Guitar as cheater instrument?

A friend of mine has a funny saying that guitar is a cheater instrument, because as long as you can play movable chords and melodies in an easy key, you don’t really need to know what the notes are in a more difficult key, you just move the fingering over and voila!

This is true to some extent and I think the fact that parallel sounds are easy to achieve on guitar is a valuable guitar-ism. Some great guitar music is based on this idea. However, if you want to achieve mastery over the music that you play, it’s important that you have a thorough technical knowledge of your instrument as well. After-all, you want to play something however guitaristic or not, because you chose to, not because you were limited to it.

A teacher once told me that he liked to think of practicing in all keys as “evening the keys”. The concept is basically that you want to be as equally comfortable in the “harder” keys (ie; Gb) as you are in the “easy” keys( ie; C.)

Lately I’ve extended the analogy by trying to imagine that I’m sanding down a table top and there are bumps that represent the things that I’m good at in a particular key, and there’s also crevasses that are things that I’m not so good at. So I’m sanding down this table top to make it smooth and even so that there’s no key that I’m particularly weaker or stronger at. The thing about a good table top is; it’s gonna get a lot of use. So I try to make a regular habit of sanding it down again to make it nice and smooth.

I think about this analogy in relation to both the study of the materials of music, and the study of all the notes on the fret-board. It is important for me, not only to master the muscle memory of patterns and shapes on the guitar, but also to know in a heartbeat what notes I’m playing and how they relate to the context of my music.

Here are some simple exersizes you can use to better your knowledge of the fret-board;

1. Choose note names at random and play every single instance of that note on the guitar. Some pitches have 4 different places on the fret-board multiplied by 2-4 octaves of the pitch as well.

2. Play scales up and down one string, slowly with a metronome while saying the pitches out loud. This is particularily hard when you descend in keys with lots of accidentals.

Open strings are our friends.
Another idiosyncratic aspect of the guitar, like any stringed instrument, is the unique timbre of the open strings. The combination of open and fretted notes is one of the more interesting textures you can achieve on the instrument.
When combining open strings with fretted notes to generate voicings, unlike movable chord voicings that involve only fretted notes, it is usually not possible to transpose them to different keys. But even if you’re only going to be able to play a voicing in one key, it’s worthwhile exploring, as it can give that key some distinct personality.
Counter to the idea of evening the keys, open strings can help set the keys apart on the guitar.

If the guitar was a video game, these voicings would be your special moves.

Here are some examples of interesting open stringed voicings; (from lowest to highest string, X meaning a string muted.)

Bb 6/9 #11- in fifth position Bb- X- open D- C-F- open E.
Eb Maj9 #11- in fifth pos. X-Eb- open D- open G- F- A.
E Maj7 b5- in third pos. open E-X-G#-Bb-D#-open E.
C# Min add9- in fourth pos. G#-C#-X- C#- D#-open E.
A Maj9- in fifth pos. X- open A-G#-C#-open B- open E.
A Minmaj9- in fifth pos. X-open A- G#-C- open B- B.
FMin11- (without root) fourth pos. X-X-Ab-open G- F-Bb.
F Min 6/9 add 14- first pos. F-C-open D- open G- F- X.

CMaj9 eighth pos. C-E-open D-open G- open B- C. (this one is funny ‘cause it’s your basic open G chord fingering moved up to the eight fret.)
CMaj13 #11- third pos. G-C-F#-open G-open B-A.

One easy way to transpose open voicings on the guitar is to use a capo. I like to use a capo because it creates an effect when playing open stringed voicings, that your playing a higher tuned instrument. Even simple “campfire chords” sound surprising and unusual when capoed higher up the neck.

Open tunings man!
A colorful singer I know in Toronto was once biking towards me while I was walking down Bloor street. Upon noticing my guitar case in hand he exclaimed; “Open tunings man!”
Maybe you had to be there…..

Lately I’ve experimented with alternate tunings that only deviate from standard tuning slightly, like tuning the A string down to a G or the G string down to an F#. This makes different open stringed voicings possible while still retaining your knowledge of the other 4 or 5 strings, that you’ve left in their standard tuning. In general, alternate tunings are a great tool for writing guitar music because you tend to make many exciting discoveries quickly when exploring the unfamiliar tuning.

The most obvious example is the celebrated “drop D tuning”, that is just as popular in classical and folk music, as it is in heavy metal and rock.

Try these tunings for fun; (from lowest to highest string)

drop D- D-A-D-G-B-E
double drop D- D-A-D-G-B-D
drop F# E-A-D-F#-B-E
drop G- E-G-D-G-B-E
dadgad- D-A-D-G-A-D                                                                                                                                                                                           drop C- C-G-D-G-B-E

Check out these guitarists for great uses of alternate tunings; Joni Mitchell, Don Ross, Andy Mckee, and Nick Drake.


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