Monday, November 12, 2007

Theoretically speaking...

Music is a very personal, subjective thing. However, as Victor Wooten would say, in practice there is a perfection. The important thing to remember about theory is it's ex post facto. It explains music, but it doesn't define it. Having said that... I personally think theory is the fastest way to get your head wrapped around what's going on in music. This will accelerate your learning process, if used right.

Music is a lot like a language, and if you want to communicate your ideas to people and to yourself, then you need to have some common ground. It's all about what you want to get out of playing the guitar. If you just want to learn a few songs that you like, and you happen to like relatively simple music (from a theory perspective), then not having an understanding of the underlying explanations probably isn't going to hamper your progress very much.

However, if you do learn theory, you'll find that you'll start thinking about the guitar in perhaps a rather different way. Rather than chancing upon patterns, you'll actively be seeking them out. This means that when you learn something you'll remember it better, you'll understand it better, and you'll be able to extrapolate from where you are much better.

Some people have an intuitive understanding of music and how it works, and they don't feel the need to articulate it to themselves or anybody else. I however, am unfortunately, not one of those people. For many years I just "played guitar" and didn't bother with the theory side of things. However, when I did start to get into theory, I saw my playing and understanding of music progress at an exponential rate, compared to when I was just fumbling around in the dark.

The best I advice I can give you is to think carefully about what you want to get out of playing the guitar. If you wish to learn to improvise, or learn "complicated" things, or just have a very broad appreciation of music, then learning theory is a good idea. Heck, even if you don't learning theory is a good idea. I'd personally say it's damn near essential, but lots of people would disagree with that statement (and others, I supposed, would concur).

If you're just playing for fun, then at the end of the day, it's best to decide for yourself whether you think it's worth investing the time and effort in learning theory. I can honestly say that while it may appear difficult at the start, in the same way that learning a language may be difficult, once you have the basics down, everything just sort of starts to come together. I don't think that *learning* theory is ever a bad thing. Letting theory completely dictate what you play... probably not such a great idea. But learning it? Never a bad thing. After all, knowledge is power.

Robert Miles - Paths

This is an awesome video for the Robert Miles track Paths, off the Organik album. I really dig the direction he's gone in since his debut with "Children", it's much more trip-hop and a lot less techno. The Organik album remains one of favourites.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do we have an accord?

First things first, I shall assume that virtually no prior knowledge exists. Let's start with intervals. In western music, we work with 12 tones. Some notes are what we call enharmonic meaning they sound them same on an even-tempered instrument (such as the piano/guitar).

A# / Bb
B / Cb
C /B#
C# / Db
D# / Eb
E / Fb
F / E#
F# / Gb
G# / Ab

The shortest distance between a note is a half-step. This may be represented by adjacent keys on a keyboard, or adjacent frets on a guitar. Let us examine these intervals using the key of C major. The notes contained in C major are as follows:

C D E F G A B (w w h w w w h)

The root note is C. The relationship between each note in the scale within 1 octave, and the root note, is as follows:

C - C = Unison
C - D = Major 2nd (1 step)
C - E = Major 3rd (2 steps)
C - F = Perfect 4th (2 1/2 steps)
C -G = Perfect 5th (3 1/2 steps)
C - A = Major 6th (4 1/2 steps)
C - B = Major 7th (5 1/2 steps)
C - C = Octave (6 steps)

If you lower a major interval by a 1/2 step, it becomes a minor interval. The reverse is true, thus if you raise a minor interval by a half step, it becomes a major interval. Let us rearrange the notes of C major, starting on A. This gives us the key of A minor.

A B C D E F G (w h w w w h w)

A - A = Unison
A - B = Major 2nd (1 step)
A - C = Minor 3rd (1 1/2 steps)
A - D = Perfect 4th (2 1/2 steps)
A - E = Perfect 5th (3 1/2 steps)
A - F = Minor 6th (4 steps)
A - G = Minor 5th (5 steps)
A - A = Octave (6 steps)

Thus, we see what defines the relationship between 2 notes is their distance from each other, and how rearranging the order of the notes gives us a different sound.

Let's now consider how this applies to chords. A chord is usually made up of 3 or more notes. These notes are usually stacked in thirds on top of a root note. These thirds may be either minor or major thirds. So, for a triad, the following configurations are possible

1 - 3 - #5 = Augmented
1 - 3 - 5 = Major
1 - b3 - 5 = Minor
1 - b3 - b5 = Diminished

Applying this with a root note of C, we would get

C E G# (C augmented)
C E G (C major)
C Eb G (C minor)
C Eb Gb (C diminished)

Let us take this further and apply it to 4 note chords

1 - 3 - #5 - octave = Augmented
1 - 3 - 5 - 7 = Major 7th
1 - 3 - 5 - b7 = Dominant 7
1 - b3 - 5 - 7 = Minor/Major 7th
1 - b3 - 5 - b7 = Minor 7th
1 - b3 - b5 - b7 = Minor 7th flat 5th / half-diminished
1 - b3 - b6 - bb7 = Diminished 7th

Of course, there are many other kinds of chords. One might construct chords by stacking in 4ths, or by adding colour tones such as 9ths/11ths/13ts (which are 2nd/4th/6th intervals an octave above the root), or just replacing the 3rd with a 4th or major second, creating suspended chords, as some examples. Experimenting is the key to success!

As for chord substitutions, here are some brief pointers:

For any diatonic chord, one may substitute a dominant chord with the same root note. We call these secondary dominants. They're extremely common in jazz and blues. Dominant chords create a dissonant sound that wants to be resolved, so be careful using these when you're going for a "smooth" sound!

For any dominant chord, we may substitute another dominant chord that is a tritone (flat 5th) away. This is because of the structure of a dominant chord. Let us use E7 as a example.

The notes of E7 are E G# B D

If we move up a tritone, we get Bb7, which has the notes Bb D F Ab

Notice that in E7, the G#/Ab is the major third and the D is the minor 7th. However, in Bb7, the G#/Ab is now the minor 7th, while the D is the major 3rd. Because it's the major 3rd and minor 7th that give the dominant chord it's tonality, we can use these chords interchangeably.

If you're wondering why this works, a tritone divides an octave exactly in half. The major 3rd and the minor 7th are also a tritone apart, thus, when we move up a tritone, these notes swap functions. A pretty nifty trick!

Lastly, we come to inversions. Let us consider the case of C major 7. By rearranging the notes, we have different inversions of the chord, and this is the gateway to substitutions. Next to the chord is a chord that may be substituted for it, along with how the notes that have been changed/added affect the CM7 chord

C E G B - CM7
E G B C - CM7/E -> Em7 - E G B D (D is 9)
G B C E - CM7/G -> G7 - G B D F (D is 9, F is 11)
B C E G - CM7/B -> Am7 - A C E G (A is 13)

To simplify, for any major chord, you might substitute a minor chord a major 3rd up or a major 6th up. The reverse is true. Play around with this and see what kind of sounds you like. As you've probably figured out by now, the possibilities are endless!

NB: I don't have "formal" music theory training so some terminology might deviate from the norm. Hopefully you find this useful though!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Practicing innovation

Try playing through scales in a cycle of 5ths/4ths in 1 position. For example, with the root on the low E, one would play the following

Key - Scale
C major - C Ionian
G major - C Lydian
D major - C Locrian
A major - C# Phrygian
E major - C# Aeolian
B major - C# Dorian
F# major - C# Mixolydian

That covers all the basic modes and makes you think about it as you go along. You should of course transpose this to different keys, start on different strings, and just basically do every permutation of it that you can think of.

When practicing scales, you can of course, do it in a multitude of ways. You could play straight up and down, or just create your own sequences. Try and come up with sequences that you've never played before because that forces you fingers to do something different so you actually develop the ability to play new ideas.

You can also take all these ideas and apply them to arpeggios. One thing I like to do is pick a key and play through all the arpeggios in the key. For example if you're playing in G major you'd have the following chords:
G major 7
A minor 7
B minor 7
C major 7
D dominant 7
E minor 7
F# minor 7 flat 5

You can play these arpeggios anywhere that you fancy, try and play them in as many different ways as you can. You should also add colour tones. One interesting thing to do is add the 2nd/9th interval. If you do this in A minor for example, you would have the following notes.


Compare this to the notes in A minor pentatonic


You'll notice that it's very similar to A minor pentatonic except rather than having the 4th interval, which is a perfect interval and doesn't sound major or minor, you now have a major 9th interval. If you were doing this over a iii chord, you'd use the flat 9 instead of the 9. This gives you an interesting sound that's somewhat like a pentatonic but more melodic, and it's a good way to break out of the whole pentatonic rut.

Another interesting idea is to take a 3 note per string scale, but instead of playing it straight through like you normally would, play the first two notes on each string and then bend the second note to the third note. This breaks out of that whole cliché 3 note per string sound, and also gives you lots of practice bending

You can also take any licks/songs that you already know and try and play them with a swing feel. This helps develop your timing and requires more control than just ripping through something with a straight time feel. One song I like to do this with is Mozart's Turkish Rondo.

You can also try playing any existing ideas with octaves. This doesn't work so well with shred style licks though

Basically to me it's all about doing things that you don't normally do, and the easiest way to do this is take stuff that you already do and turn it on its head.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

If you play in C#, you will be flat

If you want to find the right key, you need to have a basic understanding of key signatures. Here's a crash course:

We'll start with C major, because there are no sharps or flats in that key. The notes are (C D E F G A B). That gives us 7 notes to play around with. Let's see what chords we can construct from these notes;

C E G B - C Major 7 (I)
D F A C - D minor 7 (ii)
E G B D - E minor 7 (iii)
F A C E - F Major 7 (IV)
G B D F - G dominant 7 (V)
A C E G - A minor 7 (vii)
B D F A - B minor 7 b5 (viib5)

Thus, we see that in the key of C major we have 3 major chords (CM7, FM7, G7), 3 minor chords (Dm7, Em7, Am7) and one half diminished chord. This is important because it helps you identify common chord progressions. For example, if you had a ii V I progression in the key of C Major, it would be Dm, G, C. You could also have, as is common in blues, a I IV V I progression. In the key of C that would be C, F, G, C. Usually, the song will resolve back to the I chord. This may not always be major, it might be minor, if it was in a minor key. For simplicity, it's sensible to relate the minor key back to the major. So, if we had Bm7b5 E7 Am, we can relate that back to Am/C major. Note that the Em7 from the key of C is made into a dominant chord to create a better resolution to Am. You could just as easily apply this concept without the 7th interval. in which case you'd have major, minor, and diminished chords to play around with.

In terms of keys, the sharp keys move up in cycles of 5ths. Thus we have
C major - no sharps no flats
G major - F#
D major - F# C#
A major - F# C# G#
E major - F# C# G# D#
B major - F# C# G# D# A#
F# major - F# C# G# D# A# E#
C# major - F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

We've already got 7 sharps, so lets work with the flat keys now. These move in a cycle of 4ths
C major - no sharps no flats
F major - Bb
Bb major - Bb Eb
Eb major - Bb Eb Ab
Ab major - Bb Eb Ab Db
Db major - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Gb major - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb
Cb majore - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

Once again, we've run into 7 flats so we can stop. Right now you're probably thinking "There are 12 tones in the chromatic scale, why do we have 14 scales?!". That's because some of these are what we call "enharmonic". The following scales are enharmonic

B major - Cb major
F# major - Gb major

Thus we are left with 12 "unique" scales.

Now you might ask, how is this of any use? If you take any given song, and you identify the chords in the song (even if they are power chords!), you'll be able to identify what sharps/flats are being used. This will allow you to deduce what key you're in.

The more you practice, the better your ear will become. However, when you're first starting out it can be really hard to identify the chords. The first thing you need to do is identify the bass note, or the lowest note in the chord. Listening to the bass line is a good start. The useful thing about the bass line is if you work out what the bass notes are, you'll have some insight into what key a song is in fairly quickly.

For example, if the bass line goes B E A, then one might deduce that this might potentially be Bm7b5 E7 Am7, or Bm7 E7 AM7. This immediately narrows down your search to two possible keys, A minor or A major. Of course, sometimes you'll encounter inverted chords (i.e. chords with the 3rd or the 5th or the 7th in the bass) or substituted chords. That's where theory comes in handy!

Once you've identified the lowest note, try and pick apart the chord note by note. Eventually you'll be able to hear a chord and identify whether it's minor or major pretty quickly. To take it one step further, after you've done this enough you'll be able to identify common chord progressions at the drop of a hat as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Have you heard?

Jazz. You know you want it. I know I want it. How do we get it? The best advice I can give is this: Don't think purely in terms of scales. Scales are good to know, and they're really important, but that's not all there is to playing jazz (or any kind of music!)

Your first port of call should be understanding chord progressions and working your way through changes. If you really understand how to construct chords and how they relate to each other, everything starts to fall into place a lot quicker. If you're not already familiar with your basic 4-note chords, and all the embellishments, now would be the best time to get those basics down.

In terms of scales, if you understand the chords you're playing over you can get more creative. Here are some examples.

Let's say you encounter a CMaj7 chord. What can you play over that, scale wise? Let's look at the notes. C E G B. Root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 7th. The first and most obvious choice is to play a C Ionian scale over that (C D E F G A B). Depending on the context, you might experiment with a C Lydian (C D E F# G A B). If you lingered on the F#, you'd emphasise the #4 interval, which may or not be interesting and appropriate. You could also approach it think in terms of arpeggios. Again, the most obvious choice would be a CMaj7 arpeggio. But then, if you did an Em7 arpeggio (E G B D), you've got 3 notes of CMaj7 (E G B) but you've also got the D, which is a 9th. You might also try Am7 (A C E G). Again we see 3 notes from CMaj7 (C E G) but you also have the 6th, again, perhaps an interesting sound. At the moment we're sticking to diatonic stuff, a very "inside", comfortable sound. You can do all sorts of stuff and sound "outside" which can be very hip and cool as well, and we haven’t even looked at chromatic/approach tones, and tension and resolution!

The one thing that I find really differentiates jazz from say rock/shred is that you really want a cool motif, or melodic statement. If you play with enough conviction you could even make the whole band sound "wrong" and make yourself sound "right", although that's probably not what you're going for.

I found that the best way to learn jazz is to actually combine the theoretical with the practical. Sure you can have a bunch of scales that you might use, or a bunch of arpeggios, but it's always how it sounds in context that makes it sound good or bad. Take a bunch of jazz standards and play through the changes first, until you're familiar with how it sounds. The try experimenting with it, reharmonizing some chords. You might find some things that aren't just "take this scale and play it here" that you find sound really cool. Also, listen and cop ideas from great players. Pat Martino, for example, has a way of converting everything to minor, and then playing a minor type idea over the changes. Joe Pass likes to look at a chord and figure out what he can do with in the position he plays the chord in. The possibilities are limitless, and you can certainly take these ideas and make them your own and find your own sound.

To answer your question directly though, the Ionion, Dorian, Melodic minor, Mixolydian, Aeolian and harmonic minor are all very common scales you can use. Don't forget that you can substitute dominant chords for almost any chords. If this is a minor chord, typically you add a major third. If this is a major chord, typically you add a minor third. For example, if you were playing a iii chord, say Em7, you could make that E7. That would change from a Phyrigian scale (E F G A B C D) to what is called a Phyrigian major, or a double Phrygian (E F G# A B C D) which is the 5th mode of the harmonic minor.

The applications of these concepts are near limitless. That, I think, is the appeal of jazz. You can make it up as you go along, because there are an infinite number of combinations that you can choose from. There's a lot of theory that can be used to explain how all these concepts work and how to use them. As Victor Wooten would say, music is a language. You learn all the grammar and the rules, but when the time comes to play, you don't think "Subject verb object", you just shut up and play. Some people develop this understanding intuitively, particularly those who started at a very young age. For others, like myself, it's a long uphill battle of learning and analyzing. I must admit though, that's half the fun in itself!

PS: Almost everything I know about Jazz I've learnt, in some way, shape or form, from Rick Smith. He's a fantastic jazz guitarist who plays at Harry's Boat Quay almost every night. If you want to check out some great live jazz, just head down to Harry's and watch the band. You could probably have a few quick words with him inbetween sets if he's got some time, he's approachable and friendly!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Effecting change

As a sequel to the amp retrospective, I've decided to go through all the noteworthy multi-effect units that I've encountered over the years

These were the first two multi-effect units I ever owned. This was way back in the day, when Zoom still had a name for themselves. They were dirt cheap back then, pretty much the cheapest thing on the market. They were neither particularly tweakable nor did they sound very good, but I guess looking back, they were a decent introduction into the world of effects. They were sure as heck cheaper than buying a whole bunch of individual analog pedals, and they at least gave me an idea of what different effects sounded like. Although, with the stuff available on the market these days, I can't honestly say I'd recommend them to anybody anymore. Not that I really would have back then either...

These were my first real introduction to the realm of multi-effect units. Back then, Boss was pretty much THE name in multi-effect processors. I started out with a GT-3, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I quickly "upgraded" to a GT-5. These units were pretty darn flexible in the effects department. I can't say I cared very much for the direct output and "amp simulation" features, especially in light of the Pod series that stormed the scene shortly after I was playing around with these, but for everything else they were fantastic. Typical of Boss, they were built like a tank. Plus, they even had some fancy features that I still don't see as being common place on the market. What stood out the most for me was the intelligent pitch shifter/harmonizer. Pitch shifters are pretty standard fare these days but you could program the harmonizer for the exact intervals that you wished it to harmonize each note to. I expected nothing less from Boss, and to this day I'm still curious to see how a GT-8 sounds, having had a generally good experience with these units.

Ah the beloved VG-88. I really wish I didn't have to sell this one of. It truly was the most innovative and unique effects unit I've ever laid my hands on. Suffice to say, to get real mileage out of it you needed to use a hexaphonic VG compatible pickup with it. After doing my research I decided to go with the Graphtech GHOST piezo hexaphonic pickup system. I promptly ordered the parts and got a luthier to do the installation on my EBMM Luke. One thing I really hated about the whole setup was the 13-pin cable. The connectors on the the guitar were rather flimsy, and since I was playing out with this back then they took quite a beating on stage. After they crapped out on me twice, I lost faith in the reliability of the whole idea and sold off both the guitar and the VG-88. I suppose it was somewhat fortuitous because shortly after that the VG-99 was announced...

One thing most people don't know about the VG-88 is it doesn't actually work through pitch to MIDI conversion. It actually process each string separately, so rather than having a mono signal, you have six signals being processed in parallel. This allowed the VG-88 to do effects that conventional units could only dream of. Pitch shifting individual strings was possible, making alternate tunings at switch of a patch a reality. It also did guitar/pickup modelling, allowing you to make that hexaphonic signal sound like pretty much any guitar you could think of, and some you couldn't even imagine. I personally feel the guitar modelling left a lot to desire, but I don't think that's where the strength of the VG system really was. It's real magic, was in being able to make your guitar sound completely NOT like a guitar.. and that was something that intrigued me greatly.

Because there was no pitch to MIDI conversion involved that meant that all the problems of "tracking" that pitch to MIDI conversion presents were not applicable. There was none of that false triggering of notes or lag in the conversion nonsense. All conventional guitar techniques as well, like pick slides, could be used without causing a sonic fart. The VG system is something I've been keeping my eye on for quite some time. I just wish they'd update the 13-pin system, I'm sure in this day and age something like a Cat-5 cable could be used to send the necessary output from the guitar to the unit, much like the Variax or the Gibson HD.6X-Pro. Until that happens though I just don't see myself jumping back into the VG system again.

The GI-20 and the XV-2020 reprsent the alternative way to approach the hexaphonix pickup system. Unlike the VG-88, the GI-20 is actually a pitch to MIDI converter. That is, your guitar signal is converted into MIDI messages, and this is used to control and outboard synth unit, in this case, the XV-2020. Unlike the VG-88, you really need to clean up your technique to make these units work for you. Sloppy playing tends to drive the GI-20 a bit mad, which makes it far less useful unless you're say, John McLaughlin. Still, it's more or less the ultimate head turner to strum a chord and have everyone looking for the keyboard that's making the piano sound.

When I had my rack rig, it seemed to make sense to go rackmount all the way, and so after shopping around for a rackmount effects unit I went with the G-major. I didn't really feel like I needed the raw power and flexibility of it's big brother, the G-Force. And while the Rocktron stuff looked appealing, the G-major just seemed like the right blend of quality and price point. Plus, it was a T.C. Electronics unit. Unfortunately, the rotary dials on it were rather crap. They died on me twice, and the power supply decided to quite on me once too. Forum posts tended to reveal that these suffered from reliability issues, and when I decided to abandon the whole rack idea, I can't say I was too sorry to see this go. It did sound pretty good, to my ear at least, and it was pretty darn flexible for my purposes (can't imagine ever needing the flexibility of the G-Force or an Eventide), but this is one of those units which you really need two of. One to plug-and-pray, and the other to have in the repair shop.

I've managed to dig up a couple of clips I did with some of these units to give you an idea of the more... interesting things they were capable of.

VG-88 and PSA1 (EBMM Steve Lukather)

Ryu's Theme from Street Fighter II - This one has heaps of MIDI stuff as well so it's hard to tell what's what I guess :

Little samba piece

Roland GI-20 and XV-2020

Ethnic intro