Hidden Scales (or the Last Guitar Column You Need to Read*)

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*Not really

As I age, I tend to get lazier as a guitar player. I like to rely on patterns. A lot. This laziness isn’t completely unwarranted. I mean I do love everything about guitars. Playing them. Hearing them. Looking at them – guitarcenter.com is like a girlie mag for my old age. However, I realized long ago that I would never be a hotshot guitar player no matter how much all the guitar mags want me to think I can be. And as I got older, I realized that putting a great deal of effort into memorizing tons of different shapes no longer holds appeal for me. Then one day, while procrastinating working, I was reading a guitar thread where a user briefly mentioned how major keys can be made up of other scales found within that particular set of notes.

Intrigued, I started thinking about it.

I thought about it a lot. Heck, I even made an excel spreadsheet as a visual aid.

Excel spreadsheet, you say. Wow it must be serious. Show me a PowerPoint presentation.

Hey let’s not get carried away for gosh sakes, it’s only guitar stuff.

What if I told you I discovered the Ark, the Fountain of Youth, and the Holy Grail of guitar playing? And, unbelievably, it was based on the one scale pattern most guitar players probably already know? At first I seriously doubted my hypothesis, because I really thought this concept was much too easy an explanation to actually be worth anything musically. Like it was such an obvious answer to navigating the fretboard that there was no possible way it would actually work. I don’t recall ever reading about this idea in the guitar magazines or music theory books I have read. It was like Cold Fusion and just didn’t seem like it should be workable. But the idea was intriguing and kept pulling me back. Like the movie Inception but with strings and tuners. I had to investigate to see if I was onto something or if this was just some tinfoil-hatted theory. So I started doing the (sigh) work and made the aforementioned chart found below.

Let’s get to it.

This idea hinges on the fact that you already know the difference between major and minor pentatonic scales and how both can be played using the same pattern, but starting on different frets. In this situation, the same pentatonic shape can work as both major and minor depending on which note is considered the root. Root on the index finger – the scale is minor. Root on the pinky – the scale is major.  For example A-Minor pentatonic starts on the 5th fret of the low E string. If you take this pattern and move it three frets toward the headstock you are in A-Major. How’s that for versatility?  I like to use a couple different pentatonic patterns, but that’s the nice thing about guitars. Scale shapes like this are easily movable and adaptable based on your level of fretboard knowledge. For our purposes remember, minor scales are considered the same as their relative major scales.

Now for the chart. Listen carefully.

The top row lists the all of the triads that make up the harmonized C-Major scale (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii°), but you can move this to any major scale. In the columns below the triad names, I have listed the corresponding major/minor pentatonic scale that will work over that chord when played within the context of a chord progression. Then, depending on whether the chord is major or minor, you can use those scales that correspond with the root of the chord. If the chord is major, use the major pentatonic. If it is minor, use the minor pentatonic. Say you are in the key of C-Major. If the chord sequence is using a ii (D min) chord, you can use the D-minor pentatonic scale over that chord. The corresponding scales are comprised of notes found in the major scale used in the main composition. I have color-coded the columns so you can see that none of the notes in the various pentatonic scales are outside of the notes within the “parent” scale of C-major. Interestingly, this approach is almost like being able to understand the modes, (you know – Oneian, Twoian, Threegian, Fourdian, Fivolydian, Sixolian, Loyoucrazian), without actually having to understand the modes.

Now, understandably, this may be a little simplistic for an advanced player. However, for a beginner, or for a non-hotshot guitarist like myself, it is a pretty easy way to grasp the concept of playing to the chord changes rather than staying in the same position throughout an entire progression. Additionally it will help with fretboard fluidity and fluency. The nice thing about this approach for the learning guitarist is that it doesn’t require memorizing a ton of different shapes. Knowing one or two pentatonic shapes and how they can be moved from major to minor is all it requires and should give you a pretty good start to moving around the neck while learning to stay in key over the changes. Give it a try.

chart

Professor P.
-World’s okayest, self-taughtiest, basement-leveliest guitar player.

My Theory of Relativity (or E-Minor = G-Major)

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Some things are just meant to go together: Yin and Yang, peanut butter and chocolate, bacon and everything. Separately and individually these components are perfectly fine, but when mixed together they become sort of remarkable. The blend highlights characteristics of each that otherwise might be overlooked.

But as an aspiring gourmand, it isn’t always easy to identify exactly what those subtle flavors are, much less how or why certain ingredients go together. One has to educate the palate in order to appreciate the nuances. In other words, it takes time and practice to fully appreciate the full flavor profile, rather than simply stuffing your face to satisfy the primal feeling of hunger.

As a novice guitarist, memorizing the major and the minor scale shapes took about all of the mental bandwidth I had available. Just getting the motions under my fingers took most of my concentration, so I didn’t really have the added mental capacity to further analyze what I was doing from a musical perspective. As a slacker, it’s easy to fall into this pattern, especially on an instrument like guitar when there is so much to learn, like power chords and making cool faces, bro. Duh! Sticking with the food metaphor, I was more worried about easing my hunger (learning the shapes) than I was about how it tasted, or in this case how it sounded.

Eventually a teacher told me that a natural minor scale has the same notes as the parent major scale, but with a different tonal center. Beyond learning the definition to regurgitate on the exam, I never really gave much thought to relative keys when making my own music, and I continued to practice both major and minor scales on the guitar without fully understanding how they can and do complement each other. For example, the E-minor scale is the relative minor of the G-major scale, but starts on a different note: E, which is the sixth degree of the G-major scale. Fundamentally the two scales share the same notes, but the fingering patterns found within each scale shape lend themselves to different musical licks and melodic phrases.

One day, while reading some pop-physics book, I was contemplating Relativity and for some reason the mostly forgotten concept of the relative minor scale was jarred loose from the sediment and started rattling around in my head:

  • “Hmmm,” I thought. “‘Relative’ means two things are connected.” (Rattle).
  • “The major scale is connected to its relative minor.” (Rattle, rattle)
  • “Ah Ha. Same tasty notes, different chewy center.” (Rattle, rattle)

Then a lightbulb went on as I began to wonder what would happen if I played a relative minor scale over a major chord progression. “I bet it’ll be like how a good beer can bring out the flavor of a decent cheeseburger.”

Musically speaking, a mixture of lines from the major scale mixed with lines from the relative minor scale can sound really good when intertwined and overlapped with each other in the context of a major chord progression. It’s like adding salt to bland French fries or sugar to sour strawberries. It enhances what is there without completely changing the deliciousness.

Try this recipe out  and see for yourself:

  • Take a basic progression in G-major: G, C, D (or I, IV, V), and play the G-major pentatonic scale: G-A-B-D-E-G over that.
  • Then take the same progression and play E-minor pentatonic: E-G-A-B-D-E over it.
  • Use the same progression again, but this time alternate playing G-major and E-minor throughout.

The major and minor approaches sound OK, right? Notice what happens when you alternate licks from each pattern. Once you get the hang of it, you should start to notice that — in much the same way a wine brings out the best flavors in a steak — blending relative scales like this brings a new level of sophistication and nuance to your playing and hopefully this will inspire you to find other connections as well.

Just remember:

 

Take your time.

 

Let it breathe.

 

Savor the flavor.

 

Bon appetit.

Goin’ Round Again

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For those who are familiar with Battlestar Galactica 2003 “re-imagining” this lesson may tread on familiar ground, er space. For those of you who are not familiar, jump on Whateverflix, or whichever service is your preferred purveyor of sci fi awesomeness and watch it now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It is that good. One of the themes of that show is (if you haven’t watched it by now, you aren’t going to so I don’t care about spoilers) all things repeat. There is a circular nature to the universe inhabited by those characters. This cyclical property of the BSG universe was illustrated in the fact that history would eventually repeat itself, as well as in the fact that there were multiple copies of the same person (can never have too much #6) in the form of the antagonists.

Or to put it another way.

Oh no, here it comes again
Can’t remember when we came so close to love before
Hold on, good things never last
Nothing’s in the past, it always seems to come again
Again and again and again ooh again oh

Black Sabbath
Neon Knights
Sung by the late, great, Ronnie James  Dio

Science fiction philosophizing aside, a similar symmetry can be found when it comes to finding notes on the guitar. After I had been playing a few years, it was pretty easy for me to find notes that were an octave apart on the Low E, A, D, and G strings. Finding notes is no big deal on the guitar, right? Then a DaM* exploded in my head  about 5 years ago when I was watching an episode of the PBS show “The Piano Guy”.  He was talking to the camera about something while simultaneously performing these seemingly complex (they seemed complex to me at least) runs up and down the piano keyboard. He then explained how he was performing those runs. He was just playing the same sequence of notes over and over, BUT he was moving the starting points up or down to different octaves. In other words he was just repeating himself over and over. Sometimes it would be a sequence of 5 notes. Other times it was 3 notes. It was all very casual and nonchalant and after he explained what he was doing, the idea clicked inside my head and I was like DaMmmmmmm. I realized I could apply this repetitive technique to the scales on the guitar.

What do I mean?

To illustrate this point let’s keep this sweet and easy and take a look at the first three notes of the major scale as I like to play it on the guitar. Here are the instructions:

Part A.

Step 1. Play any note on the 6th (Low E) string.

Step 2. Move two frets up toward the body and play the corresponding note.

Step 3. See Step 2.

Congratulations, you’ve just played the first 3 notes in a Major scale. Play these notes over and over. Let your fingers get used to the stretches while your arm gets used to moving up and down. Change the note order, play around with the duration of the note. JAM DaMmit. Own those notes.

Now let’s take a look at where those notes repeat an octave higher.

Part B same as the first.

Step 4. Skip the 5th string (A). Fret the notes on the 4th string (D), but don’t start at the same fret you did on the Low E. Start 2 frets closer to the body. This note, and the note you played in Step 1 above, are, get this, the SAME NOTE. That’s right, these two notes in question are one octave apart. The same note, but on two different places on the fretboard.

Step 5. Move two frets up toward the body and play the corresponding note.

Step 6. See Step 5.

This diagram may help you visualize this. The green dots in the diagram show the fingering positions on the Low E string. The red dots show the fingering positions exactly one octave higher on the D string. Play around with these notes. Improvise. Then play the same lick an octave higher or lower. Trust your ears.

octave

This method can be applied anywhere there are repeating notes on the fretboard. If you are already familiar with the different ways to find octaves, you can apply this trick to just about any spot on the neck. It also applies to most other scale shapes. I found using this repeating note technique is a good way to get around the fretboard and leads to a whole bunch of worthwhile exporation, allowing you to eventually get faster at finding notes up and down the neck.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

-Prof. P.

-Prof. P.

 

*Dumbass Moment – See previous post for further explanation.

 

For those who are familiar with Battlestar Galactica 2003 “re-imagining” this lesson may tread on familiar ground, er space. For those of you who are not familiar, jump on Whateverflix, or whichever service is your preferred purveyor of sci fi awesomeness and watch it now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It is that good. One of the themes of that show is (if you haven’t watched it by now, you aren’t going to so I don’t care about spoilers) all things repeat. There is a circular nature to the universe inhabited by those characters. This cyclical property of the BSG universe was illustrated in the fact that history would eventually repeat itself, as well as in the fact that there were multiple copies of the same person (can never have too much #6) in the form of the antagonists.

Or to put it another way.

Oh no, here it comes again
Can’t remember when we came so close to love before
Hold on, good things never last
Nothing’s in the past, it always seems to come again
Again and again and again ooh again oh

Black Sabbath
Neon Knights
Sung by the late, great, Ronnie James Dio

Science fiction philosophizing aside, a similar symmetry can be found when it comes to finding notes on the guitar. After I had been playing a few years, it was pretty easy for me to find notes that were an octave apart on the Low E, A, D, and G strings. Finding notes is no big deal on the guitar, right? Then a DaM* exploded in my head about 5 years ago when I was watching an episode of the PBS show “The Piano Guy”. He was talking to the camera about something while simultaneously performing these seemingly complex (they seemed complex to me at least) runs up and down the piano keyboard. He then explained how he was performing those runs. He was just playing the same sequence of notes over and over, BUT he was moving the starting points up or down to different octaves. In other words he was just repeating himself over and over. Sometimes it would be a sequence of 5 notes. Other times it was 3 notes. It was all very casual and nonchalant and after he explained what he was doing, the idea clicked inside my head and I was like DaMmmmmmm. I realized I could apply this repetitive technique to the scales on the guitar.

What do I mean?

To illustrate this point let’s keep this sweet and easy and take a look at the first three notes of the major scale as I like to play it on the guitar. Here are the instructions:

Part A.

Step 1. Play any note on the 6th (Low E) string.

Step 2. Move two frets up toward the body and play the corresponding note.

Step 3. See Step 2.

Congratulations, you’ve just played the first 3 notes in a Major scale. Play these notes over and over. Let your fingers get used to the stretches while your arm gets used to moving up and down. Change the note order, play around with the duration of the note. JAM DaMmit. Own those notes.

Now let’s take a look at where those notes repeat an octave higher.

Part B same as the first.

Step 4. Skip the 5th string (A). Fret the notes on the 4th string (D), but don’t start at the same fret you did on the Low E. Start 2 frets closer to the body. This note, and the note you played in Step 1 above, are, get this, the SAME NOTE. That’s right, these two notes in question are one octave apart. The same note, but on two different places on the fretboard.

Step 5. Move two frets up toward the body and play the corresponding note.

Step 6. See Step 5.

This diagram may help you visualize this. The green dots in the diagram show the fingering positions on the Low E string. The red dots show the fingering positions exactly one octave higher on the D string. Play around with these notes. Improvise. Then play the same lick an octave higher or lower. Trust your ears.

octave

This method can be applied anywhere there are repeating notes on the fretboard. If you are already familiar with the different ways to find octaves, you can apply this trick to just about any spot on the neck. It also applies to most other scale shapes. I found using this repeating note technique is a good way to get around the fretboard and leads to a whole bunch of worthwhile exporation, allowing you to eventually get faster at finding notes up and down the neck.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

-Prof. P.

-Prof. P.

 

*Dumbass Moment – See previous post for further explanation.

Dumbass Guitar

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Greetings and welcome to Prof. P’s Dumbass Guitar. Why “Dumbass Guitar”? Because, during my years of learning this insanely beautiful instrument there have been many moments when I discover something new then slap myself on the forehead and say, “This is so obvious, I wish I would’ve learned it when I picked up the instrument! I’m such a Dumbass! ”  Now what I’m talking about are those moments when you learn something new and exciting about the guitar that takes your playing a big step forward. Like, an exiting the birth canal type of forward. A taking off the training-wheels type of forward. A getting tattooed type of forward. You know, a getting laid off for writing an article on the clock type of forward. The kind of forward where beyond there is no back of. But Prof.* P, you say, what on Earth do you mean by this?

Well if you sit down and stop bothering the class, I will tell you. By the time I was 19 or 20, I had been playing/trying to play for a while and I had recently purchased a new, next-step-up from starter, guitar. I could play a couple chords (G, A) and some riffs (who am I kidding, I really couldn’t even play Iron Man correctly back then (not even sure I do now).). I experienced a significant DaM** when my friend, Ike***, showed me a simple D chord and how it was used in such timelessly classic songs as “Bound and Bound” by Catt, and “Pole Vaulted” by Monotreme****. And believe it or not dear reader, in this modern age of cynicism and all things snarky, at that moment in my life,

I

was simply

floored.

That D chord was beautiful. It was majestic. Learning that chord was like suddenly being able to speak in a new language. Being taught that simple shape, which people often refer to as a “beginner” chord, took me from living in the mere sub, sub, sub, subbasement of my guitar house up one whole floor to where I was now staying at the much more posh sub, sub, subbasement. I fiddled with that chord (along with the requisite hammer-ons and pull-offs on the high e string) for hours. It was AMAZING. And, coolest of all was that the D (heh heh the D) WAS MUSICAL. It was everywhere in popular music, being used in heavy metal bands and by guys like Dom Getty*****. Play it clean, sounds cool. Nice and jangly. Add an Arion distortion pedal to your 15W Fender Bullet Reverb “stack” and wail. Sounds even better. Oh and wait a tick, here come the girls to wiggle your whammy, right? Well not many girls in my case, but hopefully you get the idea.

Whew, what a mindboggling recollection of experience, am I right class? Learning that chord was one early DaM that sticks out in my head. It probably wasn’t the first, and hopefully it isn’t even close to being the last. However, the question, dear pupil, remains as to why that particular moment, that teeny tiny little flash of insight that I experienced, is something that I like to refer to as a Dumbass Moment? I did mention that the D chord was a “beginner” chord, right? So why was it a big deal for me when I learned it? Everyone learns the D right? Right after C? Kinda before E? Maybe that is all true, but for whatever reason, I simply hadn’t paid much attention to that particular chord. This particular bit of guitar knowledge had flown past me like a fish on the wind. Missing the D (chuckle) was not a mistake or an oversight on my part; it was simply something

I…..did not…..know.

And, more to the point, I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Now at the time I did own the standard chord book and had likely seen the D shape before. Heck, I had probably strummed it a few times as well. But, and this is the big but so pay attention, I had never plaaaaayed it before. Up until that moment simply messing around with my friend Ike, I did not know that the D chord sounded so great in a musical context. To use a physics paradigm, in my frame of reference, the D did not exist. You Grok? In the following weeks, further investigation on the fretboard helped me realize that not only did that chord sound great with the hammer-ons and pull-offs on the 1st string (technically playing the D, Dsus2, and Dsus4 within some kind of rhythmic context) it also worked really well with the other “beginner” chords C and G. And that, class, is what I mean by a Dumbass Moment.

That jumping off point when something you learn takes you to the next level.

It becomes part of you and your guitar playing.

There is no way to forget it.

Ever.

Intense right? Small moments of empowering achievement like that are what compelled me to begin this blog. Not everyone is a musical protégé. Frankly, to many guitar players, most of the exciting (to me) moments that I speak about are likely inconsequential. In the mass media, most of the large guitar publications focus on famous players with famous equipment. I understand that. Big famous names sell issues. In fact, I subscribe to way too many guitar magazines and I enjoy reading about the topics they choose to cover. These publications can be useful tools in learning songs and provide extensive detail on musical concepts…if you’re into that. What I haven’t seen much of is a forum dedicated to the experiences of the somewhat “less-than-stellar” guitar player. The guy or gal that loves guitars and music as much as anyone, but may not be able to practice as much due to family or time constraints, or someone who has been playing a while but still struggles with concepts. The ‘banger that may be starting to realize that now it is his hair that is too thin and his belly that is too thick. The person that knows the starting riff to 50 different songs, but has never quite managed to learn one song all the way through (“Listen to this, no wait, this is it, no wait, here it goes…”). The point being is that I think everyone who loves guitar and loves playing guitar has had these Dumbass Moments much like I described, where you learn something or try something different and a light goes on, and you can’t believe that you have been playing guitar so long without knowing this bit of information. I wanted to examine more than just learning the mechanics of moving your fingers over the frets and to bring attention and appreciation to those little instances of insight that one experiences and internalizes so that they begin to lend shape to one’s playing. Some people may have these DaM things come along more often than others do. If you are like me, in order to get some of these DaM things to click, you need to be knocked off your horse by a tree branch as you chase the knight getting away with the damsel in distress. In full disclosure, I am by no means a brilliant guitarist. I still struggle a lot with what I consider to be basic concepts (maybe in my case D stands for “Der”). I’ve never “played out” with a band. I jam with friends every once in a blue moon. I’m still trying to learn how to figure songs out by ear. However, I do love to play. I love guitars and guitar “culture” for lack of a better term. Much of what I think I know, I’ve gleaned through the years from reading magazines and books or by studying my favorite guitarists in pictures and videos. Prior to writing this, I completed just over a year of guitar lessons. The idea for this column actually came to me during a lesson at a moment when I slapped my forehead and said to my teacher in regards to some seemingly obvious concept, “Damn, I wish I had known that 20 years ago. I’m such a Dumbass!” And so it goes. -Prof. P “Let me be the Dumbass.” * Not a real professor ** Not Mike’s real name *** Dumbass Moment **** Names changed to protect my street rep ***** Ibidgettingupwaytooearlythelastcoupledays