Today we’re talking about modesty, ensemble and context.
Examining a spooky composition technique used in Super Mario World, how it relates to metal riffs and how to make your audience deeply, deeply unsettled.
Intervals are a massively important but often overlooked aspect of music theory, especially for guitar. Knowing what interval you’re playing and what impact that has on your listener will make you a powerful composer and improviser.
I get a bit bored of receiving messages inviting me to beta test “the next groundbreaking music platform”. In this video I talk about why that is and what kind of new websites I’d quite like to see.
Let’s clear something up before watching the video. There’s been some confusion in the video comments which, I think, stems from the fact that there’s 2 things often referred to as “Neck Positions”, but only one of these is relevant here. The first is Scale Position – the note of the scale you begin on, (“starting on the 2nd degree of the scale”, for example); the second, and the subject of this video, is Fret Positions – the fret on which you start playing.
Guitar positions are a way of indicating where on the fretboard you play barre chords or scales. It allows you to know what chord voicings a composer wants you to play, or it lets you know if there’s an easier way to approach a lead line, by starting in a position you wouldn’t usually expect to. If I say “A minor, 5th position” everyone knows to play an A minor barre chord rooted to the 5th fret. These can be indicated on notation with roman numerals, but since TAB has become more and more popular it kinda makes the position markings obsolete.
They are, in my opinion, pointless because the number that dictates the position is the same as the fret number. Fret 1 is position 1 for example. So, we could quite easily replace the word “position” with “fret”, everyone would know what we meant and we wouldn’t have to pointlessly throw around extra terms. It’s just unnecessary. For example – could you play “A minor at the 5th position” becomes “A minor at the 5th fret” – easy. If it meant something other than the fret number then it’d make sense. But it doesn’t.
I sometimes use neck positions as a starting point for teaching modes because it allows a student to think about a scale as being something you can play all over the neck, rather than being confined to a box shape. I’ll usually talk about how the Major and Minor scales can be played together, then work out the notes in between. Usually that’s enough for students and is a great basis for building up to the modes, but sometimes I’ll talk about these traditional scale positions for a couple weeks, and then basically replace the position number with the name of the mode.
For example, if we’re in A Minor, we could play 3rd position Am, then start referring to it as G Mixolydian. Similarly, B Major, 4th position becomes G# Aeolian. It makes more sense to refer to modes in terms of how they relate to each other rather than being abstract and separate scales which is how they’re usually taught – maybe not in a classroom, but certainly on the internet. That way is helpful to teaching modulation, but with my method you actually learn how modes are created, how they relate to each other, so when you do start to address modulation you have a much better foundational understanding. It doesn’t seem to have a detrimental affect when we then start talking about modal modulation, which was a concern when I first tried this. I will use the term “open position” when referring to open chords or a scale using open strings, because you can’t say the “0 fret” because it’s not a fret, right?
So, that’s why I don’t usually teach neck positions – because we can just say “fret 3” and we all know what’s going on. Also a bit of info on how I approach relative major / minor scales, and teaching the modes.
What is the future of guitar? Whilst some of the biggest brands are failing because they’re not giving players what they want and others are focusing on making viral online content, what should us players do to stand out?
All this effort going into sounding like guitars did “back in the day” when barely anybody replicating those sounds was even alive then. Why aren’t we making new sounds and focusing on the future? The most forward-thinking companies are focusing on shoving more and more strings on a guitar because the pics might go viral. But, there’s only like 3 or 4 people in the world who can actually play those instruments, and their audience is predominantly people who wish they could. What’s the point if those instruments are not going to be commonly available? Are 18-string guitars mass produced? Of course not, once the picture goes viral that’s it at far as the manufacturer is concerned, mission accomplished. Meanwhile, music technology is being used to make music creation accessible to beginners, so you only need the most basic of music theory to be reasonably successful. That’ not a bad thing, music should be accessible, I just wish that there was as much attention being put into pushing the possibilities for accomplished musicians.
What is the future then, if the guitar industry isn’t actually supporting us as players and pushing boundaries?
Let’s start with something pragmatic. There’s not much guitar in current pop music so it might be smart to try and play keyboard or synth parts on guitar. Sometime that’s just a case of finding out what chords they’re playing or maybe getting creative with the voicings. But, if you want to actually sound like another instrument there’s a variety of gear you can get which won’t bankrupt you either. For example, I use the Line 6 HD POD Pro, which has a really cool variety of FX – there’s a preset which sounds like an old hammond organ, and others that have awesome synth tones; Electro Harmonix have a few pedals that really effectively emulate some famous synth and keyboard sounds; You can essentially be your own bassist now as well, with some of the tech that’s available now.
A similar idea, but less tech-reliant is to try and emulate world instruments in your playing. Which, believe it or not, can actually be done with the fingers alone. If you like Steve Vai’s playing, you probably know you can create some Eastern-sounding phrases using the whammy bar. You can do a lot without a whammy bar as well – I’ve been trying to emulate japanese instruments with guitar recently – there’s this one trick which basically is playing short, sharp bends on every note you play, sticking to simple pentatonic patterns and not repeating notes. Having a variety of styles under your belt will make you more appealing as a player and more employable because turns out you can play lines that sound like folk-sounding instruments. I love using world instruments, but I wouldn’t want to hire individual players of each instrument for only a few bars in a song if I were to perform the tracks live.
Live looping, which is where loops are recorded and play under each other, is another way you can stand-out as a solo guitarist, but Ed Sheeran has kinda done that to death. But! If you think about hip-hop, (especially old school hip-hop), it’s reliant on sampling, which isn’t so far removed from live looping. So, if you want to be employable by a rapper, or a band with hip-hop elements, maybe get good at creating and playing-back samples on the fly. Tools like the KAOSS pad aren’t meant for guitar players really, but if you learn to integrate them into your rig, (or other samplers), you can achieve a lot. KAOSS Sampling.
It’s really easy to create some awesome rhythmic parts using MIDI gear, which can sync-up to what your drummers, keyboard players or live DAWs are doing. I use a bunch of different gear to achieve tempo-sync’d patterns: Roland’s MX-1 the MX1 is great, but it’s not really meant for guitar players. That means it can do things guitar gear traditionally wouldn’t, making it easier to sound unique, but it does mean you’ll have to play around with it a bit to get it to work. It’s great for me because I play a few different instruments, but it might not be ideal for you; The SL-20 by Boss is another example which gives a unique sound, and is actually meant for guitar players so requires less tinkering and fits neatly with your other pedals; the HD POD Pro, again, is for guitarists so it should be reasonably intuitive.
Let’s recap – music technology needs to catch up with the rest of the world. Especially the guitar and bass industries. I think it’s a really exciting time to be making music, but I think as guitarists and bassists we really need to think outside the box in order be as cutting edge as many drummers and keyboard players are. Some of that’s down to tech, some of that’s down to our instruments and some of it’s down to how we play them. As composers and songwriters, we need to try and think of what new ways we can package music to make it interactive or engaging to more than just our ears – like playable music videos, for example.
Lots to think about.