David Mead addresses your technical, musical and theoretical issues.
The Picking Alternative Dear Theory Godmother
I made a decision last year to use strict alternate picking as much as possible, partly inspired by the picking styles of Steve Morse and John Petrucci. So I favour downstrokes on down beats, up strokes on 8th note up beats (including regular off beat reggae rhythms), down/up/down/up for on beat 16th groups etc. The upside is, I feel my time keeping is better and note clarity is more uniform. Thing is, when there is, say, an 8th note push into a beat or the next bar, should I use a down stroke to add punch, rather than a ‘correct’ up stroke?
John As with all the ‘rules’ alternate picking is a discipline that’s open to interpretation. You’re right in the approach you’ve outlined, where downstrokes are placed on the stronger parts of the beat (see Ex 1); but there will be times when it becomes advantageous to modify the down/up approach to suit the nature of the music you’re playing at the time. For instance, in Ex 2 you’ll see a standard alternate picking approach to dealing with triplets. If you play through it, you’ll hear that the beginning of the beats where an upstroke occurs isn’t as well defined as it would be when using a downstroke. The trouble is, the ‘up/ down’ principle doesn’t sit well with odd numbers so I generally advise people to use the ‘down/up/down’ approach outlined in Ex 3 on each beat. Of course, this depends on what you’re playing and the speed required.
In the instance that you mention where a beat is anticipated, I’d be inclined to use a downstroke for added emphasis, as an upstroke will sound weaker (Ex 4). You’ll find that certain riffs benefit from all downstrokes, too, due to the added dynamics on offer.
To summarise, keep practising using alternate picking because it will increase your clarity and timing, as you have already found. But keep an open mind when considering certain musical passages - if the added emphasis from using a downstroke would add a little fire to the proceedings, then don’t be afraid to use one. It might even be a good idea to bear in mind the old adage “first learn the rules and then learn how to break them”!
Jazz Notes? Dear Theory Godmother
I wonder if you could explain to me why all the guys I know who are studying jazz keep going on about the altered scale. A few of them have tried to tell me what it is and why they are playing it, but to me it sounds so dissonant that I can’t imagine ever using it. I’m always keen to learn new sounds to use in my playing, but this one has got me stumped as to why I should dedicate time to learning it.
Paul One of the characteristics of any jazz style that had its origins in the bebop era of the 1940s and 50s, is that musicians will play ‘outside’ the scale. That is to say that they’ll employ the chromatic tones that fall in between those of any standard scale, such as the major scale. If we go looking for those notes we find that there are five: the b9, #9, b5, #5 and b7 (see Ex 5). These are the notes that will give a solo that distinctive jazz sound, so naturally a lot of emphasis is placed on learning where they are on the fretboard and, most importantly, what they sound like. As luck would have it, there’s a scale that contains all of them and it’s known as the altered scale, or the ‘altered dominant’ scale (Ex 6).
The altered dominant contains the root, b9, #9, 3rd, b5, #5 and b7 and is very similar to the Locrian mode, so you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as the ‘Superlocrian’ or as the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale.
So much for the definition, how does it sound? Well, if you play through it with no accompaniment it sounds a bit ugly, to say the least. But if you take a basic jazz chord arrangement like the infamous II V I (in F that would be Gm7, C7 and F) and play the altered scale over the V chord (that is, the C altered dominant over the C7 - see Ex. 6) you’ll be able to hear the effect it has and will agree it’s on its way to becoming ‘jazz’.
Naturally jazz musicians don’t merely play the scale, as it wouldn’t be telling the whole story, in the same way as just playing the major scale up and down over the I chord would sound directionless and boring. Instead, they quote from it, often using it to link together melody notes chromatically to add colour, tension and resolution to a solo. As with anything, used skilfully in the hands of a master it will sound perfectly musical - and sometimes even magical. But even the masters had to start somewhere when they chose to go musically ‘off road’, and the altered scale is the perfect vehicle for exploring this new terrain. So, if you want to add a little jazz texturing to your playing, the altered scale is not one to omit from your practice routine. As I have said, it’s a mode of the melodic minor scale so if that has already taken up residence on your guitar’s fretboard, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find fingerings for the altered dominant all over the guitar, as your fingers will already know it.
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