When we buy our first guitar, we are getting our hands on a tool that represents tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years of musical instrument evolution. If we traced it back through all its predecessors, we would eventually come to the first musical instrument.
Not counting the human voice, the first tool of music would have been something banged with something else. Humans would have soon realised that hitting the thing a little harder produces a slightly higher tone, and by varying these two tones, low and high, they could create grooves.
This tonal yin and yang is the root of music, and is still the fundamental element to this day.
Drum paterns have at their core a thump and a thwack (the tonal yin and yang). These two tones are produced by the bass and snare drums. Listen to what great bongo players can do with just two tones. They can get you grooving around like a person possessed.
Not only can you create different tones by hitting things harder, you can achieve the same thing by reducing the size (mass) of the struck object. Pull the skin of one of the drums a little tighter, it is made thinner (less mass), and so it sounds higher.
If you make it exactly half the mass of the other object, it will sound exactly twice the frequency (one octave higher).
When you fret a guitar string at the 12th fret you get a note that is an octave higher than the open string because you’ve halved the mass.
From the lowest tone (most mass), the open 6th string, to the highest (least mass), the first string fretted at its highest point, every note (tone) on a guitar owes its unique quality to its mass.
This means the guitar, and so too the guitarist, has a large number of available tones. So we’re being tonally spoiled for choice. As a result, we often fail to appreciate the fundamental of music; the tonal yin and yang.
So what we need to do is turn our guitars into percussive instruments, and reduce the available tones to just two.
First thing is to remove all the tones offered by the fret board. Mute them with your fretting hand, so when you pick any of the six strings, you should get only a muted ‘plunk’ sound. By picking any of the six strings soft or hard we can create 12 different tones.
But we only want two so we’re just going to use the 2nd (B) string. We’re going to use this, rather than high E, because the B string is situated between two others.
We’re going to treat our muted off B string as if it were the very first musical instrument, and by picking it soft and loud, we’re going to create basic grooves.
The point is that if we can’t get people grooving around the fire with just two tones, then what chance have we of doing it with hundreds? It’s like believing we’d be better drummers if we owned larger kits.
The reason our scales sound boring is because we never learned to groove on two tones. Instead we’re expecting the tones of the scale to do the work for us. If we replaced these tones with a single ‘plunk’, it would be, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, etc. Who can groove to that?
So let’s play our B strings softly to get ‘plunk’ sounds, and a little harder to get ‘plink’ sounds. And by mixing them up a little we’ll get, plunk plunk plink a-plunk plunk a-plink a-plink-a… or whatever (if you want to be really fancy, you can create a flange effect by slowly sliding your fretting hand up and down).
Get used to the length of the stroke needed to pick the string without over-shooting and hitting the neighbouring strings. Make it as consistent as you can.
Once we’re good at creating grooves on the one string, we can take the next step on the path of musical evolution, and add something with less mass (the high E string) to get an extra tone.
Now by picking the B string soft, we get plunk, picking it louder we get plenk, and picking the high E, we get plink.
We can then move our basic kit to a lower register, i.e., replace B and E with G and B, D and G, A and D or low E and A. Then expand the kit by adding a third string. Now we see if we can string skip while maintaining a groove.
We keep expanding until we can use all six strings of our kit in a groovy way. And then we can finally reintroduce all those juicy tones on the fret board, and our scales won’t sound boring anymore!