A-Z of music theory: S
This month Charlie Griffiths Salivates over Slides, Staccato, String Skipping, the Superlocrian Scale and Sweep picking. So don’t just Sit there!
Slide guitar is a predominantly blues based technique whereby a metal or glass tube is applied to the strings to alter their pitch, rather than fretting the notes with the fingers. The technique as we know it originated in the Mississippi Delta when players like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson used glass bottle necks placed on a fretting hand finger to essentially act as a movable fret, to create the smooth ‘portamento’ transitions between notes previously only possible on fretless stringed instruments such as the
violin. The slide can be place on any digit, but most common choices are the 3rd and 4th. Most slide players prefer a guitar with a high action to avoid accidentally fretting the note in the conventional manner. Slide playing has continued to evolve through players like Duane Allman, Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Brett Garsed and Derek Trucks.
Staccato is an Italian musical direction meaning ‘detached’ and signifies that each note of a melody or riff be played as short as possible, leaving silence in between each one. This is shown on the notation as small full-stop sized dots placed above or below the written pitch. To make staccato notes on the guitar, the most effective technique is to palm mute the strings at the bridge. Rest the soft fleshy part of the side of your hand on the strings near the bridge and pick the string to make a short, percussive note. The tone varies a lot depending on a couple of factors. First is pressure; if you press firmly on the string you may find this deadens the note too much and could even bend the string sharp. Secondly is proximity to the bridge; if your hand is too far towards the bridge, this might leave the strings open; but too far the other way, towards the pickups, might sound too percussive. Experiment with these factors until you find the staccato sound you like.
When playing single-note melodies or riffs it is natural for most guitarists to move to the adjacent string to access other notes of the scale or arpeggio you happen to be playing. String skipping is an approach whereby the adjacent string is avoided (skipped). This is usually done for two reasons, the first being in order to produce wider interval spacing. Players like Eric Johnson and Carl Verheyen often skip strings to create amazing melodies that jump around in ear-catching 6th and 7th intervals; this sounds radically different from closer scale tone playing that adjacent string shapes tend to encourage. The second reason is a technical one employed by players such as Paul Gilbert and John Petrucci as a means of avoiding two notes being played on the same fret - for example, when playing arpeggios in an alternate-picked fashion rather than using sweep picking or fingerstyle.
This scale is also known as ‘altered scale’, ‘diminished - whole tone’ and the ‘Pomeroy scale’ (after jazz trumpeter Herb Pomeroy). It’s the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale and contains the intervals R b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7. When this scale is harmonised in 3rds we can see that the natural chord type produced is a m7b5. In the jazz world Superlocrian is hardly ever used in this context, but is greatly favoured over a dominant chord (7th, 9th, 11th, 13th). This works because the b4 interval can also be thought of as the major 3rd, providing us with the core dominant 7th notes (R 3 b7). The remaining notes can be given different names and seen as the extensions: b5, #5, b9, #9. When played against a ‘functioning dominant’ chord, jazz players refer to these four intervals as ‘alterations’, hence the term ‘altered scale’.
The term sweep picking refers to the ‘sweeping’ motion of the pick over the strings. Arpeggios are perfect for sweep picking as the notes can be easily arranged ‘one note per string. When sweeping from string to string the pick moves in one continuous motion, rather than lots of down or up strokes. The fretting hand is of equal importance as it responsible for separating the notes. To achieve the ‘one note at a time’ sound it is necessary to press each consecutive string down while muting the other five. The technique relies on synchronisation of the hands if one is to emulate the likes of Jason Becker, Frank Gambale or YJ Malmsteen.
Al Di Meola famously uses a palm muted staccato sound