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10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!

I’m reading a book called Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist who decided he was going to fulfill his dream of playing guitar at the age of 40, no matter how scary that seemed and no matter how humiliating his previous attempts had been. He’s someone who has devoted his life to understanding how the brain learns, and in the first few chapters he spends a lot of time describing, in excruciating detail, why the guitar is particularly hard to learn.

In a chapter entitled “It Don’t Come Easy: The Trouble With the Human Brain” (very promising, right?) Marcus compares the cryptic fingerboard of the guitar with the logical one of the piano:

“Guitar, like German, is filled with maddening irregularities. One problem has to do with how the notes are laid out…..What makes all of this particularly complicated is that any given note can be played in many different places. This greatly expands the advanced guitarist’s options in forming chords—but bewilders the poor beginner, who has to learn them all. “

Truer words were never spoken. A lot of your learning on the guitar seems to be down to “rote” memory—i.e. memorizing all ten-to-infinity shapes of D7-sharp-9, for instance. Or trying to remember for the 30th time in a month what that damn note on the 9th fret at the 5th string is. That same basic set of notes that form a single chord show up in many different permutations all over the fingerboard. It’s really overwhelming and quite confusing and takes time to master.

If you want to really go crazy, of course, try altered tunings (also called scordatura Changing your sixth string to D is enough to throw you off if you’re used to the traditional E. But there are a lot of altered tunings that change every single note on the guitar to a different note. Pieces such as Koyunbaba, (and Variations on a Mongolian Folk Song,  which uses the same tuning) are good examples.

When you alter your guitar tuning, suddenly you’re not in Kansas anymore: all the years of work you did memorizing the notes, the scales, the chords, learning how to sight read or even just to pick out a melody disappears instantly. You have to start back almost at square one. It’s like waking up one morning to find that your mouth, tongue, and vocal chords had been somehow structurally altered—and when you say “D7-sharp-9” it comes out as jibberish, “Silver-cloud-8” or “R-two-D-two.”

So there’s a reason why music theory is taught on the keyboard, just like there’s a reason most pieces written in alternate guitar tunings can be really beautiful and interesting, but not very harmonically complex.

If you want to develop an innate, musical understanding of the guitar, and make beautiful music confidently and naturally, you need to base your deeper mastery of the guitar not entirely on rote memory of where everything lies on the fingerboard. You need to base it on the mastery of something that goes much deeper: for lack of a better term, I’m just going to call this thing the musical scale. 

When you panic at the complexity of the fingerboard, you may think that what you have to memorize are a bunch of individual notes and chords, so you can jump to the right one at the right time. That’s true, but on a deeper level, what you really need to learn is the deeper musical shapes those notes follow. And these shapes have a lot more humanity to them, they are what we respond to emotionally, and thus they tend to be easier to learn. They have their full power because of the musical scale from which they spring.

Musical scales are like an invisible scaffolding that give rhyme, reason and structure to everything that shows up as music on the strings of the guitar. The notes of various scales show up in every melody you play and they actually give them reason to be where they are, reason to have the emotional meaning and effect they do, they give each note (and chord) a different kind of gravity, a different character, a different tension, a different place of importance within the intricate ecology of the musical piece.

The scale is the soul of the entire musical ecosystem.

And what makes a scale a scale? It’s the relationship between the notes of course:  For instance, a major scale, the most common and natural to our ears, has seven notes, with the following relationship to each other: Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. But just knowing this doesn’t explain scales.

Why this particular configuration? It’s not random. There’s a cultural and historical component, of course, but at heart, it’s based on how our ears and body and emotions respond to the innate structure of sound waves themselves.

When you hit a really wrong note on the guitar, you know it’s wrong because it feels wrong. And it feels wrong because it didn’t fit in to that deeper structure, the internally visioned scale on which the piece is based. 

On a more subtle level, when you play a piece, you can tell that not all notes have equal weight, or importance.  If you cultivate your ability to listen and feel carefully, you start noticing that every note you play effects you in a slightly different way. This is not just because one note is “higher” and another “lower.” It’s because of the relationship between the two notes and the rest of the piece in the context of some sort of musical scale–some series of notes within an octave. Music is an ecosystem, and the musical scale is the basic set of relationships and rules that keep it balanced and beautiful and in play, instead of flying apart into chaos.

The deeper you get into the simple relationships of the notes of the musical scale to each other, the more you continue to really , really, REALLY understand these relationships, and how they effect you on a visceral and emotional level-consciously and unconsciously, by learning to read notes or not—–the more expressive musical mastery starts to become a given, the more it just starts to just flow from your fingers.

Most music theory books and most systems for learning and memorizing scales on the fingerboard don’t address this very well, if at all. They tell you the how but not the why. They tell you how to learn the shapes but not how to make poetry out of them.

There are many such systems for attaining fretboard knowledge, and I’ve explored many of them. By explored I mean purchased many of them for $19.95 at Sam Ash or Barnes & Noble, worked with them for a bit, and then filed them on my shelf with the rest as reference material. Which is what they often are—-many of them are just encyclopedic listings of fingering patterns that a computer could memorize in an instant but which the human brain needs hours of practice a day for years to “download”

An excellent example of fretboard system overkill that I’ve seen is the Guitar Grimoire series. Pages and pages, volumes and volumes of this:
In the book that I have, just the basic Grimoire, there are 211 pages of this, and all you have to do is memorize them all, and you’ll understand the fingerboard. Then you can start on the next Grimoire, the one with all the chords. After that, it’s on to George Van Epp’s massive three-volume ode to rote memory.

Maybe one day they’ll invent a way to download an Iphone Grimoire App directly into your brain. Or maybe you have eight hours a day to practice for the next ten years.

Barring that, here’s what I suggest: start with the C major scale. Learn to understand it. Learn it on the first position, and also up and down each single string. Play it AND sing it. Learn what half steps are (between E and F, B and C) and whole steps are (all the other notes), and learn the difference between them.

If you’re a beginner at sight reading, or have a lot of trouble with it, try the following excercise (this works really well for kids…they start reading music 3 times as easily and quickly when I have them do this)

  • As you read each consecutive note, rather than just jump from one to another, think of the melody you’re playing as a journey, a journey that takes a particular shape, with its particular sequence of ups and downs. The notes travel up or down, and they also travel in the following ways: Steps, skips, and leaps.
  • A step is when you move from one note to the next. A skip is when you skip over one note to get to the next one, and a leap is anything larger than that. You could leap over three notes or you could leap over ten notes.
  • Do it out loud, (“step up to C, skip down to A, Leap up to B”) or in your head, and do it even if you’re not playing single note melodies. Find the shape of the main melody, and say it, sing it if you like.
  • Find the shape of the bass line too—this can be incredibly revealing, and often easier: and you’ll learn a lot about the structure of things in that way too.
  • You can even follow the inner voices where there are inner voices, and follow their obscure but important steps, skips and leaps.
  • If you’re more advanced, and breaking into skips, steps, and leaps is too easy or obvious to you, name and notice and feel the intervals.
  • Pay special attention to the difference between half-steps and whole steps. Half steps tend to create a stronger pull to a neighboring note, while whole steps allow you to drift more freely.
  • Also, pay attention to what key you’re in. If you’re in D, notice what happens as the notes of the melody and the bass tug and play against that sense of “home base,” the D note. If anything in a melody or harmony draws your attention emotionally, figure out which note in the scale it is, (scale degree 1, 2, 3, 4, etc). Ask which direction it’s headed in, where it’s pulling your attention to.
  • If it’s not in the scale, pay attention to what its effect and its function are. Is it drawing attention to a particular scale degree? Is it pulling you into a different scale, to a new tonic, or “home base?”

In paying attention to the shape of a melody, one thing you’re doing here is thinking like a singer. By doing this, you’re getting a look at something that many guitarists, much to their musical detriment, never pay much attention to: the essential emotional shape of of the music you are playing. The soul of the music is in the relationship of each note to each other note. And the scale is the key to understanding that relationship.

As you do exercises like this, your playing will become more and more musical, and you will also start to have a sense of the hidden structure that makes what you play have any sense whatsoever.

Learning music theory on the guitar is crazy. It’s a lifelong pursuit. But staying in touch with the basic meaning of the notes in scale will definitely keep you out of the  Asylum for the Musically Frustrated, which is full of disillusioned guitarists free-floating in an endless sea of scale and chord guides and systems and manuals. It will keep your musical feet on dancing expressively, on solid musical ground. 

In my next post, I’m going to share with you a musical exercise that profoundly changed my way of understanding and playing music by getting me more in touch with all that I talked about in this post.

Until then, leave comments and ask questions!





Learning Music Theory on the Guitar is Just Crazy