In this edition of Tech Talk we are going to venture into the world of music theory. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned in the trenches as a gigging musician and guitar teacher. I have no actual formal training, so all of the information was arrived at, for better or worse, by careful trial and error. This has lead to a “bag of tricks” that I’ve employed over the years. So let’s begin.
The Musical Tones
Most Western music is comprised of twelve tones or notes. I always think of them of as ingredients in a recipe. Each tone responsible for lending its flavor to the dish. To be less hippy-dippy about it, each note has a relationship with the other notes in the scale, and some are tasty when paired. Without further ado, the Chromatic Scale!
Notice the symbols [#] and [b]. These are arranged atop each other in the picture. The reason for this is to illustrate visually that they represent the same sound sonically but with two names. For example A# is the same tone as Bb. The note occupies both the half step above A and the half step below B, hence the two name approach. There’s a bit more to this, but keeping it simple, it's “tomato-tomahto.”
The Diatonic Major Scale
The Mother of all Scales in the Western Tradition, this will be the parent scale to all of the harmony concepts we are going to cover. It is constructed of seven notes of the above chromatic scale. We are going to start with the A note.
Notice the distance between the notes in the Major scale. These leaps are measured in half steps and whole steps called “intervals.” The sequence of the half and whole steps makes up the recipe from which all major scales are created. Half steps are just the note you are playing’s neighbor. Found one fret above or below the note you’re on. The Whole Step indicates that you’ve skipped one fret from your first note played. An example of a Whole Step would be from the 1st to the 3rd fret.
Here is our Diatonic Major Scale recipe:
I’ve included tabs and audio for a common Diatonic Major Scale shape in the key of A.
Application of the Major Scale
Let’s play the A major scale in some different areas of the neck.
It’s got a pretty joyful sound. Bookmark that sound in your mind. Now when you listen to music try to relate what you’re hearing to the sound of the major scale. If it is similar in sound, chances are, the tonality is Major.
Now let’s take our major scale formula of:
And make another major scale starting with the note G.
G - A - B - C - D - E - F# - G
W W H W W W H
Cool! Now we can use that concept all over the neck for Major scales in different keys. We know the recipe WWHWWWH will give us the Major scale sound. And the two octave scale diagram gives us a visual reference we can apply to any position on the neck. And so begins the quest for fretboard visualization as it relates to music theory. A topic vast as space itself.
Now that we’ve wrapped our heads around the G Major Scale, let’s try a couple neat ways to play it. In the first example (Figure 5) we are going to descend through the scale, going from a high note to a low note. Our example goes a bit further than just a theory concept, it also throws some dexterity stuff in there too! Let’s play it as a cascade. This is a term that applies to single note figures on a guitar. We will play a fretted note, slide that note down to the next note in the scale, and play an open note on an adjacent string. You pick only the 1st note and the 3rd note of the sequence. This creates a very smooth continuous sound that really shows off some of the best that a guitar has to offer.
Next example includes a slight permutation in note sequence and covers 2 octaves of the G Major scale. In addition to that, it showcases the EarthQuaker Devices Warden Compressor, to smooth the string to string dynamics, and the Transmisser resonant reverb, to bring the notes together in lush reverberation.
For our more visual learners, here's a fretboard diagram of our examples in the key of A:
And again in the key of G:
Joe Golden is a circuit builder and amp designer at EarthQuaker Devices. His touring and recording credits include Bernie Worrel (Parliament / Funkadelic, Talking Heads), Chrissy Hynde, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He currently plays guitar in the Mark Leach band and is a Fender certified amp technician. His writing has appeared in Premier Guitar. Joe lives in Akron, Ohio.