Some music knowledge
I have no formal music education. Like most people I know, I just picked up an electric guitar at the age of 11 and started playing it. Not until much later did I realise that I’d have to learn some formal music theory in order to achieve certain goals on the instrument (like be in a band with other people, and be able to swap ideas using words). Here is a list of some of that musical theory that I’ve had to learn. Starting with something most people will already know.
There are 12 notes in western music. C, Db, D, Eb……. B etc.
And for all intents and purposes there are 2 scales, major and minor. So there are 24 possible musical “keys”, right? (nearly).
There are actually 30, which is derived by making a distinction between sharp and flat notes. So if we assume that Bb and A# are NOT the same note (look this craziness up on the internet), then there are 30 musical keys:
Obviously there is the MAJOR key with no sharp of flat notes (all the white keys on a piano) : C
Then there are the major keys derived from the flat notes :
F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
Then the major keys derived from the sharp notes :
G, D, A, E, B, F#, and C#
Giving us a total of 15 major keys. But each key has a “relative minor” (a minor scale which uses the same notes as some other major scale, so in the case of C Major, the minor scale using only white notes on a piano is A minor) giving us a total of 15 major and 15 minor keys, or 30 keys in total.
Is there any practical difference between the major scales A# and Bb, when the notes are identical? Well in terms of writing music in musical stave notation then yes. In terms of musical mathematical theory, and the vibration of strings then yes. But in terms of actually playing the A# major scale on an instrument and playing Bb major.. then there is no difference. So in PRACTICAL terms there are actually only 24 musical keys, some of them can have two names in formal theory, and some don’t.
The Circle Of Fifths
Pythagoras (of triangles fame) realised that you can draw all of this in a really neat circle, which we now know as ‘the circle of fifths’. Entire books by very clever people have been written about this so I’m not going to talk much about it, it’s here because I’ll be referring to it later. One thing to know is that the wheel can be rotated to put a new note at 12 o’clock, but the notes remain in the same order (C-G-D-A-E-B-F#.. etc.)
You can download interactive circle of fifths apps for your phone that allow you to rotate them into any key or mode.
Roman Numeral Chord Notation
Most guitarists will have seen chord progressions written with with Roman numerals like this ii – V – I, or I – V – vi – IV etc.
The circle above is set for the key of C Major (A minor). There we can see that the V (fifth) chord of the KEY OF C MAJOR is G major.
When the numeral is capital, it means ‘MAJOR’ when it’s lower case (iii) it means minor. In the case of the B (diminished) you’ll usually see it written in lower case, or with a ‘degree’ sign near it.
Let’s say we see a chord progression written as I-V-vi-IV and we want to play it in the key of C, we can use the circle of fifths to work out that this would mean C – G – Am – F.
Why are some of the chords major (IV, I, V), some minor (ii,vi,iii) and one diminished (vii)?
The notes in the C Major scale (all the white notes on a piano) are C,D,E,F,G,A,B. These are the only notes we can use if we want to stay in C major, so all chords in the key must use these notes.
Let’s take the root, 3rd and 5th of that (that’s how chords are made, the R, 3rd and 5th of the scale) we get C, E, G (C major).
What we did in patterns is pick one, miss one, pick one, miss one, pick one (stack 3rds). Let’s do that again, but this time starting from the D (ii of the C major scale).
We get D (miss one), F (miss one), A
What we did looks like this on a piano:
Here’s a table showing the results.
|IV (F)||C||F||A||V (G)||D||G||B||vi (A)||C||E||A||vii° (Bdim)||D||F||B|
The wheel above shows us the chords of the major key in the outer ring.
We can see how we derived them (moving a chord pattern up the piano keys).
The chords of the minor key (in this case Am) is shown in the inner ring. We can generate the chords of the key of Am by doing exactly the same piano triad movement but this time we start the pattern with an A root note (chord 6 in the animation above). We get this :
|iv (Dm)||A||D||F||v (Em)||B||E||G||VI (F)||A||C||F||VII (G)||B||D||G|
So in Major our chords are I,ii,iii,IV,V,vi,vii°
But in Minor our chords are i,ii°,III,iv,v,VI,VII
Using the wheel
Let’s say you want to write a song in A major. Rotate the wheel until A is at 12 o’clock, and see what chords are in the key. You can safely use any of those chords. Similarly if you wanted to write in A minor, you can rotate the wheel (as it’s shown above) with A minor in the 12 o’clock (inner ring). The chords in that key will then be shown.
The wheel I’ve shown is only demonstrating major and minor keys.. But you can write a piece in a modal key (let’s say F Lydian), and you can generate a wheel for that (just download an app to do it).
Of course as said before, there are no music police. You can use any chord you like at any time, but this wheel will give you all the chords which are naturally in the given key. Futhermore it will suggest which chords will sound the best (the ones closest to the key). You can write a song which journeys away from the tonic and comes back down via the suggested chords. Pretty much all chord progressions do exactly that.
The best way to use chords in your song which are not in the key, is to change to a new key. Before long, you’ll be doing Coltrane changes and playing in small clubs to 50 maths professors.
As mentioned the easiest way to write a song is to pick a key, put the wheel into position, then choose some chords that are ‘close’ to the tonic.
By which I mean, if the wheel is a clock then our tonic is at 12 O’clock. Close to 12 O’Clock is 11 O’Clock or 1 O’Clock (the IV, V) or the 2 o’Clock (ii) etc.
But this feels a bit restrictive. You could throw in some added notes (7,9,13) (see below) to add colour but eventually you’re going to discover that some other chords that shouldn’t fit, do fit.
In almost all cases these chords will be ‘borrowed’ from a parallel scale.
Let’s say we’re in the key of C major and our chord progression is I-V-vi-IV (C-D-Am-D). What if we take the vi chord from the C Minor scale instead.
This would give us a Major chord (VI-Ab) and our chord progression would now be I-V-(borrowed from minor VI)-IV or C-D-Ab-D.
Secondary Dominant Chords
Some of the ‘numeral’ chords are more important in composition than others. So the V (dominant) chord is perhaps the most important after the tonic (I).
Almost all music is really just an interesting journey between the I and the V.
If you make the V chord a ‘7’ (see below), so V7, that chord will STRONGLY pull you back to the tonic. Try it with C, play a G7 and then a C.
But you can pick any chord in the scale and play it’s ‘secondary dominant’ chord to pull you to that Chord.
A secondary dominant chord is the chord which is 5 major scale degrees above the root note of that chord. So let’s just try to get from the I to the IV in an interesting way. We play the I, then the secondary dominant of the IV (usually notated like V7/IV). So in C the IV chord is F. work up the F major scale and find it’s V is C (handy).
So we try doing C-C7 (F secondary dominant, to pull to F)-F
Shades of Hey Jude.
The problem with chord notation is that it’s confusing.
7th Chords are 4 note chords (not triads). They generally consist of the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th of some scale or other.
There are several types of 7th chords and the notation for them is very misleading. I’ll use the key of C for the purpose of demonstration.
Major 7ths (Cmaj7)
Simply the Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the major scale.
Minor 7ths (Cmin7, Cm7 OR C-7)
Simply the root, third, 5th and 7th of the minor scale.
OR the root, flat 3rd, 5th and flat 7th of the major scale.
Dominant 7th, or just “the 7 chord” (C7)
The root, 3rd, 5th and FLAT 7th of the major scale. So in C this would be : C,E,G,Bb
Half Diminished 7th or ‘Minor 7 flat 5’ (Cm7b5 or CØ7)
As the name suggests this is a minor 7th with a flattened fifth.
Obviously the 5th note of the major and minor scales is the same.
So root, flat 3rd, flat 5th, flat 7th of the major scale.
Or Root, 3rd, FLAT 5th, 7th of the minor scale.
In C this would be : C, Eb, Gb, Bb
Diminished 7th (C°7). This is ‘fully’ Diminished.
Root flat 3rd, flat 5th, FLAT FLAT (flat twice) 7th). Note that a double flattened 7th is actually the 6th of the major scale.
Or in C this would be : C, Eb, Gb, A
Or see below, R,3,5,7 of the Diminished Scale.
Diminished Major 7th (C°M7)
This is a diminished triad (R, b3, b5) with a major 7th.
In C this is : C,Eb,Gb,B
I haven’t seen these chords used much in any of the tabs or chord listings I’ve ever used.
Minor Major 7th (CmM7)
As the name suggests R, ♭3, 5, and 7
in C this is C-Eb,G,B
Augmented Major 7th (CaugM7)
1, 3, ♯5, 7, so in C this is C, E, G#, B
Other Dim/Aug versions of the above
By augmenting (sharpening) or diminishing (flattening) the 5th, and choosing either a minor or major 3rd and 7th you can make some other 7ths which are of varying amounts of use.
Whilst 7ths are used mainly just to add colour in pop and rock music, they are fundamental to Jazz. In Jazz it’s actually a capital offence to play a simple triad. But this creates a problem with resolution of the tonic (the chord which is the root of the key). A Tonic should resolve, meaning you shouldn’t feel the need to move from the tonic. But if the tonic is a 7th you never get any feeling of rest. And a lot of Jazz doesn’t ever really resolve.
But replacing the 7th with a 6th (not sure whether major or minor) makes the tonic more ‘restful’ without being a bare triad.
It’s still not ‘Jazz’ enough though.. so the 9th usually gets added.
The addition of the 6th and 9th instead of the 7th gets the chord past the Jazz Inquisition, but solves the problem of 7th’s not really resolving properly.
The chord we know as C7 (see above, C,E,G,Bb) features the major 7th, but there are other chords that feature the major 7th of the scale we’re using.Quite obviously the vii (diminished) chord features the major 7th. See the circle of fifths, the vii chord of C major is Bdim (B,D,F) features B (the major 7th). If you play Bdim as a 7th chord in the key of C Major it will sound incorrect because it is diminished. However if you’re in the key of Cm the vii° from the major key will function as a 7th chord (try it, play Cm,Bdim,Cm). I’m not sure if this works in reverse (using Bb(major) as a 7th chord in the key of C major).
It may be possible to borrow chords featuring the minor 7th too?
Dominant, Diminished and Half Diminished scales
Because all chords are essentially triads of the root, 3rd and 5th of any scale, with additions (7,9,11 etc.) we can of course also work out these chords from the appropriate scales.
There are two ways of making a diminished scale by using patterns. There’s the whole/half scale and the half/whole scale.
Whole/Half Diminished Scale
Let’s take C as our key and calculate Cdim7 from it’s scale.
Starting at C we’re going to go in a tone/semitone pattern :
C (Whole>>) D (Half>>) Eb (Whole>>) F (Half>>) Gb (Whole>>) Ab (Half>>) A (Whole>>) B (Half>>) C. Note there are 9 notes shown here.
So taking the R,3,5,7 of this scale gives us C,Eb,Gb,A
Which is as we expect for a Diminished 7th chord.(see above). This is often called the ‘fully diminished scale’.
Half/Whole Diminished Scale
Let’s make a scale using half/whole steps. So in C this would be:
C (Half>>) Db (Whole>>) Eb (Half>>) E (Whole>>) Gb (Half>>) G (Whole>>) A (Half>>) Bb (Whole>>) C. Note there are 9 notes shown here.
Taking R,3,5,7 of this scale gives us C,Eb,Gb,A
Again this is correct for a Diminished 7th.
This scale is actually the more popular of the two diminished scales, used over Dominant chords to bring a particular flavour. So apparently this is sometimes called the Dominiant Diminished Scale.
Half Diminished Scale
There is a half diminished scale and it’s neatly a 7 note scale, but it’s an odd thing to remember. In scale degrees it goes like : W H W H W W W
If it helps, apparently this is sometimes known as Locrian Natural 2 scale. But that’s of absolutely no use to me personally.
In C this is : C, D, E♭, F, G♭, A♭, B♭, C
If we take R,3,5,7 of this we get : C,E♭,G♭,B♭. Which is what we’d expect for the half diminished 7th.
Just as there are 2 main ways of producing a diminished scale, so there is more than one way of producing the dominant scale.
The most usual way is to use the Mixolydian scale. Which is essentially the Major scale with a flat (minor) 7th, so you can see straight away that this will produce a dominant 7th chord.
So let’s take the R,3,5,7 of that scale in C: C,E,G,Bb. Which is what we’d expect.
But just to be complete, a dominant scale is any scale with a major 3rd (a perfect 5th?) and a minor 7th. Aside from Mixolydian the other Dominant scales are all rather contrived (made dominant by force), such as Lydian Dominant, Phrygian Dominant, or the Beebop scale etc.
Perfect notes and Suspended Chords etc.
When you look at the difference between a major and a minor scale you will notice that some notes are common : Root (obviously), 2nd, 4th, and 5th
The shared 5th is usually called the ‘perfect 5th’ because it’s essentially the same 5th note in any scale (except locrian and other nonsensical things).
The 4th is common to ALMOST all scales, and is also usually called the ‘perfect’ 4th. But even though the 2nd is almost always the same, it’s not called a perfect 2nd, for reasons that I don’t understand.
But this idea that the 5th is always the same is how V (power) chords work.
We only ever play 2 notes in the chord (the most important two, the root and fifth), so it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing, whether they’re playing minor, or major etc. We always sound right.
We sound right because we’re usually omitting the ‘3rd’ note, which is different in just about every scale (usually it’s flattened if we’re not playing some derivative of the major scale).
The third can be moved even further out of position to create a ‘suspended’ chord. So if you replace the 3rd with the ‘perfect 4th’ or ‘who knows why it’s not perfect 2nd’, the chord is now known as ‘suspended’ (sus).
This explains why sus chords are often writen Csus4 for example. This means a suspended chord in which the 3rd has been replaced by the 4th.
You could see Csus2, but this is rare.
Augmented and Diminished chords
So in suspended chords we are operating on the 3rd note, raising or lowering it until it becomes the note below or above the scale.
Augmented and Diminished chords (USUALLY, sometimes it’s the 7th) operate on the perfect 5th rather than the 3rd.
This gives them a rather awful sound, because our ears are used to the idea of the fifth always being the same, that’s why it’s perfect.
Typically a diminished chord is a minor triad with a flat 5th.
So Cdmin is the triad : R,b3,b5 or C, Eb, Gb
Musicians usually say that diminished chords are made up of ‘stacked minor thirds’.
That is to say chords in which each note is 3 semitones above the previous note (so C(c#..d), Eb(E..F), Gb
If you stack another minor third on that (B in this case) you get a diminished 7th (see above for more on diminished 7ths).
Augmented chords are ‘stacked major 3rds) rather than ‘stacked minor 3rds’.
That is, a chord made up of notes with an interval of 4 semitones).
Or in terms we’d understand, it’s a major triad with a sharpened (augmented) 5th. So in the case of Caug we have C–E–G♯.
Looking at it from the ‘stacking’ point of view we have C(C#..D..D#), E(F,F#,G),G#.
Just as with the diminished chord stacking of minor 3rds, we can stack an extra major 3rd onto an augmented chord (C–E–G♯–B♭). That gives us an augmented 7th.
Chords with added notes (9,11 etc.)
Our basic chords are 3 or 4 note chords made up of root, 3rd, 5th and (optional) 7th of some scale. But there are no music police. You can add any note you like to a chord as long as you have spare fingers.
Some of these notes will sound better than others. Genrally ‘added’ chords will feature notes added ABOVE the triad notes, that is the added notes will be physically higher in pitch than the other notes. This gives those added notes a sort of floaty, ethereal sound.
The most common notes to add to chords are the 9th and the 11th notes of the underlying scale. But what if we already have a 7th? If our chord has a 7th and a 9th (say) then it’s a ‘Dominant’ 9th. Written as C9. If our chord has only the 9th but not the 7th, then it’s Cadd9.
In Jazz, and formal music theory generally chords ‘stack’. That is to say that if we say a chord is C9, it’s assumed it already has a 7th. And in fact if we say it’s C11, we assume it has a 7th, 9th AND 11th. This is where the confusion lies because often guitarists will not make that assumption.
What is the 9th note of an 8 note scale anyway? Well the scale just starts again so the 9th is the same as the 2nd. In C (minor or major) this would be ‘D’. Let’s look at some examples.
As mentioned, this is a chord featuring both a 7th and a 9th. Also as mentioned we’re calling this C Dominant 9 which gives us a clue as to what 7th we’re using (the Minor 7th). So the notes of C9 are : C, E, G, Bb, D
That is, the dominant 7 (C7) chord, with an added 9th (D).
Again, this is a 7th chord with an added 9th. But in this case it’s a major 7th on a major triad. So in C it’s : C, E, G, B, D.
This is a minor triad (flat 3rd) with a minor 7th, and the added 9th (remember the 2nd/9th is the same in major or minor).
So in C it is : C Eb G Bb D
Now we get to actual ADDED chords. This is a simple triad (not any form of 7th) with an added 9th. so in C it is : C, E, G, D
Clearly we’re missing one last category, which is the minor triad (no 7th) and an added 9th. So in C: C,Eb,G,D
The 4th (11th) of the major and minor scales is the same.
Let’s start with the simplest case, the major triad with added 11th.
In C that would be : C, E, G, F
Notice this is not a ‘stacked’ chord.. it’s just a triad with an added 11th.
Now for the remaining types of 11th chord C11, CMaj11, Cmin11 etc.
Just as with the added 9th, so it is with added 11th.
Any chord which DOESN’T contain the word ‘add’ implies that the 7th is there as well. But C11 usually ALSO assumes the 9th is present too. So in C this would be : C – E – G – Bb – D – F
But you may find instances where this chord is stated, but played with a missing 9th, or missing 3rd, or played as some sort of inversion (See below about added bass notes etc.)
So we’ve made chords using the root, 2nd (9th), 3rd, 4th (11th), 5th and 7th. That is every interval except the 6th (13th)
And so it is that we can also have added 13th chords.
Again the rule. If the word ‘add’ is not present, then we are stacking the notes, which imply a 7th, 9th, 11th AND 13th. But in guitar particularly this is almost impossible, so you’ll find many variants of 13th chords.
Cadd13 would be C – E – G – A.
But C13 would formally be C – E – G – Bb – D – F – A
Now this is clearly impossible to achieve, it has 7 notes, and a guitar only has 6 strings!.
It is for this reason that often you’ll see these chords notated like : Cmaj7Add9, rather than the formal CMaj9.
What’s really left?
We’ve made chords with every scale degree, both minor and major.
Because minor and major scales differ by semitones in places, we’ve actually used almost all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. We’ve also deliberately flattened (diminished) or sharpened some, but have we used them all? Let’s map them out, and use the key of C :
- C (Root note of all C chords)
- D (add9)
- Eb (minor 3rd)
- E (major 3rd)
- F (add11)
- Gb (flat 5th, diminished chords)
- G (perfect 5th)
- Ab (Augmented 5th)
- A (add13)
- Bb (min 7th)
- B (maj 7th)
So the only note that remains unused is the flat 2nd, are there any chords that use the flat 2nd? Well it turns out there are things called “Neapolitan chords”. There are also various borrowed chords or altered chords that feature the flat (Phrygian) 2nd. In fact one of these is used regularly by the Foo Fighters, it features in the song Monkey Wrench, in the alternating bit. In fact in this case it’s a flat 2nd bass note.
Inversions and chords with odd bass notes
It’s generally accepted that the notes of a chord are in ascending pitch. That is the root is the lowest note (the bass note), the 3rd next, then 5th, then 7th etc.
A piano only has one way to play any particular note. So there is only one key which will play the note A3 (3rd octave of A), but a guitar may feature several places to play the exact same note.
So guitarists can form ‘inversions’ of the exact same chord in multiple locations. That is chords with a Root bass note, but played in different positions.
Inversions on a piano though are always essentially the same scale degrees, but played in a different order. That is, on a piano the first inversion of C Major is not C (bass note), E (middle note), G (high note) but in fact E, G, C.
These kinds of chords inversions in which the bass note is not the root note are common on the guitar also. Play a D chord and slide it up two frets to make an E. What is the lowest note you’re playing (B). But psychologically a guitarists like to make the root note the bass note.
There are a whole family of guitar chords that are based on piano inversions though and they’re usually notated with a slash “/”, as in C/G, or C major with a G bass note.
One lovely example of such a ‘slash chord’ is C/E which is the C chord we all learned first, but played with the open E ringing out. We all learned to pick the C chord starting on the A string, but C/E is a far more natural way to play the C major chord.
I was going to go on here and talk about flat 6 chords, and Neapolitan chords, just so I could talk about our missing flat 2nd and minor 6th. But I don’t fully understand these kinds of ‘borrowed’ chords.
The main triad inversion patterns
While we’re on the subject of triad inversions here are the main inversion patterns. For brevity I’ve shown them on the same neck, but each individual shape can be slid up or down to change key (place the red circle on the root note you want)
Triad inversions remind me of the Rubik’s cube. You can get by knowing only a few patterns, but to function properly you need to know them all really.
But I think if you know a single major triad shape in all 4 string groups you’ll get by (and a minor, dim and aug).
At some point in the future I’ll add some more triads here (sus2 and sus4 for starters)
Arpeggios are essentially just triads glued together and with each note played in sequence. So using the diagram above, pick 2 major triads that between them cover all 6 strings and stitch them together being careful to make sure that the root notes are the same. Then experiment by adding notes either side of the triads to extend the arpeggio.
Calculate melodies from chord progressions
The best piece of musical knowledge I’ve ever been given.
Write down the notes of the chords of your song in such a way that any shared notes are next to each other. Let’s take THE chord progression (I-V-vi-IV, so for example C–G–Am–F) :
Here we can see that when we move from the C to the G chord, we share the common note ‘G’. So when soloing or creating a melody to fit this chord progression we could (if we wanted to) choose to remain on the G note as we change from C to G chords. We don’t have to obviously, but it would sound cool.
When we move from the G to the Am we share no common notes, but we can see that after that we have a choice of two paths. We can go to the C note or the A note, because the following chord (F) shares those notes with Am.
Other common methods of creating melodies is to just follow the third or 5th notes of each chord etc. But this idea of economically picking the most common notes produces simple and natural sounding melodies, the one which usually becomes the vocal line etc.
This idea of common notes between chords during a progression, and using those to form a melody often leads to this idea of a ‘suspended note’. If we do this process backwards.. that is to say, we take a note which is GOING to appear in the next chord, and use it over the current chord, when the next chord appears the note ‘resolves’ itself. This is a suspended note.
More commonly in fact it’s slightly more complex than this. What we do is we take a note in the current chord which is a scale degree above a note in the next chord. We suspend that note over into the next chord and then lower the note so that it resolves.
So let’s take THE chord progression C-G-Am-F (see the chart above).
This is in the key of C major (or A minor). The notes of Cmaj are obv CDEFGABC.
Let’s play a C Chord, then the next chord (G) whilst holding the E note over into the G, then letting it become a D.
Depending on which intervals you suspend over then resolve there are different names for these kinds of suspensions, and you can contrive whole chord progressions with different suspended chords featuring 4-3 or 9-8 (2-3, 6-5…) suspensions. You can suspend two notes simultaneously and so on. On the nose examples include pinball wizard, or the run up to the solo in Stairway to Heaven etc. A song we do in the band (Venus – Shocking Blue) starts with an unresolved suspended chord.
Doing this with chords often sounds quite contrived, but when it’s done with the melody line it is subtle and extremely satisfying.
In most cases suspended notes resolve ‘down’, the idea is to create tension or dissonance that is then resolved. Like a game of chess (thinking some moves ahead) you can do this over a sequence of chords resolving the dissonance only on the final chord. The idea is to write down your chords in a table like the one above, and just coldly plan a melody sequence, and try it out.
In the wheel of fifths we derived the chords in the key of C major and A minor by playing a triad and moving it up. We did that starting in C and got the chords in the key of C major. We did it starting in A and got the minor chords. What if we’d started on the F (4 intervals up from C). The chords we would get would be the chords making up the ‘Lydian’ mode. So along with Ionian (Major) and Aolean (Minor) there are 5 other modes.
The modes in order are :
- Ionian (Major)
This is THE scale. The one from which everything else is calculated. It sounds almost TOO happy. Cheek hurtingly sweet. It’s used mainly in pop music for the under 12’s. Think the little tune Americans sing when they do the alphabet.
- Dorian [flat 3, 7] [or minor scale with sharp 6th]
Yup, remember this as m#6. It’s essentially a replacement for the minor (Aolean) scale. It sounds less dark whist retaining that NOT MAJOR sound. Edgy Minor.. Think Chris Isaacs – Wicked Game, or more upbeat, Get Lucky by Daft Punk (by Nile Rogers really of course).
- Phrygian [flat 2, 3, 6, 7] [or minor scale with flat 2nd]
Yup remember mb2. This sounds Egyptian, or somehow exotic. It counjours pictures of deserts and palm trees. Why? Well eastern music has more than 12 notes per octave. When westerners hear eastern music the notes sound close together. And the flat 2nd in Phrygian is closer to the root note than western brains are used to. So it sounds eastern to us. Phrygian is so distinctive sounding in fact that a lot of muso’s will deliberately use it and try to disguise it, to show off. It’s used in Jazz a lot, and you’d be surprised how much heavy metal uses it. Perhaps the nicest example is the theme tune to the 80’s TV show ‘Night Rider’.
- Lydian [sharp 4]
A major scale derivative best remembered as simple #4.
The second most popular ‘I want major, but not teeth hurtingly major’ scale after Mixolydian. For me Lydian should just be called ‘that Joe Satriani scale’. Anything you hear by him that sounds happy yet whistful is probably in Lydian.
It has a foot in both the major and minor camps. Sort of a ‘dark’ major or ‘space’ major. Perhaps the most famous thing ever to use Lydian mode is the Simpsons Theme tune which is actually a master class in the use of any musical mode.
- Mixolydian [flat 7]
The most popular “major but not major” scale. Just remember it as b7.
This is the absolutely fundamental basis of pretty much all ‘folk’ music, particularly Celtic folk (Irish) music. In fact, some diatonic (non-chromatic) folk instruments are actually tuned in Mixolydian (bagpipes). Whilst there are obvious contemporary uses of Mixolidian derived from folk (think Thin Lizzie) it has massively influenced American folk rock. Songs like ‘Copperhead Road’ (Steve Earle) are spun from Celtic folk. Mixolydian is in fact so widely used in western music as to be almost impossible to pick an ‘most famous’ example.
- Aeolian (Minor) [flat 3, 6, 7]
The minor scale is probably more widely used in contemporary music than the major scale. Pretty much all rock music is minor scale. Pick one.
- Locrian [flat 2,3,5,6,7] [don’t do it.. you aren’t Allan Holdsworth]
Like I say, just don’t do it. There is only one relatively famous non-jazz example of Locrian that I know of and that’s ‘Army Of Me’ by Bjork. Which, although it’s admittedly an awesome song, isn’t exactly a whistle-able tune.
As notated, the easy way to remember them is given in the square brackets.
From a major scale, follow the instructions in the square brackets.
You can do a little trick with patterns to work out the modes too. Remember that the interval pattern for major scale is 2,2,1,2,2,2,1.
That is, we play the root note, and the next note is 2 frets up.. and so on.
We can go through the modes in order by simply moving the front interval pattern to the back. So we start with 2212221, and we move the front 2 to the back giving us 2122212. So if we play that pattern starting on the same root note, we would be in Dorian.. shift again 1222122, and we’re in Phrigian etc.
“Playing Outside” has been a thing 16 year old shredders have rattled on about for decades. I blame Frank Zappa. Generally what people mean is, playing notes that aren’t in any correct scale or chord given the key of the piece, but somehow sound ‘right’ or ‘edgy’.
To mention him again, Guthrie Govan often uses the example of the Pink Panther theme tune to explain how best to use ‘chromatic’ scales.
The idea is to stick largely to the diatonic notes, or the scale notes, but throw occasional rapid notes which are a semitone above or below those. He does this little piece where he plays all 12 notes in the octave without your brain noticing.
There are pieces of music that use chromatic notes, and in fact there are some known ‘chromatic’ scales. One of which is nicely called the ‘Metallica’ scale. Thrash metal is deliberately abrasive and edgy sounding. It achieves this by using semitone intervals (like the one in Phrygian mode).
The Metallica scale is a minor scale with a flat 2nd and 5th. Sometimes those notes are simply added to the natural minor scale making a 9 note scale.
So that’s the edgy bit from Phrygian mode and the nasty ‘tritone’ from diminished scales, but with a minor sounding feel.
There are others, but the thing to remember is you can play any note you like at any time, and you won’t get arrested. Nobody can stop you, it’s a free country, etc. etc.
Major and Minor pentatonic and the Blues Scale
We know that the relative minor of any major scale is 3 frets down.
That is, if we’re playing A major for instance and we want to find the minor chord which uses all the same notes as the A major chord, then it’s three frets down (F#min). We can use a similar trick to move from Minor Pentatonic to Major Pentatonic.
So if you want to find the major pentatonic scale for any given key, just move 3 frets up. So if we’re playing F#min pentatonic using all the shapes we know.. if we did that 3 frets up in A, we’d be playing F# major pentatonic.
Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales
Apparently there’s a ‘problem’ with the natural minor scale (Aolean), which is that the 7th is rubbish (legit musical term, honest).
Sometimes we want the ‘tension’ that a major 7th brings, but in the context of a generally minor sounding piece.
There are no music police, so if I want to I can do that.. I can play a minor scale and just sharpen the 7th into a major 7th.
When you do this though you’ll realise that this too is ‘rubbish’, but for a different reason. Sure we get the edgy classical sounding 7th, but there’s something whack about the whole thing. To fix this you can also raise the minor 6th to a major 6th. This we now call ‘melodic minor’.
Again this is ‘rubbish’. It produces a sort of unresolved driving sensation, so melodic minor is almost always used ONLY when ascending.
In fact in classical music a common ‘trick’ is to ascend in melodic minor and descend in harmonic minor. That is, to ascend with a major 6th and 7th, and descend with only a major 7th. When you do this, your brain will instantly conjour the image of a fat Swede named Malmsteen.
Useful online resources
Billy Idol – Rebel Yell
Rebel Yell is pretty much THE archetypal 1980’s rock song. Every facet of it, from Stevie’s overuse of the wang bar to the sound of the studio reverb is unmistakably 80’s. Even after several decades this song still has the potential to give me goosebumps.
It’s a love song no two ways about it, but it has a kind of ‘radiohead – creep’ or ‘teen spirit’ angst. It reeks of the alchohol and the night.
For me this song is every inch a ‘teen spirit’ but it was tried and found guilty of the crime of being ‘a pop rock song’. But just stop for a second and think about this verse :
I’d sell my soul for you babe
For money to burn with you
I’d give you all, and have none, babe
Just to, just to, just to, to have you here by me
In the band we refer to this section as ‘the romantic’ bit.
But the whole song is just one big expression of that kind of burning love you have for someone you are deeply in lust with. There’s no frills it’s just a straight up and down declaration of unconditional love.
I love this bit too :
He’s out all night to collect a fare,
Just so long, just so long it don’t mess up his hair
Accentuated in the video by Billy Idol preening his quiff. Like all truly great rock, it’s unsophisticated and unremittingly on point.
I think the vast majority of our songs are in B Minor, and this is one of them. Stevie Stevens did something on this song that very few other guitarists have ever done, he created something absolutely timeless.
The opening staccato picking in B is just lovely to play. Usually when you have a ‘peddle tone’ it’s the bass note that drones, but in this lick it’s actually the chord.
So you have to pick the b and e strings with your middle fingers whilst your thumb walks the bass note around to a different pattern. For me the transition from picking with your fingers to requiring the plectrum (for the ensuing pinched harmonic) is difficult, because I hold my pick like a moron.
It’s such an iconic start to a song that everyone instantly recognises it even if they couldn’t tell you what the song is called. Neil used to play this in Band of Oz, and he grew his finger nails especially for this, referring to them as the rebel yell fingernails.
With them he managed to get that lovely ringing sound, but I don’t bother I just pick it with the pads of my fingers, and let it be a bit dull 🙂
Once the initial riff is over it drops into a textbook example of 80’s hair metal with a little riff that runs down from G to E including a lovely pinched harmonic.
The main riff in the verse is a set of three triads (sometimes actually diads) on the d,g,b strings. With some funky rhythmic picking.
The rest is just full on 80’s wang bar nonsense.
The keyboard parts fill in the gaps and add a lovely 80’s atmosphere to the whole song.
Let’s say the song is in the key of Bm. Making the verse progression something like : VI, III, i
The chorus then goes : i, III, VI
And the rocky dropped middle 8 goes : V1, v, iv
Played over the chorus progression, the solo is what I’d call ‘wang bar pentatonic’. It starts with it’s own introduction, a rapidly bent note that echoes Billy singing ‘owww’. I guess Stevie did this because Billy kept forgetting to ‘introduce’ Stevie’s solo for him. I know our band forget to do it too.
The intro bend is followed by some double stops in D and then some extreme bending such that a lot of the notes sound almost chromatic.
The solo famously features a toy alien ray gun used over the pickups like a kind of bizarre ‘e-bow’. I just do a pick slide there because I’m slap-dash like that