Musical Snobbery

Flattering musical snobs is a great way to sound conventional. In other words unoriginal and boring.

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The wonderful thing about a website like Ultimate-Guitar.com is that the exchange of musical ideas is almost instantaneous worldwide. Some ideas may have more merit than others. But in any community there will always be individuals that feel that their ideas, opinions, likes, and dislikes are infallible. Its called snobbery and it exists in the music world too.

What is sad is that music is a creative endeavor. Creativity involves an evaluation of how things are done and doing it just a little bit differently. This exploration process can be fraught with hundreds of failures before you finally get things the way you want them. Think back over the last fifty years of music history and some of the changes that took place.

When the Beatles broke conventional rules regarding chord progressions and lyrics, that was creativity and we still hear those influences today. When Jimi Hendrix ignored the rulebook regarding equipment and used a wah-wah, octavia, and/or fuzz face that was creativity and most guitarist use some type at least one of these effect to this day. When Eddie Van Halen took cheap guitar parts and with a chisel carved out his brown sound, popularized tapping, and whammy bar stunts with a locking tremelo, that was creativity and we still have frankenstrats to this day. When Kurt Cobain took cheap guitar equipment, ignored conventional wisdom regarding looking like a rock star, lightning fast guitar solos, and songs about sex, drugs and rock and roll, that was creative and completely changed the music scene.

But when you start to get creative someone is bound to tell you how you are doing it all wrong. They will tell you that you can't sound heavy on an acoustic guitar. Travis Meeks from Days of the New obviously didn't get that memo. They will tell you that you have to have a bass player in order to have a rock band. Jack White from the White Stripes must have missed that memo. They will tell you that you have to sign with a big record company to have any sort of career. Someone needs to let Ian MacKaye of Fugazi know that he hasn't had a musical career for the last twenty years.

The examples are endless but what I am getting at here is that you often have to throw out convention to arrive at something unconventional. In my last article I talked about the Circle of Fifths and showed you an unconventional way to memorize it by utilizing your fretboard. In this article I'm going to show you some improvisational tools that I developed from being able to visualize the Circle of Fifths on the guitar.

Conventional patterns are the bane of originality. One way to get out of patterns is to start thinking about the music you are playing over and the notes you are going to add to it. If I asked you to write a solo over a I IV V pattern in C you might roll your eyes and whip out C major scale or an A minor pentatonic and start putting together some licks while cursing my lack of originality. By the time you are finished it might even sound good. But would it sound good and original?

I am using the I IV V pattern in C as an example because A.) Of how common it is B.) To simplify this lesson, and C) To force you to be creative with a very unoriginal chord progression. If we look at this progression we see that the chords C, F, and G are used. If I just play around on the C major scale (C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C) I might play a few licks that sound like keepers. But if I listen to the chords I'll notice that the notes that sound really melodic are a part of the underlying chord. For example, C sounds really good over the C chord because it is the root of that chord (C-E-G). It also sounds good over F because it is the fifth of that chord (F-A-C). But when G is played (G-B-D), C creates a little tension and our ears want to be released from that tension. We call that resolving in music. The C resolves if the next chord is C or F.

This can be desirable depending on what you are trying to say. For instance, you can create a little tension by playing C over the G chord and holding it until the progression resolves to F or C. This is a really great effect because it's like grabbing the listener's ear and forcing them to listen to you until you release them by resolving.

Knowing this we can start to expand our vocabulary of notes that we can grab. For instance, when I go to F maybe I can grab a Bb. Bb isn't even in the C major scale but it is in the F major scale (you know this because of the Circle of Fifths). By doing this I am flavoring the F chord with its parent scale. Over the G maybe I can grab the F#. The thing that is a little different is to listen to the underlying music and see if you can grab some extra notes that are outside of the typical scale.

I love to do this in the middle of solos. Just when the listener starts to get bored with something that sounds clich, hit them with these ear-bending notes. It is like taking the listener a little off the beaten path melodically and showing them something a little different and then bringing them back.

Personally I like to resolve to the fifth of the next chord. To my ear it sounds more in the pocket. So if I am playing over F, I might emphasize Bb. If the next chord is C, I usually resolve to G as opposed to C. The going from Bb to G just sounds better to my ears. But don't let me be the one to stop you from finding other notes to resolve to. Also, don't limit this to I IV V progressions. Try this out over other progressions too.

Someone is bound to post a comment about this article and say, "You are just playing such and such a mode or such and such a scale." In one sense that is true but this article is more about listening the to chords and notes. By playing this way you will start listening to chords and how notes sound over them and less about patterns and scales. Because it is different you will be accused of all kinds of things like not being a musician. To the musical snobs way of thinking if it wasn't their idea or you aren't doing things the conventional way or the easier way than their infallible opinion is you are a moron. They said the same thing about the Beatles, Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and Kurt Cobain. You're in good company.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Gatrie
    Hey, excellent advises. We creatists, got the spirits of the Great Ones behind us! ;D
    Guismo
    Hey man, yes I use this tool (circle of fith )since 1987. This is definitively the simples way to learn harmony. But, I realize your tool is not complete: to you have the inner circle : the minor and diminish ? belleygu@hotmail.com
    rokstar666
    i just read your article on the circle of 5ths (an irrelevant statement perhaps lol). good to see an example of the application of the circle. and i agree it is important to b creative even when soloing over what might be considered an overused progression. i liked this article
    pookieismydog
    You are on the right path here... But... I am not trying to be the Music Police but since you are talking theory I thought I would chime in. When you grab the Bb over F or F# over G, they work because they are part of the F or the G scale. Keep in mind that scales are chords and chords are scales. And, depending on which notes you play and when you play them allows you create or release the tension or dissonence. So, you really aren't doing anything that is unconventional here. This is more like you are inviting people to explore their musical boundaries. The way I see it is your audience always want chords to be resolved with roots & harmonies with a heavy emphasis on 3rds & 7ths during the solo(s). Use this to your advantage. You can use 11th & 13th without aggravating the base chords. Too really spice up your sound start incorporating some altered tones: b9, #4, #5... Just be sure not to over do it or you will lose your audience. Thanks for the article
    markdirt
    I agree with your article completely; the unconventional often brings out fresh and original work. It does weaken your article, however, to namedrop The Bealtes, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen. None of these artists were original in the sense that they recycled the same blues scales that black musicians had been using for decades.
    ProgIsGood
    I agree with your article completely; the unconventional often brings out fresh and original work. It does weaken your article, however, to namedrop The Bealtes, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen. None of these artists were original in the sense that they recycled the same blues scales that black musicians had been using for decades.
    I do agree that the pentatonics are overused on guitar, however think about what you just said. That these musicians are lacking originality because they are using the same scales as previous musicians. Wouldn't that mean that everyone for the past 1000 years or so is unoriginal for using the same major and minor scales. Also, modes were used long even before that, so weare kinda outta luck aren't we?
    Imago Dei
    pookieismydog wrote: You are on the right path here... But... I am not trying to be the Music Police but since you are talking theory I thought I would chime in. When you grab the Bb over F or F# over G, they work because they are part of the F or the G scale. Keep in mind that scales are chords and chords are scales. And, depending on which notes you play and when you play them allows you create or release the tension or dissonence. So, you really aren't doing anything that is unconventional here. This is more like you are inviting people to explore their musical boundaries. The way I see it is your audience always want chords to be resolved with roots & harmonies with a heavy emphasis on 3rds & 7ths during the solo(s). Use this to your advantage. You can use 11th & 13th without aggravating the base chords. Too really spice up your sound start incorporating some altered tones: b9, #4, #5... Just be sure not to over do it or you will lose your audience. Thanks for the article
    Musical theory is always about perspective. Yep, the notes I mentioned work because of they are part of the underlying scale associated with the chord that is being played. An argument could be made the whatever scale I am playing is really just a harmonic construct within the orchestration. blah blah... My point was to try and get guitarists to start to think about the music they are playing over as opposed to just throwing licks over chord progressions. I appreciate your recommendations regarding 11th and 13th intervals and altered tones. Maybe some intrepid guitarists will pick up on that and explore the possibilities. After all, that is what the article was about.
    Imago Dei
    markdirt wrote: I agree with your article completely; the unconventional often brings out fresh and original work. It does weaken your article, however, to namedrop The Bealtes, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen. None of these artists were original in the sense that they recycled the same blues scales that black musicians had been using for decades.
    I suppose originality is in the eye of the beholder. However, one could infer from your argument that since those same black musicians you mentioned were using the same 12 notes that were being used by classical composers for centuries said black musicians weren't original either. Clearly there is enough distinction between Bach and Son House to recognize creativity somwhere along the path. Notice that the word I used and continue to use is creativity in the context of mentioning the above artists while you used "original". I never said the Beatles were original. In fact I defined creativity as "... an evaluation of how things are done and doing it just a little bit differently". This implies borrowing ideas from other musicians and taking them a step further. It's just another sign of musical snobber to say that Son House or Petey Wheatstraw invented the blues. I am confident that they blended the influences of their times that are lost to history.
    Imago Dei
    ProgIsGood wrote: I agree with your article completely; the unconventional often brings out fresh and original work. It does weaken your article, however, to namedrop The Bealtes, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen. None of these artists were original in the sense that they recycled the same blues scales that black musicians had been using for decades. I do agree that the pentatonics are overused on guitar, however think about what you just said. That these musicians are lacking originality because they are using the same scales as previous musicians. Wouldn't that mean that everyone for the past 1000 years or so is unoriginal for using the same major and minor scales. Also, modes were used long even before that, so weare kinda outta luck aren't we?
    Notice my post above regarding 12 notes. We only have 12 notes to work with. Yes it would be original to come up with tones other than the 12 associated with Western music. But, originality for the sake of originality is often lame. See my comment above regarding creativity versus originality. My whole point was to take the typical and illustrate a way in which guitarists might explore other tones. Does that mean that they can't use pentatonic or blues scales? Nope. However, it would be interesting to see how many guitarists would simply play a pentatonic, major, or blues scale exclusively over the chord progression I gave. There is nothing wrong with that. What I implied in my article was to go ahead and use those scales but to think about some other notes that could be added. I can go back to Chuck Berry and show how he often did just that. He grabbed notes outside the normative scale. Yet Chuck never sounded like he was playing outside. I've heard Joe Satriani allude to this by saying that the more inside a scale you play the more technical you sound. Yet by adding some outside notes you sound less technical. Musicians know this isn't true because both approaches are equally techincal. There is so much room for creativity I want to jump out of my skin. Imagine if Hendrix, Page, and EVH were producing your next guitar solo. What might they tell you about how to play it? Their approaches are so different who wouldn't be interested in hearing that outcome? I know I would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation! So no we are not out of luck...