Category Archives: Theory

Major Scales 101

Being able to connect major scales is the building block of knowing your way around the neck when soloing. Learning your scales is a simple process that only takes a few days to learn and will benefit you for the rest of your guitar playing life. First you need to learn each of the major scale patterns. Once you’ve memorized the scales you must learn how to stack them. When you learn to stack them and see how they overlap, finding your way around the fret-board will be simple!

First a little theory. For something more in depth, I recommend visiting the music theory master class. I am going to try my best to explain this to all of the beginners out there. There are 12 chromatic notes in modern day western music. Each note is separated by a half step interval, just like the frets of a guitar (the distance between 2 adjacent frets is a half step). Each major scale is composed to 7 notes. A major scale is composed with this formula:

  • whole step
  • whole step
  • half step
  • whole step
  • whole step
  • whole step
  • half step

 

Keep in mind that a whole step = 2 half steps. So in C major (no sharps of flats in this key), the notes would be:

  • ​C (whole step to)
  • D (whole step to)
  • E (half step to)
  • F (whole step to)
  • G (whole step to)
  • A (whole step to)
  • B (and a half step back up to)
  • C

 

Whoa!~ Now, isn’t that easy?! You can now make a scale in every key now, provided that you understand how sharps and flats work. Well, now what you ask. Well, my friends, let me show you how to play a Major scale on the guitar. We are going to stay in the key of C today. It’s the easiest to start with because there are no sharps or flats. Now here is what you have to do as a player. You must memorize all of these scale forms. DO NOT, and I repeat DO NOT try and memorize all of these at once. A famous violinist once told me that the trick to memorizing something and getting into your long term memory is to work on it for 10-30 minutes each day for 4 days straight. So, spend 10 minutes a day learning a scale shape for four days in a row. Memorize one scale form and then move to the next one in sequence.

Now that you understand what you have to do, here comes the next step. Each scale form has a root note. The root is simply the key the scale is in. So, if we are in C major, then the root is C. Simple. Below are all of the scale forms. The roots are RED on the charts.

 

Here is what a C major scale, in root position (pattern 1), would look like in tab from C to C:

 

Now what do I do with all of these patterns I just memorized, you are probably asking? It is easy. Stack them on top of each other using the roots. All of the patterns are in order. So, take pattern two and place it on top of pattern one. Line up the root note on the D string. And that is how easy it is! Do you see how the scale overlaps? Same notes, just a little higher in pitch. Now, pattern 3 attaches onto pattern 2 at the root. Just keep going like that. It is that easy!

What you have to do now is connect all of these scales. Just stack the roots and watch how nicely the scales over lap. This is why it is important to learn all of the patterns individually. It makes them easy to stack. Once you learn how the patterns connect, you can solo in any key, in any position. If we are in the key of D major, then just pick a D on the neck and slap down the pattern that fits around it. Then start soloing. All in all, connecting scales is really easy, just take your time and practice. Good Luck!

Chord Formulas

Chord Notes in Scale Example in Key of C
Major 1,3,5 C, E, G
Major 7 1,3,5,7 C, E, G, B
Major 9 1,3,5,7,9 C, E, G, B, D
Major 11 1,3,5,7,9,11 C, E, G, B, D, F
Major 13 1,3,5,7,9,11,13 C, E, G, B, D, F, A
Suspended 4 1, 3, 4, 5 C, E, F, G
Minor 1, b3, 5 C, Eb, G
Minor 7 1, b3, 5, b7 C, Eb, G, Bb
Minor 9 1, b3, 5, b7, 9 C, Eb, G, Bb, D
Minor 11 1, b3, 5, b7, 9, 11 C, Eb, G, Bb, D, F
Minor 13 1, b3, 5, b7, 9, 11, 13 C, Eb, G, Bb, D, F, A
Dominant 7th 1, 3, 5, b7 C, E. G, Bb
Dominant 9th 1, 3, 5, b7, 9 C, E. G, Bb, D
Dominant 11th 1, 3, 5, b7, 9, 11 C, E. G, Bb, D, F
Dominant 13th 1, 3, 5, b7, 9, 11, 13 C, E. G, Bb, D, F, A
Augmented 1, 3, #5 C, E, G#
Augmented 7th 1, 3, #5, b7 C, E, G#, Bb
Diminished 1, b3, b5 C, Eb, Gb
Diminished 7th 1, b3, b5, bb7 (bb7 = 6) C, Eb, Gb, A

Music Theory 101

Many Guitarists spend hours learning to play better. They may spend countless hours practicing advanced lead guitar techniques in hopes of someday becoming a virtuoso. While doing this is great, there is one area of musicianship that is commonly neglected by aspiring guitarists and musicians in their quest to become a better player. That area is Music Theory. That’s right, I said music theory. This subject is often avoided simply because it can be too confusing especially for beginners. And that part is true. It is possible for music theory to become an overwhelming topic IF things are presented out of order or not applied properly. In this master class I hope to teach you the fundamentals of music theory that will greatly help you in your quest to become a better musician, songwriter and improviser.

First lets answer a question: why should anyone even bother learning music theory? Why is it necessary? Well, let me answer this question with a couple of questions of my own such as: Have you ever written a really cool sounding riff, but then wondered how you could develop it into a finished song? Or have you ever tried to improvise over backing tracks (even if you know what scales you were supposed to play) but still had trouble getting your solos to sound convincing? The answer to both of these problems is to increase your understanding of how music works. By understanding the fundamentals such as intervals and how they are combined to form scales and chords you will find your musical options expanding greatly. Improvising will now become much easier because you will know exactly what notes are in what keys you are playing (and as daunting as it might sound it actually isn’t much trouble to memorize the notes in most keys once you understand a few simple tricks).

Hopefully with the points above I have convinced you to stick around and check out the rest of this master class. We will begin with the basics and build up from there. So lets get started!

The first topic we must address is intervals. The following description of Intervals is an excerpt from my book: “The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist”.

 

Intervals

Intervals are the most fundamental building blocks of ALL music. What is an interval? Simply put, it is a distance between two notes. When two notes are played separately (as you would play when playing a melody), the interval is called a melodic interval. When two notes are played together (as you would play when strumming a chord), it is called a harmonic interval.

Below you will find descriptions and names of all of the possible distances. The names might seem a little bit overwhelming right now, but you don’t need to spend a lot of time memorizing them. The most important thing is to become aware of them and apply the knowledge to your own music. Before we begin, remember that a “half step” equals one fret on the guitar and a whole step equals 2 frets.

  • When two notes are 0 half steps apart (you are playing the same note twice) this “interval” is called a Unison.
  • When two notes are a half step (one fret ) apart, the interval is called a Minor 2nd
  • When two notes are 2 half steps (one whole step or 2 frets ) the interval is called a Major 2nd
  • When two notes are 3 half steps (one and a half whole steps or 3 frets ) the interval is called a Minor 3rd
  • When two notes are 4 half steps (two whole steps or 4 frets ) the interval is called a Major 3rd
  • When two notes are 5 half steps (two and a half whole steps or 5 frets) the interval is called a Perfect 4th
  • When two notes are 6 half steps (3 whole steps or 6 frets ) the interval is called a Tritone
  • When two notes are 7 half steps (3 and a half whole steps or 7 frets ) the interval is called a Perfect 5th
  • When two notes are 8 half steps (four whole steps or 8 frets ) the interval is called a Minor 6th
  • When two notes are 9 half steps (4 and a half whole steps or 9 frets) the interval is called a Major 6th
  • When two notes are 10 half steps (5 whole steps or 10 frets ) the interval is called a Minor 7th
  • When two notes are 11 half steps (5 and a half whole steps or 5 frets ) the interval is called a Major 7th
  • When two notes are 12 half steps (6 whole steps or 12 frets ) the interval is called an Octave.

 

You don’t need to become overwhelmed with the names of each interval, however you will benefit greatly by spending a few minutes during each practice session playing each interval and getting used to its sound and trying to match up the name with the sound of it in your head. Eventually, you want to get to the point of hearing an interval and being able identify it without touching the guitar. There are several online interval ear trainers that you can use that are free.

We are going to leave the intervals alone for a moment (we will come back to them soon enough) and now its time to discuss another important topic which is the musical alphabet.

 

The Musical Alphabet

There are 7 notes in the musical alphabet. They are A B C D E F and G. They are separated by half steps and whole steps. On the guitar, the distance of one fret is equivalent to one half step and the distance of 2 frets is equal to one whole step. Notes A and B, D and E, F and G are separated by a whole step. I excluded notes B and C, and E and F because the distance between these two pairs of notes is a half step. In other words, they are one fret apart on the guitar fret board. In the illustration below you can see the notes on the fret board. Notice that as I’ve described notes A and B, D and E, F and G are a whole step (distance of 2 frets on the guitar) and notes B and C as well as E and F are a half step apart (distance of 1 fret on the guitar)

You may be wondering why some of the frets are not filled in with note names. For example, what is the name of the note on the 5th string first fret? This note can actually have two different names. Remember that it is a half step lower than the note on the second fret and half step higher than the note of the open string (or zero fret). It can have two names depending on the context. If we look at the note at the first fret as being a half step lower than the note on the second fret (which is a B). This means that we should have a name that describes the note at the first fret as being “a half step lower than B”. We use a flat sign (b) after a note name to mean “a half step lower than that note. In our example, one possible name for a note at the 5th string first fret is a Bb (pronounced “B flat”)

However this note (Bb) is also a half step higher than the note of the open string A. So another name for the note at the first fret of the A string is something that says “a note that is a half step higher than A” We use a sharp sign (#) after a note to mean “a half step higher than that note” In our example, another possible name for a note at the 5th string first fret is an A# (pronounced “A sharp”).

This principle for naming notes applies to the other pairs of notes that are a whole step apart (F and G, and D and E). So a note between F and G can be called F# or Gb, and a note between D and E can be called D# or Eb. These different names for the same note are called enharmonic. In other words, even though a D# and Eb sounds the same pitch, the names for the same note may be different depending on the musical context. For now, simply remember that both names (using sharps or flats) can be used. So the whole fret board can look either like this (with flats used).

So now the question is: how should you go about memorizing all of these notes on the guitar? And is this even necessary? The answer to the second question depends on how good of a musician you aspire to become. If you want to learn to write original music and/or learn to improvise, then knowing the fret board is essential. If your goals are more modest, then this will not be as much of a priority but you can still ONLY BENEFIT from taking the time to learn the notes. So no matter what your goals are, there are only good things to be gained by investing the time into learning your way around the fret board.

There are many ways of going about learning this skill. The first step is to memorize the names of the open strings and the tuning reference notes on each string! This is important to do anyway so that you are able to tune properly if you don’t have a tuner handy. So first you need to remember the open strings (EADGBE) and remember also that the E string at the fifth fret is the same note as the A string open and that the A string at the fifth fret is the same as the D string open and so on. Memorizing that alone will give you great reference points on each string. Since you know that the note on the fifth fret of the E string is an A you can also quickly figure out that the 6th fret is a B flat followed by B on the 7th fret and C on the 8th fret and so on.

Another good thing to do is to ask yourself anytime you play a passage on the guitar: “What notes did I just play?” The more you do this, the faster you’ll be able to figure out the notes.

You can also tackle groups of notes one position at a time. One position spans four frets (one finger per fret stretch). So if you position your index finger on fret 5, your middle on fret 6, ring finger on fret 7 and pinkie on fret 8, you would be playing in the fifth position. If you moved your hand up so that your index was on the 6th fret, you would be in the sixth position and so on.

You can also practice testing yourself by randomly thinking in your head things like: “What note is the G string 5th fret?” Since you already know (think back to the tuning reference notes) that the note on the fourth fret is a B, the fifth fret has to be a C. Also the note on the fifth fret of the G string is the same as the note on the B string first fret. (note C) Likewise note Bb on the E string 6th fret is the same as the note on the A string 1st fret and so on.

The important thing to remember is that learning the note on the fret board takes TIME. Feel free to experiment with creating your own methods for memorizing the notes. Just do not forget that the MOST important thing when it comes to a skill like this is consistency. With practice and experience you will eventually get to the point where you can look at any note on the guitar and think of its name on the spot. Just do not forget to practice this skill on a daily basis even when you are away from the guitar.

Now lets introduce the subject of keys. When a song is said to be in a particular key (for example: A major, E minor, C# minor etc…)it is meant that the notes of a particular scale are used to in the song. So if a song uses the notes and the chords of the F major scale (for example) it is said to be in the key of F major.

There are two main types of scales that 99% of music is based on and they are Major and Minor. While many other scales exist, they are simply variations of Major and Minor (with some notes removed or altered). The major scale is built by relying on a specific formula of intervals. This formula is Whole step, Whole step, Half step, Whole step, Whole step, Whole step, Half step. We will abbreviate Whole steps with a “W” and Half steps with an “H” So again the formula for the major scale is  WWHWWWH.

 

WWHWWWH

Below you can see an illustration of a C major scale on one string. Notice that the intervals between the notes follow the WWHWWWH formula.

So if you started on note C and went up a whole step you would get note D, another whole step would give you E, a half step up will get you to note F, a whole step up will arrive to G, another whole step A, another whole step will get you note B and finally going up by a half step you will return to C again. By following the above major scale formula starting from any note, you have derived a major scale (in this case C major) Here are the notes again:

C D E F G A B C
​W W H W W W H

This pattern works for any scale. For example, here is a G major scale:

G A B C D E F# G
W W H W W W H

 

So if you want to figure out any major scale starting from any Root ( a “Root” is the first note you start the scale on; this word is the same as the word “Tonic” and these terms can be used interchangeably), you simply have to apply the WWHWWWH formula to obtain the rest of the notes.

The notes within the scale are often referred to as scale degrees. Very simply, they are labeled with Arabic numerals 1 through 7. This is done to give a more general system of labeling to notes within scales (much like the Roman numerals for chords). Scale degrees in EVERY major key function in the same way, its only the notes that change depending on the particular scale (again just like the Roman numerals). So the formula for the major scale using scale degrees is very simply: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. This concept will become more important, more relevant (and more clear) later on.

Now lets go back to the subject of keys. Consider the scales below:

The “Sharp” Major Scales:

C D E F G A B C
G A B C D E F# G
D E F# G A B C# D
A B C# D E F# G# A
E F# G# A B C# D# E
B C# D# E F# G# A# B
F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#

 

The “Flat” Major Scales:

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

 

If you look down through each column, you will notice that with each new scale the number of sharps (or the number of flats) seems to increase by one. For example: G major has one more sharp than C major(which actually has none) and D major has 1 sharp more than G major etc… Likewise the F major scale has one more flat (again, C major has no sharps or flats) and Bb major has one more sharp than F major etc…

Notice another thing: the roots of each scale (the note that each scale begins on) are related to each other by an interval of a perfect fifth. The result is what is called a “Circle of Fifths” and it looks like this:

You might be wondering what the deal is with the minor keys that are written in lower case letters below the major keys. Do not worry about them at the moment. We will explore the minor scales soon enough and everything will make sense then.

Now its time to talk about how the chords within the scale (and chords in general) are built. We will be dealing with 3 types of chords in this section: Major, minor and diminished (technically there is another type of triad called the “augmented” triad but we won’t get into it here). A major chord is built by taking scale degrees 1 3 and 5 from the major scale that begins on the same root. This means that if you want to build a C major chord (for example), you have to look at the C major scale. So using our WWHWWWH formula we get notes C D E F G A B C. Next, we will use the labeling system of scale degrees to label each of the notes of the scale.

C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

So if we take scale degrees 1 3 and 5 of the C major scale, we get notes C E G. These are the notes that make up a C major chord.

 

C major chord

Important note: Most of the time (especially in guitar based music) you will be playing more than the 3 notes themselves. If you simply strum chords on the guitar, it seems natural to use all 6 strings. Therefore some of the notes in a chord (in our example in C major the notes again are C E and G) can be doubled. That means you can have more than one C, and/or more than one E and/or more than one G

Lets do another example to find the notes of an E major chord. The E major scale contains notes: E F# G# A B C# D# E. Labeled with scale degrees the scale would look like this:

E F# G# A B C# D#
​1 2 3 4 5 6 7

So if we take scale degrees 1, 3 and 5 of the E major scale, we get notes E G# B. These are the notes making up an E major chord.

 

E major chord

Are you catching on to the pattern? So if you need to figure out how to build a major chord starting on any note (Root) simply write out a major scale starting on that note and find scale degrees 1, 3 and 5. Experiment with this on your guitar by playing some simple open position chords that you know (such as C major and E major) and ask yourself, “What notes am I playing” You will find that the notes of the C chord are C E G (as described above) and the notes of the E chord are E G# B (as described above).

Lets do another example in the key of D major. The major scale contains notes D E F# G A B C# D. Labeled with scale degrees, it would look like this:

D E F# G A B C#
​1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Taking scale degrees 1, 3 and 5 of the scale we get notes D F# A. These notes are the notes of the D major chord.

 

D major chord

If you understand how the major chords are built, then understanding the construction of minor chords will not be difficult. The difference between a major and minor chord is that in minor, scale degree 3 is lowered a half step (becoming b3). So the formula for a minor chord is 1 b3 5. In our earlier example in D major, we had the following:

D E F# G A B C#
​1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Scale degrees 1, 3 and 5 (notes D F# A) give us a D major chord. If we lowered the 3rd of the D major chord we would end up with notes D F and A.

 

D minor chord

Important note: The rule with doubling notes applies in the same way to minor chords (and any other chord). Therefore some of the notes in a chord (in our example in D minor the notes again are D F and A) can be doubled. That means you can have more than one D, and more than one F and more than one A.

Lets repeat the above process to get an E minor chord. We need to first look at the notes of the E major scale which are:

E F# G# A B C# D#
​1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Next we need to take scale degrees 1 b3 5 once again. This gives us the notes E G B, the notes of the E minor chord.

 

E minor chord

The next chord we are going to look at is the diminished chord. It is built by taking scale degrees 1 b3 and b5 of the major scale. So going back to our C major example, we already know that scale degrees 1 and b3 would be notes C and Eb. To get scale degree b5, all we need to do is take a look at the regular scale degree 5 (note G in C major) and lower it a half step to make a Gb. So the notes in a C diminished chord would be C Eb and Gb.

 

C diminished

Lets look at how we would form an E diminished chord. First, we will need the scale degrees of the major scale. We already know that scale degrees 1 and b3 would be notes E and G (refer to the previous page for detailed explanation if you need to review). In order to get scale degree b5, we need to (as we did in our C major example above) to look at the regular scale degree 5 (note B in the key of E major) and lower it a half step. So we would end up with the note Bb. So an E diminished triad has the notes E G and Bb.

 

E diminished

The last chord we will discuss is the chord that is commonly referred to as the “Power Chord”. It is very simple to build and even simpler to play and it is used all over the place in rock music. To build a power chord from any root, you have to look at the major scale starting from that note and take scale degrees 1 and 5. So using C major as an example, the notes once again are:

C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

 

C power chord (C5)

Note: in a power chord, the Root is typically doubled. So in the case of a C power chord above, you have two C notes and one G note. Also note that this position is movable so you can move it down or up the strings to get different power chords. Another word of advice is to play them with distortion using palm muting with your right hand. Power chords are rarely played using clean tone or using an acoustic guitar as they generally sound best in a rock/heavy metal context on a distorted electric guitar using the bridge pick up. Also note that power chords are also called 5 chords such as A5, E5 or C5.

Here are some more diagrams of common power chords. Again, keep in mind that they are really built using one basic shape that is movable all over the fret board (notice the fingering and the position of the shape of the G power chord and the B power chord for example).

  • E Power Chord
  • A Power Chord
  • D Power Chord
  • G Power Chord

 

B Power chord

Lets now shift our discussion to the minor scales. There are actually 3 types of minor scales (natural, harmonic and melodic). We will focus on the more common scales here which are the natural and harmonic minor. Lets begin with the natural minor scale.

You can think of the natural minor scale in several different ways. One way of thinking of it is that some of its scale degrees are different than those of the major scale starting from the same root. Here is what this means: lets say you are playing an A major scale using the notes below:

A B C# D E F# G#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Now, to get the A natural minor scale we need to lower scale degrees 3 6 and 7 making them b3 b6 and b7. In other words, we get the following notes (in the A natural minor scale).

A B C D E F G
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Notice another curious detail. Notes of the A natural minor are EXACTLY the same as those of the C major scale (C D E F G A B C) with the only difference being that the minor scale starts on scale degree 6. This unique relationship between a major scale and a natural minor scale starting on that major scale’s scale degree 6 is going to become very important later. In fact there is a special term for this relationship that is used in music theory. The A minor scale is said to be the relative minor of C major. And vice versa C major is said to be the relative major of A minor. Look back at the circle of fifths again, is it making more sense now?

Here are a couple of more examples. Lets take the B major scale. Its notes are:

B C# D# E F# G# A#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Now, to turn the above major scale into a minor scale, we need to lower scale degrees 3 6 and 7. So in other words we need to take notes D# G# and A# and lower them by a half step, turning them into notes D G and A. So the notes of the B natural minor scale become:

B C# D E F# G A
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Notice also, that this minor scale contains the EXACT same notes as the D major scale (D E F# G A B C# D) except that it is starting on scale degree 6. So you can say that B natural minor is the relative minor of D major, and that D major is the relative major of B minor.

Lets do another example using the G major scale. Here are the notes:

G A B C D E F#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

In order to form a G natural minor scale, we will need to take scale degrees 3 6 and 7 once again, and lower them by one half step. So we will need to take notes B E and F# and lower them to get notes Bb Eb and F. So the notes of the G natural minor scale become:

G A Bb C D Eb F
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Notice also, that this minor scale contains the EXACT same notes as the Bb major scale (Bb C D Eb F G A Bb) except that it is starting on scale degree 6. So you can say that G natural minor is the relative minor of Bb major, and that Bb major is the relative major of G minor.

The above process works for every scale. So from now on, if you want to find the relative minor scale from any major scale, all you have to do is look at that major scale’s scale degree 6. Go back to the circle of fifths picture again and look at how the minor scales are derived from the major scales.

Now lets turn our attention to the harmonic minor scale. There is only one note difference between natural minor and harmonic minor. The difference is scale degree 7. In natural minor, you would lower that scale degree (to make it b7) however in harmonic minor you keep the same scale degree 7 as it is in the relative major. Here is an example in the key of A.

A natural minor:

A B C D E F G
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

A harmonic minor:

A B C D E F G#
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7

The harmonic minor scale and natural minor scales have the same relative major scale. In other words, the relative major of A minor (natural, harmonic) is still C major.

Armed with all of this information, we can now explore how chords are grouped into keys. I will give you a brief summary here, if you are interested in a more in depth explanation, check out my book The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist. for a much more in depth description of chords (among many other important topics for a developing guitarist).

Anyway, here we go:

Below are the chords in the most common keys. They are given a general system of labeling using Roman Numerals. There are seven chords that belong in each major or minor key and each one is labeled with a specific Roman numeral. In other words, the first chord in the key is given a Roman numeral I, the second is labeled ii, the third iii, the fourth is labeled IV, the fifth V, the sixth vi and the seventh viio. Major and minor chords are distinguished by writing the Roman numeral for the chord either in upper or lower case respectively. In other words, all major chords (I IV V) get an upper case Roman numeral and the minor chords (ii iii vi) get a lower case Roman numeral. The diminished chord is given a lower case Roman numeral with a degree symbol (viio). You will see this type of labeling system in the future.

Try coming up with some progressions (to play a progression simply means to play several chords together with one following the other) using the chords below. For now all you need to know is that these chords belong to their respective keys and if you play a combination of chords from a specific key there is a good chance that they will sound good together. Also remember that when you play the V chord in any major key progression, the I chord most often follows. The same applies to the viio chord (the I chord often follows it). This is a very basic way to think about it but for right now I am sure you have your hands full just learning to change between the chords smoothly. Make sure you follow the technical tips, watch the video examples (as many times as you need to) and keep practicing! Also try to memorize these chord fingerings so that playing them will become automatic (you will find that these chords are used A LOT in guitar based music).

 

Key of C Major:

  • C major I
  • D minor ii
  • E minor iii
  • F Major V
  • G Major V
  • A minor vi
  • B diminished viio

 

Key of G Major:

  • G major I
  • A minor ii
  • B minor iii
  • C Major V
  • D Major V
  • E minor vi
  • F# diminished viio

 

Key of D Major:

  • D major I
  • E minor ii
  • F# minor iii
  • G Major V
  • A Major V
  • B minor vi
  • C# diminished viio

 

Key of A Major:

  • A major I
  • B minor ii
  • C# minor iii
  • D Major V
  • E Major V
  • F# minor vi

 

Key of E Major:

  • E major I
  • F# minor ii
  • G# minor iii
  • A Major V
  • B Major V
  • C# minor vi
  • D# diminished viio

 

F Major:

  • F major I
  • G minor ii
  • A minor iii
  • Bb Major V
  • C Major V
  • D minor vi
  • E diminished viio

 

Here are some very common chord progressions you can try:

In the key of C major:

  • Progression 1 – C major(I) F major(IV) G major(V) C major(I)
  • Progression 2 – C major(I) F major(IV) D minor(ii) G major(V) B diminished(viio) C major(I)
  • Progression 3 – C major(I) D minor(ii) E minor(iii)G major(V) C major(I)

In the key of D major:

  • Progression 1 – D major(I) G major(IV) A major(V) D major(I)
  • Progression 2 – D major(I) G major(IV) E minor(ii) A major(V) C# diminished(viio) D major (I)
  • Progression 3 – D major (I) E minor (ii)F# minor (iii) A major (V) D major (I)

In the key of E major:

  • Progression 1 – E major(I) A major(IV) B major(V) E major(I)
  • Progression 2 – E major(I) A major(IV) F# minor(ii) B major(V) D# diminished(viio) E major(I)
  • Progression 3 – E major(I) F# minor(ii) G# minor(iii) B major(V) E major(I)

Okay, wasn’t that fun? I hope you enjoyed this introduction to music theory and have learned some things in the process. Remember that the more you apply theory the more you assimilate it.

Phrasing 101

How to Stop Being a Guitar Player and Start Being a Musician?

This master class will outline the following:

  • Why you absolutely NEED to be aware of phrasing
  • Repetition and creating memorable phrases
  • The role of breath in creating effective phrases
  • Implementation strategies for improving phrasing and musicality

 

I would like to preface this article by saying that I am not intending to act as the “taste police” by advocating one style of playing over another. My goal is to enhance the awareness and understanding of the reader’s ability to communicate artistically. In learning to communicate more effectively as an artist, debates regarding shred versus blues, slow versus fast, and X- genre versus Y- genre all become erroneous (although each of these debates will live on through online forums and YouTube I am sure). The system that I am proposing for developing phrasing is vital because it focuses on listener expectations. Even those looking to create the most Avant-garde music will have to consider how to confound or subvert listener expectations, thus making an understanding of such expectations important. As many teachers have argued about theory, “you must first learn the rules in order to break them.”

Phrasing is a word that is often thrown around incorrectly. Regardless of genre or style, all great guitarists exhibit great phrasing. Many players, when asked why they consider one player to be superior to another often state “His/Her phrasing is better!!” Or, alternatively, when a proud young shredder posts his latest work on a guitar forum many will say something to the effect of “good chops, but bad phrasing.”

Do these players really understand what phrasing is, though?
I would contend that they usually do not. For many people, “good phrasing” simply means “not shredding.” In other cases “good phrasing” will be confused with “playing the blues, and only the blues.” While blues is perhaps the most ubiquitous form of phrasing for guitar players, this type of dogmatism is artistically limiting.

Now, as you are aware, the word good is completely subjective. Just ask any dedicated guitarist what a good guitar brand is. You will hear many different answers to this question.

So why learn to create more effective musical phrases in such a subjective art form? Is there even a standard by which the artistry of phrasing is judged? There absolutely is!

Music is communication. All musical arts presuppose a listener, without exception. Therefore music which cannot communicate automatically becomes irrelevant.

When we approach phrasing on the guitar it is important to be mindful of this relationship between musician and audience (listener).

 

So what is phrasing, exactly?

A musical phrase refers to a segment of music which can function on its own, as a single unit. A phrase could span many bars, or few. Essentially, the only requirement for a segment of music to be considered a phrase is that it exhibits a sense of completeness.

The act of phrasing refers to the art of linking musical phrases together in either composed or improvised melody.

For the purpose of this master class, good phrasing will refer to phrasing that establishes memorability while demonstrating artistry through the tasteful use of repetition, variation, and breath. In other words, good phrasing is about effective artistic communication.

  • Breath – The oldest instrument in the world is the human voice, and all music uses vocal music as a pretext. Therefore, phrases must PAUSE in order to be effective, because the human ear has been conditioned to listen to music which pauses for breath since the beginning of vocal music! Listeners will not find an unrelenting flurry of notes memorable (in most cases).
  • Repetition – Like anything else, repetition can be overdone. Repetition is, however, a vital part of the communication process. Anyone who has done public speaking or lectures can attest to the fact that information must be repeated to be understood by an audience.
  • Variation – A phrase can only repeat so many times before it becomes stale.

I have compiled some very simple and familiar examples to outline these concepts. Let’s take a closer look at how Breath, Repetition, and Variation work in phrasing.

 

Breath

For a musical phrase to feel memorable, it must end at some point. Phrases usually (though not always) exist in the space between two melodic pauses.

Here is a familiar and simple example:

 

Notice how there is two pauses in this phrase. The first pause acts as a small disruption to draw you into the 2nd half of the phrase. At this point there is another pause, marking the end of the phrase which is repeated verbatim. As an interesting side note, Hendrix ends many phrases in “Purple Haze” with double-stop slide down the E and A strings.

Another example:

 

Similar to “Purple Haze,” this lick pauses mid-phrase before ending.

Many amateur guitar players (and some professionals) use phrasing that sounds like a giant run-on sentence. Much like 90% of YouTube comments, these guitarists sound as if they are typing in all caps and have lost their period and comma keys. You know how when you read a couple pages of YouTube comments, your head starts to hurt? The same can be said of the listener’s ears when listening to melodic phrases that are not punctuated with pauses.

 

Repetition and Variation

I believe that many amateur musicians fear repetition. A 16 year old bassist once told me that good bass players must not repeat the same lick twice. This is obviously untrue as both popular and critically acclaimed music often feature repetitive bass figures. Even many walking bass lines in traditional jazz utilize a repeated rhythm throughout. Typically, however, repeated elements should be paired with elements of variation. The key is to use repetition in such a way that it does not become tiresome to the listener, and repeat elements in such a way that they sound fresh. The artistry of improvisation lies mainly in an artist’s ability to use both varied and repeated elements in an effective way.

Repetition is important in improvising melodies, much like inserting breaths or pauses, because the listener has been conditioned to understand repetitive phrases. It should be the goal of all soloists to communicate more clearly to the listener. Again, after all, music that does not have a listener in mind is narcissistic and useless. For the guitar, we can look to the Call and Response melodic form to aid in understanding how to use repetition and variation. The historical basis for modern guitar soloing clearly comes from the blues, so we will examine how Call and Response (C+R) worked in this genre.

The C+R form comes from old African American work chants, wherein one worker would call out a phrase and the other workers would call back a response phrase. C+R chanting eventually naturalized itself as part of the blues tradition and can work different ways within the genre. For example, a singer might sing a call phrase which is answered by guitar or harmonica. Another common example would be two guitarists trading licks where one player “calls” and the other “responds”. Instruments and voice, however, can both call and answer themselves. A soloist can “call” a melody and then “respond” to it themselves. Call and Response can work in other ways as well, though. If one was to play an initial phrase (A), repeat it (A), and then introduce a new phrase (B), this would still be considered C+R. This type of phrasing can be structured in many different ways, as long there is both repeated and new material (AAB, ABA, ABB, ABAC, and ABAB are common examples).

Here is an example of this type of phrasing in its most basic form:

 

 

Techniques for Repetition and Variation

There are four fundamental techniques for applying repetition and variation in solos.

 

Repeat the phrase verbatim

It is acceptable to repeat a phrase or lick note-for-note. This is especially effective at an emotional climax, or for a long phrase. Here are two examples

 

 

Repeat the rhythm of the phrase

Repeating a rhythm with different notes can be a very effective melodic tool.

 

Repeat the notes of the phrase

Using the same notes with a different rhythm can have a very interesting effect. Some people call this rhythmic displacement. There are many ways to achieve this.

 

 

In this example the first note of the lick always occurs on a different beat by using a 5-note repeated pattern.

 

Play an entirely new phrase

Quite often, when following an introductory phrase with a completely new phrase there is a longer pause.

 

Once the fundamental techniques are mastered, it can be useful to consider some of the following approaches:

 

Repeat a phrase backwards

Phrases played backwards can make a passage very interesting.

 

Play a sequence

This technique is similar to repeating a melodic rhythm with different notes. The difference lies in the fact that a sequence also repeats intervocalic relationships. For example, a lick that used scale degrees 1, 2, and 3 could be repeated using scale degrees 5, 6, and 7.

The song “Scarified” by Racer X demonstrates melodic sequencing in this example through repeating an initial melody on various beginning notes. A sequence is like an algorithm made up of intervals that can be applied to different starting notes.

 

 

Repeat a phrase with new dynamics

Try playing a phrase with a soft touch, and then loudly (or the other way around). Changing dynamics can also combine well with any of the techniques mentioned

 

Repeat a phrase and truncate part of it

This works well with longer phrases. Play a phrase once, and then only repeat part of the phrase.

There are many more ways of manipulating phrases. Try to come up with more and be sure to write your ideas down.

 

Implementation

Being aware of how to use breath, repetition, and variation in your solos is only part of the battle. I have prepared some strategies for implementing these techniques which are useful for beginner through advanced players. First, we will examine a series of what I call restrictive techniques, which are designed to focus on single fundamental aspects of phrasing.

 

One-Note Soloing

One-note soloing is used for building improvisation rhythm chops, which most guitar players lack. The ability to manipulate rhythmic phrases is crucial to all guitar players, however most instructors neglect rhythmic studies with their students. Time that should be spent focusing on rhythm is more often spent learning scales. Scales have historically been assigned over importance to the guitar. While learning scales is vitally important, it is more important to learn to make listenable music than to know how to play the Bulgarian scale. Guitarists who over emphasize scalar knowledge often tend to phrase poorly (ie. no repetitive/variational devices, no pauses).

In a video, Scott Henderson once demonstrated how listeners tend to privilege rhythm over melody. Many people might disagree at first, but Henderson’s case is compelling. He plays the familiar tune “Jingle Bells” by performing the song’s rhythmic content with incorrect notes with oblique interval relationships. This altered version of the song is still easily identifiable as “Jingle Bells,” and exemplifies how rhythmic content is given priority to the listener.

Performing a one-note solo is very simple. Choose a backing track of some type (blues tracks tend to work really well) and attempt to create interesting phrases using a single note. You will be tempted to bend, slide, and perform all types of manoeuvres but try to resist at first. As you become more adept at one note solos, allow yourself to use bends and creative vibrato. This implementation technique is incredibly powerful.

As well as building rhythmic ability, this technique is also useful for examining how harmonic tensions are structured across a series of chords. In other words, you can learn how one note works together with chords in a series. An accidental note, C#, over a I IV V progression in C would generate tension with each chord, whereas a B note would establish tension over the I and IV but not the V.

 

Restricted Pattern Soloing

With a backing track, choose 2-4 notes of the pentatonic scale, major scale, or natural minor scale. Use these notes to create interesting phrases while being mindful of the repetition/variation techniques mentioned above.

Here is one particularly effective scale fragment:

 

I have seen this example referred to as the “BB King Blues Box” elsewhere, because many of BB King’s licks work within this scale fragment. This type of practicing is extremely effective because it forces the player to create rhythmically interesting patterns. The audio file above an example of a solo using a 4-note pentatonic scale over a 12 bar blues progression.

 

Single String Soloing

Playing melodies on a single string has two major benefits: (1) it is easy to break out of scale based ruts and (2) interval relationships are far clearer on a single string. Single string soloing is a litmus test for whether or not a guitarist uses muscle memory to form phrases, or tries to phrase by using an internal sense of melody. Of course, it is better to be consciously trying to form tasteful melodies than rehashing old material when soloing.

 

Singing

On many recordings, the late jazz great Oscar Peterson can be heard singing along with his improvised lines. As one of the greatest jazz musicians of his time, Oscar’s habit of singing while he improvised presents a useful lesson for all soloists. When a guitarist sings while improvising his/her melodic ideas seem more focused and less inhibited by erroneous notes or automatic patterns. I believe this is due to the phenomenon of muscle memory.

Quite often, when one improvises, the majority of his/her playing consists of old familiar patterns. This same muscle memory that helps us memorize long complex passages can also be a hindrance when trying to spontaneously create new melodies. Therefore, by trying to conceive of melodies from a fresh perspective (vocally), old patterns should be less restrictive.

 

Write down good ideas and build etudes

Whether they are your own ideas or another guitar player’s ideas, write down all and any captivating melodies and licks. Be sure to build etudes/studies from any licks you find particularly captivating. It is best if you can use standard notation to capture these melodies and etudes as this practice will help internalize new rhythmic material.

Also, transcription is a very old and effective practice for developing one’s phrasing. While jazz musicians have been using transcription as a learning tool for years, the practice can also be applied to any genre. For most people, the difficulty in transcription lies in the rhythms rather than the melody notes. Developing the ability to transcribe rhythms effectively will help soloists build a deeper sense of timing and a broader vocabulary of fundamental rhythmic content.

 

Trade licks with another good player

Find another guitar player and trade licks back and forth. Some common ways to do this are trading leads every two bars, trading leads every four bars, or trading choruses on a 12 bar blues pattern. Do not let these options limit you though. One approach I have used with my students is to set up a backing track and trade leads from verse to chorus. Also, if you cannot find another advanced lead player, find a beginner or intermediate. As a teacher I constantly find inspiration in my student’s fresh melodic ideas.

 

Wrapping Up

To wrap up, I have presented a number of qualities of effective phrases, ways of structuring/restructuring phrases, and some techniques for implementation. My goal for each player who reads this master class is that he/she will apply this set of guidelines to a diverse range of musical styles. These are, however, a set of guidelines based on how phrasing is typically communicated through most styles. It is important to note that even the most avant garde music is in dialog with these guidelines in some way. In order to oppose or refute a system you must first acknowledge it. Finally, the techniques presented in this article are not exhaustive. Each technique can provide many hours of practice material, but I encourage readers to search for new personalized approaches to implementing effective phrasing.