Why Do My Scales Sound Boring

Despite my guitar being in tune and my playing in time, my scales still sound really boring. Why?

16
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!

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    cabot
    9/10, excelent points, it is really something totally overlooked in so many cases, especially with self thought guitarists, such as my self... Good work.
    slowmostoner
    i agree that dynamics are important, but i definately disagree on the concept of only alternating between 2 dynamic sounds. have you tried pick scraping? how about alternating between using your 2nd and 3rd (middle and ring) fingers to pick notes? try taking a string and pinching it a bit while pulling away from the body of the guitar. this produces a really awesome kind of twang or slap bass style articulation. you might also notice that hammering and pulling off and sliding through the scale produces a much different sound than picking each of the notes. something i like to try is to hammer and pull off and slide in places that i normally wouldn't use those approaches to create an interesting dynamic. also, from what i've experianced is that alot of times one can get stuck playing what seems like an endless succession of 8th and 16th notes. try changing it up a bit and challenge yourself with rhythmic groovyness. what i like to do is to play a cool or groovy phrase, and then make sure to give a short rest to define and distinguish my phrasing. thats a little tip i saw in an interview with steve morse. one technique that is definative of my sound and style and of many others such as wes montgomery is to give a little consideration to intervallic recognition. if something sounds a little stale to you then you could also consider playing another note from the scale in unison with it and creating a counter-melody under your already existing melody. wes montgomery espessially shaped his sound by inserting some silky sixths. yet another approach is to not adhere strictly to the scale. often times you can insert a note that isn't in the scale to create some dissonance like jimmy page does in the solo for stairway to heaven (yeah, that's right, i DID support my case with an example from stairway. that's like supporting your arguement with a loaded gun and thenb waiting to see who disagrees with you). if anything at all, the use of dissonance will help you to build tension that you can resolve later. as a guitarist this should be the simplest thing to remember... it's music dude, it's not supposed to be too hard, it's supposed to be challenging and fun to play. most importantly though, as a musician you are the composer. if it sounds right to you, then it is. if it doesn't make it sound right.
    mydian
    A follow up showing how to apply this to some scales, like some tabbed exercises would be cool.
    mydian
    I think this was a unique way to talk about dynamics. I know scales and can't really do a whole lot with them except practice or improv kind of slow so this made some sense to me.. kind of a wake up. Never read anything quite like this on UG, or anywhere actually so not sure what those other comments about. Good Article.
    ksteimel18
    thanks sir. i know on acoustic and clean you can produce the two tones without palm mute for a less percussive sound, but if you wanted to employ this on distorted guitar would you have to palm mute it to get the two different tones? cause i can't otherwise
    Vampire96
    now that i read the article, and i mean really read it slowly and take time to suck the info into the brain. it hits me and gave ideas on what and how to's . and thanks for that comment you gave chris flatley, in some way, you to helped me... alot.
    Spaztikko
    chris flatley wrote: is there some sort of medicine you can buy for verbal diarrhea. cos i got it bad.
    the difference between what youre saying and verbal diarrhea is that the stuff out your mouth isnt absoulte shit. brill lesson, im gonna play on clean more often thanks to u!
    Silverpack
    Really nice, and original, furthermore. Many guitar players forget how powerful groovy dead notes can be.
    Knucklehead Dyl
    tl;dr: It's because I suck at guitar haha nah this was a good article. We have HEAPS on this already though
    shadowmaster036
    I like it. I'm at least an intermediate guitar player but I have some problems making my scales sound like anything other than a scale. I'm going to try this out and tweak it a little. Thanks for this. 8/10 for being different. :3
    Zeppelin Addict
    this is a great concept for introducing people to the importance of dynamics. all too often overlooked, when everyones concern is wailing monotonously. sometimes a lack of sound is just as important as making peoples ears bleed! though the latter is a lot more fun XD
    Im_Broken
    they sound boring because you're playing boring notes not really good article
    Mukersman
    At first I was thinking this was a troll thread for sure.... but that actually makes since.