic scales as well. Have them check out guys like Mike Schenker who do this kind of thing all the time. After they get good at that, show them that the minor scale is really the major scale and move into the modes. Have them take a listen to Mike Schenker's solo on "Rock Bottom" from the UFO "Strangers in the Night" CD. It is the perfect example of the dorian mode used for rock. "I don't Need no Doctor" by HUmble Pie is another great example of the dorian mode.

Joe Satriani and Steve Vai both use Lydian everywhere. The trick is to show them the concepts from a rock standpoint. Take the modes one at a time rather than a big theoretic overview. Just say things like; "Play the C major scale over a Dmin-G7 progression" and have them take a listen to Carlos Santana.

After they show some interest tell them why you can do it. It is also quite east to go from minor to harmonic minor using a similar progression as before: Emin-C-G-D-B and have them play an E harmonic minor scale over the last chord. Instant Malmsteen or Uli Roth!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Phrygian Harmony

Q: What would you consider to be the "dominant" and the "subdominant" chords in the Phrygian mode? Is there a "leading tone" chord i.e. in Major, we have diminished chords; what is there in Phrygian?

A: Regarding the modes, I don't imagine it useful think in diatonic systems so to speak. This works great for the major and minor scales but not so well for the modes. Regarding the harmonized major scale, a I-IV-V or Tonic-Subdominant-Dominant progression (C-F-G or Cmaj7-Fmaj7-G7), harmonically has a lot of strength, it ends with a perfect cadence, meaning a major or dominant chord resolving to a major tonic chord. But if we were to use the same system (using C phrygian for example), making the iii chord (of Eb major), the tonic or i chord, we would get a Cmin-Fmin-Gdim progression (i-iv-vo), which is rather lame. Yikes! A diminished vo chord!

You sort of have to change your way of thinking when dealing with modes. Modes don't work well harmonized for long progressions. Usually one chord for a measure or a few measures leading to something completely unrelated is the norm. It is more important to think more about the quality of the chord and pay close attention to what the chord is with its "modal" extensions added on. In other words, a measure of a Csus(b9) chord is a way more effective use of modal harmony than a long chord progression of chords diatonic to C phrygian (Eb major). Sometimes shorter progressions work fine. As an example, a Cmin-Db or Cmin7-Dbmaj7 chord progression works fine for phrygian.

I suppose that a Cmin-Dbmaj-Bbmin progression would work. But in all reality the more chords you were to add in, the weaker the phrygian tonality would become. If you really wanted a phrygian type sound, it would seem best to use a sus(b9) chord. Let's say you have a C progression you are working in and you wanted to work in a phrygian sound, it would seem better for you to replace the I chord with a Csus(b9) chord to create a real phrygian texture. You may even extend it for a bar of two or create a vamp before falling back to your C major progression.

Regardless, you should experiment. If you wanted to harmonize the C phrygian scale, this is what you would get:


If you were to consider these chords as borrowed from phrygian and imported them to C major you would get this: i-bII-bIII-iv-Vo-bvi-bvii

You do sort of see this thing from time to time. You often get the bII and bIII in major keys and of course the minor iv chord (although the latter two usually considered borrowed from C minor).
Experiment and see what your ear likes.



Sunday, September 9, 2007

Scales or Arpeggios?

Hi Chris,
I argue with my friend everyday about the same thing.

Q: He says that when soloing you only need to play arpeggios over the changes, I say that that way of thinking is old and nowadays musicians use scales. What is the proper approach, scales or arpeggios?

A: Ha! Musicians always argue about this. But the truth is that there is not really a right and wrong, but there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Arpeggios: the advantage here is that you don't have to worry very much about playing wrong notes, if the chord changes are Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7, you can play the arpeggios of the chords and you are pretty much safe. You can also superimpose other various arpeggios to create more interest, a standard one would be a B diminished triad over the G7 chord. Bdim = B-D-F-Ab, played over a G7 chord would supply the extensions 3-5-b7-b9 creating a G7b9 sound. This kind of approach was very common for for Jazz, all the way up until modal music became popular. It would have been treacherous to attempt plaing scales over fast changes, you would run the risk of missing chord tones and the changing keys every measure or so wouldn't leave you any time to consider the proper fingerings. It would seem a lot easier to simply connect the dots using arpeggios. And that is pretty much what took place all the way through Bebop with the chord changes flying by at breakneck speed. I suppose the disadvantages to this approach would be the difficulty in expressing ones self, after all, a G7 arpeggio played by you or me, is pretty much the same thing.

Scales: Jazz tempos became faster and faster until they just couldn't get any faster and that is when things began to change. Modal music was born. I suppose Miles Davis and some of his contemporaries decided that all this connecting the dots with arpeggios at lightning speed had gotten old and were frustrated with the lack of ability to express themselves musically. So they started to write music with bars and bars of the same chord. For example, the song "So What" from Miles' "Kind of Blue" CD was simply 16 bars of Dmin7 followed by 8 of Ebmin7 followed by another 8 of Dmin7. To Jazz musicians in those days, it must have been quite a challenge to play over such long sections of the same chord. I mean, up to this time they played arpeggios, they couldn't simply play a Dmin7 arpeggio for 16 bars. So musicians started experimenting with the modal scales and the chords harmonized from them. Scales gave musicians more options in improvisation. Because of this, harmony became more complex as well, min7 gave way to bigger minor chords such as min9, min11, min69, min11, etc. This this would lead to more interest in other modes, not only from the major scale but from the melodic minor scale as well. Eventually, like Bebop before, the chord changes started moving by faster as well, but this time the chords were more modal and the improvisers more modal in their choices.

Conclusion: Each player leans a little more one way than the other. While Joe Pass played mostly arpeggios, John Scofield chooses scales (although both of these fine players cross over as well), they both sound great. In all reality, both approaches are important and both should be utilized to their full extent. Think about the Blues, if you were to play a minor or major pentatonic for your whole solo, it would sound pretty lame. It would get boring after a little while. You have to outline the changes in your solo, and this can prove quite an undertaking using only scales. Outlining the changes with arpeggios paves the way to a better solo. And of course blowing through a scale from time to time adds some excitement to your solos as well. Become an expert at both.

Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale


Monday, September 3, 2007

Major Scale Patterns

Dear Chris,

Thanks a million for your informative site which over the past few months has built my knowledge of theory substantially. However, there is till one thing I don't understand with the 5 positions of the major scale.

Q: I have worked out that one is the 'stock standard' major scale or first position (pattern 4, I think?) and that some of the other shapes turned out to Phrygian, natural minor and Dorian, but its still not clicking with me as to where each position is used. I am aware that ie the dorian for the key of c major is just d to d over a dmin, phrygian e to e over e min etc, but there are a couple positions of the major scale (patterns 3 and 5) that im not sure where to use. I hope this question makes sense.....thanks in advance for your time,

warm regards,


A: We as guitarists tend to think in fingerboard patterns rather than notes which sometimes can be problematic. Remember, a major scale is a major scale no matter what the fingerboard pattern looks like. Anywhere you can use one of them, you can use the other four as well (and should).

As an example, let's say you have to play over a Dmin7-G7 chord progression. Obviously, the scale needed here is the D dorian mode, which is simply a C major scale. Any five fingerboard patterns of the C major scale will do here. I imagine you are looking at pattern 4 of the C major scale and thinking to yourself that there is a D on top so this scale is the dorian mode because you can start on it. But the truth is it doesn't matter what note you start on as long as the chord over which you are playing is a Dmin7 chord. I mean think about it, when improvising, would you always start on the root? The root would actually be a somewhat boring note to start on so as long as it is the proper major scale, start on any note that suits your ears.

More information on modes:

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Circle of 5ths

Q: Hi Chris,

What is Circle Of Fifths? please tell me about Circle Of Fifths and why it is so important.

Thank you,

A: The circle of fifths is simply a geometric diagram that makes it easy to see the relationship between all the keys in music. If you look at the diagram, you will find the key of C up on top. The key of C is at the top because it has no sharps or flats. The next one to the right is the key of G and it has one sharp (an F sharp by the way). G is a perfect 5th from C, count the notes and you will see: C-D-E-F-G. A perfect 5th from G is D, and the key of D has two sharps so D is the next key after G.
If you go the other way from C (counter clockwise), the diagram becomes the circle of 4ths. C to F is a perfect 4th: C-D-E-F and by moving in this direction, each key will gain a flat.

If you tape the chart on your wall and look at it before you go to sleep, it will start to make sense to you. It simply makes it easy to remember the keys and their corresponding sharps and flats.
I'm going to get into the diatonic system in a second so if you think you aren't going to get it, go here and learn about the major scale and the diatonic system.

Sometimes the circle gets used to make progressions. A good example would be ii-V-Is taken around the circle. So the first one would be a ii-V-I in C: Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7. the next ii-V-I would be taken from the next key down, the key of G: Amin7-D7-Gmaj7, etc.. You could also take the same ii-V-Is the other way aroung the circle of 4ths. Ex: Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7, Gmin7-C7-Fmaj7, Cmin7-F7-Bbmaj7, etc..

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Q: Chris, I stumbled onto your site looking up 8 bar blues progression. Thanks for the info. I do have a question for you about tone. How do you balance the lush 9th chords with the distortion in the leads. I either have a killer clean sound for 9 chords and the lead that sounds too clean or a muddy sounding 9 chords and perfect lead. Can You help? Thanks, Rick

A: There are a few different things you can do. One thing is use one of those two or three channel amps and just switch between them. I personally don't do this unless I'm playing in some sort of fusion or pop situation where I have to have chrystal clear chords and super saturated solos.

But for my own general brand of music, which if you heard, is mostly Blues and Rock, I use one amp channel and that is it. What you may of heard on the mp3s on my site is pretty much a Marshall amp or something pretty similar. First I dial up my basic tone from which I will subtract to for rhythm and add to for solos. I don't think about the signal chain, meaning effects until I get the amp tone happening first.

You want middle of the line overdrive here, so with a Marshall, I put the gain on about 4 or 5(depending on the model, room and guitar I am using). And maybe the volume on about 4 or 5 again depending on the venue or studio. Bass up around 8, mid up around 7 or 8, treble at about 4 or 5 and presence on maybe 1 or off if I'm using a Tele. I should be able to roll off a little volume on my guitar and get a pretty clean sound, thus the somewhat clean tone for chords. I could roll back the volume to about 5 on the guitar and get a almost completely clean tone. If I roll back the tone as well on the guitar a bit, and use my neck pickup, I can almost get a hollowbody type sound.

For my solos, I use a tube screamer, or something similar. What you heard on the recordings was probably a HAO Sole Pressure. But I like tube screamers as well. Lately I have been using a Xotic BB preamp which is an overdrive/booster type of thing. How you set your boost, is with the distortion at about 1 or 2 and the volume at 10. This way when you step on it, it boosts your volume and sustain a little but doesn't really change your tone too much. I am using the Xotic box now and quite honestly, it is the best thing on the market today.

The main point is the sound you get from your guitar and amp first and then giving it a little boost from the box. Some of the tones I get are a little different from tune to tune so take a listen to the mp3s for free here, and if you have any questions about the individual sounds, e-mail me and ask and I'll be happy to tell you how I did it. You will be happy to know that it is not rocket science and you won't need a million dollars to get the same tone. Check out tunes like "Big Bad Sun," I like the tone I got there. Link: "Big Bad Sun"

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Modes of Harmonic Minor

Q: Could you please shed some light on the modes of the harmonic minor scale. I notice that you do not elaborate on this material in your book - The Infinite Guitar, yet several of these, most notably the phrygian dominant and double harmonic, are popular among the more adventurous in order to expand their colour horizons.

A: I'm not an expert on using the modes of the harmonic minor scale. I dabbled in it a bit when I was a kid and when I found the melodic minor scale and its modes, I lost interest in its cousin the harmonic minor scale. Its modes are not very common, so there seems to be no standard name given to all the modes. Regardless, that shouldn't stop us from taking a closer look at each of them.

Let's write out each mode using the A harmonic minor scale as our base:

A-B-C-D-E-F-G# - This is the harmonic minor scale from its root. If we harmonize a chord, we will get a Amin(maj7) chord. The scale played over an Amin triad or min(maj7) chord sounds sort of Spanish or Middle Eastern like a snake charmer or something. I've done session work where the producer specifically asks for a Spanish or Middle Eastern cliche sound and have used this scale in those situations.

B-C-D-E-F-G#-A - The harmonized chord is a min7b5 chord. The scale looks like a locrian scale with a major 6th. Possible name: locrian #6. This mode is often played over the minor iio-V (Bmin7b5-E7b9).

C-D-E-F-G#-A-B - The harmonized chord is a maj7#5 chord. The scale looks like a major scale with a augmented 5th. Maybe a lydian augmented scale would be a better choice as the lydian augmented scale contains a #11 rather than the natural 11th found in this scale. Possible name: augmented major.

D-E-F-G#-A-B-C - The harmonized chord is a Dmin7 chord. The scale looks like a dorian scale with a augmented 4th. Possible name: dorian #4

E-F-G#-A-B-C-D - The harmonized chord is a E7 chord, harmonized to a 9th chord it becomes a E7b9 chord. This mode is probably the most common of the harmonic minor modes. Sometimes called: phrygian dominant. This mode is pretty common for rock over the major or dominant V chord.

F-G#-A-B-C-D-E - The harmonized chord is a Fmaj7 chord. It looks like a lydian scale with a #9th! Wow! I've heard this scale referred to as a split major third scale.

G#-A-B-C-D-E-F - The harmonized chord is a G#dim7 chord. Possible name: diminished b2.

Just because I'm not well versed in these modes doesn't mean that they are not of use. You may find that they work great for you. Tell me how they work out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Soloing over Slash Chords

Q: Love your lesson on slash chords. By the way do you have a lesson on how to solo on these chords?

A: Thanks! No lesson on soloing over them but I'll tell you what I know.

Soloing over slash chords can be challenging because you really have to read between the lines when dealing with them. Most of them simply imply a bigger chord. Don't confuse these with triads in inversion though, these inverted triads are easy to deal with. Ex: C/E or C/G. Both are C chords, the first with the 3rd in the bass and the latter, with the 5th. No big deal here.

The difficult ones are the ones that are creating complex harmony. That is the beauty of these slash chords, they are simple and complex at the same time. Simple in the fact that they are just triads over bass notes, and every guitarist with a week of experience knows triads. Complex because they can be used to make chords that you would have a hard time figuring out to play on your own, like a like a Cmaj13#11 chord for instance could be played as a D/C chord. But the one thing that makes them easy to understand and analyze is the fact that they are usually in root position, meaning the bass note is the root. So a G/C slash chord is some kind of C chord.

Now on to figuring out what to play over them. This is what I'll do, I'll take a triad and move it up chromatically over the static bass note (C) and talk about what you should possibly play over it.

C/C - Simply a C triad and not really a slash chord.
Db/C - This one is tricky. Let's see, C-Db-F-Ab = 1-b2-4-b6. Looks phrygian to me. Like a b9sus chord (which is the phrygian chord) but with a b6 which can also be found in the phrygian scale. Just think phrygian here. Then again, it could also be a maj7 chord in 3rd inversion as in Dbmaj7 with the 7th in the bass. Either way, the same major scale: C phrygian = Db lydian = Ab major.

Concept: triad min2 above the root = b9sus = phrygian, or a maj7 3rd inversion.
D/C - C-D-F#-A = 1-2-#4-6 = lydian assuming the bass note is the root. No 3rd or 7th here so a lot of reading between the lines. Looks like a Cmaj13#11 chord but since there is no 7th, could also be C13#11. It could also be an inverted D7 chord with the 7th in the bass. Both the D7 in 3rd inversion and the Cmaj13#11 can be approached the same way however because D mixolydian and C lydian are both a G major scale. My experience tells me that chord is generally not the dominant chord with the #11 but it is still a possibilty. You sometimes see this in a C-D/C progression which is so lydian it makes me want to barf.

Concept: triad maj2 above the root = maj13#11 or dominant 7th in 3rd inversion (same scale, lydian or mixolydian from the same major key) but there is a slim chance could be a 13#11 (lydian dominant) chord as well.
Eb/C - C-Eb-G-Bb = 1-b3-5-b7 = min7 as in Cmin7. Easy enough. There is another exeption where this could possibly be a trick from the h/w diminished scale making it a C7#9 chord. I'll get to this later...

Concept: triad min3 above the root = min7 (dorian, aolian, etc.. but could be a 7#9 chord if part of a h/w diminished harmony.
E/C - C-E-G#-B = 1-3-#5-7 = maj7#5 as in Cmaj7#5. Lydian Augmented.

Concept: triad maj3 above the root = maj#5 = lydian augmented.
F/C - C-F-A-C = 5-1-3-5 = ain't nothin' fancy here, just a triad in 2nd inversion, in this case a F triad with the 5th in the bass.

Concept: zippo
F#/C - C-F#-A#-C# - 1-#4-b7-b2 = a h/w diminished thing going on here. Looks like a 7(b9,#11) chord. More on this later...

Concept: triad a tritone from the root = 7(b7,#11) = h/w diminished.
G/C - C-G-B-D = 1-5-7-9 = No 3rd but safe to assume it is a maj9 chord.

Concept: triad a 5th above the root = maj9 = lydian or ionian.
Ab/C - C-Ab-C-Eb = 3-1-3-5 = triad in 1st inversion, a plain old Ab chord with a C in the bass.

Concept: nada
A/C - C-A-C#-E - 1-6-b2-3 = h/w diminished here as well, a C13b9 chord.

Concept: triad a 6th above the root = 13b9 = h/w diminished.
Bb/C - C-Bb-D-F - 1-b7-9-4 = usually a 9sus chord mixolydian in nature But... sometimes this chord can be a min11 chord. You have to check the context clues to know but sometimes it pops up after a min7 chord of the same name like this: Cmin7-Bb/C.

Concept: triad a 2nd down from the root = 9sus = mixolydian. But may be min11 as well and probably aolian or dorian.
B/C - C-B-D#-F# - 1-7-b3-b5 = strange chord but you get it as a i chord sometimes in minor keys. Looks like a min/maj7(b5).

Concept: triad a min2 down from the root = min/maj7(b5) = diminished scale.
Slash chords and the h/w diminished scale: Sometimes you get four triads played over the root a min3rd apart as a h/w diminished harmonic magic trick: C-Eb/C-F#/C-A/C. See the above examples to make sense of what I just said.

Remember, you can always just play the triad arpeggio and a lot of times a major pentatonic scale that matches the triad in the slash chord.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Lydian Dominant Mode and b5 Subs

Q: I played through this progression today:


I tried using lydian dominant over the G7 chord and it sounded ok, but not that great. I know its meant to be used over a non-resolving dominant but why??

A: Although I suppose you could use the lydian dominant scale over the V chord, it may not be your best choice. If the V chord in your progression is not altered in any way, it may just be best to stick with the major scale throughout the whole thing (C major for your example progression). The lydian dominant mode of the melodic minor scale is best used over the b5 sub (or tritone substitution if you prefer). Using your original progression as our model, try a Dmin7-Amin7-Db7-Cmaj7 progression using a C major scale over the first two chords and a Db lydian dominant scale (Ab melodic minor) over the Db7. The Db7 chord is the b5 sub, it is a dominant chord placed a tritone away from the V chord.

To give you a simple explanation of why you would want to do this in the first place, substitute another unaltered dominant chord a tritone (b5th) above your V chord: it is to simply create an altered tonality. A Db7 chord placed above a G bass note looks suspiciously like a G altered chord. Look for yourself: Db7/G = G-Db-F-Ab-Cb. Analyze the intervals: G is the root, Db is the b5th, F is the b7th, Ab is the b9th and Cb (B) is the 3rd. You see, the Db7/G chord is really a G7(b5,b9) chord.

Now for a magic trick... What would you play over a G7(b5,b9) chord? That's right, a G altered scale. What melodic minor scale is a G altered mode? It is a Ab melodic minor scale. Remember our b5 sub, a Db7 chord? I told you you would want to play a Db lydian dominant mode over it. What melodic minor scale is the same as a Db lydian dominant mode? Hmm... an Ab melodic minor scale. Do you see the whole picture here? Both the altered V chord and the b5 sub chord are really the same things.

The lydian dominant scale is also commonly used over vamps as well. If you want to learn more about the lydian dominant mode go to these links:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Avoid Notes

Q: My question is about avoid notes. There seems to be something about keeping an F over an Cmaj7 chord and for what I've read about it so far it has to do with the F clashing with the (major) E: E being one of the basic chord notes (3rd) and the F only being a half step apart. Can this be applied to other stuff: playing the C major scale notes over an E-7 will give me the phrygian feeling, but isn't then the flattened 2nd an avoid note too, although the flatened 2nd is characteristic of the phrygian mode?

A: I'm not a big subscriber to the "avoid note" concept. I think some of it may hold true for chords but as far as scales go, it depends completely on the chord you are playing over and the way it is voiced.

Granted there are some notes that have be handled with a little more care, but the musical caste system is a little too much. Let's take your example of the C major scale over an Emin7 chord. What makes this mode phrygian? It is the b2 (or b9) of the scale. If you were to avoid it completely, you wouldn't be playing phrygian anymore, you would be playing some kind of neutered scale. The b2 is possibly the most important note. Granted, it will want to resolve down to the root, so play it and let it resolve. Your ear might not be pleased with the effect of sitting on the note for a long time, so don't sit on it if your ear protests. The important thing to remember here is where the root is placed in the chord voicing makes a big difference. If the root is placed near the bottom of the chord voicing your ear will protest less about you playing the b2 in a higher register. Usually whatever note is on top of the chord is the strongest note. Also, remember that if you played the definitive phrygian chord, a sus(b9) the supposed avoid note, the b2 is going to become the un-avoid note.

Teachers love to divide thing up into good and bad but music doesn't really work that way. They will tell you that the 4th in the mixolydian scale should be avoided but if the chord you are playing over was a 9sus chord, it would be a great note to play. Okay, the 6th! That note has to be weak and avoided at all costs! Yeah, what if the chord were to be a 13th chord? For that matter, what if the chord was a 13sus chord? The 4th and 6th would be the notes to be shooting for in your solo.

Your ears will tell what is strong and weak anyway, believe in your ears and listen when you play and you should be okay. If there really were "avoid notes," musicians would have eliminated them from scales a long time ago.

Anyway, the point I am making is that any note in the chord is a strong note and any note not included is going to be weaker and possibly rub against the notes in the chord. In the latter case, they need not be avoided but treated with more care.

Developing a modal practice routine pt.1
Developing a modal practice routine pt.2
Got a question? I'll answer it if it's a good one!


Tonal Centers

Q: If I were to play, for example over a ii-V in the key of C (Dmin7-G7), is it correct to assume myself playing a D dorian scale over the Dmin7 chord and a G mixolydian scale over the G7 chord. Even though I would still be playing the C major scale, should I think of the scale as a different mode over each diatonic chord? I mean, over the G7 chord am I all of a sudden getting the mixolydian modal sound as opposed to the dorian sound over the chord before? Or should I simply be thinking that the whole thing is dorian?

A: I wouldn't think that much into it. Although, maybe technically you are playing a new mode over each chord, it is a little too much to consider. Think more in tonal centers. What is the sound of the C major scale played over a Dmin7-G7 progression? It is dorian. Whether you play a ii-V or a ii-iii-IV-V progression, the tonal center is revolving around the ii chord, the dorian chord. The only thing that would change this is if you had a functioning V chord resolve to a I chord, this cadence would automatically turn the center of the tonal universe to the I chord. But if the V chord doesn't resolve in a ii-V or something similar, the focus would be on the ii chord. I mean, if you were playing the C major scale over a I-vi-IV-V progression, would all of a sudden everything go minor sounding on the vi chord? Over the IV chord, would everything turn lydian? Even though you might be able to say that you were temporarily playing the aolian mode for a bar, it wouldn't sound so. Nor would the one bar of the IV chord sound lydian. The reason is simply because the major tonality of the major key has been determined, you have started on the I chord and that is what the ear will consider home. The only time it might be safe to think modally over each chord in a diatonic progression is if for example each chord was eight or more bars. I imagine the listener’s ear would start to hear each chord as a different tonal center.
Regardless, you would still be playing the same scale over the whole thing no matter what you named the scale when the diatonic chord changes.

Needless to say, that does not mean that you should take all chords that come after the first chord lightly, even though you might play the same scale over all the chords, you would want to pay special attention to each chord and maybe outline or shoot for chord tones especially on the strong beats where the chord changes. Your ears are your most important tools when improvising, I wouldn't worry too much about pasting names on the scale everytime the chords change, especially if the chords are diatonic to one key.

Links for modes:

Developing a modal practice routine pt.1
Developing a modal practice routine pt.2
Got a question? I'll answer it if it's a good one!


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Why The Major Scale?

Q: Why the major scale? Why is music based on it and who decided that the major scale is what we will create music from? Couldn't it just as well have been something else?

A: No, it couldn't have. I've always sort of assumed that the major scale was a result of physics but never thought much about it. I did a little research and found out something really interesting. Now, remember here I am not a musicologist, music historian, physicist or archeologist so I'm just giving you my opinion based on some facts, you can decide for yourself if I'm full of it or not.

Anyway, it turns out that several years ago Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist, found a bone fragment that looks like a flute. It is between 42,000 and 82,000 years old and was found at a Neanderthal campsite in Europe. I found the
essay on the web and believe me it is a hard read. The scale apparently plays part of the major scale which bugs a lot of academics because it possibly means that major scale may be the processor of the pentatonic scale and not the other way around. Some of these so called academics claim that a bear or wolf may have chewed on the bone and it was pure luck that it turned into a flute that plays the major scale (yeah right, and pigs are going to fly out of my butt!).

So what this says to me is that Neanderthal musicians were messing around with the major scale before we were (which bugs a different set of academics). Do you think it is it a coincidence that they found the major scale and we also did? That a completely different race at a completely different time based their music off of the same scale that we do? No, it leads one to the conclusion that the major scale is something created by some natural force and is most likely inescapable for the most part. Why would this be? I researched this too and it turns out that academics also fight about this as well (they give me a good crack up).

Anyway, the theory is that generally the interval of choice for the common ear is a fourth and fifth from the root. In other words if you were a normal person and sang or played a C note, you would be likely to sing the C note followed by a F note (the fourth) and/or a G note (a fifth) It is true, take it from me, music and especially bass movement favors 4ths and 5ths. If you play any of these notes against a C note, you get a fairly pleasing effect, very little dissonance. On the other hand any other intervals played against a the root creates a less pleasing effect. Therefore is seams pretty likely that these would be the intervals of choice even 80,000 years ago. Hold on to this thought while I explain something else.

Overtone Series - You also have this thing called the overtone series. When you play a note, you are really playing a few notes. If you listen real carefully you can hear it. I tried it the other day in the classroom to demonstrate the principle to my students. I played a C note real loud on my guitar and let it feed back. After a few seconds you can start to hear some other notes come out. What comes our besides our C note is a G note and to a lesser degree an E note. That is the overtone series. C = C, G and E. There are some other notes that come out too but don't concern yourself with them because they aren't really audible. Once again, besides your root, you get a 5th and a 3rd in that order.

Overtone Series and the major scale - Now let's go back to my last section, I said that C is generally followed by a F or G note. If we look at the harmonic overtones created by these three combined notes, we get this:

C = C, G, E
F = F, C, A
G = G, D, B

Now combine all these notes in order from low to high: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Wow, it's the major scale! Pretty cool! That is the theory anyway, and academics fight about this too. I'm probably going to get some slack too for writing this as well. I always get hate mail from academics who hate my simplicity. When I wrote about the "Baroque Police" and "Mr. Rodgers Diatonic Neighborhood" I got a bunch of hate mail.

But that is why the major scale is the basis for what we do, physics has made it inescapable. I would even suggest that if there is life on other planets there is a pretty good chance that they too are making music somewhat based on the major scale. Let's petition NASA to test the overtone series on Mars next time they send a probe. I mean, they bring worms on the space shuttle, why not musical instruments? Hell, I'll bring my guitar along! (Now I'm going to get hate mail from astronauts as well for making light of what they do with worms in space).

Full Free online lesson:
"Developing a Practice Routine" lesson list

The Infinite Guitar

The Infinite Guitar - I started adding a new lesson every month to my site. I guess it was just my way of spreading my knowledge of the electric guitar around. After all, I've had the opportunity and good fortune to study and work with some of the best musicians in the world and there are plenty of young aspiring guitarists who haven't had the same chances, either because of financial reasons or other hardships. Let's face it, it takes a lot of money to relocate to Los Angeles or New York to study music if you where born in a far away place. My site is my way of helping out, I added a new lesson every month for free. The response was overwhelming, thousands of guitarists subscribed to my newsletter and before long I was getting a thousand hits a day to my "lessons" page. What ended up happening is that a Japanese publisher asked me to rewrite the lessons for a book that they wanted to publish in Japan in Japanese. I didn't imagine I would get rich or anything but what the hell, sounded like a chance to learn something about the "book" business. I rewrote most of the lessons and added a bunch of other sections too and turned the rewritten 266 page book into them and they had it translated into Japanese and released the book. What I ended up with was an unpublished English version with no place to go. I originally considered searching for an American publisher but desided against it because I knew they would want to shorten it and/or charge too much for it which would make me a hypocrite. After all, I started the whole thing because I wanted aspiring guitarists all over the world to be able to study and grow without having to get themselves into financial ruin. So I decided to publish it myself and offer it for a price that most anyone could afford, $25 for the book and $15 for the PDF. Pretty cheap for a book that I think someone could use for years and years. Was it easy? Absolutely not, it was an enormous undertaking. It erased all my free time but I'm pretty sure it will be worth it. I wish I had this kind of book when I started out. For those of you who use my site as a recourse, continue to do so. The book will simply offer you the expanded lessons in the form of a book. A book is different than the internet, you can read it while you ride the train, lounge around on the beach or in bed. You can leave it on your coffee table and you can also teach from it. Some of the sections are lifted right from the site but there is plenty of new things too.

The popularity of "The Infinite Guitar" has led to an enormous amount of e-mail with specific questions. This is a good thing, it keeps me thinking and learning myself. I wanted to share these questions, and the answers with everyone so everyone gets a chance to learn too. Feel free to
e-mail questions anytime, they may get posted here with the answers.

The Infinite Guitar
Sample PDF