Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Scale Contstruction

"That's why we learn this 'theory' stuff.  It's kind of useless by itself, but as a way of describing sounds and identifying sounds it starts to become really helpful."  Guthrie Govan

Let's talk about rules and language.  There's a narrative that plays out in every beginning theory class everywhere.  Teacher starts talking about rules. Imaginative/Rebellious/Contrary student begins questioning the rules.  "Why can't I write perfect fifths? Beethoven/Debussy/Led Zepplin did!"

Here's what seems to be lost in the mix.  There are no rules in music theory.  Music theory is description.  "Do X, and Y will happen."  "The word for this thing is this word."  It doesn't mean you can't do Z. You can even call a major chord a "Slartibartfast" if you like.

It's like language in general.  You can say whatever you want to say, but if you say it in your own made up language, then no one will understand you.  All language does is give you a way to get the things in your head into the head of the fellow sitting next to you.

It all basically comes down to conventions.  Some people figured out ways of getting the sounds they wanted, and over the years we as musicians and theorists have agreed on conventional names for them. That's it.  And...think about it imaginative/rebellious/contrary students among you...this is a good thing for you.  1) It provides means of quickly accessing the sounds you have in your head.  If you want something to sound like a major chord, you don't have to go mucking about with trial and error until you find the notes you want - you just play the notes that you already know make up a major chord.  And here's the interesting one - 2) If you want to create new sounds, then you know which rules to break.

So let's start talking about some basic conventions, and along the way I'll make sure to mention ways you can bend "da rulz."

When musicians talk about scales, we compare everything to a major scale.  We talked about major scales in the first theory lesson on scales and modes.  If we number the notes in a major scale 1 through 8, we have what are called "scale degrees." (note the whole and half step intervals between each note. See Scales and Modes for a more in depth discussion of those.)

To "flat" a note is to lower it by one half step - to "sharp" a note is to raise it by one half step.  Raising and lowering certain notes will result in other scales.  For instance, the minor scale has a flat 3, flat 6 and flat 7 in relation to the major scale.

Now, there's nothing to stop you from calling the notes in the minor scale "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8," or "Q Z Duck Bowling Ball Tennis Shoes 42."  But this idea of relating scales to the major scale is conventional, and more than that, it's a useful way of thinking about new scale.  

For instance, let's take a look at a more exotic scale.  1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 8.  Without knowing what it's called, or even playing it, you can know quite a lot about it just by looking at those scale degrees.  

1) It's quite similar to the minor scale, only the 2 is flat instead of the 3.  
2) Whatever other weirdness a scale might have, if it has a 1, 3 and 5 left alone, those should be easy to latch onto with your ears and find familiar ground.  
3) If you look at the intervals between each note, you'll find that between b2 and 3 is neither a whole step nor a half step.  It is a step and a half, also known as a "minor third."  This is where the weirdness is going to be.  

The scale is called Phrygian Dominant.  Let's hear what it sounds like. 

"So what does that mean to me as a musician?" you might ask.  Good question.  Glad you asked.  Well, tons of things.  For one, it can open the door to experimentation.  Take a major scale - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 - flat a note here, sharp a note there.  Play the scale on your instrument and see if you like it.  

What else?  Well, why don't you try writing something in a weird scale.  Take phrygian dominant that we talked about today.  It has this weird "snake charmer," psuedo-middle-eastern vibe to it, especially if you highlight the Db-E interval.  For the guitar players, here's a scale box of C phyrgian dominant to experiment with.  

But, what if you didn't emphasize the weirdness about the scale?  What if you downplayed it, but still included the weird notes?  Then you might get something that sounds more familiar, but with a slightly different flavor.  You might end up with a heavy riff that no one even knows is in a bizarre scale.  

...You might end up with this:

Guthrie Govan puts it in another video that instead of an on/off switch to styles - as in, you are playing pentatonic blues.  Stop. Now you are playing shred - to instead treat them as a dimmer.  That there can be gradients to styles, and by introducing new notes or ideas and then emphasizing or emphasizing them you can blur the lines between things.  Brilliant.  

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Woodshed Boot Camp Part 4: Right Hand Accuracy continued

Last week we discussed how to differentiate between three ways to divide a beat into thirds.  The triplet, the gallop, and the pop triplet.  If you need to review the difference between those, take another look at last week's lesson.

Right Hand Accuracy

This week we're going to put some melodic motion to those rhythms.  Introducing left hand movement creates two new snarls, one obvious and one not so obvious.  Having two things to focus on is more difficult than just chugging away on one note.  However, we're also going to encounter all kinds of less apparent problems dealing with moving from one string to the next.  None of it will be terribly difficult, but failing to identify the problem and overcome it could lead to bigger problems later in your development as a kick-ass guitarist.

In the first lesson of the Boot Camp series, I used a scale fragment in A minor.  Let's take another look at it (this time in A minor instead of the original E minor).

It is just a pattern of six notes, repeated over and over again.  If you've been practicing your triplets from last week, the first three notes should be a breeze.  Just add in the additional notes in your left hand.  Remember, if it doesn't come naturally to you, then take it annoyingly slow and work it with a metronome.

The trouble is going to come in when you go to play note 4 - the D on the A string.  Like I said the last time we looked at this fragment, make sure you are not using two consecutive downstrokes.  Stick to alternate picking.

Now that you have that under your fingers again, lets take our three rhythms and apply it to this exercise.  Here are the other two.

Take our usual practice to these three: start as slow as is necessary to play them perfect, and increase the tempo to a desired goal.  We'll set the goal at 120 BPM.

Once you have those three under your fingers, let's extend the exercise to a full minor scale.  There are several ways to play scales in one position - what guitarists often call "a box."  The way I play them is somewhat uncommon.  I started experimenting with a slight shift when moving to the B string a few years ago, and then fully applied it to my practice regime when I saw Rusty Cooley doing the same thing.  So here is my "box" for A minor in 5th position.

If we take this scale box and play our three rhythms over it, we have a much more interesting way to practice scales while simultaneously working on the accuracy of our right hand.  Here are all three versions written out.  In order to facilitate picking, you repeat both the highest and lowest pitches.

Much like with the scale fragment above, the problems are going to arrise when changing strings.  We've already seen what happens when the last note on one string is a downstroke - you are tempted to play the first note on the next string as a downstroke.  Make sure you maintain alternate picking to avoid problems later in the scale.

When we move from the A string to the D string, we encounter a new problem.  We discussed it in the briefly in the more advanced etude from the first Bootcamp lesson.  An upstroke followed by a downstroke on a higher string - sometimes called "inside the string picking," because it can feel like your pick is "trapped" between the strings.  In picking patterns like these, your range of motion is restricted and you must be more precise with your right hand.  So practice just that scale fragment until the picking feels more natural.  Same as always, start slow and build it up with a metronome.  Here is a good starting point - try playing along with this before using your own metronome. Make sure you are playing the indicated picking - it starts on an upstroke. That is vitally important.

These are two huge potential "gotchas" that you should be aware of any time you have a linear passage like a scale: avoiding consecutive downstrokes and inside the string picking.  They stem from the same problem, which is using an even numbered thing (up and downstrokes) to play an odd numbered thing (three-note-per-string scale boxes).  There are several alternative solutions to this: play pentatonic boxes that are two notes per string, use various picking patterns like economy picking, and many more.  However, I find all that to be counterproductive.  I want to play the most efficient fingerings with the most efficient picking, and that is three-note-per-string boxes with alternate picking.  In my opinion, and the opinion of a number of famous shredders, the problems with that combination are minimal compared to the advantages.

So break out the metronome, clean up your picking, and next week learn an exercise that can work on either your right or your left hand (say what? Stay tuned to find out).

BTW, have you seen Chico's Instrumental?  Check it out and let me know what you think and if you'd like to see more.

Chico's Instrumental is freely available on YouTube. Doctrine's self titled EP is available at all your favorite music stores.
Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New Stuff!! Chico's Instrumental

Readers of Chico's World, I have something special today.

I've been writing instrumental guitar music for a long time now.  Some of it has been reworked into existing or upcoming Doctrine songs, but quite a bit of it doesn't fit into that medium.  Also, quite a bit of it sucks.  I write it mostly for my own sake.  (also, hearing yourself on tape will either break your soul or make you practice harder)

But I decided to sit down and write a piece of music especially for Chico's World.  I'm thinking about doing this more often.  It's a way for me to keep sharp on quite a few things - not just guitar, but recording, videography and editing.  Plus just churning out stuff is good for the creative juices (see: Jonathan Coulton, Thing-a-Week)

Let me know if you'd like to see more of this sort of thing.  I'll talk about it some after the video.

So there it is, in all it's hastily-edited glory.  This is simultaneously the most elaborate project I've done for Chico's World and the one I finished in the least time, so it's rife with minor blemishes.  I intentionally wanted to take a project from conception to blog in as little time as possible, so my apologies for the crappy editing and sub-par mixing.  It is somewhat intended.  If I do more of these, I expect I should get more proficient at the process.  

While I didn't write Chico's Instrumental (1? the first?) with any specific lesson in mind, it does cover a few things I've talked about.  Most noticeably, the rhythm guitar in the A section (I think of it as a chorus) chugs on the open E, alternating between straight 16ths and a gallop pattern, similar to what I talked about in the Right Hand Accuracy lesson.  It also makes heavy use of add 9 power chords discussed in the very first lesson here.

The last thing shown on camera is a variation on the left hand tapping I talked about in the lesson on the Revelation solo.  The passage could be played legato, but I elected to pick everything in this solo.  

So please, comment, subscribe to the YouTube channel, and let me know what you think of (?the first?) Chico's Instrumental!

Doctrine's EP is available on all your favorite digital music stores.
Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed - Speed Limits: Right Hand Accuracy

Welcome back to Doctrine of Woodshed.  We're still talking about Speed Limits, and up this week is Right Hand Accuracy.

Last week we talked about ways to improve your right hand speed, but as I've been saying all along, playing fast is as much about accuracy as it is about raw speed.  So now let's look at some ways to improve the accuracy in our right hand.

Once again, everything comes down to a metronome.  Well...not everything...but I'll get to that in a moment.

Start by focusing on being able to play steady alternate picking.  Pick a slow-ish tempo that you can comfortably play straight eighth notes.  If you've been following these lessons and practicing, this might be around 100 BPM for you.

Get warmed up by following our typical procedure for increasing speed.  Play a long series of eighth notes, and when you have those perfect slowly increase the tempo.  Let's shoot for 120 BPM.

Now that you are playing eighth notes at 120 BPM, lets make it a little more challenging - how about if you jump to eighth notes triplets at 120 BPM?  Take a listen to these two examples for the difference if you are unfamiliar with triplets.

Up until now in our series on Speed Limits, we've dealt exclusively with douple - that is, the beat divided into an even number.  This is triple - the beat divided into three.  Here is a common "gotcha" for your right hand.  Dividing a beat into three even notes creates triplets - but there are other ways to divide a beat into three which are uneven.  We're going to learn to differentiate between three of them.

The triplet

The "gallop*

And the so-called 'pop-triplet'

If you can get your right hand accustomed to playing these three patterns clearly, not only will you be familiar with three new rhythms, but your right hand will have a more developed sense of accuracy and you may find it easier to play more intricate rhythms in the future.

So, you ask, how do I learn these rhythms?  Good question, glad you asked.  And you already know the answer - start SLOW.

Start by playing a continuous loop of one rhythm at a time at 60 BPM for a length of time - say, one minute, with strict alternate picking.  First triplets. Then, when you have that down, stop, and try the gallop for one minute.  Likewise with the pop triplet.

Go through like this, increasing the tempo and then playing them all.  The goal is to bring them all up to as fast as you can comfortably play while still clearly the different rhythms.

Simple as that.  Next week, we're going take these rhythms and put melodic motion to them, which will create a whole new set of picking speed limits (spoiler: moving between strings is hard!).

Beauty and Fear: on Amanda Palmer's TED talk

I watched Amanda Palmer's TED talk tonight.  I haven't spoken since.  It takes a lot to make me speechless.

But there's something about an artist - I may not be able to talk, but neither can I stay silent.  So here I am.  Talking to you.

And after listening to her talk, that's more what I wish this blog could be.  More what I would like to make it.  You and me, talking.

I find it obvious and intuitive to break the "rules" of music.  I see no rules, only pathways that I may or may not take.  But society...I find it a good day when I'm aware of the rules of society at all, and a very good day when I don't break any.  But is that really who I am?

I haven't always been.  Many parts of my life have been defined by radicalism.  Now about as radical as I get is simply being a musician without a "real job."  I still want to play by the rules.  The rules that don't really want me to be who I am.

I don't want to ask for things.  I want to get hired, do my job, get paid, and end of transaction.  I just want "my job" to be a musician.  And maybe it doesn't work like that.  And maybe that's a good thing.

Because it means I get to ask.  To ask you.  Yea.  You.  Amanda says I should let you help me.  Alright then.  Here's a start.  I want you to follow this blog, and subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Then when you come to a show, I want you to talk to me.  Ask me for an autograph if you're so inclined.  Or about my gear.  Buy some merch.  Buy me a drink (please, after the show. I don't drink before I perform). But make sure we talk.  I'll freak out.  And it's ok.  I still want to talk to you.

And if you think I'm a self-entitled prick for asking for a handout...then I want you to come talk to me, too.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Speed Limits, or: Why You Should Care About Technique

Go to a martial arts or a self defense class during a discussion of grappling.  I can almost guarantee you that the idea of weak points in a grip will come up.  When escaping someone's grasp or grapple, you don't need to overpower them but simply apply pressure to the weakest point.  If you can break that, all the strength in the world cannot hold you.

I refer to the weak points in a musician's technique as "Speed Limits."  It is these deficiencies that keep us from playing faster.  Playing a passage clean requires all aspects of your technique to work together - which ever one is the weakest will define how fast you can play.

And let's be honest, who doesn't want to play fast, right?

We touched briefly on the idea last week, and this week I'm going to begin a series designed to focus on individual speed limits and improve them.

First up is right hand speed.

A quick side note: I'm going to be using symbols borrowed from orchestra music that have become common in guitar music to denote down picks and up picks.
Down Pick
Down Pick
Seriously?  This is not XKCD.  Not everything has alt text.
Up Pick

If you are unfamiliar with alternate picking, then that's a huge speed limit that you need to get rid of.  Think about it.  You have to move the pick down to play, and then up again to prepare it to pick down. Why wouldn't you pick a note while you're on the way back up?  It's an obvious way to double your picking speed.

Start by simply focusing on the mechanical idea of alternate picking.  Take a random note - let's say the A on the 5th fret of the low E string - down pick it, and then up pick it.  Simple, right?

Now do it in rhythm.  Slowly.  Remember the lesson from last week - always start as slow as necessary to play it perfectly.  Try playing along with this to get you started.

Once you have that down, then break out your metronome and apply the lesson from last week - when you can play it perfectly, bump the metronome up one click.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Come back when you can play 8th notes at 120 BPM.  Take your time, if this takes several hours or even several days that's perfectly fine.  Just make sure you are getting clean, well articulated notes played in rhythm.

For those of you that are already familiar with alternate picking (or if you just completed the assignment above), how do you go about increasing your speed with your right hand?  Good question.  Glad you asked.

It's going to come down to two things: the metronome idea we've been using, and a secret weapon I call "bursting."  It works like this:

Let's pick up where our new alternate-picking readers left off - the note A on the low E string, 5th fret, played in 8th notes at 120 BPM.  First, let's crank up the metronome a little more.  Take that exercise, and go through our now-familiar metronome routine until you can play it with 8th notes at 200 BPM.  Should still be pretty easy.

Now for the secret weapon.  With that tempo in your head, turn off the metronome.  Yes, you read that right - I actually said turn it off.  Start playing the exercise again - 8th notes at 200 - and after playing it for a few measures, briefly pick as fast as you can.  Remember to stay precise and clean - back off if you are getting sloppy.  After a short "burst," return to 200 BPM (or as close as you can) and continue to pick there for a while.

Alternate between these two - without stopping - for as long as you can.  I like to set up a stopwatch and go for 5 minutes at a time.  You may have to work up to that, but the goal is to tire your arm out without causing pain.  If you feel something in your arm similar to a "stitch in your side" when running, keep going - if you feel any other kind of pain, stop immediately.

Only do this exercise for a few minutes at each practice session - then go on to practicing other things (like a song you've been working on, or a less strenuous etude or exercise).  When you come back to it the next practice session, always start with the metronome and push the base speed up a few clicks.  Here's a video of me running through this exercise.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Tablature - Boon or Bane

"A piano has 88 keys, and is capable of playing 88 notes.  In contrast, a 4 string bass has 96 different places you can play a note, but only 41 distinct pitches.  The piano is an instrument of range, but the bass is an instrument of choice."  Victor Wooten

It's Back to Basics time here at Chico's World, so Theory of Ethos is going to have a basic lesson, too.  We're going to take a look at tablature:  how to read it, what it can be used for, and how it can hurt us as guitarists.

If you have no clue how to read tab, this lesson will be a little tricky.  There are tons of tutorials on that, so go hit up one of those and come back when you finish.  Here's two:
One in video
And one in text

Tablature is a way of representing music in terms of the guitar fretboard as opposed to traditional music notation.  In traditional notation, the lines and spaces represent higher and lower pitches.  In tablature, the lines represent the strings of a guitar, and the numbers on it are frets.  It simplifies certain things for guitarists.  You can tell at a glance where to put your fingers.  This is a C triad, written in both notation and tablature.


If all you have is the notation, then you have to figure out where to put the notes on the fretboard.  With the tab, that bit is taken care of for you.  But the notation tells you things the tablature doesn't, like how long to hold the chord.  And neither one of them make it obvious that there are several other ways to play this chord.



(This last one requires two-hand tapping, but is quite useful in certain situations)

There are ways around some of this.  You can shoehorn rhythm notation onto tablature.  It's difficult to notate dotted rhythms or whole notes (since they don't have stems), but it can be done.  The problem is that you frequently see tab without rhythm notation and so it is common for guitarists to be completely oblivious to rhythm notation.  It is possible to simply read where to put your fingers on the tab, and listen to a recording for things like rhythm and articulation.  

But what about a piece for which there is no recording?  Or something you compose?  Or what if there is a recording but no tab exists?  Then it would be useful to read and write rhythms.  

But there's one thing that there is no getting around: The tab doesn't tell you that there are other ways to plays those notes.  Tab in fact implies that there isn't another way to play that.  "This is where you put your fingers.  That's all that matters."  But it isn't all that matters, is it?

In the early Black Sabbath days, Toni Iommi started downtuning his guitars due to an injury that made his fingertips sensitive to pain.  The slacker strings hurt less, but simultaneously changed the sound of the guitar.  He took advantage of this by sometimes playing riffs that sounded low in pitch way up on the higher frets of the guitar on the lowest strings.  This changed the tone of his guitar to a darker sound and is huge part of the "doom-y" feel of early Sabbath albums.

Different strings sound different.  It sounds obvious, but exploring the tonal differences in various places on the guitar neck isn't something most guitarists spend time thinking about.  More importantly as creative artists, playing in a different part of the neck may open up possibilites that were not otherwise available.  Let's look at that C chord again.


Played in this position, you have certain options.  Open strings lie very close to fretted notes, meaning you can incorporate them into melodic lines, like this bluegrass-inspired lick.

The version higher up on the neck would have a more difficult time with this lick, and in fact it is quite impossible to accurately reproduce it with the articulations.  But, there are some harmonic options that become available that are difficult lower on the neck.  Take this lush C(add#11) chord

Part of what gives this chord it's interesting sound is the dissonance between the third of the chord, E, and the added note, F#.  There's no way to voice this in first position so that the F# and E natural sound in the same octave, which is something you might never know if you depended on tab and didn't try to play the chord in a different place. 

But that's not to say that tab is all bad.  Part of how to play a song is in fact tied up with where you put your fingers.  The beauty of barre chords is that a certain exact fingering allows a chord to be movable. And there are only two ways to preserve for posterity (or you, when you forget before next rehearsal) exactly how you play a song:  One is to video record it.  The other is tab.  

When I was in college, my bass instructor hated tablature.  Just bringing it into his office was inviting criticism, if you weren't immediately thrown out.  But junior year, I decided to play a Bach prelude on bass - the one in C minor from book 1 of The Well Tempered Clavier.  Rather than play it as a duet, I decided I would learn both parts on bass.  It was quite a challenge, taking most of the school year to finish, and when I was done I decided that the exact place I put my fingers was as much a part of my arrangement as anything else.  So I transcribed it in tablature.  

My instructor balked at first, and then I explained it to him just like I did above: tablature is the best way to write down where you put your fingers.  He relented.  Senior year I did a Bach two part invention on bass - similar in concept to the prelude, but it proved much more difficult.  I never would have gotten through it without tabbing it out as I went along.  I still have those tabs.  And as far as me or my instructor can tell, I'm the only person in the world that can play that particular invention on bass, both parts simultaneously.  

So, is tab a boon or a bane to guitarists?  Here's the takeaway.  Tab can massively hinder your development as a musician, but only if you let it.  If you take it for what it is - a way of communicating to others fret positions - and be wary of what it isn't - a complete replacement for the need to read notation or rhythms - then it can be a great tool.