Food For thought
Every month, Justin Sandercoe of justinguitar.com lends GT his insight as one of the world’s most successful guitar teachers. This month: Using piano to expand guitar horizons - Part 2.
some things that seem complex on guitar are pretty simple when laid out in Front oF you on piano
I’m hoping you enjoyed last month’s foray into piano land and that you managed to find a little time to explore the chords, chord progressions and songs that we touched on. Of course it was just a sneaky little look but I hope it might have sparked an interest in further study.
This time I’d like to follow on and explain some ways that you can use rudimentary piano skills combined with basic theory concepts to expand your guitar horizons. I had to take piano as a second study at classical conservatoire, but had no idea how helpful it would be; it really solidified my understanding of chord and scale relationships and was massively useful when trying to get my head around modes.
Let’s start this month with playing the C Major scale: simply start by playing C (immediately left of the group of two black notes) and then play up one note at a time until you reach the next C. It should sound like the sol-fah scale: doh, ray, mi, fah, sol, lah, ti, doh. If not, you either started on the wrong note or your piano needs tuning. You can keep going and playing further octaves when we start improvising, but there’s no limit – just stick on those white notes.
The ‘proper’ right-hand fingering would be 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 with thumb being 1, first 2 and so on (obviously different for guitar), but most people find it easier just to use one fingering and when you improvise it really doesn’t matter which fingers you use (does it on guitar?) and we don’t want to always play the notes in order anyway; so feel free to jump around as much as you like (musically speaking). Here’s a piano-style keyboard with all the keys notated with their specific notes. So much simpler than guitar!
The next step is to realise that all six chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am (leaving out the pesky diminished VII ) use only the white notes and so does the C Major scale. That is why they fit so well together. So now you see that you can use the same C Major scale over a progression like C-F-G-Am-Dm-Em - it’s all one massive happy family jam.
Last lesson we played triads with our right hand and bass notes with the left. Today we’ll play triads with the left hand and scales with the right. So the triad chords will be played with little finger on the root now and middle and thumb playing the other two notes. Try playing the C chord and then experiment with the C Major scale – just mess around and see what you can do. Then move up to the D Minor chord (each note up a white note step) and carry on with your C Major experimentation.
Now move it up again, to play Em with the left hand and the same white notes with the right. Notice it sounds different once you’d stayed on that one chord a while and the notes that sound good to stop on, are now different? If not, listen out for it. The notes that create the chord are the nice ones to stop on, while the others create tension. This is how modes work - playing the C Major scale over the E Minor chord you are playing E Phyrgian mode. Sounds fancy but it wasn’t difficult was it? Move that chord up again and keep on experimenting; you’re now playing F Lydian! Impress your friends by moving the chord up to G but still using the white notes to explore the sound of G Mixolydian.
Some things that seem complex on guitar are pretty simple when laid out in front of you on piano. The next step is to change chords regularly (try the I-V-VI-IV progression) and aim to keep four chords per bar with your left hand while making up a solo using the white notes with the right. I do this regularly in workshops and many guitarists are amazed they can make up a piano solo so easily when they struggle on guitar. Try it out and it might help you unlock some ideas
More pianistic interactions from Justin