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February 21, 2008

Thinking Outside The Box

What's the difference between music and music theory? You'd think that there wouldn't be that much, would you? The more one learns about music, though, the more one realises that music theory is merely a framework for understanding the big picture, not the big picture itself.

Learning about music is, in many ways, like seeking enlightenment. Music theory shows you the first steps in your journey. It shows you the footsteps of those who have gone before you and says "follow the path".

To begin with you have guidance from people who 'know' about music. As you progress, though, the beautifully paved path gives way to an unsurfaced road, which in time becomes so indistinct that you have the choice of not only going forward, but also sideways. Eventually the land beneath your feet starts falling away and you approach a cliff. To truly embrace the intricacies of music you have no choice but to leap into the void.

Heavy. Very heavy!

Where music is ultimately analogue, theory, for the most part, is digital. You're taught keys, scales, chords, box positions. These are the building blocks of the path. Music theory teaches you reasons why a certain scale works over a certain chord or chord progression. It's a nice, clean jigsaw where all the pieces fit together.

But you've learned the scales, and you've learned the chord progressions. You've moved past the rudimentary I-IV-V, incorporating a ii-V change. You're starting to see the road widen. You're feeling the gravel between your toes (should have worn shoes, shouldn't you?)

All this time you're aware that in the distance you can see the great players. They don't appear to be on the path anymore. They float above it, hovering 6 feet off the ground...

How did they get there? The musical geniuses followed the path for as long as they could stand its constraints, glimpsed the void and dove in.

The other day I came across a video lesson on "how to play like B.B. King". I was struck by a comment the demonstrator made. He basically said that you should start with a minor pentatonic, but then add 'colour notes'. Looking at the enhanced minor pentatonic he furrowed his brow and confessed that he had no clue how to describe the scale or why the passing notes worked in the blues context!

Now, being something of a geek, I immediately (well, not immediately, an Excel spreadsheet was involved) realised that B.B.'s scale could be described as a minor blues scale (a minor pentatonic with the additional flat 5 blue note) combined with a common or garden major pentatonic. I say "could be" as it's just one of many ways to describe the hybrid scale.

Here's the blues scale in G with the enhanced scale shown underneath. As explained, the enhanced scale is comprised of the G minor pentatonic scale (white notes) with blue notes (coloured blue) and the G major pentatonic (green notes):



So, we have B.B. King's style sorted, right? Hear a blues? Play the minor blues scale and add in the occasional note from the major pentatonic. Easy!

Erm, that's not exactly the way it works! Try soloing using the enhanced scale and you'll soon realise that while there's a flavour of Mr King's mojo in there, it's not really capturing the whole thing.

So, you've thought outside your pentatonic box to get an enhanced scale which has some major tonality to it and some blue notes. To actually play like B.B. you have to jump back into the box... the B.B. box!

Take a look at the next picture, which shows 3 positions for the B.B. box.



Notice the horseshoe of primary notes (black/red) present in each picture? That's home base, the B.B. box. The faded notes are now your colour notes. Wail on the primary notes and add in the others as and when it feels right. Throw in full bends, half-step bends, slides and Mr K's trademark vibrato and pretty soon you'll find yourself ridin' with the King!

So have we just thrown away one musical theory and replaced it with another? In some ways, yes! Pretty soon you realise, though, that for every theoretical door you kick open, two more are waiting behind.

1 comment:

Mr Boodaddy said...

This is a great article! Love the concept of your blog too. Good luck in your musical journey!

-Jeff
GuitarPlayerZen.com