Monday, 13 November 2017

Chords - Another Way!

Again, not Holdsworth. But I do feel this one is somewhat Holdsworth-adjacent as recently, I've been covering advanced harmony with several different students - lots of big juicy extended chord voicings, deciphering the seemingly indecipherable jazz chords (Cmaj13#11b9, anyone?) and while fun and interesting in it's own right, this has led to some real finger-twisting chord shapes, along with the inevitable question -

"What's the point of these weird chords?"

Now, at this point I could go on a tirade about how knowledge and understanding is it's own reward, how a musician should constantly be striving to push his or her boundaries, how to express themselves with more subtle shades that evoke precisely the right emotion... and to be fair, that's my approach. But, it's not for everyone, and I can appreciate that - it's not my job to force my approach and way of thinking onto a student, it is my job to adapt my approach to theirs so that they can become a better version of themselves, not a clone of me. 

So, rant over, what does this mean in practice? Well, let's take the aforementioned Cmaj13#11b9. 

The major part tells us to expect R 3 5 7, the 13 to expect 9 11 and 13, the #11 to sharpen the 11 and the b5 to flatten the 5. This means we're dealing with R 3 5 7 b9 #11 13. 7 notes. With the best of intentions, there are (usually) only six strings on the guitar. So, we need to trim the fat.

Do we need the root? Yes (unless we have a handy bass player nearby)

Do we need the 3rd? Yes - it defines major or minor.

Do we need the 5? No, the 5 acts as a filler interval, the same through major, minor and dominant.

Do we need the 7? Yes - it defines major or dominant.

Do we need the b9? Yes, specified within the chord name. Normally we could omit this interval as the presence of higher extensions implies it.

Do we need the #11? Yes - again, specified within the chord name. Normally the presence of the 13 would imply it, however, allowing us to omit.

Do we need the 13? Yes, as the highest extension.

So that's trimmed us down to something that will at least fit on a guitar neck:

R 3  7 b9  #11 13
C E B Db F#  A

That said, it's still not exactly something you would consider wieldy. But who says you have to play all of the chord all of the time? Let's look inside this chord:

C E B - Cmaj7 (no 5)

E B Db - E6

B Db F# - Bsus2

Db F# A - F#m (2nd inversion)

F# A C - F# diminished

A C E - Am

Now these (admittedly some more than others) are all fairly usable triads, and played over a C bass (if you haven't got a bass player handy I suggest capo'ing at the third fret and letting the A string ring out  as a pedal tone) they will act together to imply this most monstrously lunatic of chords, and you may even find yourself stumbling across a useful riff or two in the process! 

(Disclaimer - JM Guitar Tuition is NOT responsible for the loss of whole evenings breaking down bizarre chords in search of your next killer hook...)

Friday, 20 October 2017

Happy Birthday!

So, really, this post is about a month late... I hope you can forgive me, internet.

2007 began for me on a cruise ship in the middle of the Carribean Sea, wearing an ill fitting tuxedo and playing a version of Celebration by Kool and The Gang that I could have sworn had lasted at least three lifetimes. At that point I was well into my fourth contract with pro showband Fifth Element and was getting a handle on the reality of what being a professional guitar player actually meant in the real world.

What it meant, largely, was disco. Lots and LOTS of disco.

Still, it beat working in a coal mine.

However, less than two months in our contract would end early due to a tragic loss on behalf of one of our members, and with no contracts waiting the band quickly disintegrated as everyone started grabbing whatever job they could in order to tide them over. In my case, I found myself back where I started - part time back at dear old Loughborough stalwart Just Music, and teaching lessons on the side as I had done since the late 90s. Meanwhile, I divided my time between hunting for a "real" job and trying to set up my own band to head back out to sea with.

Before too long, though, I found myself with a goodly number of guitar students, and courtesy of a good friend my first peripatetic teaching position.. and from there things spiralled. So I'd like to take a moment to think back over the last ten years, some of the good, the bad and the... improbable moments of this job.

The Good:

Finishing and publishing my Zero Point series of guitar, bass and keyboard books . This was a huge undertaking, over two years from start to finish, but seeing them in the hands of students and finally being able to hand on heart recommend a book which gives aspiring musicians everything they need and nothing they don't.

Bumping into some old students and discovering they've become a fantastic band - The Bench That Rocked!

Seeing one of my bass students get the highest Rockschool Grade 3 mark I've ever seen- 93%!

Watching a student grow from learning Smoke On The Water in 2009 to being able to play prog metal riffs I can't even comprehend in 2017!!

Songs for Syria 2013, which then morphed into the Winter Wonderland Charoty Album 2014, and subsequently  TUNEICEF from 2015 onwards.

A student in their 60's with wrist and finger issues, who's been told they'll never play chords... playing chords.

The Bad:

On a snowy day in late 2010, being unable to make into school on time because I couldn't get into my car through any other method than the boot.. which then closed on my legs and trapped me...

The student who couldn't, despite every method I could think of, distinguish a B from a C on the piano keyboard

The student who claimed they didn't really need lessons as they could play "Crazy Train" flawlessly and then proved over the course of the next painful 15 minutes that... no, they couldn't... worse was the fact that they couldn't accept this... I think they wound up as a contestant on X-Factor...

The Improbable:

An 11-year old student with Asperger's who's mum was late picking him up, decided that rather than wait he would try to walk home... Cue the police searching my house (and me missing dinner)!! Thankfully he was found 10 minutes afterward and showed up with an apologetic card next lesson...

But most importantly - Being able to make a living doing what I love, 24/7, for the last decade. Here's to many more, and I promise to keep trying to get better and better at it. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

In Deep With The Jazz Melodic Minor Scale

Still not Holdsworth. But consider this Holdsworth-adjacent, as it covers one of his favoured scales, the jazz melodic minor. This scale is a favourite of many jazz and fusion players, but as with so many things in music, it is fundamentally extremely simple. The jazz melodic minor is simply a major scale with a b3, as shown below:

R – tone – 2 – semitone – b3 – tone – 4 – tone – 5 – tone – 6 – tone – 7 – semitone – R

I've specified the jazz melodic minor as opposed to what is normally described as the melodic minor, as the classical definition of melodic minor specifies R 2 b3 4 5 6 7 when ascending, R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 when descending... now, when you've got your foot up on the monitor and you're going for it mid solo, that strikes me as the type of unnecessary complexity which in practice you can really do without.

As with every scale, the melodic minor has it's own modes. We'll use the key of A as our start point.

A jazz melodic minor:

A – B – C – D – E – F# - G#
R – 2 - b3 – 4 – 5 – 6 - 7

B Dorian b2 (aka Javanese or Phrygidorian)

B – C – D – E – F# - G# - A
R -b2- b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - b7

C Lydian Augmented (aka Lydian #5)

C – D – E – F# - G# - A – B
R – 2 – 3 - #4 - #5 - 6 – 7

D Lydian Dominant

D - E – F# - G# - A – B – C
R – 2 – 3 - #4 - 5 – 6 – b7

E Mixolydian b6 (aka Hindu or Myxaeolian)

E – F# - G# - A – B – C – D
R – 2 - 3 – 4 - 5 – b6 – b7

F# Locrian nat 2 (aka half-diminished or Aeolocrian)

F# - G# - A – B – C – D - E
R - 2 - b3 – 4 – b5 – b6 – b7

G# Superlocrian

G# - A – B – C – D – E – F#
R – b2 – b3 – b4 – b5 – b6 – b7

When you harmonise this scale, there's a whole world of fun to be had. At triad level we get these:

i chord – Am (A C E)

ii chord – Bm (B D F#)

III chord – C augmented (C E G#)

IV chord – D (D F# A)

V chord – E (E G# B)

vi chord – F# diminished (F# A C )

vii chord – G# diminished (G# B D)

Extending out to the level of sevenths, things get even more interesting:

i chord – Ammaj7 (A C E G#)

ii chord – Bm7 (B D F# A)

III chord – C maj7#5 (C E G# B)

IV chord – D7 (D F# A C)

V chord – E7 (E G# B D)

vi chord – F#m7b5 (F# A C E )

vii chord – G#mmaj7b5 (G# B D F#)

So a 12 bar would look like this:

// Am / % / % / % / D / % / Am / % / E / D / Am / E //

A melodic minor Stand By Me (I vi IV V) would go:

// Am / % / F# dim / % / D / E / Am / % //

Our old friend, the I-V-vi-IV becomes this twisted creature:

// Am / E / F#dim / D //

And you jazzers out there (we'll dial in some sevenths for you guys), the ii-V-I is now:
// Bm7 / E7 / Ammaj7 / % // - and that's a VERY tense and spooky chord to try and resolve to!

As I mentioned with the harmonic minor a few moths ago, mapping these scales using the six note box/ transition note method across three octaves gives some fantastic and accessible patterns to try, and reworking conventional chord sequences or pentatonic licks to include some of the jazzy sophistication of the melodic minor is a great way to expand your playing and push you to a new level. So don't be put off by the jargon, dive in and give it a try!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Feel It!

Yes, I know – but as it turns out, writing about Allan Holdsworth is no easier than learning to play his material... I will get there, I promise! But in the meantime, this is a subject close to most musician's hearts.

A few lessons ago I was sitting down with one of my students who's a very talented acoustic singer songwriter, and our assignment for the lesson was to take the key of G, harmonise it to the level of 9th chords, and work out voicings for them. Now, you might think that activity is a waste of time for a student who primarily strums and picks folk/rock type stuff which tops out at triad levels of complexity – it's going to have no direct impact on someone who is not a “muso” but predominantly a writer, and a younger (thinner, less grey, more attractive) me would probably have agreed with you. Teenage me would certainly have agreed with you. But fat old grey me has the wisdom of ages behind him.

A musician like this works on feel – that is playing something that instinctively resonates within them, something that they understand. Triad harmony is easy to get your head around – major happy, minor sad, sus4 and sus2 a bit ethereal, diminished CRAZED DEMON VILLAIN AXE MURDERER etc. If you understand them, you can use them effectively without having to think, it's as simple as an artist painting with primary colours.

But what artist do you know of who paints solely with primary colours?

So just as an artist will blend colours to create depth, highlights etc, we can blend our tonalities – major 7ths, for example, inject a sense of wistful melancholy into a major chord, whereas minor 7ths dilute the funereal nature of a minor chord without changing the underlying tonality too much. These are shades of grey, secondary colours. The 9th chords we looked at take things further, adding in additional layers of subtlety that can add an extra dimension to an accompaniment part. In time, by taking the time to listen to and get the feel of these chogrds and the 9th interval, I'm pretty certain these chords will wind up in my student's compositions, and they'll be there because she feels that they should be. Perhaps a C passage will become a Cadd9, or an Em bar will feature an F note weaving in and out – not because she sat down to write something with a m7b9 in it, but because she wanted the extra tension that b9 would bring.

By the way, check her out on Soundcloud – You'll be glad you did.

This principle was rammed home to me again yesterday with a student trying to create a solo for their TUNEICEF track – we ran a few passes with G major pentatonic and got a few ideas, but it was obvious there was more to come. The style of the backing and the way my student was playing set me in mind of the anthemic solo played by Slash on “November Rain” - so we set about learning it. And as we learnt it, we kept the backing chords in mind and discovered that part of the reason it sounded so good, as well as the call/ response/ call/ conclusion patterns it revolved around, was because Slash was targeting the 3rd of each chord, which of course is the emotional centre of the chord – it's heart, if you will.

So what did we do? We looked at his chord sequence, plotted the 3rd of each chord and proceed to build a melody around those notes.

You could argue that we were cheating, that Slash played by feel alone, and you're probably right – he would have learned a great many solos by that point in his life, many of which will have riffed off the 3rd of each chord, and he will have absorbed that sound instinctively. My student, however, is 15, and has nothing like that wealth of experience behind him. So we dissect what makes the solo work, we reproduce it in another context, and we use it as a start point. Before too long, what he's doing consciously will become instinctive and his feel for soloing will have improved massively as a result.

I can apply this to myself, as I'm trying to learn Holdsworth's “Hall Of Mirrors” - all chords, and his approach to chords is as alien as his approach to everything else (to the point where I've found myself cheering on the rare occasion I see a chord voicing I can understand), but it's haunting and contains changes Holdsworth makes seem effortless that I would never have even thought of trying. But that's because I never tried to understand them, until now. Perhaps in time some of his unreal genius will rub off on me through it, and some of those bizarre but breathtaking changes will work themselves into my playing and writing.

So, to summarise:

When you play by feel, you play what you understand. So try and understand everything.

See you next month.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Getting Your Nerd On - The Benefits Of A Completist Approach

Yes, I know, I promised Allan Holdsworth this month, but it's just proving too big a topic! For now, content yourself with this...

As I mentioned at the start of the year, I set myself a few challenges. So far it's going pretty well, but every now and again I find myself stumbling across patterns – be they scale ideas, arpeggios or chord voicings – that are just so out there that I find myself thinking “when would I ever use this?”

And it's true, I'm unlikely to spend much time using the Phrygian Dominant or hammering out minmaj13b5 chords. The direct impact of these patterns on my playing is minimal. But then again, it's bound to be – I've been playing guitar for 23 years. The only stuff left to learn is the crazy out there stuff. So what's the point?

Well, the point is the indirect impact. Learning new things keeps me in touch with how to learn – and if you forget how to learn, you're not going to be terribly effective as a teacher. But it also means I find the odd curious pattern that just works. For example, the riff to the classic Killers track “Mr. Brightside” is an evil-to-finger sod of an arpeggio – it's not the kind of thing you just stumble across. It's the kind of thing you find when you're experimenting with add9 chord voicings and you find something that just clicks – that just sounds right. And then you develop it by changing the bass note and hey presto – a song!

As some of you know, last year I spent quite some time wrapping my hounds around Andy McKee's masterpiece “Drifting”. It took me a fair old while, and while I was trying to come to grips with a totally alien way of playing the guitar, I found myself wondering just how the hell does something like this get written??

And then a little later, I found myself voicing a D minor chord with the F note on the 1st fret low E, open A and D note on the 7th fret G, tapped with the right hand. And then I slid the tapped note up to the E and down to the C (9th and 5th frets on the G), while plucking the A with the right hand thumb... And then I started to understand how you might develop an idea like that into a piece like “Drifting”

So there really is an incentive to going absolutely nuts and bolts guitar nerd crazy with this sort of stuff – set yourself a task like finding absolutely every possible way to play a Cmaj7, for example, and be prepared to be amazed by some of the beautiful, haunting sounds you can coax from your guitar. Yes, you'll find a lot of junk, but you might just find something that kick starts your creativity in ways you would never have expected.