Friday, October 28, 2011

Understanding the fretboard

Anyone who has played guitar for any length of time comes to appreciate the power of movable shapes; the shapes your hands form when you move up and down the neck when playing power or barre chords.

Maybe you haven't formally expanded on what this truly means, or how powerful that little bit of information can be. So this post is designed to investigate this further and help you see the neck in a whole new way.

The Shapes of Things
The guitar, because of its tuning, lends itself perfectly to repeating shapes. If you take any finger pattern and move it up the neck, the notes change, but it won't change the type of chord or scale or arpeggio etc. (i.e.: Major, minor, etc).  So a CMaj chord, slid up one fret, becomes a C#Maj chord. If you move it again, it becomes a DMaj form. If you are playing an F diminished arpeggio and you move it, it is still a diminished arpeggio. It is now F# diminished... blah, blah, blah. You get it, right? Good.

Let's take a look at the chart at the top of this post. Click the image to download it as a pdf. At the top of the chart, I show the pentatonic minor scale form, neck-wide. It shows all five fingerings, ending back at the first fingering. In the second diagram, I want to focus on the first form, and is highlighted so you can see it clearly. On the bottom diagram, I use the first four notes of the scale and colour-code them. I have removed all the other notes of the scale for added clarity. Notice that no matter which root note you begin on, the shape is unchanged. You can continue on up the scale from that point and all the associated fingerings remain right where they should be.

Liar!! Liar!!
I hope you notice that the shape seems to change as you cross the B string. In truth, the shape doesn't change; it just gets adjusted for that pesky B string. If the guitar was tuned consistently across the 5th fret, then it wouldn't change at all. My previous entry was designed to help explain why that happens. Read over that if this aspect confuses you. The B string is one of the instrument's little hiccups. The sooner you understand how it affects you, the better.

So as you can see, if you know any pattern for any specific chord, scale, arpeggio etc, all you need to do is find the closest root and apply it. Try practicing this with a major scale form, then a minor, then try some altered stuff like the melodic minor; whatever your taste. Wander up and down the neck to hook into the next root pattern and riff your brains out.

Extra Credit Reading
Pick up the masterful Jon Finn's book,  "Advanced Modern Rock Guitar Improvisation".  He does a wonderful job explaining this concept in greater detail.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fretboard Geography - understanding the B string

I want to take a minute to address one of the very basic pillars of the guitar. In future posts, we will be discussing more advanced topics where this becomes a 'given'.  So in preparation for that, you more advanced players please bear with me as we bring some of the newbies up to speed.

I am sure many of you newcomers to the instrument have a common reaction when you learn about tuning: "What the heck is with the B string?". Whenever I teach someone how to tune a guitar for the first time, they always ask "why is the B string tuned at the 4th fret instead of the fifth like the others?". I always answer pretty much the same way:

"Because it Just is"
(nice teacher huh?) I usually follow that with "You will grow to understand why as you learn more chord forms". This really is the crux of the reason (I mean aside from the uneven tone/semitone pattern the musical notes are governed). It just ISN'T mathematically even. But rest assured, knowing that the designers of the instrument were pretty smart cookies. Imagine all the chords you know, with the notes on the high E and B string back one fret - what a mess! This offset truly makes the best of a bad seeming situation. So let's just accept it as it "is" and discuss understanding how to deal with it.

The Conveyor Belt
Many different people over the years have come up with many different ways to describe the tuning anomalies affect on fingerings. My favourite is Jon Finn's "Warp Refraction Threshold". To me, it is most simply described as being akin to a conveyor belt; meaning all notes on the B string slide forward by one fret in order to correct the offset in tuning. Like on an airport conveyor belt... any note on it makes the journey forward before continuing on.

Click on the images below and you will see animated versions that demonstrate. As you can see, if the guitar were tuned straight across at the 5th fret, then the high two strings would become C & F (as opposed to B & E). I created a uniform geometric scale fingering to more clearly show how the shape is effected by the 4th fret tuning. As you cross from the G to the B string, there is a momentary shift upwards by one fret. So, to reiterate, the effect happens as you cross from the G to B string.

With this in mind, let's look at how this offset affects chord forms. In the below diagram (again, click to view),  I placed a Major barre chord form. Let's say we want to move that whole shape up to a higher string. As you cross the B string you see that we need to raise the note on that string (conveyor) up by one fret. The resulting shape should be familiar to most of you.

This anomaly effects all shapes on the guitar. Chords, scales, you name it. When you cross the B string, you have to alter your pattern to adjust. One of the strengths of the guitar is that it is very shape-friendly... meaning you can take any pattern, starting on any note, and apply a shape to it. This results in the desired chord or scale. The problem is many newbies fail to make this observation; giving them the unnecessary feeling that there are a vast number of more shapes to learn.

So take a minute and spend some time drawing out some scale forms and chords. I think if you look closely, armed with this post's info, you will discover some things that may have eluded you in the past.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pentatonic Spice - Adding Major sounds to your boxes - Part 3 of 3

OK folks, so here we are at the end of the line with this series. In Part One, we discussed Adding minor Modal Spices to your pentatonic box. In Part Two, we did Blues Sounds. So here, in Part Three, let's talk about Adding Major Tonalities. By the way, if you haven't checked out those previous entries, I suggest you do as some of those concepts are expanded on here.

Major Pentatonic? What the...?
I remember the first time I realized a player was using a Major pentatonic for soloing instead of the usual minor approach (I believe it was Lesley West on Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" if I am not mistaken). It absolutely blew my mind that if I use my pinky as the root, instead of my index finger, then the SAME scale suddenly became Major! DAMN! All of a sudden, in that instant, I doubled my scale knowledge. Before that moment, and the subsequent digging that followed, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a Major pentatonic (this is what happens when a 12 year old self-teaches!).

So for those of you who are at this level, hopefully that same door just opened for you (make the cheque payable to Jer... : ).

Let's assume that we now all know that a Major scale and a minor scale are the same fingering, but in a different location. Let's move on to the point of this entry -- adding new sounds to that Major skeleton.

There are three Major modal shapes that can be used to create different sounds.
They are:

  • Ionian (the I chord sound)
  • Lydian (the IV chord sound)
  • Mixolydian (the V chord sound)

If these terms are confusing to you, you may want to read my post on Interval ID (click here).

Download this chart I prepared and take a peek. At the top of the chart, you will see an unaltered Major pentatonic scale. I darkened the root note so you can see which note will be used to make it Major. For example, if you want to play A-Major Pentatonic, place your pinky on the 5th fret (A) of the low E-string and play the scale. This scale is the same exact fingering as F#min. Even though its the exact same fingering, the focus of the tonality shifts to the note 'A' as opposed to F#. If you play this A-Scale over an A-chord, you will hear a distinctly brighter or happier tonality. This is the vibe of the Major scale. Incidentally, country players typically use a pentatonic scale in its Major form. So if you are at a jam night or around a campfire, this little insight can be quite handy!

Referring to the chart again, below the unaltered form, there are three above-mentioned modal forms. I have colourized the added notes, so memorize the additions and apply at will.

The pentatonic Major works best over -- you guessed it -- Major chords... but it also works great on more ambiguous chords like dominants. A dominant chord, or (7) chord, has a Major 3rd like a Major chord, but a minor 7th like a minor chord. This is why dominant chords are frequently used in blues and jazz or any improvisation-based music. Over dominants, your scale choices for improvs are truly many because of this ambiguity. But I digress.

Adding to the pentatonic framework can be a very powerful and quick way to increase your knowledge of the neck. Once you have all three parts to this series down cold, you should have a large working palette of musical colours to choose from.

How Do I Practice This?
Set up a loop or a backing track and spend time with each and every scale form. Try to understand its distinct sounds and tonal colours. I think it is VERY important to form an opinion on them and find a way to catalog these sounds in your mind. This kind of 'mental tagging' can come in very handy when you are searching for a specific sound during an improvised solo. The more time you spend with each of them, the more natural they will sound when you use them.

Next Steps
Take each one of these forms, with their added notes, and apply it to the other five shapes of the pentatonic scale. Learn this form first, then move on each side of it, practicing the neighbouring shapes as you work outwards to one day mastering the entire neck. I would work on the ones to either side of this first form (so if this is form 1, then do form 2 and 5 first). Doing it this way allows you to apply it quicker. 

With all these forms mastered, imagine the freedom this could bring to your playing. Better still, you won't be stuck in a box any longer. Take your old cliche licks and rework them with these new spices.

Good luck! Hit me up if you have questions or add comments below if you think something needs expanding.

Below are some samples of all scales covered in parts one to three. For the sake of consistency, even though it may not be the best choice for Major pentatonic application, I kept the same backing track on all takes. That's right. There is no "one size fits all" application for any of these. You must put in the time, then use your taste and judgement to determine when or when not to call for that sound. Have fun and pay me back by making some truly great music for us all!

Sixstringobsession files by Jeremy_green

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pat Metheny - improvised chord etudes

Check out this rather astounding video of Pat Metheny demonstrating his warm-ups routine. On the fly, he improvises chord etudes... That's right, just makes em up on the fly... gulp!

Pat is a true genius and quite possibly the greatest guitarist of our time. I am sure he spent considerable hours working this up to this level. What this demonstrates to me is how important the focus on practicing being musical is. If you PRACTICE making music... AT ALL TIMES. When you play live, that is what you will come out. So even when working on mundane scales and arpeggios, with Pat's approach, you can learn the fingerings certainly... But also something far more valuable - how to use them musically.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pentatonic - power workout

Just came across a timely pentatonic workout that ties in with the series I have been presenting. Check it out.