Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pentatonic Scales

Q: The way you use pentatonic scales fascinates me. Not only does it sound cool, it is easy since most of us already know the patterns. In your book and on your site lesson: superimposing pentatonic scales, you describe the guidelines perfectly well (as in "play a minor pentatonic scale on the 3rd, 6th and 7th of any major chord") but what is the theory behind this? How and why does it work?

A: Good question. I suppose you are at the point in your studies where you need to question these things. I did the same thing a long time ago. I learned about the concept of superimposing minor pentatonic scales years ago and by simply memorizing the rules I could apply the concept any time I saw fit. Let's review the basic rules:

For a major chord:

Play a minor pentatonic scale on the 3rd, 6th and/or 7th degree of the chord

Let's try it. Record yourself a long Cmaj7 or Cmaj9 vamp. What is the 3rd, 6th and 7th of this chord? The 3rd is E, the 6th is A and the 7th is B. If you can't understand this yet, this lesson is too much for you so you should go back and study theory starting with scales, chords and intervals. Go here for that lesson >>>

It doesn't matter what scale pattern you play as long as you play the proper pentatonic scales. E is the 3rd of the C chord so you can play an E minor pentatonic scale. Try it and you'll see. Be a little careful though because the usual lines you play might not work as well but in general all the notes are OK. 

Why does it work? Well, the best way to figure that out is by comparing the chord to the scale. Let's see, the scale looks like this:

E-G-A-B-D and compared to the chord, these notes are the 3-5-6-7-2 of the C major chord. These are all very consonant tones and match the chord with little rubbing or grinding. it actually looks like a C69 chord if you place all the notes on top of each other.

Next, let's look at the minor pentatonic scale from the 6th. The 6th of C is A so an A minor pentatonic scale is what we are looking for. The A minor pentatonic scale looks like this:

A-C-D-E-G and compared to the C chord: 6-1-2-3-5. All perfectly nice sounding notes over the C major chord. I bet someone out there figured this out already but what we have created is simply the C major pentatonic scale with here. Right? A minor pentatonic and C major pentatonic are the same scales.

Next up, the minor pentatonic scale on the 7th. The 7th of C is B so B minor pentatonic is what we're looking for: B-D-E-F#-A or 7-2-3-#4-6. Now this looks very lydian to me because of the #4 (or #11 if you prefer).

All three of these scales combined give you the C lydian scale. Check it out yourself. C lydian: C-D-E-F#-G-A-B or 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7

Now, go on, get to work. Over your Cmaj9 vamp, try all three of these scales. 

The pentatonic scales always intrigue me because by simply taking 2 notes away from the 7 note scale you get something that actually has more personality. Less is more sometimes.

The next thing I did is look for the minor pentatonic scale patterns inside the scale itself. I mean, if all three pentatonic scale combined look like the lydian scale, all three must be inside somewhere. Take a look:

C lydian

Look, here is an E minor pentatonic scale:

And an A minor pentatonic scale:

And finally a B minor pentatonic scale:

Can you see that they are all inside the lydian scale?

We used our ears to make sure these scales work right? Next we used our eyes by looking inside the lydian scale and finding the three minor pentatonic scales. 

Now we'll use our brain. You can see this one more way. Remembering that there is a major pentatonic scale for every minor pentatonic scale:

E minor = G major 
A minor = C major and 
B minor = D major. 

Now look at the diatonic chords in the key of G major (G major is the same as C lydian):

G - Amin - Bmin - C - D - Emin- F#dim

Are you getting my point here? The three diatonic minor and the three diatonic major chords = the same three minor and major pentatonic scales that work over our C chord.

I've basically examined the minor pentatonic scales that work over major family chords. If you want to investigate more, go to the original lesson >>>

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Recording Sessions

Q: What is the best way to prepare for session work? How did you put your self in a position that you could go into the studio and put the perfect part to a song that you had never heard before? And do it in a few takes. What should I study and how should I prepare? 'The Empowered Musician' gave some good ideas. But how do you go from playing a rock session to playing a soul session and make them both sound convincing?

A: My take on recording:

1. Half the battle is your sound. Going from Rock to Soul or anything else for that matter has a lot to do with your guitar and amp. Listen to some of the best players and ask yourself how he is getting that sound. Is it a telecaster or a Les Paul? Which pickup is being used? Is it a Marshall, Fender or VOX?

2. Simple is usually better unless they say otherwise. You always play more than you think (at least I do) so simplifying isn't a bad thing. A lot of Soul for example is just a convincing chord on 2 and 4 and nothing more. Conviction and a good tone count for just about everything sometimes.

3. Sessions are mostly done at home these days. If you had emailed me ten years ago, I would have told you to get your reading chops together. But these days I would tell you to get your recording chops together. At the college I run here in Tokyo I've made protools a required course for all students. Reading is obviously important but when you record parts at home you have very little time restrictions. You have to send the client a dry wav file but I'll often mix the guitar wet against the track to show them how I imagine the part should be mixed. So I send the dry wav plus a mixed mp3 of the song. Of course the client will mix it how he likes but sometimes it helps to give them an image. The problem with recording at home is the utter lack of conversation and creative input. You don't get any chance to talk to the other musicians about how to come up with something fun and interesting anymore or how the part could be mixed with the engineer or producer.

4. Good working instruments. Things that you sort of take for granted will screw up your sessions. You really have to make sure that your intonation is right on and there isn't any blatant fret buzz. I used my old Strat on a session recently and realized that the guitar isn't perfectly in tune all over the place. On the song I was doing, I had to play arpeggios up and down the neck on the top strings and I found that a D chord down at the bottom was in tune but when I played the D chord in the middle of the neck, it wasn't really in tune. My Strat is old and I don't think they were very particular about intonation in those days. The guitar is great for a Blues or something like that but won't really cut it for a modern sounding track. This sort of goes back to answer #1 but picking the instrument is important.

5. Be prepared to change your approach. Sometimes you think a Strat is right and the producer wants a Les Paul sound. It's as simple as that. Be prepared to switch instruments. Sometimes you think busy is good and the producer wants something simple.

6. Know a lot of music. If you want to come up with good parts, learn a bunch of music. Buy yourself the best of Wilson Picket and learn the songs and you'll be able to come up with good Soul parts. Buy yourself a Mike Landau CD and listen to all the sounds he gets. It's all about experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Quick Question About The Blues...

Q: Hey Chris, I’ve been working through some of the exercises in your book (specifically harmonizing the Major scale) and wondered about the standard Blues progression. People will often say ‘Play a blues in G Major’  Now this isn’t a diatonic progression – G7 is the V chord from C Maj, C7 is the V chord from E Major and D7 is the V chord from G Major. So why would this be referred to as a Blues in G Major. Is it just that the Blues progression is a kind of special case, that sits outside the normal diatonic rules? A basic question I know, but the harmonizing exercises in your book have got me thinking about this sort of thing. 

A: Generally, at least in my circle of partners in crime, we say "Play a Blues in G" or "Play a minor Blues in G." Or even "Play a Jazz Blues in G."  But not so often a "Blues in G major" it isn't wrong of course but sort of unnecessary. I guess you might say "major" just to make sure the person you are talking to doesn't play a minor Blues, but I think most players wouldn't confuse a Blues with a minor Blues.

When you try to make theoretic sense of a Blues it doesn't usually work out to well. If you had a time machine and went back to Bach's time and explained (in German) in pure theoretical terms about this style called the Blues, he would probably think you a nut case. Of course we know from playing it and listening to it, it works out pretty well though, at least to our modern ears.

It is sort of diatonic and I say that because it is based on the I, IV and V chords of one key. The "sort of" is because we change the I and IV chords to dominant chords. If St. Peter wouldn't let me through the pearly gates unless I could explain why the I chord is dominant in the Blues, I suppose I could tell him that it sort of functions as a V/IV chord. Right? a C7 in the key of C is the V chord of the IV chord. C7 goes nicely to F, a secondary dominant chord.

The dominant IV chord can't really be explained but if I had to come up with some sort of explanation at gunpoint, and I'm not really sure this is right, but I would say that as we like to play a minor pentatonic scale over the progression, the minor 3rd in the scale, is the b7 in the dominant IV chord. Right? the Eb note in the C minor pentatonic scale is the b7th of an F7 chord. Maybe that has something to do with it, but I'm not sure. The dominant V chord doesn't need much explaining.

All in all, the truth is that slaves liked the way that the minor pentatonic scale sounded of the white man's I-IV-V progression. And the major triads eventually turned into dominant chords. Maybe because of the b3rd in the scale but that is just a guess on my part. 

Monday, June 27, 2011


It took about a year and a half but its finally done. I've started publishing a companion series for THE INFINITE GUITAR. As IG was, for the most part, a big fat theory book for the guitar, I felt that a method book was important and I started with this one. Volume 1 is dedicated entirely to imrov based on the major scale, major scale modes, pentatonic scales and the diatonic arpeggios inherent of all the major scale patterns. There is 224 pages of exercises.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Writing Music - Art or Science

Q: I'll Start off by saying that I'm really digging the Prospects album. Anyhow, lately I've been getting really interested in the art of composing music and writing songs. Is it necessary to have a repertoire of cover songs (for educational purposes?) to begin composing my own music? Did you have a vast repertoire of cover songs before you began composing, or did you start composing/writing songs out of the blue? Did any other composers that you know of do the same/different?  This question has been on my mind for a very long time, but I have no connections with the experience to give me a proper answer. Thanks in advance for any advice you might have. 

A: Thanks, glad you are digging my CD. Good question too. Now remember here, writing music is a personal experience and it is part art and science. And depending on who does this writing, the balance or ratio of art and science changes.

Art and Science - When I say art, I mean writing by pure musical instinct, for the lack of better words. When I say science, I'm mostly referring to music theory. As you might know, you can write music to some degree using strictly theory. Whether or not the music will be stimulating or not is a different story. Even people who don't technically know music theory sometimes use it and don't even know they are. Theory is sometimes learned through experience and if you learned every Beatles song by ear and sort of figured out how they write, without knowing it you would be learning about secondary dominant chords and borrowed chords. Even though they didn't technically know in theoretic terms what they were doing, they were using a very standard musical theory that they certainly used by experience. I use both aspects to some degree when writing and depending on the song, this ratio of art and science changes somewhat.

Templates - There is also something that I call templates. This kind of music, or at least the chord progression is pretty much pre-determined. Two typical examples would be the "Blues" and "Rhythm Changes." There are variations on both, like a Minor Blues, Eight Bar or Jazz Blues. Rhythm Changes also have a pre-determined set of changes and the variations on these changes include various substitutions.
For the most part, composers might use the "template" progression as is, and compose a melody over the top. Anybody who plays the Blues, knows about this.

Learning From Others - Some people will tell you that you shouldn't learn from other people's compositions because you'll never get an original sound of your own. I say that is the the stupidest advice I have ever heard. Out of all the great writers that I know, they all, and I mean every one of them learned through learning other composers music first. Whether they conceptualized everything using theory or not is a different story but regardless, they internalized certain tricks of the trade. So my best advice for you is to learn as many songs as you can and try to figure out how they came up with their hooks.

Me Personally - Since you are listening to "Prospects" let's see if I can't give you some background on how I came up with some of the songs. The methods may surprise you to some extent. The opening song, "Prospects" was basically an exercise or at least an assignment by my rhythm guitar teacher in college. I won't get into the details but it is all based on theory. I added in a little musical sense and made it musical. I basically wanted to do something lydian and that was my motivation.
Chart >>>

"When Love Greets You" - the second song isn't based on any sort of traditional theory but I was able to write it because I played so many Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock songs over the years. There isn't much functional diatonic harmony going on but I learned from his music how to use 9ths and 7ths as melody notes. It is really pure influence so if I never played Wayne's songs from the Real Book, I could have never written a song like this (not to say that I can write anything as well as Wayne Shorter).
Chart >>>

"Extraordinaire" - The next song is what I previously called a "Template Song." It is mostly based on a minor blues. And I couldn't have possibly written this song without having played a million other minor blues, like "Equinox" or "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" before hand.

So you can see my experiences helped me write all the music. I personally don't believe you can learn to be a musician in a musical vacuum so I suggest you copy and analyze as many songs as possible.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

How Do You Get That Tone?

Q: I was listening to you play on the YouTube video, the one of recording a Blues in a recording studio. How do you get that sound? I want it for myself. Are you using some sort of overdrive or something? Can you tell me how to get a similar sound?

A: It really isn't that complicated. You really have to start with the basics, meaning amps and guitars. 

Amps: I'm really old school about getting my tone. I like Marshall amps. Actually that's not really true, what I mean is that I like the sound of Marshall amps. I'm not sure that I like Marshall amps anymore because they seem to stop working on me and they don't all sound the same and on top of that, their effect loops on some of their models are weird. But when they sound and work right, I love them. There are other makers that duplicate what a Marshall should sound like but as I don't have an artist deal with any amp makers, I don't really want to advertise for anyone. But basically I like the sound or British type amps, the ones with EL34 power amp tubes and 12AX7 pre-amp tubes. The amp you hear in the recoding is a 100 watt Marshall half stack. I'm actually not sure which model because I don't usually pay very much attention, with a little tweaking I can generally make any of them sound the way I like. Anyway, I like to get about 75% of my overdrive and tone from the amp. 

Amp Tone: Marshalls are easy to set although most guys don't know how. Basically you crank up the bass and mids and keep the treble down with the presence mostly off. Maybe like this (in clock settings): Bass: 3:00, Mid: 1:00, Treble: 10:00, Presence: Off or maybe add just a tiny bit. Now this totally depends on your guitar and the room. If the amp is sitting on carpet rather than on a wood floor, things change a little. I like 100 watt Marshall (type) amps because the bass response is the way I like it. I know that those little 18 watt amps are popular (and I have a few myself) but they don't have a nice bass response like a blasting 100 watt Marshall (type) amp.

Gain: I don't blast the gain on the amp, I keep it at about 4 or 5. Some or the newer Marshall amps are wired to have more gain than their older versions so you have to use your sense. I usually have the amp volume around 4 or 5 (this is generally enough to piss off a sound man in a medium sized venue). Anything under 4 will lead to less round tone. Basically I want a crunchy sound, just about short of being able to play a singing guitar solo. Shoot for a great crunchy rhythm sound. I'll explain how to make it sing later. What you should do next is experiment with your pickup selector, tone knob and volume knobs.

Guitar Tone and Volume: Most Strats aren't wired right. You would figure somebody would get it right after all these years but not that many makers (other than the best ones) have figured it out. You want one volume knob, and two tone knobs. The volume knob is obviously wired to all the pickups and one tone knob is wired to the neck position pickup and the other to the bridge position pickup. The problem is that if you set your amp tone for the bridge pickup, you will find that your neck position pickup will sound muddy. If you set your amp tone to your neck position pickup, your neck position pickup will sound shrill and hurt your ears. You want to set your tone for your neck position pickup and roll off highs from your bridge position pickup, so obviously if you don't have a tone knob for your bridge pickup, you can't do this. This way you can use both pickups without one being too much of something or the other. Some guys will set their tone to the middle pickup. You should also be able to roll back volume from your guitar and clean it up almost completely. I don't generally use a two channel amp unless I need something absolutely distortion free for some reason or another. In the video, I have my guitar volume turned down to about 7 or 8 and the bridge pickup's tone down at about 4 (although I'm not sure I use this pickup at all in the recording). I think I exclusively use the neck pickup. 

Guitars: The guitar on the video was made for me by Devilstone but it is just a Strat for the most part and is somewhat reasonable price wise. It is made from Alder. I think Alder sounds great and have never really liked the sound of fancy wood. My pickups are vintage Strat style pickups, nothing special at all really. If there is anything unusual about the guitar on the video, it is that the bridge saddles are titanium ones made by KTS. They tighten up my tone and keep me from breaking strings. Besides this guitar I play a vintage Strat and an Xotic guitar that I also like. I like Les Paul sounding guitars as well and of course Telecasters. Now that you have a nice even tone and can manipulate your guitar's tone and volume knobs to create a whole range of sounds between all pickups, you'll need to use something to make your guitar sing for your solos.

Boost/Overdrive: This is where you want to plug in a booster to raise things a few decibels and add some singing sustain. Stevie Ray Vaughn used a Tube Screamer. I'm using an Xotic BB + in this video but these days I use Xotic's EP Booster. Basically you want the volume all the way up on the box, with the gain down to like 1. I know this is different from what most people tell you but it is true. I personally think the worst sound is a clean amp with a distortion box with the gain all the way up. I prefer a distorted amp with a slight bit of overdrive for my solos. Don't forget to play with your guitar volume and tone knobs because there are all sorts of interesting and different sounds you can find.

Delay: I'm crazy for delay but won't use a box in the studio. Obviously you want to put that on after. If you record with a bunch of effects already on your guitar, you are stuck with it. You also have to match up the repeats with the tempo of the song which is difficult with a stomp box. Live is a different story. In this case, I run the delay pedal in the amp's effect loop.  

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