Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Soloing

Playing a great solo is something that every lead guitarist aspires to. It’s your chance to shine and put your own stamp on the song. Many players, especially those from the world of rock & metal, focus on technical prowess and speedy runs as a way of impressing. Whilst having a good command of technique can help you realise, on the guitar, the sounds you hear in your “mind’s ear”, it does not, in itself, guarantee that your solo will be memorable. What follows are some tips to help your soloing sound better whatever level of technique you’re comfortable with.

Think about how the notes you use relate to the chords you’re playing over:

Once you’ve got to the point of sussing out which pentatonic scale or collection of licks fit best over the backing you’re playing over, it’s tempting to just jam away without much thought. Everything sounds in tune and you can let rip, right? Well, that’s fine but if you do this, then you’ll notice that every now & then a certain note you land on will just sound somehow “sweeter” than you expected & give you that warm glow which comes with knowing you’re playing a killer solo.

Imagine being able to do that to order… that’s what note awareness can do! In this example I’m soloing over a two chord vamp of Em to A7 in a vaguely “Pink Floyd-esque” way. Now, I happen to know that the notes in an Em chord are E G & B, so whenever I hit a note which is going to be the main focus of the lick over an Em chord, it will sound best if it is one of these three notes.

Likewise, the notes in an A7 chord are A C# E & G, so when it comes to emphasising a note over this chord, those are my strong choices. You’ll notice, too, that most of the time when I land on one of these “target” notes, over either chord, I’m doing so at the beginning of the bar. Obviously, you’ll find this quite hard going if you don’t know where the notes actually are on the fretboard so here’s a little map of the notes around the 12th fret Em pentatonic position:

12th-fret-map

Click HERE to here me solo using this technique.

Think like a drummer:

When I first got into home recording I began to take more notice of what the drums were doing in songs. This was because I was having to programme my own drum parts on my trusty old Boss DR5 drum machine. The other members of the band I was in at the time also began to comment on my soloing, saying it had somehow got more “effective” (whatever that meant). It dawned on me that the reason for this was because I was now bringing a little of my new-found drumming sensibilities to my guitar playing. Take a listen to the drum track from the backing you heard me solo over earlier & see if you can spot what the drummer (albeit a virtual one) is doing. Click HERE to listen.

Did you notice that the drum pattern is pretty constant & unremarkable until, in every 4th bar, there is a bit of a fill? Try playing like this yourself – solo in a restrained manner for 3 ½ bars, then put a bit more “oomph” into the lick which sits in the last half of the 4th bar. It doesn’t need to be anything fast or flashy, it just needs to be a little more “busy” than the rest of that 4 bar section up to that point. This has the effect of creating a little tension which is then resolved when you put the brakes on at the start of the next 4 bar segment. Click HERE to listen to me doing this.

Don’t be scared of “wrong” notes:

The temptation to sit inside that comfortable little pentatonic box is very seductive. It’s almost like a medieval map of the world with uncharted areas carrying the dire warning “Here Be Monsters”. However, as you’ve already seen, sometimes it works to (quite literally) “think outside the box” – the C# note in the A7 chord from the example on note targeting springs to mind. The C# isn’t within the framework of the Em pentatonic, but because it fits the A7 chord, it is a strong choice of note to land on when playing over that chord. You can take this a stage further by using chromatic runs which contain notes that would sound horrible if you were to land on them and stay there. The point is that you’re NOT staying on them – you’re just using them to link up other “safe” notes. If you do this as part of the runs you’re using to sync with the drum fills (see previous point), this will add a little colour and further enhance the sense of tension which is then resolved when you land on a “safe” note at the start of the next 4 bar section. Click HERE to listen to me doing this.

Play to your strengths:

In no particular order here are my five favourite guitarists:

  1. Gary Moore
  2. Joe Satriani
  3. Mark Knopfler
  4. Barney Kessel
  5. Jeff Beck

Now, what makes them all sound unique? It’s the fact that they all play differently! It sounds obvious when you say it like that, but it’s true – they each have certain techniques they are renowned for which define their individual styles of playing. Think about it, have you ever heard Gary Moore finger-tapping? What about Jeff Beck rattling off a string of Yngwie-type sweep picked arpeggios? Can you imagine Mark Knopfler slithering around the frets in a Satch-style legato fashion?

You get my point. To be a great guitarist, you don’t have to be able to do everything that every other great guitarist does. No-one is better at being you than you are, so find out which techniques you find the most comfortable and practice the living daylights out of those: develop them and hone them until you can cover any musical situation.

Here’s an example: I found out pretty early on that fast alternate picking was one of my weaknesses. I can do it, and I can even teach the techniques necessary to develop it – it all boils down to certain exercises which you need to practice rigorously to a metronome. However, I will always look for another way of playing something which calls for this particular technique.

In the ’80s I was in a rock band which was doing a cover of Gary Moore & Phil Lynnot’s “Out In The Fields” and there is that infamous run in the middle of the solo, where Gary fast-picks like a man possessed. This was beyond me so I sought an alternative. I knew the scale he was using; I knew where the run started and I knew where it finished, so I used a technique I was comfortable with (legato) to concoct a run of the correct length & speed which began & ended in the right places. Because my legato technique is pretty well developed (it’s one of my “comfort-zone” techniques that I’d developed & honed), I could add the necessary “percussive/aggressive” quality to the run by palm-muting with my right hand even when using hammer-ons, pull-offs & slides. The proof of the pudding was when one punter at a gig said he’d seen two or three bands do that song, but I was the only guitarist who nailed the solo! I didn’t feel it necessary to let on that I’d actually cheated. So there you have it, develop what you’re good at and build your style of playing around it. As I said… play to your strengths & don’t get too hung up on your weaknesses.

Understand what you play:

If there’s one piece of advice I would give which (to my mind) is more valuable than any other it would be this: make sure you know not only what does or doesn’t work but WHY this is the case. Music theory can be a daunting subject & it’s true that there is a heck of a lot of it. But here’s the rub – you don’t have to know it all immediately. As you’ve seen earlier, knowing which notes are in the chords you’re playing over can help you sound melodic & tuneful, so getting a little bit of knowledge about chord construction can help with this. You’ll also, as a by-product, learn a little about harmony which is useful if you want to work out some backing vocals or twin lead guitar parts. If you know about how chords are put together, sooner or later you’ll stumble on key theory, which then leads to learning about modes, which puts more notes under your fingers when you’re soloing etc. etc…

The point is that if you learn one, seemingly isolated, bit of theory to deal with a particular situation, it will usually lead somewhere else: it can be built on, in other words. All you need is an inquisitive mind and a desire to understand. Before you know where you are, you’ll have amassed a wealth of knowledge, one little piece at a time and you’ll truly understand what you’re doing. The sense of freedom you feel on the neck is liberating – no more “forbidden zones” on certain parts of the neck; no more wondering if that cool lick you learned will work in your big solo; no more thinking “I’d love to play that song, but I don’t understand what [insert name of favourite guitarist] is doing.”

Imagine ridding yourself of those kind of shackles! That is what understanding music theory can do & the best bit is, it’s FUN to learn – you’ll see, in a matter of months, progress you’d think would take years to achieve. Find a good book on the subject – I recommend “The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists” by Joseph Alexander or, better still, find a good local teacher to help you on your journey (if you live on Teesside see the link to my website, below), and watch your playing take off.

Until next time, here’s a backing track to jam over using the techniques discussed (click HERE)

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

Building A Tune From The Ground Up

Part 2: The Melody

In my last blog post I recounted the process of putting a chord progression together for a piece of music I’d been commissioned to write for a wedding. If you missed that post, you can click HERE to see what I did. Now it’s time to look at how the melody was knocked into shape. Before we go any further, let’s get one important thing out of the way… In the past I have caught a lot of flack for my music theory based approach to composition. There are those who say music should be based on emotion & feeling, and that the rule book has no place in the writing process. However I do not see any conflict between an understanding of the architecture of music, and being able to organise it’s elements – rhythm, harmony & melody – into an expression of emotion. Quite the contrary, I would say that the more knowledge you have; the greater your understanding of the mechanics of music, the easier you will find it to articulate whatever it is you seek to express. You will know exactly which combination of notes, rhythm & harmony to use to achieve your desired result & you’ll be able to do it instantly without waiting for the universe to deliver the necessary inspiration. Music is an art and those who create it are artisans whose craft is one that can be quantified. The idea that creativity is hampered by knowledge is a fallacy. So there!

Anyway, the very first thing I do when writing a melody is to put the guitar down. Whatever instrument you are most at home on, I’d recommend you stay away from it when it comes to composing any kind of melody or riff. There are simply too many familiar shapes and patterns that your fingers will naturally fall into which will make it tricky to come up with anything new and original. I always compose a new melody using the piano roll view in my DAW software: a grid with the bar lines & individual beats along the horizontal axis and the ascending notes of the chromatic scale on the vertical axis. Click the mouse on a C# note (for example) and it appears as a coloured square on the grid. Then just drag & drop it to wherever you want it to be in relation to the beats of the bar and, stretch it to the required duration. Doing this for each note means I can write something without having to pick up the guitar and potentially just rattle off all my favourite licks as I search for that elusive new melody.

So… on to the nuts & bolts of writing a melody. What’s the most important component? The notes? Well, they ARE very important, but there’s something even more vital to get right: the phrasing. Even the most well chosen notes won’t guarantee you’ll end up with a memorable tune if you don’t get the phrasing correct. So what exactly does “phrasing” mean? Well, the phrasing is the rhythm that the notes are played in: it is the “shape” of the melody, if you like. Getting this element right will ensure that your finished tune has a well defined hook and will draw the listener in. Here’s how I usually start out…

The first thing I’d recommend is to avoid beginning on the 1st beat of the bar. If you come in at the start of bar 1, it is likely to sound a little pedestrian. The best thing, I find, is to begin the first phrase of a melody towards the end of the count-in bar, preferably on the off-beat. If you’re playing in 3/4 time (as I was for this piece) the count-in will be “1 & 2 & 3 &”. I chose to place my first note on the “and” of beat two and go from there. Each subsequent phrase in the verse melody then also begins on the “and” of one of the beats, as you can see from the phrasing map below. Each highlighted part of the count represents a note in the melody & you can see the phrases plotted in relation to the overall “pulse” of the music.

A Waltz In Purple (verse phrasing map)

Additionally, notice that all but two of the phrases end on an “and” too. This practice of beginning & ending each little melodic segment on the off-beat is a well used, tried & tested method put to good use by artists & composers as diverse as The Foo Fighters, Charles Mingus, Beethoven and Chuck Berry. It may be a formula, but using it doesn’t mean you’ll sound formulaic.

The two phrases which DON’T end on the off-beat (phrases 3 & 6), conclude on the “one” of the 4th & 8th bars. Again we come across another tried & tested compositional trick: the 4 bar cycle. The vast majority of songs, in a wide range of genres, that I have put under the microscope in over two decades of teaching music for a living, have all been based around four bar stanzas. Placing some phrasing variation at the end of every 4 bar segment of the tune (in this case by finishing on the down-beat, rather than the off-beat) is a great way of punctuating the melody in the appropriate places. It’s a bit like a comma separating two lines of lyrics in a couplet. Once the “shape” of the melody has been sculpted you can take all sorts of liberties with the actual note choices from verse to verse, and it will still sound like the same basic melody, albeit with some variations. This would prove to be useful when I got to the final verse in the piece, which you’ll know from the previous post, has an entirely different chord sequence, necessitating radically different note choices. It is the phrasing which provides the continuity, keeping the verses all sounding basically like verses, when doing this sort of thing.

Right, that’s the phrasing for the verse sorted out, so how about some notes then… Well, this is the easy part. Simply look at the note content of each chord in the progression, and make sure that the most prominent notes in the melody – the ones which last the longest & those that conclude each phrase, are notes found in the underlying chord at any given time. Then, it’s little more than a game of “join-the-dots” – just link these “target” notes together, using the phrasing “shape” discussed earlier, with notes taken from the appropriate scale. Here is the verse chord sequence, showing the notes each chord contains as well as which I targeted as the prominent one for the chord in question:

G (G+B+D) target = G

D (D+F#+A) target = F#

Em (E+G+B) target = G

C (C+E+G) target = E

G (G+B+D) target = B

Bm (B+D+F#) target = D

F (F+A+C) target = A

D (D+F#+A) target = D

These notes, and those connecting them together were arrived at, as I said earlier, by dragging & dropping mouse-click generated notes in my DAW. The melody didn’t arrive fully formed in my head, by any means, I crafted it. There was much experimentation with different target notes for each chord; different routes from note to note – ascending vs. descending; whether to play the target note in the same octave as the previous one, or to go to a higher or lower register etc. etc. Eventually, I ended up with this melody. Click HERE to listen & refer to the notation to see it.

AWIP-verse-melody

So that’s the verse sorted, then. How about the chorus? Well, it’s essentially the same process: Come up with a different phrasing map – something which contrasts with what was used in the verse. Then populate that outline with notes: prominent notes should be those taken from the underlying chord, and the “connective tissue” is simply made up from notes taken from the appropriate scale in relation to the whole chord sequence. If you’re not sure which scale is the correct one for the progression you’re composing over, then simply find the chord which provides the whole thing it’s sense of finality & resolution – the chord which makes the sequence sound “at rest” or “finished”. Then find the pentatonic scale which matches this chord, and you now have a scale which will work. For example, the tonality of the chorus I’m writing here is G major, so most of my notes used to link the “target” notes (the prominent notes in the melody, chosen for their presence in the chord which underpins that moment in the tune) come from the G major pentatonic scale. If you need any help with pentatonic scales & how to identify & locate them, click HERE for a free one hour instructional video.

Anyway, here’s the phrasing map I used for the chorus:

A Waltz In Purple (chorus phrasing map)

And here is the melody I crafted based on that basic rhythmic shape. Click HERE to listen & refer to the notation below:

AWIP-chorus-melody

Notice that although the phrasing is somewhat different to the verse, it still has many of the same attributes: Beginning on the off-beat; most phrases ending on the off-beat; a phrasing variation in the 4th & 8th bars.

So, there you have it – a verse and a chorus melody written for the tune. What I then had to do was transpose what I’d written into the different keys required for each part of the piece, and come up with ways of presenting the melody each time I played it – where to use hammer-ons, slides, string bends etc & improvising around the melody in places, just to add some more variety. Then it was a case of learning the whole thing from beginning to end & improvising a solo for the middle section. It is at this final stage, once I’m totally comfortable with everything that I can let the theory go, and think about the emotional aspect of the performance. Like a poet giving a recital of their work, they have to memorise the lines before they can begin to think about delivering them in a convincing way. You need to understand grammar & spelling to write, but it doesn’t mean that it’s uppermost in your mind during the performance. In music we have the equivalent of linguistic grammar & spelling – it’s called music theory, and understanding it will only serve to help you write and perform to a higher standard.

In case you didn’t catch the last entry in this blog, here’s the finished tune, featuring the melodies we’ve been discussing.

Until next time, have fun!

John Robson

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project

Building A Tune From The Ground Up

Part 1: The Chord Progression

A couple of friends of mine are getting married next year & they asked me if I would play at the wedding. Without really thinking about it I offered to write a piece especially for the event, and so I found myself with a new commission.

I decided to try writing a waltz, as I’ve never done anything like this before & it seemed appropriate for the occasion. So… where to begin? Well, it’s a wedding so “happy” is the vibe to go for which means a big, major key tonality. No twisted jazz altered-dominant shenanigans allowed, and definitely no spooky locrian mode nonsense. Well, we’ll see…

In the end, I decided to start off simple, and came up with a fairly run-of-the-mill chord sequence as the basis for the verse:

|G / / |D / / |Em / / |C / / |

|G / / |Bm / / |F / / |D / / |

I usually like to have the whole chord progression in the bag before I tackle writing a melody, as I find this makes writing the melody so much easier. So, the next job on the list was to figure out what I was going to do for the chorus. One little trick I’m quite fond of is to set out the chord which gives the whole sequence a sense of finality or focus (in this case G major), and place it some way into the sequence rather than right at the beginning, thus building up the suspense a little as I work my way towards it. This is a very effective way to keep the listener interested & engaged in the music, much like a storyteller keeping you wondering what’s going to happen next. There are many ways to “steer” a chord progression toward a point you want to finish up on & if you need some advice on this kind of thing, you can download a comprehensive free guide on the mechanics of chord progressions (including audio examples) by clicking HERE.

Anyway, here’s the chorus chord sequence I ended up with (I couldn’t resist that cheeky little diminished chord, by the way). The G major chord is the focus of what’s going on but, as you can see, it only makes a couple of appearances for half a bar at a time. Never the less, it IS the chord around which everything else is in orbit. Try playing the sequence and end on any of the other chords involved, then try ending it on the G & you should hear that this is very definitely the chord which ties up all the loose ends and gives it a sense of focus.

|C D |Em D |C G/B |Am |C D |G A7 |C C#dim |D7 |

Anyway, now we have a verse and a chorus, so what next? Well an intro is also on the “to do” list, so I decided to tackle that next. When in doubt, I always tend to fall back on the good old I VI II V sequence. In G major this would mean G Em Am & D. Trying this seemed OK, but not quite what I was hearing in my head. So I turned the G into Gmj7; the Em into E7 & subsequenty into a G#diminished (a close relative of E7 – just change the E note in E7 to an F & you have a G# diminished); then Am becomes Am7 & D turns into D7.

Playing this few times as a prelude to the verse, everything seemed OK, but still not exactly what I was looking for. The problem was that it needed some kind of “lift” as it went into the verse. A key change seemed in order then. It made sense to keep the verse and chorus in G major, and put the intro into a different key so this is what I did. To provide the necessary “drama” I went for a key as distant from the existing G major as I could get – Db major, and simply transposed the G major intro chord sequence to the new key. This gave me a progression of:

|Dbmj7/ / |Ddim / / |Ebm7 / / |Ab7 / / |

|Dbmj7/ / |Ddim / / |Ebm7 / / |Ab7 / / |

The final chord of Ab7 is just as effective (as the D7 would have been) as a way of going to the G chord at the start of the verse due to it containing the same Gb – C interval as found in the D7. Using a replacement chord in this way (known as a “tritone” substitution) is a ploy often used in jazz and blues when a little more drama is needed from a dominant 7th chord – simply replace your existing 7th chord with the one found 6 frets away. Playing this new version of the intro immediately before the verse worked perfectly: a nice way of introducing the main body of the tune with a real sense of “stepping up” when the tune begins in earnest.

What’s next, then? Well it’s about time I started putting some kind of running order together. We begin (naturally) with the intro, then a fairly quiet & restrained verse followed by another with a little more “oomph” to it. Then we have the 1st chorus followed by the original, G major, version of the intro acting as a buffer before the next verse. In order to achieve the same sense of lift when emerging from the intro into the verse, I reversed the orginal key change strategy from earlier. This meant that verse 3 modulates from G major to the key of Db major, giving this chord sequence:

|Db / / |Ab / / |Bbm / / |Gb / / |Db / / |Fm / / |B     |Ab / / |

Which takes us into the 2nd chorus, also in Db.This is just a straight transposition of the chord progression from the 1st chorus which gives this chord chart:

|Gb Ab |Bbm Ab |Gb Db/F |Ebm |Gb Ab |Db Eb7 |Gb Gdim |Ab7 |

Following this we have another chorus with pretty much the same chords, with the exception of the ending which I changed to lead the tune into the middle section…

I wanted to include an improvised guitar solo, so it was important to come up with a progression that would compliment a more “free form” section. I took a leaf out of Joe Satriani’s book here and went for a modal approach. I’ve always loved the sound of the lydian mode, so this is what I decided to use. Now, the lydian mode is what you get if you take a major key and re-orientate it around it’s 4th note. In the key of F major (which is where I’d decided to begin the solo), the 4th degree is Bb, so I laid down a bass line centred around a Bb note, then “hung” some chords from the key of F major over the top of it, giving the following progression:

|Bb / / |C/Bb / / |F/Bb / / |Bb / / |

Then, also inspired by Satch, I modulated this sequence up a minor 3rd resulting in this part:

|Db / / |Eb/Db / / |Ab/Db / / |Db / / |

Deciding that this sounded pretty good, I went up another minor 3rd for the next 4 bars:

|E / / |F#/E / / |B/E / / |E / / |

Spotting that another ascending minor 3rd modulation would take me back to my original G major tonality, I decided to go in this direction. Just for a change though, I went into an ionian/mixolydian mode sequence with the following chords:

|G / / |Em / / |F C |D (pause)|

After all the excitement of the solo, I thought it wise to return to the verse to calm things down a bit. Taking me there, I used the G major version of the intro again. When it came to writing this 4th verse, I first of all tried the same chord progression from verses 1 & 2, but this sounded a little mundane, so a re-write of the chord part seemed in order for this segment. One type of chord progression I’ve always been a sucker for is the descending bass line “Whiter Shade Of Pale” sequence, so I took this and modified it slightly.

Here’s what I came up with – notice the Eb chord, not a chord you’d normally associate with something in a G major tonallity, but it IS found in various modes of G minor. This means it can be used in a G major context as a way of adding a little minor key pathos – a trick used by Radiohead in the song “Creep” and Bryan Adams in “Everything I Do” among many other exmples…

|G / / |D/F# / / |F / / |C/E / / |G / / |C / / |Eb / / |D / / |

To round the tune off it’s back to the chorus again, in G major this time, then into Eb for the 2nd time through. Again, just a modulation to a fairly distant key centre to add a sense of drama & excitement to proceedings. Then for the final time through the chorus, I modulated once more to continue the feeling of building up to a climax. This time I went up from Eb to Gb major with an ascending minor 3rd segment at the end culminating in a G7 chord which resolves into the intro chord progression once again, in C major this time. Here’s the final three chorus parts and the ending:

Final chorus #1

|C D |Em D |C G/B |Am / / |C D |G A7 |Dm7 Fm/D |Bb7/ / |

Final chorus #2

|Ab Bb |Cm Bb |Ab Eb/G |Fm / / |Ab Bb |Eb F7 |Ab Cdim |Db7/ / |

Final chorus #3

|B Db |Ebm Db |B Gb/Bb |Abm / / |B Db |Gb Ab7 |B Cdim |Db7/ / |

|E7 / / |G7 / / |

Final version of the intro section

|Cmj7 / / |C#dim / / |Dm7 / / |Db7b9 / / |

|Cmj7 / / |C#dim / / |Dm7 / / |Db7b9 / / | (end on) Gbmj7

Notice that tritone substitution again? Instead of placing a G7 at the end of the 4 bar intro cycle, I used a Db7 with an added D note, borrowed from the original G7, giving a Db7b9 chord. So much for avoiding any twisted altered dominant shenanigans, eh? Finally, as one last little twist, I used the same modulation idea as I employed at the beginning of the 1st verse by going to the key of Gb major (instead of the expected C major) for the final chord.

So there you have it, a completed chord progression for the wedding tune. This is largely what I stuck to, although there were a couple of places where I added another subtle chord substitution or two, however they’re not really significant in terms of the overall structure, so I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until I saw it all mapped in this way that I began to realise just how complex the whole thing had got. I guess I was just so engrossed in each little part, as I was writing it, that I lost sight of how much detail was in the bigger picture. The next job was put the track together in my DAW and come up with a lead guitar part to sit on top of it all. How I went about doing this will be the subject of my next blog, but for now, here’s a preview of the finished tune, melody included, as I will be playing it on the big day. Ladies and gentlemen, I present… “A Waltz In Purple.”

 

Until next time… have fun!

John.

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