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All the notes

So now you have all the notes in the scale. Or do you?

Well, you do if we’re talking about the seven-note, diatonic major scale. But you don’t have all the notes if you’re talking about the chromatic scale. That takes five more notes, and you should be asking yourself, “Can I use those when I’m improvising, too?”

The answer is yes. But you have to be careful because they all sit a half-step away from a chord tone. Here they are:

Db  D  D#  E  F  Gb  G  G#  A  Bb  B

    b9        #9          b5        #5       b7

These notes are most often used on the dominant 7th chord, which accepts the tension of these notes more readily than do the minor7 and major7 chords. But if you use them wisely, you can use them anywhere.

Using tension    

Since these notes are a half-step away from chord tones, the obvious strategy when using them is to resolve them to the chord tone. But there are other things you can do that might be more interesting.

Here’s an example of a phrase played over a G7 chord. The altered tones are Ab (b9), Bb (#9), Db (b5), and D# (#5). The phrase here doesn’t use the D#.

This is an example of using these tones to create arpeggios that are outside of the key, creating a sense of movement that disguises to some extent the dissonance of these notes.

Arpeggios are things that humans have been hearing for centuries. They’re in our DNA (figuratively speaking). They’re so familiar that you can put them in weird contexts and, while they might sound strange, they don’t sound completely out of place.

The three arpeggios in the above phrase are relatively normal. The Gmin arpeggio has the root and the fifth of the G7 chord, and a #9 sandwiched between them. This just winds up sounding a bit bluesy. The Bbmaj arpeggio has the fifth and the seventh of the G7 along with that #9 – a bit more tension, but not much.

You can also think of the combined notes of the Gmin and the Bb arpeggios (G, Bb, D, F) in this example as a Gmin7 chord. I’m presenting them like this to demonstrate two different strategies.

The Amaj arpeggio is the most dissonant/interesting with the 9, the b5, and the 13 of the G7 chord: two extensions and chromatic note, no chord tones.


Create a list of triad arpeggios using the b9, #9, b5, and #5 of the G7 chord. Then try using them  in some improvisations. Just make a G7 backing track and practice using the arpeggios you create by inserting them into scalar passages, remembering to resolve the arpeggios to diatonic notes.

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Learning the guitar neck with licks

Learning the neck

Here it is:

Keep it in mind as we take a look at that Louis Armstrong solo again.

What’s the first thing you see in the first bar?

Nothing but C major chord tones. But where are those notes on the guitar? This is the crucial part. If you study the diagram above, you’ll find four practical locations to play it.

  1. Open position using an open E string to start.
  2. Fifth position starting with the E on the B string.
  3. Ninth position starting with the E on the G string.
  4. Fourteenth position starting with the E on the D string.

Finding the notes in all the positions might take a little while. Be patient. It’ll be worth it.

Play the lick in all of these positions, saying the names of the notes out loud as you do. Move randomly between positions, and see if you can play in each position five times.

Do this every day for a week, and you’ll know where the four pitches in this lick are in all the practical positions on the guitar. You’ll also have a lick that you can use in a number of different places. Don’t like the lick? Find one you do, or better yet, invent one. Don’t make it longer than four pitches; you want to make it easy to learn where the notes are.

Then learn two more four-note licks. Each of these three licks should have their own unique set of notes, different than the other two. Do this and you’ll cover all twelve pitches. Don’t worry about making licks that only use chord tones. Just make sure all twelve pitches are represented in the three licks.

Learn each one in two different octaves, and you’ll have covered most, if not all of the guitar. Give each lick in both octaves a week, and in six weeks, you’ll have a reasonably solid knowledge of the fretboard. And you’ll have six licks you can use in your improvising. Six weeks is nothing in the scope of things.

Then just keep learning new licks, and your knowledge will get stronger and stronger.

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Music and the Brain

There are good reasons to study music aside from being able to play.

Listening to music

Simply listening to music “involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem” (Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 86).
 For instance, following along with music engages certain parts of the brain – the hippocampus (memory center) and the frontal lobe; tapping along with music engages others – the cerebellum’s timing circuits.

Playing music

Performing music uses the frontal lobes for planning behaviour, as well as the motor cortex and sensory cortex. Listening to, or recalling lyrics, involves language centers in the brain.
Simply by listening to music, we strengthen our brain. By learning to play, the benefits multiply. So even if you decided to quit playing, music lessons would still  have a lasting benefit that positively affects your entire life.
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Time signatures: what they are and why they’re cool

The time signature lives right at the beginning of every song.

You know. That thing that looks like a fraction.

As it turns out, there’s a lot to say about this thing. Check out the Wikipedia article.

Or not.


What’s it for?

In the simplest terms, the time signature tells you two things:


  • how many beats are in a bar, and
  • what those beats are worth


By “worth”, I mean quarter-notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc.

So a time signature of 4/4 means that there are 4 beats in the bar (the first number) and each beat is worth a quarter note (the second number). 3/8 means that there are three beats in the bar, and each beat is worth an eighth note.


The second number

The first number can be anything (though it doesn’t usually go above 11). The second number points to a note value. The possibilities for this number and what it corresponds to are:


  • 1 – whole-note (rare)
  • 2 – half-note
  • 4 – quarter-note
  • 8 – eighth-note
  • 16 – sixteenth-note
  • 32 – thirty-second-note (rare)


Getting interesting

But all that is just background.

Time signatures get interesting when you realize that there’s more to life than 4/4 and ¾ These get the most use by far, but there’s a lot more to consider.

I’ve defined the possibilities for the second number. You’ll notice they’re all multiples of two. Except for the whole note.

The first number can combine twos and threes. This can produce crazy looking time signatures, but that’s not what makes a song interesting.

What makes a song interesting, what creates its unique feel, is how you put the twos and threes together.


4/4 can get boring

Let me explain.

If you play in 4/4 all the time, it probably means you’re emphasizing the same beats every song.: the first beat and the third beat, or the second beat and the fourth beat.

Now take a simple time signature like 5/4. 5/4 is a combination of two and three. It’s either 2 + 3, or 3 + 2.

So what, you say?



Well, strum a chord in 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 3.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.30.47 AM


Now strum a chord and 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 4.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.32.26 AM


Two completely different feels in one time signature.


Possibilities. Lots.

Imagine emphasizing beat 1 and beat 3 in the verse, and beat 1 and beat 4 in the chorus. Or 4/4 in the verse, and 5/4 in the chorus. Or maybe just use 5/4 in the bridge…

The point is, with one simple time signature, a whole bunch of possibilities open up. Why not take advantage of that?



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Making ambient

My approach to creating ambient music involves the following resources:

  • Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 5
  • preparing the guitar


Check out my post on prepared guitar for an explanation.


Prepared guitar


Guitar Rig 5 and prepared guitar describes my basic rig. I also use…

  • MAX to create either guitar effects, or separate instruments altogether
  • Audiomulch for creating separate instruments


…and two iPad apps:

  • Samplr
  • Curtis


Orchestral soundscapes

This provides me with tremendous resources for creating non-conventional guitar sounds. I combine these sounds with the Boss Loopstation to make soundscapes of orchestral complexity.

I set this up by placing one instrumental section on one of three phrases. “Phrases” are what the Loopstation calls the place where you can record and overdub sounds. You can see them on the lower right of the device.




I’m thinking conceptually here. I don’t use conventional orchestral instruments (although lately I’ve been thinking about it). I create 4 -6 unique sounds for each phrase using the above resources. Then I arrange and overdub them.

Each sound can be either a prepared guitar sound processed through Guitar Rig or MAX, or sounds created in Audiomulch, Samplr, or Curtis. Then I can fade sections in and out as desired while playing a live part against them.

There’s a lot of detail to talk about. In future posts I’ll describe the materials I’ve mentioned here in some detail.





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Tim Hecker

Tim Hecker’s work is more clearly ambient than Christian Fennesz’s. Greater use of conventional instrumentation with the judicious use of noise makes it possible for his work to fade into the background, while still being compelling.


Hecker is concerned with timing, placement, and taste. Often there is one overriding idea. Prism, from Virgins is an example. It starts with a processed organ pad (?) that gets interrupted by a seven-beat phrase at regular intervals.

The seven-beat phrase itself is attention-grabbing in its combination of simplicity and strangeness. It’s essentially an uncomplicated melody that’s sliced somewhere in the middle and time-shifted slightly, giving it an arresting quality. Bits of the phrase continue ghost-like after the fact. The ear tries to capture these, and the listener becomes an active participant.

Try to hold the organ pad in your ear, and you’ll hear it evolve slightly. Or is that just an aural hallucination?



Imagine a painting, something representational, a landscape or a portrait with undried paint. Now imagine smearing the paint across the canvas.

Hecker uses this effect aurally by creating upward gissandos with entire organ chords beginning around the two-minute mark. The effect is a wiping away of some of the existing sound. The ghost of the seven-beat phrase remains.

Tim Hecker is an ambient composer who creates music that encourages you to listen to it. While it’s possible to ignore, it never becomes aural wallpaper.


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