The guitar is truly a remarkable instrument. Evolving from the earlier European lute, our modern six string version is capable of creating so much cool music. For not only is rhythm, melodies and chords possible on the acoustic instrument, even simultaneously with advanced players, but by adding the modern wizardry of electricity into the mix, modern electric and "synth" guitars can create entire orchestras of sound. Imagine that, that one instrument can create almost any sound ... Cool with this? Nearly all of this artistic resource we can generally carry about in a hand held case. Very cool n'est pas?
So, why does the guitar get it's own page in the text? Well, first in that the author of this text is a guitar player. Second, that next to perhaps our voices, is the guitar the most popular of all the instruments with it's ability to authentically create all of the American popular styles? Plus European classical music? The guitar is pretty darn popular.
Let's think about this last idea for just one momento. Just how essential is the guitar our music making? In children's music, folk music, campfire music, the guitar is so often the accompanying instrument of choice. Many rock stars are guitar players or singers, or both and many of these cats are very serious players right? Blues legends are oftentimes guitarists, as the blue resource is so intimately tuned and continually adjusted as the player evolves, thus is very guitar dependent, string bending ( wammy bar ) allowing the advancing artist between the cracks of equal temper, Were the first blues artists guitar players? Who created their essential blue notes by bending the pitch through pulling the string or with a slide? Is the core of the American sound in the blues? If ever at a bookstore, ask to see pictures of blues legends in blues books, perhaps a cool thing to do for all career players of all styles of music. Of course, American jazz music is the ultimate artistic challenge for the American guitarist, potentially utilizing the full spectrum of equal temperament, hopefully all of the blue notes, all grooves and rhythms and all of this often in a rather rapid pace of tempo. So cool and exciting is the American jazz guitar sounds. So, are there any other instruments that cover all the styles as handily as the geetar? I know I'm convinced, et vous vous? Click history of guitar to go online and explore various sites documenting the history and evolution of this remarkable stringed instrument.
So, an equal tempered guitar just might be the "ideal" American instrument. For not only is it able to produce the range of both the melodic and harmonic sounds provided by the system of but getting between these tempered pitches through the bending of strings is achieved rather easily, given practice. Combining these two resources provides potentially the whole palette for the creation of the American sounds. Perhaps no wonder then that we find the guitar at one historical core of American music, the blues, the root source for the many popular American styles that have evolved over the last hundred years or so.
With this in mind and following a similar format as in the theory of scales and history / spheres sections, the following ideas look at the evolution of the common melodic colors and easy, movable, fingering shapes to create them. This is followed by a theoretical discussion of the basic tonal resources used in creating important styles of American music. As the discussion evolves through the styles, the initial chord and scale shapes created with the open strings gradually evolve to more complex choices.
Perhaps the first scale color and shape many of us have learned first creates the ancient minor pentatonic color. We can hear this five note scale color in virtually every style of American music. It is a way important resource for blues and rock players. One cool aspect of this group of pitches is that there are really no "wrong" notes, or discordant or poorly sounding pitches when used over corresponding, equal tempered harmony. This picture of the fingerboard is a standard way to convey scale and chord shapes. Have you seen this type of instructional aid before? Cool? Spanning upward four frets from the fifth fret, using the basic four finger / four fret concept, sounding these pitches creates the A minor pentatonic scale in 5th position. The purple dots are the roots of the scale, the white dots are other pitches ( 3rd, 4th, 5th, b7 ) within the scale. Reference texts. Example 1.
Here is the sound of the above scale shape written out in standard musical notation. Example 1a.
We can extend this scale to include all of the available pitches of the A minor pentatonic group that are available in one localized position on the guitar. This is a common learning technique where by all of the available pitches of a particular scale color are included in each position. Two octave A minor pentatonic scale. Look familiar? Example 1b.
Here is the sound of the above scale shape.
A totally cool aspect of the theory of the minor pentatonic color is that there is a contrasting relative major scale color within the same group of pitches / scale shape. Which pitches of the scale shape do we need? Well, all of them really, it is just the root of the scale that changes, thus changing the corresponding intervals between the pitches. Here is a scale grid depicting a one octave C major pentatonic scale. Example 2.
Here is the sound of the above one octave, C major pentatonic scale. Example 2a.
Does the sound of the pitches evoke any memories of melodies? So, getting pretty far up on the neck, have you ever been to the 8th fret before? No worries, this is part of what we use them for! Just kidding, but what if the singer needs the music in the key of B because of their range and tonal quality, not the key of C? Know any ways, tricks or theory to adjust the C scale above to B? Got a best guess? Right, simply slide the entire scale shape down a half step / one fret and our pitches now provide the exact same colors, whose tonal center or key is now B major? Cool with this? Players call these kinds of scale shapes movable forms, and needless to say perhaps, they can become very handy! Here is the lick, double check the tab numbers for location, you should roughly be in fourth position, i.e., index finger at the fourth fret. Example 2b.
Movable shapes are very cool n'est pas? Here is the music. Example 2c.
Can your hear the pitch difference between the C and B groups of pitches? The B scale is a bit lower yes? Click them again. Cool?
So, can we also extend the length of the major pentatonic color downward in position as with the minor pentatonic color from example 1a above? Of course we can. We can do everything here! All we are trying to do hear is to maximize any of the pitches for the major pentatonic color at any given point on the fingerboard. Do we always have to use them all? Nope, just so we know where they are if we need them right? yep. Here is the grid and music. Back in the key of C pentatonic major. Example 2d.
So, we might not always need all of the pitches to create our melodic idea, but it is good to know where they are if we need them? Exactly. One common practice idea would be to take the scale shape above and run it up and down the fingerboard, keeping track of letter names / keys etc., as we move up and down the fingerboard. This kind of exercise simply "locks in" the shape, helping to gradually increase the velocity of ones lines. Some players call this "exhausting the resource", it's a sure way to learn all the letter names of the pitches on your instrument. These letter names become the "alphabet" to build the words of our musical vocabulary. Does this facilitate the anything from anywhere concept? Absolutely.
Let's expand the color of the five note pentatonic scales to include the tritone. In the minor tonality, we simply add one pitch a tritone interval ( # 4 / b 5 ) above the root. Here is the scale grid and music. The halftone purple dot in the scale grid is the new tritone pitch. Using the pitches of A pentatonic minor as a basis, we simply add the tritone color. Example 3.
Recognize the sound? Adding in the tritone to the minor pentatonic color creates the blues scale. Did you catch where the low G is? Right, 6th string, 3 fret. Here is a common blues lick in fifth position, one of gillions that exist within this basic minor pentatonic / blues shape. One must explore a bit eh? Thinking blues in A minor. Example 3a.
A common way to sound the tritone in this shape is to bend the fourth degree D up a half step. Are you hip? Craving more blues colors perhaps?
What color is created by adding the tritone to the major pentatonic group of pitches? Any ideas? The difference in mixing colors here is that with the major pentatonic tonality we insert a tritone color / sound that is created by two pitches, not one, as was done above with the minor pentatonic color. So, like a tritone chord? Yep. Let's add numbers to the pitches of the C major pentatonic scale and see what we've got here. Theorists call these numbers scale degrees. Cool with the numbers? Example 4.
|scale degrees||1||2||3||5||6||8 (octave)|
|pitches of C major pentatonic||C||D||E||G||A||C|
In the group of numbers between one and eight, which numbers got left out? Right, four and seven. Any guesses as to the interval created between these two pitches? Hint, begins with a "t." Right again, the tritone!, here is it's sound. Example 4a.
Let's add these pitches and numbers to the chart above. Example 4b.
|pitches of C ?||C||D||E||F||G||A||B||C|
Look familiar? Here is the scale grid and sound file of perhaps a familiar winter holiday theme? Start with your pinky on the highest pitch. Example 4c.
Sound familiar? The melody is from the 1700's and is here created from the pitches of the C major scale. Know any other major scale melodies? Is this scale shape is also a "movable form?" Yep. So with a bit of theory and savvy, you can probably play this melody in at least four of five different major keys by simply moving up and down the fingerboard yes? And depending on your ax, maybe more? Ya mean like all 12? Exactly.
Knowledge of the major scale potentially provides a ton of melodic resource. Not only can we build 12 different keys, we can extract the relative minor color and all of the church modes. So all in all, a very handy component.
With this initial melodic evolution in mind, let's look at the various styles of American music in regard to common scale and chord shapes used to create the music. Please bear in mind that my choices here tend toward the generally accepted components, if a particular style is not included below, try to be creative and look at where your favorite music historically evolved from, then see if any of those styles are listed here. Need help in the research, maybe we can assist, or ask musical friends and family. So, with this in mind, let's correlate various musical styles with a relative level of theoretical complexity and look at common scale and chord shapes used to create them.
Folk / country / bluegrass / newgrass. As the name implies, folk music is for folks just like us, and usually tells a story about a folk or folks, often an event in history that needs to be remembered. The vocal / storyline usually gets top billing, containing the essence of the piece. The pitches of the melody are sung and the guitar part is created mostly from open chords. A capo is a string stopping device oftentimes used to get the same open chords into different keys by moving the same shapes up in registration. Bluegrass players tend to want to tear it up a bit more, with faster tempos, oftentimes with complex, diatonic melodies and chord changes. There is also quite a bit of ride time in the blue and newgrass styles, which has created some very advanced and exciting instrumental players over the years. For the most part, the genre of folk music is mainly diatonic and the harmony triadic. Dominant chords oftentimes retain their seventh's and occasionally the seventh is added to minor triads. More rare is the use of the 9th in the harmony, except in blusier situations and in the tonic minor 9 in more recently written, contemporary compositions.
The main component for creating instrumental melodies for the folk genre often come from fingerpicking the notes from the chords. These chord shapes are mainly the open chords and over the centuries have created the harmony for gillions of cool tunes. Here are some of the more common open chord shapes for six string guitar. Chords are identified by letter, of it's root pitch and whether it is major or minor. Example 5.
|C major||C 7||F major||G major||A minor||E minor|
In the above "open" shapes, open or unfretted strings are included in the chord voicing, thus they are considered an "open chord." Cool with this? Here are the sounds of the above chords. Example 5a.
|C||C 7||F||G||A minor||E minor|
Sounds almost like the chord progression to a pop / rock tune eh? Here are a few more common and potentially essential open chord shapes for the emerging creative guitarist. Example 5b.
|E maj||E 7||A major||B 7||D major||D 7|
Here is the sound of these shapes. Example 5c.
|E maj||E 7||A maj||B 7||D major||D 7|
Sounds as of these first few voicings are heading towards a rock / blues thing eh?
There are two important barre chord shapes that are commonly used in many of the American music styles. They are created directly from the E and A major open chords as shown in example 4a below. The term barre generally implies that the index finger stops all of the strings beneath the chord shape, similar to what a capo does. Barre chords are movable forms and can be very handy components for the creative guitarist. Example 6.
|E major||F major||F minor||A major||Bb major||Bb minor|
An easy way to learn these two barre chords is to simply vamp back and fourth between the two, creating a tonic to Four motion, so common in the folk, blues and rock styles.
For creating melodies in the folk genre, oftentimes the chord shapes are fingerpicked in various "rolls" or patterns, which create characteristic folk melodies. The open chords also give way to open scale shapes. Here is the open, one octave C major scale, which is then expanded to include all of it's pitches in "open" position. The chord shapes included are the principle One / Four / and Five chords, so commonly used gillions of great tunes. The musical example simply runs the pitches of the scale over the chords. Example 7.
|C major scale||extended||C major||F major||
What are some of your favorite folk tunes? Click to styles of music for a listing of tunes in the folk genre.
Blues / delta blues / blues rock / country blues. Blues music and guitar are nearly synonymous. Back to the early delta blues players, many used a guitar to back their voices, continuing a legacy of storytelling as back through past ages. Relatively inexpensive and highly portable (as compared to a piano), the geetar has been the instrument of choice for many great blues artists. With so much of the music being based in the three chord / 12 bar blues, there are some cool scale and chord shapes that tend to work together. For open position, the key of E is probably the most common key for the downhome, delta blues. Here is the open shape for an E blues scale followed by the principle chords for a One / Four / Five blues. The musical example simply "runs" the pitches of the scale shape over the changes. Example 8.
|E blues scale||E 7 ( One )||A 7 ( Four )||B 7 ( Five )|
We can make all of the shapes from example 4e above "movable", which helps us to transport our blues ideas into any of the 12 keys provided by equal temper. Let's modulate to the key of A and recreate the shapes. Example 8a.
|A blues scale||A 7 ( One )||D 9 ( Four )||E 7#9 ( Five )|
The blues scale shape in example 5a is by far and away the most commonly abused by blues players and the rockers. Almost every cool blues lick ever created can probably be found somewhere, in some key, from within this scale shape. Really? Well, that is a bit of a stretch for sure, but there is a ton of cool stuff in this shape. So very simple but yet so cool. I like that. If you're heading towards the blues / rock thing in your playing and listening, learn this last minor pentatonic shape. As as you'll find out in the process, there are some crucial bends very easily articulated within this four fret shape. Some cats play the whole show with three fingers, others go with four, whatever works for you is probably best.
Oh, lest we forget that the voicing for "D 9" in the last idea is the ultimate and totally essential funk chord shape for guitar. So, if ya want to funk things up a bit, this is the shape. Try it with a half step lead in. The harmony for the blues is based on the Mixolydian color, are you hip?
Modern rock / metal / gothic / rap. Emerging in the 50's from a style of blues called "boogie woogie", a shuffle / swing 12 bar blues, the various genres of rock music today are oftentimes fascinating to behold in person. Looking for the proverbial 3 chord rock blues?
Just about all of the scale and chord shapes presented so far also apply to rock music. We can of course make a few additions no? In the more heavy kinds of rock, the metalists and their progeny, the "power" barre chords of earlier rock music are oftentimes reduced to simply just the root and fifth of the chords. Example 9.
barre chord devolves to just the root and fifth
Here is the sound of the devolution of the barre chords above, One / flat Three / Four using both colors. Add your own overdrive / distortion tone. Example 9a.
With just the two pitches, how do we know if the chord is major or minor? Well, we really don't, but I don't think that really matters in these styles of music anymore. Players simply move the 2 pitch perfect 5th around to create their chord progressions, basing their motions on the parent scale of the song. I think part of this simplification of the harmony was in part due to the evolution of guitar gear. As the sound of many rock guitar players became increasingly distorted due to overdriving the electronics, the innovators invented various devices that keyed in on this distorting of the various overtones of a chord and then compressed the sound to create longer, oftentimes infinite sustain. Pushed this through a stack of Marshall amps and the sounds of these 2 pitches becomes a very persuasive color for those so inclined. The sound created by using the original "power chord" shapes through these new processors is just too muddy, while using just the root and fifth is enough to "encourage" the overdrive device nicely. The sounds, if you dig this sort of thing, are very, very cool and create a lot of energy.
Another factor of the various genres of the 90's "metal" is that the tempo of the music is quite a bit faster that the 70's and 80's rock. Not that players from the earlier days didn't play fast, but that the dance part of the rhythm / groove / music was back then slower. With the emergence of the "mosh pit" in the early 90's, tempos have increased dramatically in some styles and things just ain't been the same since.
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"If you think from the root ol'e boy, you'll never get lost." Dr. James B. Miller