Thursday, November 20, 2014

Student Feature: Sebbe

In this post I'd like to feature one of my students, Sebbe, who has improved so much over the past few years, and who started making youtube videos of arrangements that we worked on together. This video shows him play an original guitar arrangement of a piece called 'Having Lived' (you can listen to the original piano arrangment following this link):

Check out Sebbe's Youtube Channel to see more of his great playing. Here I want to include one more of my favorites, Sebbe's version of Guthrie Govan's "Wonderful Slippery Thing":


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Avoid Notes

I remember discussing avoid notes with students and other musicians, and very often it turned out that there were many misunderstandings about this concept. Let me first give a definition of the term avoid note from one of my favorite Jazz theory book The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony by Barrie Nettles and Richard Graf:

Avoid notes: The pitch or pitches of a chord scale which are not used harmonically because they will destabilize the sound of the chord.

This already clears up the first misunderstanding that avoid notes should be avoided altogether. That's not the case, they are used melodically, e.g. as passing tones or neighboring tones. When playing a solo melody, avoid notes can (and probably should) be used, but they will usually not be used as target notes which are held out for a relatively long time. They will normally occur as short notes between chord tones or tensions.

The remaining question is: how do you know which notes in a certain scale are avoid notes? The (simplified) answer is: avoid notes are notes that are not part of the chord and that are a half step above a chord tone. The classic example is the fourth scale tone of a major scale. E.g. over a C major chord with the major scale as chord scale, the note F would be an avoid note because it is a half step above the third of the chord (the E). Note that there is no other avoid note in the major scale. I should add that this definition of avoid notes is less accurate than the definition given above. I will provide some counterexamples below.

It is important to realize that whether a note is an avoid note or not is not purely a property of the scale but also of the chord it is played over. Using the example from above, the F in C major is an avoid note when played of a C major chord. However, if you play a C major scale over a Csus4 chord (C-F-G), then the F is a chord tone and therefore certainly no avoid note.

Looking at modes as chord scales over seventh chords made up of scale degrees 1, 3, 5, and 7, it turns out that there a some modes without any avoid notes, some others with 1 avoid note, and one with 2 avoid notes (the numbers below are the scale degrees of the avoid notes):

  • ionian (over maj7): 4
  • dorian (over m7): none
  • phrygian (over m7): 2, 6
  • lydian (over maj7): none
  • mixolydian (over dom7): 4
  • aeolian (over m7): 6
  • locrian (over m7b5): 2

From the above list, phrygian has most avoid notes (2), and dorian and lydian have no avoid notes (in all cases interpreted as chord scales over the given seventh chords). Note that if dorian were played over a minor 6 chord, its seventh scale degree would be an avoid note. So, again, whether a note in a scale is an avoid note or not also depends on the chord over which the scale is played.

Finally, it's important to understand that all these definitions which may appear to be rules are just the result of observing how composers and musicians have used certain scales over certain chords (in certain styles). So if it ever happens that your ears are in disagreement with the above 'rules' then trust your ears. Nowadays we are much more accustomed to certain dissonances than listeners were several centuries ago, and how notes are perceived in a certain context changes over time. The most famous exception to the 'avoid note rule' is the b9 tension of dominant seventh chords. The b9 is a half step above the root of the chord, but there are many situations where it can definitely be used harmonically with a dominant seventh chord. Another typical example which sounds especially nice on the guitar is the chord that result when you shift up an open C chord by two frets:

X 5 4 0 3 0 (from low to high strings)

This is a D chord (no 5th) with an added 9 and an added 4. The 4 (the open G string) is actually an avoid note (because it's a half step above the chord tone F# on the D string) but due to the voicing this chord does sound good in certain contexts.

In sum, it's good to understand what an avoid note is, but after having grabbed the concept, it's even more important to understand that there are no strict rules, just conventions, and that avoid notes can always be used melodically, and that in certain situations they can even be used harmonically.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mike Stern Trademark Fusion Lick

Hi guys,

I've transcribed a lick played by Mike Stern in the song 'Jean-Pierre' recorded at a live show in UmeƄ in 1996. You can hear the original lick here:
When I first heard it, I thought this is exactly what is so typical of Mike Stern's fusion playing: a lot of chromaticism and outside notes in a relentless sixteenth rhythm, resolving into some bluesy phrase. By the way, the lick is in A. There is just a bass groove being played in the background, but the implied harmony is A7/#9.

Here you can see me play along with Mike Stern and then playing the same lick slowly:

And here's the transcription:

Have fun!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

II-V-I progressions using Generic Modality Compression (GMC)

In my previous post I wrote about the concept of Generic Modality Compression (GMC) as described in the book Creative Chordal Harmony for Guitar by Mick Goodrick and Tim Miller. The wealth of material in this book may seem overwhelming because for each scale there are 10 combinations of three-part chords, and for each chord there are six voicings (you can read my review of the book if you don't know what I'm talking about).

So I thought about a way to practice some useful GMC chord voicings and their combination by concentrating on only three scales and one type of three-part chord in close voicing: I chose the dorian, altered, and the lydian scale, and I only use chords in fourths (called sus4 in the book, which is confusing because in many cases they aren't what we'd usually call a sus4 chord). The chords in fourths I simply chose because I like their sound. And I chose those three scales because they can be used to play II-V-I progressions in a major key. There are also other scales I could have chosen for playing II-V-I progressions, but the other important reason why I chose exactly those scales is the fact that they contain no avoid notes. In the book on GMC the problem of avoid notes is not discussed. In my review I wrote about this issue, so you can read some background information there. Anyway, by choosing chord scales without avoid notes we won't get into trouble.

So how did I come up with the II-V-I progressions? First, I wrote down all close GMC voicings (in fourths) for each of the three scales. I chose C major as the key, so we get D dorian, G altered, and C lydian. You can find the voicings on the left sheet below. I wrote them out for the string combinations d-g-b and g-b-e. Of course you can choose other strings too, but remember, we wanted to keep things manageable for a start. Then I combined some of the voicings to get II-V-I progressions. There are many combinations, but I wrote down six examples to get you started. You can find these examples on the other sheet below.

And this is me playing the six II-V-I examples:

Enjoy those strange sounds and do something useful with them!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book review: Creative Chordal Harmony for Guitar by Mick Goodrick and Tim Miller

As I've mentioned in my previous post, I read the new book by Mick Goodrick and Tim Miller: Creative Chordal Harmony for Guitar. In this book the authors introduce their concept of Generic Modality Compression (GMC). Since this term is not really self-explanatory (at least not for me), I was curious what it is all about.

There are actually only about 10 pages to read, the remaining pages (about 80) are examples in standard notation (no tabs). So, I've read everything, actually twice to make sure I didn't miss anything, I've looked at all the examples, and I've played through many of them. Let me first summarize what I think this book is about, and what you can find in those 90+ pages.

The basic concept is very simple and can be explained very easily. Take a heptatonic (7-note) scale and remove the root ("compression"). Now you're left with six notes. Divide these six notes into two groups of three. If you try (or if you know basic combinatorics), you'll see that there are 10 possible ways to do that. Now you have 10 pairs of three notes. Each pair, when combined, gives you all six notes of the "compressed" scale (i.e., all notes except the root). These 10 pairs of three notes can be played as three-part chords, or they can be played linearly as melodies (in any permutation, of course). That's what Generic Modality Compression is about.
So, what can you do with it? The idea is that instead of playing complete four-part or five-part-chords, you choose a chord-scale for the chord you want to play, apply the process described above, and then you play the above mentioned three-part chords (either harmonically or melodically). This will hopefully lead you to new voicings and will open up new sounds that you might not have discovered otherwise.

Let me give you an example to show you how it works in practice. If G7 is the chord over which you want to play, first choose an appropriate scale, e.g. G-mixolydian: g-a-b-c-d-e-f. If we remove the root we're left with six notes: a-b-c-d-e-f. Now we get the following 10 three-note pairs:

a-b-c * d-e-f
a-b-d * c-e-f
a-b-e * c-d-f
a-b-f * c-d-e
a-c-d * b-e-f
a-c-e * b-d-f
a-c-f * b-d-e
b-c-d * a-e-f
b-c-e * a-d-f
b-c-f * a-d-e

Each pair contains all six notes, i.e. each pair completely represents the scale apart from the root note G. You can play each of the above groups of 3 pitches as three-part chords. Note that you can use inversions and open voicings, i.e. the three-part chord a-d-f (second inversion of a D minor triad) can (and should) also be played as (from low to high)


In this way you'll get tons of three-part chords (and six voicings for each chord) to create new and unexpected sounds (and to keep you busy for a while).

Those 80 pages of the book in standard notation just contain all possible pairs of three-part chords and their inversions (close and open voicings), first for the mode C ionian (C major). After that the principle is applied to the jazz standard Stella By Starlight. For each chord in that tune, a chord scale is chosen, and the corresponding 3-part-chords are listed. You can listen to the examples on the CD, and there are also play-along tracks for you to practice. Later in the book, there are also examples for the melodic use of this concept ("Arpeggio Permuations"). This is very simple, just take the 3-part-chords from the previous pages and arrange the notes linearly, i.e. play them one after the other.

OK, that's what this book is about and what you can expect to find in it. Now I would like to make a few critical remarks. First of all, the whole GMC concept as introduced in the book is based on reducing a 7-note scale to a 6-note scale by removing the root. The motivation for removing the root appears to be the 'fact' that the root is played by the bass player, so the guitarist shouldn't bother to play it. Well, especially in a jazz context, you won't find a bass player just playing the root. Maybe the bass will play the root on the first beat of the bar (or maybe not), but anything can happen after that. If also the accompanying instruments are to be given some freedom - as is normally the case in improvised music - then all instruments are responsible for establishing the sound of the mode/chord at any given time. For this reason I think the motivation for removing the root from any 7-note scale is a bit weak. There are great sounding chords/voicings including the root (in a high register), so why not use them?

I feel that there's another problem with GMC: there is no mention of how to treat avoid notes. Avoid notes are notes in a scale which are not (traditionally) available as tensions for the related chord. E.g., if we choose C ionian (C major) as a chord scale for a Cmaj7 chord, the note F is considered an avoid note, i.e. a note which cannot be added as a tensions to the Cmaj7 chord. Consequently, if a Cmaj7 chord should be outlined using GMC, all 3-part-chords containing the note F should be avoided. But this is not done and not even mentioned in the book. Instead, all 3-part-chords containing a C are avoided, yet this is not always necessary, depending on the chord voicings played by the other instruments.

I understand that GMC restricts itself to three-part chords, but this fact is not discussed in the book. I think that 4-part chords do sound great on the guitar, and just because six notes (i.e., the compressed scale) can so beautifully be split in two groups of three notes should be no reason to leave out great sounding 4-part voicings.

Finally, while browsing through the book I got the feeling that there are too many redundant examples. E.g., all the permutations of melodic possibilities of three-part chords. I think it is obvious how to take apart a three-part chord and play its three notes linearly, in any desired sequence. The authors spend many pages on writing out all those possibilities. I would have preferred a few more pages of discussion and motivation, e.g. addressing the issues I've mentioned above (avoid notes, etc.).

On the bright side, the accompanying CD sounds great and inspires you to play through some of the examples yourself. While doing so, you will definitely discover some chord voicings which you haven't played before. What I also found inspiring was that the book showed me one more possibility to learn a tune: by figuring out all possible (three-part) voicings of the appropriate chord scales for the chord progression of the tune. This is quite some work, but it will give you a lot of freedom while playing through the changes, either harmonically or melodically. And finally, I found the book a great reading exercise. Since there are no tabs you have to read everything from standard notation. And since many of the chords are no standard triads, (sight) reading them can be quite challenging. So despite having a few critical remarks on the book's concept and its presentation, I got quite some inspiration out of it, and I discovered yet another way to study a tune.

Here a short summary:

- nice CD, some great and surprising sounds
- shows you a very thorough method to study a tune
- good reading exercise

- no mention of avoid notes
- completely disregarding the root is not sufficiently motivated
- too many pages of redundant examples, at the expense of room for discussing and motivating the concept more thoroughly
- artificial restriction to three-part chords

Also check my post on II-V-I progressions using GMC.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy 2014! And some news ...

I wish you all a great and successful New Year!

I've just returned from a trip to Austria, where I was asked to join some of my friends to play a concert at the New Year's party on the main square of Linz. It was great fun to play with people I already played with 20 years ago, and it was also great to share the stage with Johannes Forstreiter, a young Austrian drummer I hadn't met before.

Left to right: Hannes, Maalo, me, Irida, Alexandra Regenfelder

Here a photo from the soundcheck, you can see that I felt pretty cold ...

Freezing during soundcheck on the main square of Linz on New Year's Eve.

The concert went really well, even though there was no rehearsal. We just had a few skype sessions to agree on song forms, keys, and solos. I wish it was always that easy ...!

Let me also tell you what I'm currently working on. Apart from some preparations for concerts starting in February, I'm working on two things right now: I've transcribed a solo by Oz Noy and I'm currently learning to play it. Unfortunately I don't have a lot of time for this, but as soon as I feel comfortable with it, I'll record a video and I'll share the transcription with you. The other thing I did was that I finally got myself the latest book by Mick Goodrick and Tim Miller: Creative Chordal Harmony for Guitar. Everybody has been talking about their concept of "Generic Modality Compression (GMC)", and since I'm into music theory and advanced harmony I thought I should also understand what they are doing. Mick Goodrick is an accomplished guitarist and guitar teacher. He has published many books, the most famous of which is probably The Advancing Guitarist, a book I've read (and enjoyed) many years ago. To be honest, I didn't know Tim Miller, but I've checked out some of his youtube videos, and it's obvious that he's a great player from whom we can learn a lot. I'm still playing through the examples in the book, but I'll soon post a book review on this blog. So check back soon!