After astonishing Olympic and Paralympic successes in Rio, maybe – just maybe – it's going to start to become cool to be really really really stupidly good at something in this country. We've proved without a shadow of a doubt that when it comes to athletes, able bodied or otherwise, our best rank alongside the world's best – let's see if we can extend this spirit of excellence down to musicians, and in particular, guitarists.
Last month we discussed technique development – something which, when I got started in the mid 90s, was considered almost a dirty word. This month we're going to focus on another aspect that polarises opinion – theory.
Now, those who've studied with me and endured my rants on the subject will know this, but for everyone else I'm just going to blow apart the biggest myth surrounding music theory.
Theory is NOT difficult. Theory is, in fact, stupidly simple. There are, after all, only 12 notes in the chromatic scale, in the entire lexicon of music. That's IT. But looking at terms like Lydian Dominant, Superlocrian, m7b9#5, tritone substitution.. you'd be forgiven for thinking theory is an utterly impenetrable discipline.
It's not, of course. We just like to make ourselves look cleverer than we actually are. Why say “gets louder” when we can say “Crescendo”? Why say “chord played one note at a time” when we can say “arpeggio” and get passers by swooning at our phenomenal vocabulary?
We may wrap up different combinations of notes in fancy sounding Italian and Greek names (due in no small part to the influence of Pythagoras in the early development of the 12 – tone system we use now), but at it's heart music theory has evolved incredibly elegant solutions to the problem of creating and organising sounds into repeating and evocative patterns that can be performed by groups of musicians playing different instruments together. Theory exists so that when you play C,F and G, the bass and keyboard player can play the same C, F and G.
I'm not going to try and encompass the whole of music theory in one blog post. I've got to get up in the morning, for one thing. But I do want to make a couple of quite important points.
Firstly – learning the rules of music theory is not like learning the rules of a game or the school/ college/ workplace rules. It doesn't mean that if you play an F# note over a C minor chord the Theory Police will come and take your guitar away. It just means you'll get a fairly odd sound you can describe as a Cmadd#4. It's similar to the laws of physics – if you jump off the roof of a tall building, you'll fall to the ground and probably die. Not understanding that won't stop it happening, but understanding it will mean you probably won't jump off the roof in the first place. So a guitarist who doesn't want to “constrain my creativity with rules” and decides to eschew theory is probably going to be stuck playing the same 3 or 4 chords and pentatonic licks forever, because they'll be what he's used to and what “feels right”. The guitar player who does learn some theory, however, will probably have his curiosity piqued and will try and combine sounds he may never have previously connected and will progress, evolving his sound and improving his ability to express himself.
Secondly – theory is often very badly taught, in my experience. If you're going to understand what's going on, you need to get things in order.
The Chromatic Scale.
This is where it all begins. The chromatic scale is our alphabet – 12 notes, each separated by a semitone. When you get round to the 12th note, the sequence begins an octave higher – the octave being a note that is exactly twice the pitch of the original root note, allowing our brains to perceive it as a higher version of the original note. The semitone is taken as the basic smallest unit of musical difference because it's the smallest gap that can be consistently modelled from instrument to instrument. For example, we can achieve subtle microtonal differences with slight string bends, and so can a violinist – but good luck doing that on a piano or a tuba.
So with our basic lexicon sorted, let's proceed to the next step.
The Major Scale
The major scale is a very important scale in the sense that it's the one our ears and our brains are naturally tuned to. It makes us happy, on a visceral level it simply sounds right. And it's very simple to construct. Pick a note from the chromatic scale to serve as your root note (starting point) and then build as follows:
Root – tone - 2nd – tone – 3rd – semitone - 4th – tone - 5th – tone - 6th – tone - 7th – semitone – Octave.
And job done. I recommend starting to familiarise yourself with this scale by playing it along one string (for the uninitiated, semitones are represented on the guitar by one fret, tones by two). For example, the E major scale can be found along the E string like so:
Root – open string, 2nd - 2nd fret, 3rd - 4th fret, 4th - 5th fret, 5th - 7th fret, 6th - 9th fret, 7th - 11th fret, Octave - 12th fret.
Next, try finding some simple melodies – for example, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” can be found using the pattern Root-Root- 5th - 5th - 6th -6th - 5th - 4th - 4th - 3rd -3rd -2nd -2nd – Root.
What's interesting is that this pattern of intervals holds true, giving you the same tune no matter where you start it from – whether it's from an A, E, B, F# or wherever root note, the tune will be the same. You can literally play the same tune with different notes, insane as that may initially sound!
So what does this tell us? Well, it tells us that the notes themselves aren't actually that important – it's the context that matters. The pattern of intervals, not the pitches.
Now, if we can do this with single note melodies, we can also do it with chord sequences. Many songs use predictable chord sequences which can be easy to recognise – and therefore easy to figure out. The 12 bar blues is one such example.
Welcome to the Nashville Number System.
Basically, the way this works is we build a chord from each note of the major scale and then assign it a number (in Roman numerals) based on what note of the scale it's built from. For example, the E major scale has the notes E (root) F# (2nd) G# (3rd) A (4th) B (5th) C# (6th) and D# (7th) .
This leads to the chord sequence E (I) F#m (ii) G#m (iii) A (IV) B (V) C#m (vi) D# dim (vii).
Notice as well that only the I, IV and V chords are major – the ii, iii and vi are minor and the vii is a positively evil sounding diminished chord. Why so?
Simply, the major scale hasn't got the right notes for the chords to all be major. An F#, for example has the A# note as its 3rd – that note isn't present in the E major scale, so A has to be substituted, making it a flattened 3rd and therefore a minor chord. For a D# chord, F## and A# need to be present for th 3rd and 5th – they're not, so F# and A have to be substituted, meaning flattened 3rd and 5th which creates the diminished sound.
Right here, in this article, we've covered probably 70% of the theory that you as a rock/ blues/ pop guitar player are ever going to need. Theory is nothing to be scared of, and investigating these sounds, combining them in different ways, can open up many new creative avenues to explore. Fear not the theory, for it is just big words for little things!