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Answers to your musical and theoretical issues.
On The Turn Dear Theory Godmother
I’ve been concentrating on playing Pentatonic blues recently, and can usually come up with something half-decent, given a following wind and the correct planetary alignment. But the one area that still needs work is the turnaround. When I hear players like Clapton, SRV and Robben Ford play, they sound right on the money, but when I reach that part in a blues I sound meandering and a little bit lost. I wonder if you have any tips for how I could learn to focus my efforts a bit more, and deliver some turnaround licks that really sound positive?
In a turnaround of a 12-bar blues the chord changes come relatively thick and fast compared to the rest of the sequence (see Ex 1). So if you’re using the straight Minor Pentatonic scale over the top, it probably isn’t quite enough to do the same job as the players you mention. The best way to sound positive and on topic when playing over any arrangement is to quote chord tones. This way, you tie the melody in to the harmony so that everything appears connected; the problem with the Minor Pentatonic is that it doesn’t quite go far enough, as it doesn’t have quite enough notes in it. Let’s look at a blues in A; over this, you’d be using the A Minor Pentatonic scale (see Ex 2), containing the notes: A C D E G. This represents the root, b3rd, 4th, 5th and b7th of A. If we look at the A7 chord you’d be using these notes over, we find the following: A7 = A C# E G
1 3 5 b7 If you compare scale with chord, you can see straight away that we can do a fairly good job of outlining the chord in the melody line, because we’ve got a lot of tones available which are common to both. Moving on to the next chord, which would be D7, we’re again not too badly off in terms of reference points: D7 = D F# A C. But when we reach the V chord, we’re a little short: E7 = E G# B D.
Only two notes in A Minor Pentatonic are present – D and E – and these are just root and b7th, so the opportunity to outline the chord in the melody is all but lost. Without the ability to quote from the harmony in your solo, the chances are that things will sound random and directionless. This is why players like Robben Ford will expand the Minor Pentatonic to include more chord tones so that all chords can be represented in their melodic lines. In order for you to hear what I mean, I’ve written out a blues turnaround melody that uses only the chord tones and you should be able to hear that it sounds far more relevant (Ex 3). Incidentally, if you think that Ex 3 sounds like a bass line you’d be right – now you know what they’ve been up to all these years!
Of course, we wouldn’t just use chord tones, but they are essential aural landmarks that tell the audience where you are in the sequence and a lot about where you’re headed, too. I suggest that you begin by expanding your scale vocabulary to include the Major Pentatonic as well (Ex 4: A B C#E F#). This will help fill in a few blanks and if you keep playing the arpeggios of the chords you should be focusing on, you’ll get the sound in your head and quoting from them should begin to happen naturally.
Digital Dilemma Dear Theory Godmother
I hope you won’t mind a question from a fumble-fingered beginner with fingers like a pack of disobedient chipolatas! It regards the fingering for chords; in most music books, the fingering for Em, E, C, G and so on is pretty consistent, but occasionally, I’ve come across songs that recommend you play something slightly different. For instance, take G: sometimes it’s shown like ‘Exhibit A’, my rather crude enclosed drawing, but the other day I saw it shown as ‘Exhibit B’. Is anything set in stone here? Or are we expected to amend and adapt chord fingerings to make changing between them as smooth as possible?
I’ve reproduced the chords you drew in Ex 5. Both are fully working versions of G major; the only difference is that the second one has the D on the second string instead of an open B (G B D F).
So we end up with similar notes, differently distributed, that’s all. You are right in thinking that the fingering for chords isn’t necessarily set in stone and may alter slightly depending on the context – where you’ve just come from and where you’re going to next. So feel free to adopt and adapt as necessary!
Alternative Tuning Trouble Dear Theory Godmother
I’ve recently been retuning my acoustic guitar to some alternative tunings and have come across a problem. The book I’m using has an open G tuning as D G D G B D, but surely this is some kind of D tuning? Why not tune the bass string to G and the A to B? I think it’s possible that I’m missing the obvious here, but to me, it doesn’t make sense as it stands.
Mike The reason why this tuning is referred to as an open G is because all the notes within the basic G major triad are present (G B D); it’s just that the G bass note is on the fifth string and the open sixth string is the 5th (D). The alternative you suggest would involve tuning the bass string up a b3rd to G, putting additional tension in the string and on the guitar neck. Moving the A to B is a little less dramatic, but it’s still going the wrong way in terms of guitar and string health. Most tunings involve dropping the strings in pitch, as reducing the tension is potentially less harmful to both the guitar neck and string life. If you try the open G suggested in your book, I’m sure you’ll find that it sounds more like G than it does D in context, and that’s really all that matters! So treat the fifth string as your G bass note, and hear how lovely any D chord sounds when you play it with that rich and sonorous open D bass note.