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Eastern European scales and making chords

You can’t have chords without scales. Even if you just throw some randomly chosen notes together, those notes would be part of a scale.

You can’t really escape scales. People try. “Too technical,” and “Aren’t they just for soloing?” are a couple of things I hear when the topic arises.

“Too technical” translates to “I don’t want to practice.” And the answer to “Aren’t they just for soloing?” is “no.” They’re also for inventing chords.

I admit, it’s easier to look at a page full of chord diagrams, and make your fingers conform to what’s there. Developing a creative, curious mind takes a bit more effort.

It’s kind of worth it to do the work. It stretches your mind, and it stretches your ear.


Eastern Europe

This scale might sound strange. Or beautiful. Both are great. Once you get used to it, it becomes something that adds color, rather than a random, weird sound.

Let’s start by building a random, weird sound…

Here’s a scale from Eastern Europe


East euro 1


Making chords: Unfamiliar to familiar

Place your middle finger on the C on the A string, 3rd fret, and your index finger on the F# on the high E string, 2nd fret. Add the open B string. Or you can use the B at the 4th fret of the G string (that’ll make the next move a bit more challenging, though…)

Might sound a bit different than what you’re used to. Might not. In any case, let’s reduce the tension. Move the F# to the G on the 3rd fret of the E string (leave the C and the B where they are), and play the new chord.

Might still sound a bit strange. Try moving the C to the open string D (or the D on the A string, fret 5). Better?

The point here is to use the scale to randomly choose notes with which to build chords you would never have otherwise found. And then to resolve those chords by moving the notes in the chord to new notes.

This is a process of discovery and experimentation, of trial and error. The point is to take the stuff you’re used to (and maybe getting bored of?) and add interest.


Familiar to unfamiliar

Another way to approach this is to go from familiar to unfamiliar. Place your index finger on the G, 3rd fret, high E string; middle finger on Eb, 4th fret, B string; ring finger on C, 5th fret, G string. That’s a C minor chord.

Now just move the fingers to other notes in the scale and back. The G can go back to the F#; the Eb can go to the D; the C can go to the B. These can move together or one at a time. Work with this, and you’ll find ways to introduce this kind of sound into your regular playing and writing.

Check my posts on scale-tone chords for more shapes like this.



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Speed and relaxation

Musicians want to play what they hear in their heads. They also want to play what they hear on recordings. Often that means playing something faster than their body is comfortable with. This leads to muscular tension and mistakes.

But there are things you can do to make your playing feel relaxed. As you might expect, it takes some practice.


The brain

Your motor cortex doesn’t think in terms of slow and fast or good and bad. It just records movements needed to complete an action. If you do something too fast and make mistakes, it thinks that that’s correct. Then it keeps doing that until you tell it to do it a better way.


Making it better

Bring intention to your practice. Be aware of your mental states. If you’re playing something that you find difficult, be aware of thoughts like, “Oh, oh, this part’s hard.” Or “I should be playing this faster.” Or, “I wish I could play it like that guy.” These kinds of thoughts create tension.

Thoughts like, “smooth”, “easy”, “light” communicate a feeling of relaxation. Try placing those kinds of thoughts in your head as you practice.



You can program you brain and body to function fluently using a metronome. Set it to a comfortable speed. Too slow or too fast won’t work. Most musicians tend to think of slow as easy, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it feels unnatural and we struggle to make our muscles conform to the slowness.

Everybody has a speed where things feel loose and natural. Strum a simple chord progression and adjust the metronome until you find that speed. It might take a while but it’s worth the time.


Notching it up

If this optimally comfortable tempo is slower than a song you’re learning, bring the tempo on the metronome up a notch. By notch I mean no more than five. So if the metronome is set at 70, don’t go higher than 75. Accept that you may have to go lower than that. Once you’re comfortable at the new tempo, notch it up again. Continue until you’re playing the speed of the song.

Pay close attention to what your body is telling you. If there’s any tension at all go back a couple of notches. Seriously. If you go too fast and program mistakes into the brain, it will take 6 – 10 repetitions of doing it right to get it to where you want. Going slow and being patient will get you where you want to go faster.

This isn’t easy to do. Most people get impatient and try to go fast too soon. Be patient and honest with yourself, and eventually you’ll be able to play anything you want.

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Chord charts

Chords! Lots of them!


Man, there’s a lot of these things. The problem isn’t that they’re not useful. The problem is that they encourage you to stop exploring. What if you need an Ab9 chord, but you don’t like the sound of the one on the chart? Just use the one on the chart anyway?

Well, there’s this.


Make your own stuff

Or you can learn some basic chord theory and key signatures. Then you can make your own stuff instead of depending on someone else. You also need to know where all the notes are on the neck of the guitar.

This type of work develops your brain and allows for creativity. Learning a chord from a chart doesn’t. It just trains your fingers.


Exploring C major

Take the C major triad. It’s made of three notes: C, E, and G. Find as many combinations of those notes on the neck as you can. Find a C on the G string, then find the closest G and E.

Now find the C on the D string. Where’s the closest G and E?

Play the open high E string and the C on the G string. Where’s the G?

Now use this same procedure for a G chord. Or any other chord. Move between the C chords and the new chords.


Chords, keys, and notes

Here’s a post that talks about building chords.

And another one that talks about building chords in different keys.

Here’s one on notes on the neck of the guitar.


Once you start moving between the chords you make, it begins to feel a lot like composition instead of just going between the same old C an G chords. You start getting new ideas.

And you don’t have to depend on outside resources if you don’t want to.

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This term gets thrown around a lot. But what does it really mean, and how is it developed?

First of all, if it grooves, you’ll be moving your body. This happens most naturally in funk, rock, soul, latin, and big band jazz. It’s not usually associated with folk. Certain styles of country make you want to move, but not all of them.

Here’s Part 3 of a collection of music that grooves (there are 7 parts in this collection that I know of). The first tune will show you what groove is, but you might as well listen to it all.



The pocket

The phrase “in the pocket” means playing with great feel, usually in the middle of the beat. It can imply the bass player and the drummer feeling the downbeats together, but a single person can play in the pocket. I’ve heard singer-songwriters playing solo that do it really well.

Many people feel that the question is not so much what the pocket is as much as how you know when you’ve achieved it. If it feels as though all the rhythmic parts have merged into what feels like a single instrument, you’re there. If you’re playing solo, it kind of feels like the instrument is playing itself. No speeding up or slowing down, just a consistent rhythmic pulse. Everything happens naturally.

You can play a groove in three basic ways:

  • in front of the beat, which feels kind of rushed and energetic
  • behind the beat, which feels really relaxed
  • or right in the middle of the beat, which just feels solid


The metronome

Get a metronome. They’re free on your phone.

Use a medium tempo (somewhere between 80 and 100) and just play a chord every time the metronome clicks. Or beeps. Or whatever sound yours makes. Each sound equals a quarter note.

Try to stay aware of where you’re playing the chord. Is it in the middle of the beat? It’s not always obvious. You might hear the metronome sound after you play the chord. That means you’re in front of the beat. If you hear the metronome before you hear the chord, you’re behind the beat. Or you might not hear the metronome. That means you played exactly in the middle of the beat. Just be aware of these three possibilities.

Try to put the chord in the same place every time. Think of it as a game. Give yourself points every time you play in the same spot as the last time. Or see if you can do it five times in a row. After awhile, you’ll start to feel where the metronome sound is going to land.

Once you can feel that, you can put the chord anywhere you want, and do it consistently.

You can make it easier (and make it feel more natural) by playing the offbeat. So instead of just playing quarter notes on the metronome click, add the 1/8 note between the quarter notes.





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I did a Mile Zero Dance show called Sho-tel a while ago. Mile Zero does a lot of really interesting things in this city, bringing together dancers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, archivists, folklorists.

The show I did happened at a motel in the west end, seedy and gradually falling apart.

I made noise.

By noise I mean that I played with timbre. I didn’t worry about melody, chords, or playing in any conventional way. In other words, I concentrated on the sound character of the instrument. Check my soundcloud page under experimental guitar if you want to hear examples.

Timbre and the electric guitar is an insane topic. There’s just so much you can do.



 Here’s a basic list of effects:






Ring modulation






Each effect has a range of intensity, so you can get a variety of timbre out of just one of them. When you start combining them…


You can also get interesting sounds out of your guitar without effects.


Prepared guitar

All of this applies nicely to abstract or avante-garde music. But how do you use it to write songs?

Try re-conceptualizing the guitar as a different instrument. Make it a percussion instrument by weaving some felt through the strings and tapping the strings with a chopstick. Can you hear this in an intro, or as a coloristic device in the chorus?

When you use timbre this way, it’s a good idea to start simple. Don’t overplay. Play the sound once and let it ring (if it’s a sustained sound). If it’s different than the sounds around it, it will draw focus. Think of it as highlighting important events – beginnings of verses, choruses, etc.

If it’s a percussive sound, you could use it in place of the drums, or as part of the drum sound.

These are suggestions for where to start. As you work with this, ideas will occur to you. Follow them.

Experiment by making sounds that don’t normally fit in the stuff you normally write.



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Funk 2

In the last post I talked about using a combination of scratch rhythm and chords to create accented rhythmic grooves. But I only looked at accenting the first 16th and the third 16th notes of a four note group.


A reminder of those two:

funk - 1st 16th

funk 3rd 16th


You may be wondering about accenting the second 16th note and the fourth 16th note. Perhaps you’ve been playing around with them. If not, here they are.


funk 2nd 16th

funk 4th 16th

The procedure here is pretty much the same as what we did with the first and third 16ths. It’s just harder.


Body rhythms

It’s harder because of the way we use our body when we play. Most of us tap our foot on the beat. This makes it necessary to lift our foot on the offbeat.


Here’s what I mean:


So we have a clear movement for the downbeat (the number) and the offbeat (the “and”). But there’s no foot movement that corresponds to 16th notes. They’re somewhere between your foot going down and coming up.


Some people tap their foot on every 16th. Understandable, but this destroys the sense of the beat. Developing a good sense of rhythm means accenting the downbeat while feeling different rhythms in different parts of the body. Drummers do this every time they play.


So our foot “feels” the 8th notes simply by moving up and down. Our strumming hand “feels” the 16th notes. In doing so, it goes twice as fast as the foot. This requires body independence that can take a bit of work to attain. Be patient if this is difficult.


The new rhythms

As always, play the 16th notes slowly and count “1 ee and uh, 2 ee and uh, 3 ee and uh, 4 ee and uh”. Just use scratching to start. Keep counting. Now play a chord when you say “ee”. Loop that rhythm until you’re comfortable with it. You should still be playing slowly.

funk 2nd 16th

Now speed it up, but not too much. Funk generally falls somewhere between 75 and 90 beats per minute (bpm).


Which reminds me…


The metronome

Get a metronome if you haven’t got one already. I use this one.


Set it at a tempo slow enough to make the 16th notes easy to play. When you’re comfortable at that speed gradually increase the tempo. So if you start at 60 bpm, increase the tempo to 65, then 70, etc.


Here’s a good article on issues to consider when using a metronome.


Switch to the other new rhythm. Same procedure as the other one, but play the chord when you say “uh”.

funk 4th 16th


Mixing it up

Now create some loops using all four rhythms.

Here’s one. This is an exercise designed to challenge your concentration. No hook or riff is going to change this rapidly.

funk 16th note rhythm mixed


As always, take it slow. Then speed it up.

Create a few of your own by making one of the rhythms the main focus. Then improvise by inserting the other ones wherever it feels right to do so.

Or you can structure this work more by deciding to play one of the rhythms three times in each bar. Then fill in the fourth beat with one of the other three rhythms.


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