In the previous edition of Weekend Warrior, we intentionally focused on how to make the most of your musical education and discipline while you are NOT playing. For this week, we’re
going to do a major swing back to grabbing your axe digging in deep. Learning the guitar from the ground up usually involves exposure to a handful of basic chords, barre chords, some
accessible songs, and some scales. Many times as new learners, we tend to focus on taking in large amounts of information. We can tend to ask questions like: “How long will it take
me to learn ‘X’?” “How many weeks will I have to practice ‘Y’ before I can do ‘Z’?” Well, this weekend, I have answers for you.
Actually, I have one answer for you, and it is possible that it will change the way you look not only at blues playing or simple improvisation, but also your entire approach to how you learn. You don’t need to learn or practice THAT much to make HUGE strides in your understanding of the instrument. Yes, developing technique takes time, sweat and tons of effort, but understanding and applying a concept can flip switches you didn’t even know were there and literally change your playing and approach in an instant.
A Minor Pentatonic Scale
Follow along with me here. Play an Am chord. You can play it anywhere. Now, play through this A minor Pentatonic scale:
Play the chord and the scale back to back a few times and let the sound and their similarities permeate your ears and brain.
Add a D minor chord into the mix now. Play a bar of Am, the scale, and then a bar of Dm and then the scale again. Don’t feel the need to play the scale fully each time and don’t be too concerned with rhythm. Just let it flow! You’ll notice after you do this a few times that you’ll start doing a little bit of improvisation with the scale. You might play just the top portion of the scale after the Dm, or you might find yourself wanting to hang on certain notes depending on which chord is coming next. This means your ear is working and you’re musically connected with what you are playing.
This kind of noodling is how some great licks, riffs and songs were conceived. Every time I do something like
this --where there is no pressure, no rhythmic constraints and no goals or deadlines, I come up with something cool that stash away for later.
Now we’re going to add a little twist. Do the exact same thing you just did only play a D major chord instead of a D minor. Go ahead… Spend a little time with it and then keep reading.
Yeah, we changed a chord. Of course it sounds different. But this little change sounds REALLY different to my ears. It makes me want to capitalize on that different vibe with the scale and my meanderings between the chords. So many guitarists learn their basic scales, and play over and around different chords or progressions and never crack the ice on exploring the unique possibilities that certain chord changes present. Why is this a pattern? It’s because people overwhelm themselves with too much information thinking that they’ll improve if they just expose themselves to as much as possible. This causes a bit of paralysis.
Adding the F# to A Minor Pentatonic
I’m going to give you ONE new note… Just one. This one note is tied to so much information that it will make your ears
bleed if you try to take it all on at once. But if you take this one note this weekend and inject it into what we’ve already done, your understanding will start to
jump beyond mere head knowledge. This is exactly the position we want to be in as a learner.
Here’s the note: B string, 7th fret. It’s an F#. Yep, you’re going to add this F# to your good old faithful Am Pentatonic scale pattern. You’ll actually notice that it doesn’t work so well when you play Am - scale - Dm - scale. But it works beautifully with in substitute the D major. Take a little time and do some meandering around the scale with this addition while going back to the exercise we explored earlier: Am - scale (with the F#)- D - scale (with the F#) ...Repeat.
You’ll notice that adding that one note fulfills that “something changed and I want to react to it” feeling that you may have experienced earlier when I asked you to sub the D
major for the D minor. The last thing I want to do in this context is go on a music theory rant as to why this works. I have always taken the approach that musical discovery
should come first and then the math or theory surrounding the music will be absorbed much easier.
If you have your phone or another quick and simple audio recorder handy, record yourself playing two bars of Am, followed by two bars of Dm. Record 2-3 minutes of it and then play it back in some headphones or over some speakers so you can practice this modified pentatonic scale idea over a quick and dirty backing track. Do THIS before you go searching for specific backing tracks. We want everything you do at this point to come from YOUR playing and we don’t want to spend time searching and analyzing other stuff right now. Just keep it simple. Keep it close and get used to the sound.
This is your task this weekend and this is the mindset I want to encourage you to take when you’re learning a new idea or concept. See if you can distill it down to adding ONE note. The simplicity that you seek and the environment it creates will make your mind like a sponge and your fingers will be willing participants because their job will be easy --Add a note. Experiment with one new chord. That song you learned last year… Can you play the chord progression differently to give it some new light? Strum it a little different? Does that new chord you learned fit somewhere? Do more with less and that less will be far more in the long run!
Why this works?
No doubt there are already many guitar players reading this who want to know the “whats” and “whys” behind what we just worked through. I have a suspicion that a good number
of you already know what the roots of the F# added to the standard A minor pentatonic scale are. If this is new to you though, you have discovered something very valuable AND
how to use it in a matter of minutes. If you had started with a textbook, or in this specific case, a study of modes, you’d be drowning in information overload and wouldn’t
have made music so quickly!
How do you discover little gems like what we explored here without running into information overload? The answer is surprisingly simple. Start with experimentation.
Noodle, jam, play. Spend some time each day playing without purpose… Just for fun… Just for discovering things that you don’t or won’t fully understand. You see, information is a GREAT thing! It is the approach and our default consumption habits that make information worth less. If you start with experimentation, come up with something you like and only THEN seek out the “who, what, when, where, why and how” aspects, you are a student with a purpose looking for very specific information. This is the right way to learn. It is the fast way to learn because it is fueled by music, creativity and a genuine desire to understand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of other guitar players either! Use Jamchat, attend a live session, take private lessons. Don’t isolate yourself and your playing!
A note on Modes
Now, back to our example. What we have done by inserting the F# into a standard Am pentatonic position over an Am -> D progression is place your playing in the land of
the Dorian mode. When I first read about modes, my eyes glazed over and I eventually gave up that practice session and went for a bike ride. Once I heard the amazing
sound that I didn’t even know had their roots in modes, I became determined to figure it all out! I first heard this Dorian trick applied over a minor blues progression.
Yes… It went from Am to D. I experimented with that for awhile and then thought I might try it over a regular blues progression with lots of dominant 7th chords. It
worked reasonably well there too!
Diving into any mode is daunting, and the application of the dorian mode is vast and can be quite confusing. If you start with something you already know pretty well, like the pentatonic scale patterns and insert modal flavors inside those patterns, you’ll get to know the sound first. You can be musical sooner and then the learning will, as I have said, come more naturally. Here’s a lesson I did awhile back on this very thing:
Modal Pentatonic Scales by Chris Liepe
Taught by Chris Liepe
This lesson demonstrates how to modify the old trusty 5th fret A minor pentatonic position to make it sound modal.
For those of you who have experienced the sound and the magic in what we have done here, this video will start to help you discover the many ways you put simple modal ideas in your blues playing using simple pentatonic patterns as the foundation. Of course it doesn’t just work with the blues, but blues is a great next step to take after the exercise we worked through in this edition.
Pentatonic Scale Backing Track
Here’s a great backing track by our own Steve Eulberg that allows you to apply this Am pentatonic scale with the added F# idea.
It also has another twist! If you think you’ve already found success with the exercise I presented here and want to take things a little further this track will be a great place to start!
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I hope you were able to dig into this material this week.