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A Musical Meditation for you and your guitar

A Musical Meditation for you and your guitar

I’ve got an idea.  Get out your guitar! (this is a hands on article that will make little or no sense if you don’t have your guitar in hand)  We’re going to play a little game to help develop your understanding of the framework of songs.  So what is the framework of a song?  It’s the “chord progression.”  The chords to a song make up the chord progression.

If you will, please play 4 beats of G, 4 beats of C, 4 beats of D, and then 4 beats of G again.  I’m sure that was a familiar sound for you.  It felt and sounded a little bit like many of the songs that you’ve played before.

Now lets introduce an E-minor into the above chord progression by inserting it between G and C.  Ok, that sounds and feels sort of familiar.  Lets think of G as home plate, E-minor as first base, C as second base, D as third base, and back to G again for home plate.

Next, lets put 4 beats of G between every chord.  In other words, our chord progression will now be: G, Em, G, C, G, D, G.  Ok, that was fun (and sounded fairly musical).  What a weird way to run the bases, going back to home plate after every base.  That umpire will surely throw us out of the game.

Now lets substitute A, in place of the E-minor and play: G, A, C, D, G.  What did that sound like?  What did that feel like?  What did that look like?

Now: G, A, G, C, G, D, G.  Again, experience these sensations.  *We’re not doing this exercise to improve our chord changing.  We’re doing it to build on the most common chord progressions that are found in the music that our songs are structured from.

Now lets add A-minor to this process by inserting it in after the C-chord from the first progression: G, C, Am, D, G.  Ok now: G, C, G, Am, G, D, G.  Gosh, who knows, we might get an idea for writing a song somewhere along the way in this little game.

Next let’s not substitute A-minor for C, but instead let’s use A-minor in place of E-minor.  G, Am, C, D, G.  Now: G, Am, G, C, G, D, G.  *Think of each of these little “progressions” as a mini-song.

Now lets throw in a B7 as a substitute for the Em.  G, B7, C, D, G.  *Fingers getting a little sore yet?  Stop if they are.  You can continue tomorrow.  Now: G, B7, G, C, G, D, G.  *Can you hum a little melody along as you play thru these chords?  See where the chords lead your voice…(as long as no one is listening).  Who knows, you might stumble onto your own melody.

Now, instead of B7, lets use E, and instead of C, and throw in an A too.  G, E, A, D, G.  Ok, how about: G, E, G, A, G, D, G.  *I think this one was a little less like a normal song than some of the others, but hey, its art, or maybe science?

Now lets make it really lonesome and use F instead of E-minor.  G, F, C, D, G.  *Now Ralph Stanley will be proud of us.  How about: G, F, G, C, G, D, G.  Or how about substituting G7 for E-minor: G, G7, C, D, G.  Or: G, G7, C, G, G7, C, D, G.

All of these sounds are “musical devices.”  All of these sounds effect our emotions.  All of these progressions were from only one key, the key of G.  We can simply experience them by playing them, or we can academically learn the blackboard formula that they represent.  In this exercise, we only wanted to play some combinations, and let the experience do the talking.  You might get an idea for a song as a result of playing this game.  You might get an idea for a melody or an instrumental.  You might get sore fingers or some chord changing practice, or find a totally different combination of chords that sound interesting.  You might find some coincidental similarities to songs you’ve learned before.  But what I really hope is that each of these little chord progressions causes you a different sensation.  I hope each has a different effect on your mood and the way you feel.  I hope you will gain a little more musical awareness through this less conventional experience.  In other words, I didn’t want you to necessarily learn anything at all, but rather to notice an effect.  Do these soft.  Do them loud.  Do them fast.  Do them slow.  Let them in.  Let them take you wherever they may.  Don’t take over.  Let them take over.  Let them lead.  Let them relax you.  After the experience, do you feel less stress?  You might.  You might not.

Did you let some of the chords ring for a few extra seconds?  Were any birds singing in the backyard?  Did you associate your strumming with the singing birds?  Did the birds seem to respond to you?  Is it ok to use your guitar in this slightly unorthodox way?

I have a question for you?  When you played each “progression” did you find yourself changing the way you accented your strumming?  Is an experience as valuable as a lesson?  Did you find yourself deviating from the number of beats-per-chord, than I suggested?  You might want to do this once a week.  You might want to choose different chords.  You might want to hum along.  let the chords lead your humming.


The Nashville Numbering System is nothing to fear

If you’ve heard of the Nashville Numbering System, you might think it’s a specialized “secret code” music notation only for top-notch professional recording session stars.  You might think that it’s only used in Nashville but nowhere else?   You might think that it’s very advanced and over your head…

Good news!  Not true.  The reason they use this particular system is because it’s easy!  And further, it’s not really a system at all.  If you wanted it to be secret, you might want to make it complicated, but it’s really used to help all the pickers stay together in a recording session.  If your band has been together for a long time, you have pretty much ironed out all your details and each member has agreed on what key to play in, how fast to play the tune, who gets what break, etc.  Session players might not have played together before, so they need some rules and guidelines that are fairly standardized so that they’ll be able to get the work done quickly, since “time is money.”

Simply put, the Nashville Numbering System is just replacing the letter names of the chords with numbers.  You already know that there are loads of songs that have G, C, and D as the chords to the song.  In the Nashville Numbering System, G, C, and D would be referred to as: 1, 4, and 5.  “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” can be played with G, C, and, D.  In the Nashville Numbering System, we’d refer to G as 1, C as 4, and D as 5.  But you also probably know that some people might play “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in the key of A.  In this situation, A would be 1, D would be 4, and E would be 5.   The key has changed, but the numbers remained the same.  In other words, no matter what key you play it in, “Will the Circle be Unbroken” will always start with the one-chord because “One” is referring to the key that you have chosen to play the song in.  If you choose to play “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in the key of C, then C is referred to as the “One-Chord.”  By the time you’ve been around music long enough to have learned a hundred songs, you will be catching on to this concept because there are so many similarities from one song to the next.  If you are at the stage where you’ve only learned 4 or 5 songs so far, this may still be a little confusing.

If you play “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in the key of C, then C is 1, F is 4, and G is 5.

Are you familiar with “Salty Dog?”  If so, you’ve probably played it in G.  The chords are G, E, A, and D.  Going to these chords is like baseball.  G is home-plate, E is first-base, A is second-base, D is third-base, and what is home plate?  Right!  G is home-plate.  But what if…JUST WHAT IF…, we wanted to play “Salty Dog” in a different key.  I know what you’re thinking’, (vote that @#$% mandolin or fiddle player off the island, cause I left my capo at home).  Well, if you put your capo on the 2nd fret, what are the “actual chords” that you’re playing on “Salty Dog”?  A, F#, B, E.  You are fretting G, E, A, and D. (much easier than making those “Barre-Chords”).  But whether you are in the key of G or the key of A, the numbers of “Salty Dog” are 1, 6, 2, and 5.

Keep in mind that these numbers come from the “Major-Scale.”  6 is the 6th note of the major scale, 2 is the 2nd note of the major scale.  You can probably guess if you didn’t already know, that the major scale can be played in any key.  So no matter what key you are in, you can count each step as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, (although the alphabetical names would be totally different for each key).  So it really is handy to be able to attach one name for every chord no matter what key you choose.  That’s part of why the “Nashville Number System” exists!  But the main reason is because G chord does not tell you what role G plays in the song.  Is it the 1-chord, the 4-chord, or the 5-chord?  Well, that depends on what key the song is in.  We can call the scale: DO, RE, ME, FA, SO, LA, TI, DO.  Or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  Or G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G.  But D O, RE, ME, AND 1, 4, 5 tell us more.  In formal music theory, they call the 1-chord, THE TONIC CHORD.  They call the 4-chord, THE SUBDOMINANT CHORD.  They call the 5-chord, THE DOMINANT CHORD.  So is G the TONIC?  Yes, when you are in the key of G, but no, when you are in other keys.  In other words, the Nashville Numbering System is referring to the chord as it is used as a specific device in a song.  If that is confusion, don’t worry.  Examples will make it easy to understand.

What if, JUST WHAT IF, you were capoed up to the second fret and you fretted a G and the mandolin player asked you what chord you played?  If you said G, he might play a G on his mandolin.  That would sound terrible because your fretted G would actually be an A.  Well, you know how it is sometimes when you get caught up in the moment and you’re concentrating on not making a mistake, and you realized when it was too late, that you had your guitar capo on, and you inadvertently told that mandolin player the wrong thing.  This is just one…JUST ONE LITTLE EXAMPLE…of how handy it is to use numbers to represent chords rather than the alphabetical chord name.

To clarify, these chords in every song represent a specific musical device.  In baseball you start at home, hit the ball, run to first, second, third, and home.  First base is always the same.  The “first base” in music (in most cases) is the 4-chord.  In “formal” music circles it’s called the “subdominant” chord.  So if you used that lingo, you’d be speaking “the orchestral naming system” (I just made that up).

It’s probably less confusing to think of it as the baseball bases.  First bass never changes.  First base never gets called “home plate.”  Similarly, the 4-chord never changes.  It’s always the subdominant chord no matter what key you choose to play a particular song in.

Many musicians use the Nashville Numbering system as a language to communicate chords to the people that they play with.  You can expect to see amateurs as well as pros using this lingo, and if you get acquainted with it yourself, it will help you, and your fellow pickers will appreciate your using it.  If they don’t know about it, you can take pride in teaching it to them.

Did this Nashville Numbering System originate in Nashville?  No.  It originated with 17th century harmony rules.  I don’t actually know how people came to start calling it The (Nashville) Numbering System, but Nashville is one of the biggest recording centers in the world and with so much recording going on there, it must have just caught on.  I’ve often wondered if some of the other prominent recording cities have felt jealous that it wasn’t named after Nashville. (?)

My primary purpose in life has not been to teach you a song, but to use a song to teach you the components and principals, so that I will lead you to become self sufficient, independent, and knowledgeable enough to be able to participate FULLY, with others playing music.  My reasoning is that there’s always going to be a new song, and after you find someone to teach it to you, then another song will come along that you’d like to learn and you’re back to square one again.

You want to be able to participate.  You work hard to learn a bunch of songs.  You go to a festival.  You have the courage to open your guitar case.  You get tuned up.  They start a song that you don’t happen to know.  You say to yourself, “I’ll be patient and maybe I’ll know the next one.”  After 2 hours, they haven’t played even one song that you know.  How frustrating!  When we at Musician’s Workshop create music instruction courses, this is the problem that we address.

The Nashville Numbering System is just one of many subjects that I teach in my 2-hour video called “Understanding the Formula of Music Makes it So Easy.”


The Circle of 5ths made easy

When we’re new at any endeavor, there’s a lonesome feeling.  The experienced people have had years to get comfortable with the lingo, protocol, and skills, but where does that leave the newby?

If you’ve heard people talk about the “circle of 5ths” and don’t know what they’re talking about, I gotta cure!  If it ‘ll make you feel any better about these “terminology snobs”, the circle of 5ths is really arguably, the circle of 4ths.  See there, they didn’t know what they were talking about in the first place.

There are 8 notes in the major scale.  Im sure you already know that.  We create each chord by starting from one of these 8 notes and create the chord by playing 3 notes.  These three notes are separated by a note, so the first chord is the first, third, and fifth note of the scale.  The second chord is created from the second, forth and sixth note of the scale and so on.  The circle of 5ths “as it is called” is a series of chords.  The reason its called a circle is because music repeats after the 8 note scale and starts over again with the same series (in the next octave).  CDEFGAB-CDEFGAB-CDEFGAB-C.   If we went up a “5th” we’d hit C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#, and D#.  You can see it starting to repeat already.  If you read that series of notes (actually chords), backwards, they aren’t 5ths they are 4ths.  Let me clarify.  C to G is the distance of a “5th.”  Moving on, G to D is the distance of a “5th” and so on.  But when you read it backward, its one step less.  In other words, A back to D is the distance of a “4th,” and D back to G is the distance of a “4th.”

In the song “Salty Dog Blues” (popularized by Flatt and Scruggs), the chord progression is G, E, A, D.  Starting from E, we have a “circle of 4ths.  In most popular music, you don’t see a chord progression that is a “circle of 5ths.”  Many musicians “refer” to a chord progression like the one in “Salty Dog” as the “circle of 5ths.”

You may already know that each new key adds another sharp.  In other words C has no sharps, G has one, D has 2, A has 3 and so on.  That is the circle of 5ths (technically).

One reason I’m telling you all of this is because when we play a song that contains the proverbial “circle of 5ths (or 4hts), a phenomenon occurs.  This series of chords causes us to play notes that aren’t in the scale.  You might say that we are playing notes that are “out of tune.”  In formal music notation, these chords in songs that are from the “circle of 4ths” are shown on the page as “accidentals.”

An accidental is a sharpened or flatted note which is different from the notes that are supposed to be sharp or flat in the given key you are playing.  The notation at the beginning of the song shows you how many sharps or flats are in the key.  You are trusting that there are no more sharps or flats, but somewhere on the page, you encounter a sharp that they didn’t warn you about.  So you feel duped.  Not only that, but you start to question if there’s some mistake in the sheet music.  Why did they write in this additional sharp that’s not in the key signature in the top left hand corner of your sheet music?  Is it because they wanted to violate the law of the key?

I have an excuse for them.  They aren’t putting in illegal notes: they are changing the key of the song.  For instance, anytime you have an A-major chord in the key of G, they have actually done a key change.  In the key of G, A is supposed to be A-minor.  When its changed to A-major, actually the song has changed keys.  You are now playing in the key of D.  A is the 5-chord in D.  D is the 5-chord in the key of G.  Therefore, when you play an A-major in the key of G, A is known as THE-5-OF-5.  In other words, it’s the 2-chord in G (which should be minor), but it’s the 5-chord in D, which is supposed to be major, so it’s legal.  Isn’t that confusing?  Sorry.

E-major isn’t supposed to be major in the key of G either.  “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is in the key of G and the E is minor in that song, as it is supposed to be.  Salty Dog is in G, but the E is major.  Why?  Because there has been 2 key changes in Salty Dog.  A is the 5-chord in the key of D, and E is the 5-chord in the key of A.  So there are 2 illegal chords in Salty Dog, E and A.  But they become legal and acceptable when we realize that we’re making a “ragtime” sound by changing keys twice in the song.

Again, A and E are normally supposed to be minor chords in the key of G.  So I refer to A as the 5-of-5.  I refer E as the 5-of-5-of-5.  Yes, there are lots of songs that contain a B-chord in the key of G.  One that comes to mind is Old Home Place by the Dillards.  Another is Blackberry Blossom.

Looking at the circle of 5ths can give you some insights into various chord progressions and why they work in music.  Why do you need to know this?  Because its one of the concepts in music that you need to be able to hear and recognize.  There are lots of songs that use these devices and it helps to be able to recognize them.  That way you don’t have to learn each new song from the start, because you already understand it from past songs that used the same concepts.  If you can hear it and recognize it, you are more likely to be able to keep up at the next jam session when a similar song comes along.  Reading about it can be confusing, so I created a DVD on the subject called: UNDERSTANDING THE FORMULA OF MUSIC MAKES IT SO EASY.  With the video examples, seeing and hearing it will help.

Pinky Exercises for Guitar and all stringed instruments

Do you have a weak pinky finger?  Don’t feel alone!

Ah the baby finger.  Mine is so uncoordinated, so wimpy, and so unruly!  What can I do about?  Well, first don’t avoid using it.  That’s what most people do, and you can guess that they regret it later down the line.  Sure you can get away with substituting it’s big strong brother, the ring finger (I call it the 3rd finger) for a while, but in the back of your mind, you know you’re cheating.  You know that all your other fingers are getting lots of practice and are growing in strength and agility every day, while atrophy is setting into the poor old sedentary baby finger.

Think of your 4 fingers as a 4-man basketball team.  Can you really afford to have 3 good players and one lousy player?  Oh I can see it coming now…”Django Reinhardt only had 2 fingers.”  All I can say is, “Django had 4 fingers before the accident and when he had ’em, he used ’em.

You might find it comforting to know that everyone has trouble with their pinky.  It’s not just you.  As a matter of fact, the anatomy of the hand is a bit of a bad design where the pinky is concerned.  I don’t know much about anatomy, but the muscular design of the pinky is somewhat less sophisticated than the other 3 fingers. And in all of us, it is weaker and less independent.  In fact it tends to react to whatever the ring finger does.  Legend has it that Mozart intentionally broke both of his pinkies in the middle of the first joint, hoping to increase length and agility.  Since that’s a little drastic for you, I hope it serves as a wake up call that your pinky really needs more work than the other three, and on top of that, usually gets less in a normal guitar session.

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that I hate doing sit-ups.  I do want to give you something that you will actually be willing to practice on a regular basis.  So if I can’t scare you into giving your pinky some extra attention, I’ll give you an exercise that’s really easy and actually pretty fun.  Once you’ve learned it, you can use it for your warm-up every time you open your case, and this will get you into the habit of doing it on a regular basis.  It is a very cleaver design and I didn’t invent it.  I did however adapt it from a famous old violin exercise that is quite common.

You don’t need tab because it’s simply: 0-2-4-3-2-4-1-4 over and over, played on any string.  It is easiest on the first string, and you can eventually work your way up to playing it on the 6th string, which is the hardest because it’s the longest stretch to reach.

To explain it further: you would play open, then 2nd finger at the 2nd fret, then 4th finger at the 4th fret and so on.  The idea is to repeat it as many times as your fingers can stand.  Ideally, you should alternate your pick direction (down, up, down, up, down, up down, up repeat) and gradually increase your speed as you get better.

As you advance you can change the pattern to: 3-4-3-4-3-4-3-4-2-4-2-4-2-4-2-4-1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4, followed by the first exercise 0-2-4-3-2-4-1-4.  Then, as you get good at that, you could start reaching out an extra fret with the pinky, playing the other note where you had been, but playing the pinky note on the 5th fret.  Don’t try the more advanced exercises for a few months or until you feel like you are ready.

At this point I would like to bring up the concept of what I call “planting.”  This is referring to leaving the 2nd finger down when playing the 4th (for example).  In other words, leave fingers down (after they have been used) unless they are obstructing the next note to be played.  Getting into this habit trains your fingers to stay closer to the fingerboard, and will help you get faster and better, simply because they won’t have as far to travel when they are needed.

You’ll be able to see right away that these exercises address strength, stamina, and flexibility.  Hopefully, if you practice them enough, you will become as comfortable using your pinky as you are with your other fingers.

This exercise is a part of our video called “Bluegrass Guitar the Right Way is the Easy Way.”  If you would like more information on it and our newer Flatpicking lessons, just give us a call toll free at 800-543-6125



Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar: It’s hard to play it fast enough for those Banjo Tunes

If you haven’t experienced strumming rhythm to a really fast breakdown, you are in for a miserable surprise!  If you have, then I don’t need to tell you how tedious it can be.  The ironic part, is that the harder we try to strum fast, the slower we get.  That’s because our muscles begin to tense and therefore literally can’t perform as fast as they could if they were relaxed.  Same with running.  I recently discussed this same phenomenon with Carl Lewis’ rehab coach, John Bandy.  Apparently Carl’s remedy was to check his jaw in competition.  Carl felt like if his jaw was relaxed, that it was a good barometer for the rest of the muscles in his body.  It is common knowledge in the sport of competitive running, that you will go slower if you are tense.

Kind of a catch-22 isn’t it?  Speed causes tension, but you can’t achieve speed when you’re tense.  Lotta peer pressure there too.  Those fast banjo players don’t particularly appreciate it when you start dragging ’em down, but you can’t help it.  Well, it is a real snowball effect and don’t feel bad, because it’s happens to all of us, but lets try to remedy it…

First, no matter who you are, or what your individual style is: start dropping your “fancy extras,” like up-strums, bass runs, and little hammer-on licks.  In other words: Play simpler rhythm.  The less you play, the faster you can go.

Next, take that lesson from Carl Lewis and run a check list of the muscle groups that are part of your strumming action: fingers, hand, forearm, upper arm, traps, neck, and yes, even your jaw.  Now when I say check these areas, I mean remind yourself to relax each of them often, throughout the song, whether practicing alone, jamming informally, or playing onstage with your band.  Just ask yourself if the muscles in your forearm are relaxed, and then literally let go.  Take note that the wrist is a major problem area.  Watch a few pros and then a few struggling amateurs and see how their wrists compare.  This will give you inspiration and provide a major clue toward solving the problem.

Another important aspect is bracing.  Fast rhythm (or even slow rhythm) can’t be played if you have a finger or the palm of your hand planted on the guitar.  Proper rhythm technique is the result of turning at the elbow in the opposite direction of your wrist.  In other words: when your elbow goes down, your wrist goes up, and vise versa, but totally free from bracing.  So get yourself a lazy limp wrist with some totally relaxed forearm muscles and you are on your way to fast rhythm.

After you’ve had a chance to experiment with these new concepts and are getting adjusted to the change in your style, try it out with a metronome.  If you try it with a banjo player, he won’t allow you the opportunity to get faster gradually.  In other words, right at first, we want to practice these new techniques slowly.  At a slow speed you can relax.  Once you’ve mastered relaxing while playing rhythm slowly, you can start speeding the metronome up one notch at a time.  This way, when you realize that you are starting to tense up, you can slow the metronome down a little in order to maintain relaxation.  Don’t expect to get up to full speed with relaxation on your first day.  Your muscles are still in the habit of contracting when a tempo is fast, and you have to introduce “relaxed speed” to them gradually.

Once you are at the gig, forget about accuracy.  If you are concerned about hitting that alternating bass note perfectly every time, you will tense up.  Don’t think of missing as a mistake.  What is more important is sounding smooth and staying steady.  What makes you sound smooth, is being relaxed.  The only way to relax, is to not care (if you miss occasionally).

Rhythm guitar is the real unsung hero of bluegrass music.  It’s not the up-front show off, but it’s the most important part of the bluegrass band.  Perhaps the audience appreciates the show off lead instruments the most, but the band members appreciate the rhythm guitar player the most. (this is true in professional and recreational bands alike)  I guess it’s tough to be the blocker on a football team rather than the touchdown scorer, but blocking sure is necessary and valued.   I personally have played my best lead when I’ve been playing with a great rhythm guitar player.  That’s because a great rhythm guitar player makes the lead player’s job so much easier.

I became a fan of bluegrass rhythm when I first saw Chris Jones playing with Special Consensus around 1982.  He reeked of style, but it wasn’t a bunch of silly runs. Instead, it was a bunch of tasteful stylistic accents that all happened at certain places in the song that lent definition, drive, punch, and direction to the team.  He really knew what he was doing.  It was like his guitar was the “musical director” of the band.  Everything had a purpose that caused all the band members to play well.  It made me want to be a rhythm guitar player rather than a lead player.

Ever since that day, I’ve consciously tried to develop some of his little signature concepts and finally I just decided to call him and ask him to develop a video on all that stuff that he’s been doing all these years.  Well, he said he’d been planning to call me, because he’d already been developing it at home, and performing it at his seminars, workshops, and training camps.  Well, we did it, and we have it available today in both DVD and Download, so if you are interested in truly proper, elegant, authentic bluegrass rhythm, give us a call: Musicians Workshop 800-543-6125 and ask for “The Art of Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar” with Chris Jones.  You won’t be disappointed.

Should I learn to read music to play popular forms of music?


My students and callers have been asking me this question for 40 years.  The main reason most people ask, is because they are hoping I’ll let them off the hook by telling them that it’s totally unnecessary.  If they don’t have to go through the drudgery of learning to read formal music notation,  great, because most people don’t want to, unless they have to.  Ok, here you go:  IT’S TOTALLY UNNECESSARY!

Actually the word TOTALLY is a bit extreme, so let’s talk.

A symphony orchestra has 50 members. Each individual member must play a part that was written to fit the other parts.  The only way to prevent chaos, is for each member play exactly what is required of him.  You could think of this as being a dictatorship.  No individual freedom of expression.  But it almost has to be that way because on guitar, you have 6 strings, so in an orchestra, it takes 6 trumpet players to make the chord that you can make with just one person.  All 6 of those guys have to be “on the same page” and at the same moment.  The only way to get them together, is by having one boss, or too many cooks will spoil the broth.

In popular styles such at rock, country, blues, folk etc, we all need to play together too, and be organized, in order to sound good as a team, but we have more freedom within the structure than does the third chair violist in an orchestra or the 4th chair clarinetist in a marching band.

Popular music has the same structure as: rock, country, blues, jazz, and folk.  We all must conform to a tempo, a key, a chord progression and an arrangement, (no freedom there), but not all of our freedoms have been stripped from us.  As long as we agree to those four things, we get to do whatever we want in other ways.  The bass player can use whatever bass line he wants to play (as long as it fits the agreed chords).  The guitar player can play rhythm as he chooses and so does everyone.  We get to play whatever we want in our solo just as long as it confines to the 4 requirements, and that we play it at the agreed time.

I think of music in two main categories: “formal” styles and “informal” styles.  Or classical orchestras and marching bands, vs. popular styles.  That being said, “popular” styles don’t have to learn to read formal music notation and “formal” styles do.  Feel some relief?  Good.

In the informal styles, we can orchestrate but we don’t have to write the arrangements down and pass them out to the members.  We can simply plan these moves at rehearsal verbally.

But suppose you found some sheet music from the old country.  It’s up in the hayloft in a barn in Ireland.  You think, wow, what an interesting title!  I wonder what that song sounded like?  I wonder if it would make a good instrumental for our band “The Old Time Long Lost Knee Slappin Moonshine Hollow West Virginia Cuttin Up Ramblin Creek Mountain Boys.”  Sure wish I’d listened to my blue-haird piano teacher, and learned to read, because this could be a tune that no one plays but us, and I’ll be famous for introducing it to America.  Or you might, someday, want to transpose some classical pieces to your guitar as you start expanding your horizons and developing a crossbred style.

Another good reason to learn to read, might be a situation where you have an opportunity to do your music with a symphony for a special event or for a recording.  National Banjo Champion Mark Maniscalco had an opportunity to front the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, and was faced with the need to understand how to read music, so that he could communicate with the orchestra.  Mark is the teacher of our product called “Twin Banjo Workshop.” These are isolated and specialized reasons for wanting to learn to read, but very valid reasons.

There are some downsides to music notation.  It has caused more “music dropouts” than any all other aspects of music combined.  The reason is that humans can only think of one thing at a time.  Reading has traditionally been taught parallel to teaching how to play the instrument.  This is simply too much all at once!  Suzuki has realized lower dropout statistics, because they teach the kids to play, and then later introduce the reading.  Very wise, considering the violin itself requires several things to think about all at the same time.  Add reading to the mix, and you just frustrate kids (or adults) to the point of causing them to give up.  Hey, some of these dropouts might have become great, had the teacher been wise enough to lighten the load in the onset.  *As a matter of fact, this is the secret that makes our video “You First Guitar Lesson” so successful with beginners.  It simply requires the beginner less things to think about at once, than any other beginning guitar video.

Ok, you will find next to zero famous popular stars who ever learned to read music.  Have you ever seen a famous popular band on stage with music stands?  No, never.  Did they just memorize the sheet music before going onstage?  No, never.  Popular styles developed from informal “non-reading” origins and it simply isn’t of a reading nature.  Same with rock, country, blues, jazz, etc.  Bluegrass is meant to be learned from the stuff that our heroes have played. We accumulate the “mix-and-match” parts such as licks, fills, intros, and endings, and we learn to improvise and eventually play whatever we prefer at the moment.

More importantly, this develops our ear!  We listen to a solo, we try to figure it out, and as a result we develop the ability to know what we’ve heard, and where that is on the fingerboard.  Over time our library of memorized material and our sense of where to put it, gets bigger and bigger, and we have fun experimenting along the way as we jam with friends at festivals and in living rooms.  Each person you get together with, gives you another little idea and your skills are always growing.

The formal music notation staff consists of 5 lines.  Each note is placed either on a line or between two lines.  Each note is drawn differently to represent how long it lasts.  If a note is lower on the paper, it is lower in pitch, and the higher on the paper, the higher in pitch.  Additionally, there can be other surrounding symbols that indicate how a note should be treated.  All of this information needs to be evaluated and executed before moving on to the next note.  It’s a good system, but pulls the musician away from the instrument and as a result, your attention to you instrument suffers.  Giving full attention to your instrument will make you a more skillful player in your speed, accuracy, tonal quality, and finesse.  It will make you learn to play in less time.

So we’ve said that “band and orchestra music” is more structured than bluegrass, jazz, country, blues and rock.  I can name one style that makes bluegrass seem formal in comparison…Dixieland.  Why?  In Dixieland, everyone is playing lead at the same time!  It’s a musical free-for-all!  At least in bluegrass we take turns and we decide in advance who gets what break.  Actually, being less formal is what makes Dixieland so exciting and festive.  The players are not all “exactly” just playing a solo, because to some degree they have the experience to know to play a “counterpoint” to each other.  In a sense, they are like a marching band that wasn’t given an exact assignment, but “sort of” know what their individual assignment “should” be.  In other words: trombones (in the marching band) have been blueprinted to play a counterpoint or harmony to the trumpets.  In Dixieland, they know this and “informally” attempt to accomplish the same thing.  So they don’t sound exactly “spit-&-polished,” but hey, it’s art, there’s no rules, and the result is fun and exciting.  You just can’t get a feeling like that from stuffy old perfect orchestras or marching bands.

But what about tab?  Tab pulls you away from your instrument too, but is a lesser evil in my opinion, and I’ll explain why.  Tab is customarily used as a supplement to audio and video lessons.  You can get tabs alone, and can use them exclusively to learn a song, but you really shouldn’t unless you are already a relatively experienced player.  Why?  Because you need to hear how music sounds to be able to absorb the nuances such as accent, smoothness, drive, subtitles of timing, expression, and personality.  In other words: MUSIC HAS A FINGERPRINT.  There’s a reason why you idolize those famous players.  Those guys sound special, and much of why they sound special, can’t be written in tab or music notation.

What exactly is tab?  Tab is a map of your stringed instrument.  Since all the notes we play in a song, happen at a different time, we can’t put the frets in the map.  We put a number on the string that the note is to be played on, and that maps out which fret to play behind.  Next we start borrowing from music notation by using the timing notation and the bar lines that section off the measures.  We also (perhaps annoyingly) decided to mimic formal music notation by making tab upside down.  Has that ever bothered you?  Did you wonder why they did it that way?  They did it so that our highest pitched guitar string would be highest on the page, to give us a sense of higher pitched notes being higher on the page, so as to follow the established concept in formal music notation.  I personally think tab should not include timing notation.  I think you should learn your timing from the sound.  All tab should do is act as a reminder to help you memorize the notes.  If you don’t have the sound recording however, you’d need the timing in order to make sense out of the piece.  If you only use the tab as a supplement to the sound recording, to learn the piece, you’ll have the benefit of hearing it played with truly all of its important aspects.

So did we create tablature because we hated formal music notation and wanted an easier system?  No.  Tab actually predates today’s formal music notation.  Makes sense.  Someone develops an instrument that you blow into, makes up a song to play on it, wants to keep from forgetting it, doesn’t see a recorder handy, and draws a little diagram of what he plays.  (I’m talking Fred Flintstone days here).  But other guys start making other instruments that you pluck or beat on, and the “blow chart” doesn’t work for the plucked instruments, so someone decides to make a “universal” notation that is equally lousy for all instruments and he decides to call it, “formal music notation.”  And the musical version of “Esperanto” is born.

You have my blessing, as a teacher of pop music, to go ahead and read tab.  But if you allow tab to become your “crutch,” you will never get to where you want to go.  You should use tab mostly as a supplement to listening.  Listening is developing your ear.  Developing your ear is becoming a musician.  All of our beginners are given a “figure out a tune” assignment on their very first lesson!  Granted, we give them an easy assignment at first, but one that’s appropriate for their experience level.  Our products reflect what we teach our local personal students.  We developed the video  “Understanding the Formula of Music Makes it So Easy” for background understanding of music.  Then its follow up: “How to Figure Out Music from Recordings”, to teach people to learn the way the pros learned…by ear.

In conclusion, try to use tab only as an aid for getting a piece of music memorized.  Especially in your first few years.  Seek materials that let you hear the piece you are learning, and see the teacher playing it full speed, slow and phrase by phrase.  This way you won’t be robbed of all the subtitles that just can’t be documented on the printed page.

Learn to read music if you choose to become involved in some specialties that are actually outside of popular music.  If you think of yourself as an “Average Joe Hobbyist,” honestly, learning to read isn’t worth the time and headache.  Non-reading people that have called us over the past 40 years, feel they have to explain to us that they won’t buy our learning materials if they have to read music.  So many people think that they are in the minority, but they are actually in the majority!  We produce over 200 music instruction products and have only one that has the formal music notation in it, but it also teaches without it.  It’s called “Country Piano with Ron Howard.”  I doubt seriously if anyone that’s bought it has read the formal music notation in it.  Country Piano just simply isn’t of a reading nature.

If you have any questions, you can call us toll free at 800-543-6125

Perfect Pitch and Relative Pitch: What are they all about?

First: What is “Perfect Pitch?”  Basically it’s when someone says, “Sing a C-note, and you can do it.  Now that‘s a little mind boggling, so lets look at it from another angle.  What if I were to play a note on my guitar, and then ask you to tell me what note I played?  Of course, if you saw what note I played, you could tell me what it was, but I’m talking about hearing a note, and being able to tell what it was, by the sound alone.  Very mind boggling!

Ok, what are you hearing that tells you that it’s a C-note?  You are hearing its “highness or lowness.”  You can tell how high the note is by sound.  (but how?)

I had a friend who had perfect pitch when I was in college.  I was in the Music Department at The University of North Texas.  Her name was Laura.  It was so intriguing to me that I sometimes annoyed her by constantly testing her.  I’d sing a note, or hit a note on the dormitory piano, or on my guitar, and insist that she identify the note that I offered.  Man, I’d put my guitar out of tune and she’d say, “That’s half way between a G and a G-sharp.  Or I’d play a really low note or a really high note at the extreme ends of the piano.  I’d do anything I could think of to try to mess her up.  Well, curses!  Sometimes she’d hesitate, but I never stumped her.

Laura was born with perfect pitch. (and she was a good musician too).  She played piano.  Eventually, I learned that this mysterious gift that she possessed, was both a blessing and a curse.  The way she described it to me, she had an A-440 ringing in her head, and it wasn’t something that she could turn off.  My band, at the time tuned to A-440 when we had a tuner handy but if not, we just tuned to each other.  That’s fine but we weren’t always standard.

Laura always rated our performances, based on how well in tune we were.  Not how well our instruments were in tune with each other, or how well we sang, but how close to A-440 we were tuned.  We could be well in tune together, but not on A-440, and it would be painful for her to endure.

So if she had this ringing sound in her head that she could never turn off, and it was an A-note, how did she identify all the other notes besides A?  (Now you’re getting ahead of me again)

Laura also had a talent or (skill) known as “relative pitch.”  She knew intervals.  She knew how far it was from A to E by the sound.  Relative pitch means, if someone gives you a note, you can sing another note, because you know what it would sound like based on the first note.  In other words: if I sang: “Oh, I’ve been working on the railroad.”  I just happen to know that from “Oh I’ve” happens to be a “perfect 4th.”  So if  “Oh” was a G, then I could tell you that “I’ve” is a C.

Most people think that “Perfect Pitch” is something that you are “born with” and that “Relative Pitch” is something that you can learn.  That’s not exactly true.  In fact, I’ve discovered from being around lots of different musicians, that there are different forms of perfect pitch.

I actually think that “Perfect Pitch” has been mis-named.  I think the name should be changed to: “Pitch Memory.”  If you can name any note you hear, whatever note someone commands (without having a guitar to cheat), that means that you “remember” what that note sounds like.  So what makes a note sound different than another note?  How high or low it is.  Obvious, but my point is that there is a “color” to pitches.  Can you close your eyes and picture “red?”  Yes, of course.  What if you’d never seen the color red?  No.  No way!  Well, you’ve heard a G before, but you can’t just sing a G, can you?  I say if you hear a G often enough, and you are really paying attention to its pitch, you can eventually memorize the sound of that pitch.

If you shoot free throws every day on the basketball court, you get to where you can hit them more frequently, and if you practice enough, you can sink 10 out of 10.  But what if you quit for a month?  Your accuracy would drop off.  So what does it take to sink a free throw every time?  It takes using the exact amount of effort and angles of your arms, and stance of your legs.  In other words, it takes “repeatability.”      If you throw the ball up to the basket “exactly” the same every time, it will go to the same place, every time.

Getting this to happen on “pitch memory” is hard, but not any harder than free throws.  When I’m spending a lot of time with music, I’m at my best at guessing notes.  I don’t think I’ve ever been 10 for 10, but I’ve seen myself improve, so I know that it would continue if I worked on it enough.  I have never been able to hit 10 out of 10 free throws, but I have been closer when I’ve done it regularly.

But will having Perfect Pitch make you a better guitar player?  I say yes, because it focuses on the discipline of “LISTENING,” which is the most important aspect of music.  Perfect pitch is one of the chapters in our 2-hour video called: “Understanding the Formula of Music Makes it So Easy!  Another chapter is on “Relative Pitch.”  Give us a call at: MusiciansWorkshop 800-543-6125 if you’d like to know more about it.