Techniques, not Technique!

Techniques, not techniqueTrying to become a better musician is like walking up a beautiful mountain. The higher we get the nicer the view is. We know that the view is already worth all our efforts and patience and we can imagine that higher up the view is even greater. Along this path of musical development we are desperately looking for shortcuts that will accelerate our progress and will offer us a greater view of the musical world. These shortcuts are nothing more than mental frameworks that organize our work and provide useful answers. I want to share a few thoughts on the notion of technique as a mental framework that can be sterile and perplexing. I would like to suggest techniques as a mental framework that is more fertile and liberating.

Technique is an abstract concept. Just like ‘music’ is an abstraction of the real action of playing music, technique is also an abstraction of all our playing mannerisms. This concept of reification (turning an abstraction into a concrete thing) lies in the heart of the philosophy of Plato and often provides us with a distorted world view. It may be a crude example, but think of a farmer from mountainous Crete and a London businessman both being regarded and treated as ‘Europeans’. Or think how we -here in Europe- mentally treat a Texan farmer and a San Francisco hippie as ‘Americans’. So, what is wrong with ‘technique’ in music?

First, I think ‘technique’ is almost a non-musical concept. It bears no organic relation with all the elements that make musical meaning to the human ear like repetition, melody, pauses, dynamics and interaction. These musical elements can be honored and practiced with minimum technique. Furthermore, the notion of technique cannot really explain why I enjoy playing music with my buddy who picked up the guitar just 2 weeks ago. Percussionist Ken Hyder has said in an interview that ‘technical virtuosity does not interest me as a player’ (…) ‘the aim is to create magic moments, and magic moments are often created with the minimum use of technique’.

bongosSecond, the notion of technique has no universal value whatsoever. It may refer to different things around the world. What’s more, appreciating music is very often style-sensitive. A classical virtuoso will never be able to play a single note in the jazz idiom and a reggae singer will most likely sing bad opera, unless they both spend time internalizing the particular expressive devices and techniques of jazz phrasing and opera singing. We would never criticize them for their bad technique outside their musical territory. Different musical idioms use different playing and interpretation techniques and it is these techniques that most often define the unique sound and character of a musical tradition.

Third, I feel the concept of technique is more tied with the linear and deterministic view of learning I have discussed in a previous post titled ‘How people learn and what it means for us musicians’. Progress is non linear and asymmetric involving jumps, spins and turns. Deliberate practice on the other hand encourages the idea that you need to practice something first before you are able to play it. I think experience tells otherwise. My weak memory suggests that I have not actually practiced most of the things I can play. They were quietly developed and shaped while I was satisfying my childish curiosity listening and playing my favorite music. I was not in a ‘now I am working on my technique’ mode. What we can do with our hands and mind develops in a much more complicated way than the linearity implied by technique.

Django-StephaneFinally, let’s look at the music of Django Reindhardt and Stephane Grappelli as an example. Their 1930’s recordings largely constitute the foundations of the gypsy jazz tradition. Django himself had to come up with his own unique technique of playing the guitar after his 3rd and 4th fingers were paralyzed in a fire accident. By using only his index and middle fingers of his left hand he came up with unique lines, chord inversions and a soloing mentality that eventually defined the Gypsy Jazz sound. Grappelli on the other hand improvises playing only in 1st and 3rd position most of the time. His improvisations are made of notes that can be hit by a technically intermediate violinist.

In addition, they certainly did not play perfect in any sense of the term. No matter how much forgiving these old recordings are, you can still hear imperfections and misses. What makes their music great is not the idea of a polished final product. It is their innovative approach, the musical accidents that happen and the risks you hear them taking while they are looking for that one live take they would eventually put on their record. I could simply say that their music is basically human and honest. In that sense, it has great artistic value.

For these reasons I have started to believe that thinking in terms of techniques is a lot more fertile and liberating. The concept of techniques comes in handy while learning and accounts more effectively for what goes on in the musical world. I find it more helpful in organizing my work instead of generally thinking ‘now I am working on my technique’. It can offer more tangible answers to the question: what can I really do on my instrument? When I listen to my favorite musicians I notice that they either have the ability of creating an interesting variety or they are very good at doing one single thing. A single technique may be a musician’s stylistic hallmark. There are many great musicians who became well-known just because they introduced that one single thing or technique they were good at. Being good at ‘something’ has real musical value. It helps us build our musical identity and provides us with the power to share and communicate our music.

I have to say that this discussion touches more on improvisational music than Paganini’s caprices. When attempting to play music exactly as written then the concept of technique turns into something more objective and confirmable. I am just weighing the abstract concept of technique against self-expression and the enjoyment of music. Many music educators question the dominance of technique during the learning process. The idea of a polished performance often grows at the expense of expression, musicianship and enjoyment. It eventually tends to objectify artistic performance and its appreciation. Eddie Prevost explains the admiration of technique as a broader political issue. He says that ‘obsession with, and admiration for, technique merely reflects the ethos and values of the new elitism which is gaining strength in our world’. (In ‘Improvised Music: Some answers to some questions’ in Contact, a journal of contemporary music 33, p. 14, year: 1988)

In a nutshell, I personally find the concept of technique a bad verbal and mental tool for understanding, appreciating and learning music. If there are people playing music without even having a word for it (Swahili) then we could definitely live without ‘technique’.

Old-Time fiddling: Bow grips and bowing mentality

85x54cmI believe the most interesting and striking element of old time fiddling is bowing. It is in this aspect of fiddle playing that the diversity, richness, and playful spirit of the tradition are compressed into. Bowing was the first thing that caught my attention the first time I discovered old time fiddling. I would like to discuss two aspects of old time bowing.

First, it is the diversity and character of bow grips. Old time fiddlers very often develop bow grips that are insulting to the average classical grip. However, I believe they very often have valid reasons for adopting these bow holds. As open minded musicians, we should make an effort to understand these habits before we rush into condemning them. Like many musicians around the world many fiddlers have managed to come up with personalized ways of playing their instruments, achieving however a high level of playability, skill and musicianship.

Second, it is what I think of as the overall mentality of old time bowing. I had stopped playing for a few years before I met self-taught old time fiddler Lucas Paisley from North Carolina. I was amazed at the overall kinesthetic quality of his bowing. His bowing mentality involved minimum amount of ‘technique’ but tons of musicianship and effortless groove. Lucas really encouraged me to start playing again. Many old time fiddlers offer a great example of musicians who learn how to play music in a purely organic way by developing their performing attitude and skills as an integral part of the actual playing experience without approaching them as a ‘requirement’.

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 BOW GRIP

I am not a relativist when it comes to bow grip. I believe there are bad bow grips by definition. Beginners should be encouraged to get used to the classical bow hold or any of its legitimate variations. Given the mechanics of the modern bow construction, the classical bow hold is the way to go if we want to be able to produce a wide range of sounds. It all boils down to what we want to achieve. If we know what we want, then there are more or less effective ways of achieving the goals we’ve set. For example, if we wish to incorporate the rhythm chop into our playing, then holding the bow away from the frog is not really helpful, because we won’t be able get that nice bite we needed for a good rhythm chop.

However, we often see old time fiddlers holding the bow away from frog. Why? Because they obviously feel they don’t need the full length of their bow. Many fiddlers are unconsciously aware of that and tend to hold their modern bows away from the frog thus shortening it somehow. If we look back in time we will see that it was the musical needs of each given time that dictated the advancements in instrument and bow construction. For example, bows during the Baroque period were shorter. Longer bows were developed to facilitate the need for playing longer notes like in singing. The same applies to posture and kinesthetics. 19th century violinists were generally playing with a lowered elbow and as a natural consequence their wrist was bent. Today however you can very often spot the classically trained violinist by noticing his raised elbow, a habit that naturally leads to a flatter wrist. Obviously, what used to be valid someday may seem unorthodox today and vice versa.

 

Kate Lissauer's bow grip

Kate Lissauer’s bow grip

Dave Bing's bow grip

Dave Bing’s bow grip

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bows used during the Baroque period were significantly different than modern bows. They were shorter and the distance between hair and stick was also larger. Yehudi Menuhin in his book ‘The Violin’ testifies that when he played with a baroque bow he noticed it ‘produced a natural accent’. He adds that with modern bows ‘one would have to apply pressure on the bow stick with the index finger’ to get that same accent. It is really worth mentioning the parallels in violin playing between the old time and Baroque traditions. As dancing is central in both traditions we come across common characteristics in style and instrument set up: holding the violin against the chest, flatter bridge, heavy ornamentation, open tunings, drones, accents, shorter bows, rare use of higher positions, more articulated playing, rare vibrato, melody repetition. In both traditions a distinct and steady pulse is supposed to invite people to dance.

The mosaic and diversity of bow holds bears witness to the ingenuity of aspiring musicians who are looking for ways to play their favorite music. And when they do succeed in that direction, that is not a proof of their technical skills, but rather of their deep musical understanding.

 

BOWING MENTALITY

As with many other traditions around the world whose practitioners learn by interacting in their musical communities it appears that old time fiddlers share a bowing mentality that grows naturally through their need to play music. They internalize a way, or mentality, of playing that serves their honest musical needs. Bowing comes up more as a musical rather than a technical issue. In my experience, most old time fiddlers are not constantly aware of the different ways they are using their bow. I have asked old time fiddlers to describe their bowing patterns, but in most cases they had to think a lot before they could do that. I think this is the organic outcome of bypassing bowing as a ‘technical prerequisite’ during the learning process. It is an example of what we can call the ‘straight at the music approach’.

In my opinion the ‘straight at the music approach’ may well constitute a beneficial practice even for classical musicians who very often suffer from dictated and over-analytical approaches in their training and interpretation. It may well bring them closer to the spirit of the music under study and help them discover a wealth of hidden musical potential. The devaluation of the ‘technical prerequisites’ concept may well be the key to accelerating progress. We can see that same principle from the opposite angle: The reason that a classical violinist cannot simply cross into the bowing of an old time fiddler is not really technical. It is mental or musical if you like. Strictly speaking the average classical violinist is not missing the necessary technical skills to play old time music. What he/she is missing is the mentality of using the bow to produce dance music and that has less to do with the concept of technique, at least in the sense most people understand it.

Matt Glaser in his book ‘Jazz violin’ mentions that Grappelli once told him ‘the bow must go up and down’. Glaser pointedly mentions that this is an indication of the total absence of artifice in Grapelli’s approach. I always liked statements like Grappelli’s that intend to simplify things. In my eyes old-time fiddle bowing -and I suspect bowing in general- is all about thinking in 3 dimensions. Moving randomly in 3D is my favorite way of visualizing bowing. The 3D visualization brings us closer to the world of rhythm and is probably how we can impress the 3D motion of a dancer on our instruments. It is a liberating conceptualization that can unlock our right hand potential. Thinking in circles is another way of seeing it. Rayna Gellert (Fiddler Magazine, Summer 2003 issue,) discussing bowing mentions that when she is teaching she encourages people to ‘think little circles. Just keep that image in your head and don’t think too hard about it. Just have that image with you’.

Thinking in 3D is especially useful in old-time music due to the percussive and rhythmic nature of the music. It helps in bringing out the percussive nature of old time music more effectively. Fiddle sticks and modern chopping are two examples of attempts in the history of fiddling to turn the fiddle into a rhythm machine. Adding that third dimension into our minds and hands will improve the mechanics of our playing. In his instructional tape Bruce Molsky is very clear on that. When he is discussing the tune Saddle up the Grey he talks about playing the low open G like a drum beat: ‘Boom! You have to practice getting your bow so that you are not pulling it smooth. You want to get a little snap into those things and make them sound like drum beats’.

 

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Old-time fiddling: Playing the ‘wrong’ way

The Skillet LickersI feel that my involvement in old-time fiddling has proven extremely beneficial for both my playing and sense of musicianship in general. In order to justify this assertion, I would like to examine a few aspects of old-time fiddling and make a few short comments. These comments will be based on my short old-time fiddling experience and some general views on skill development and the acquisition of knowledge. I am aware of course that by no means are they valid among all practitioners of old-time fiddle, but I think they describe certain tendencies, strong enough to be ascribed to the very nature of this musical tradition and its performance.

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Playing the “wrong” way

Old-time fiddlers very often adopt ‘unorthodox’* ways of playing the violin. ‘Unorthodox’ here will refer to approaches that on one hand do not satisfy the technical demands of what we can generally call ‘classical technique’ and on the other do not go beyond certain objective physical limitations. Playing the violin behind the back for example is indeed something possible (as several great performers have showed us) but it is no longer an unorthodox way of playing in the sense explained here.

There are two striking habits that appear among a considerable number of old-time fiddlers: their tendency to hold the fiddle against their chest rather than the classical way, and their tendency to hold the bow in all sort of weird ways, often gripping it away from the frog. For a classically trained violinist the image of someone playing this way is alien. However, these habits among old-time fiddlers should not be seen as restricting or simply wrong. I believe they are deeply meaningful and rooted in legitimate stylistic and musical aspirations.

But why hold the fiddle against the chest? Since the biggest part of old-time fiddle repertoire requires playing only in the first position, shifting positions in old-time fiddling is not very common. There is even a tune called ‘Quince Dillons high D tune’ obviously named after the fact that the fiddler needs to shift in order to play a high D note on the E string. At the same time, it is widely held that holding the violin the classical way allows for easier changing of positions. And this is obviously true. But many folk fiddlers around the world do not really need classical techniques in order to be fair to their beloved musical traditions.

So one basic reason for why old-time fiddlers often hold the violin against their chest is simply because they do not have to hold it otherwise. Consequently, there is absolutely no point in criticizing and commenting on old-time fiddlers’ technique from a classical point of view. On the contrary, I believe that holding the violin against the chest in this tradition is an excellent manifestation of economy playing. It is a theory-free habit, which crystallizes through time and the need to play favorite tunes. And of course the idea of economy of physical effort is of great importance in learning an instrument.

KAMARAS8948Holding the fiddle against the chest also allows performers to have optimum visual contact with their fellow musicians and the environment, something which not only enhances musical communication but also creates a healthier, more intimate and organic relationship with what is going on around them. In addition, it enables them to have a good look at their instruments while playing, something which helps in monitoring technical elements like bowing, etc. (In classical music there is a stigma that if you have to look at your hands while you’re playing then you’re incompetent).

Finally, it accommodates and develops the ability to sing while playing. This is a very interesting skill developed by some old time fiddlers, which may not seem useful for people involved in other musical traditions. For me it is a further sign of a wide ability to receive and respond to musical or non-musical stimuli while playing. Ask violin players to say a short phrase or answer a short question while playing something simple. I believe that in most cases their playing will collapse in a second.

It is a fact that a lot of old-time fiddlers have a wide capacity for incoming information during performance. This is not because they are talented or gifted. It’s simply because they operate within a musical tradition that encourages and calls for elements of communication and interaction during performance. Other musicians I have played with have such a narrow perception capacity, that they are unable to realize even on an elemental level what is going on around them musically and socially.

Being able to perceive, process and –even more so– to respond to information coming from outside is being able to interact musically and socially. It is an enviable performing quality and a big part of the whole musicianship discussion. I find it very interesting, worth investigating and developing.

As far as the variety of bow grips among old time fiddlers are concerned, they seemed to me very strange at the beginning, but in many cases these bow grips did not confine their musical goals in any crucial way. I think personalized bow grips largely originate in the need of old-time fiddlers to produce a percussive feel and effect with their bows, and to convey the dance feeling to their audiences. From that point of view, they constitute the bodily expression of a purely musical need rather then the implementation of a predetermined technical demand.

It is exactly this genuine and organic process that explains the development of a remarkably relaxed hand by some old-time fiddlers. I have come across old-time fiddlers whose right hand kinaesthetic quality would be envied by the average classical performer. And of course, the importance of a relaxed right hand while playing the violin cannot be overestimated.

There is also another broader implication that arises from this question of ‘unorthodoxy’. It can be compressed into these words by Christopher Small: A fish is not aware of the water, since it knows nothing of any other medium. In order to comprehend the nature of a certain principle, we must familiarise ourselves with the ‘different, ‘wrong’ or the ‘unorthodox’.

KAMARAS8954This is where I think the importance of the ‘unorthodox’ in old-time fiddling lies: The ways these people play represent a different source of empirical knowledge, experience and information, with which we have to acquaint ourselves and understand, in order to have that ‘binocular vision’ that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson has described as necessary for an all-embracing image of our world. Our two perspectives then come into a single, more reliable perspective according to Bateson’s principle that ‘two descriptions are better than one’.

I have found a nice formulation of this concept on the web by Sylvia S. Tognetti in the section of her work on Gregory Bateson titled The value of diversity: Double descriptions are key to understanding relationships because these result from patterns of interaction that consist of stimulus, response and reinforcement, and provide a context for understanding behavior. I find this comment valid enough within a musical context. It explains why acquaintance with diversity is a key idea that can prove useful while learning how to play an instrument.

Herbert Whone also suggests a similar concept in his book The simplicity of playing the violin that can be applied in the learning process; it is called contraction and is the method of knowing a thing by its opposite. The student is encouraged to consciously adopt an unorthodox approach in order to comprehend and achieve what is considered as ‘correct’ or ‘desirable’.

This is in strong contrast with the incrimination of the ‘wrong way’ often present in violin methods and teaching approaches. Let’s take an example: I have met violin teachers who would happily place mines on the fingerboard on the ‘out of tune’ areas if they could, in order to prevent their students from experimenting. I think this is often the conceptual background of a ‘fixed’ performing attitude, which is reflected on the body language and, eventually, sound of the musician. Not to mention the fact that acquaintance with the audible relationship between random frequencies (and not just between ‘right’ frequencies) sharpens hearing and the ability to differentiate between in tune and out of tune.

Therefore, I would insist that in order to foster a free musical mind and body, a violin teacher should encourage students –according to the above idea– to freely explore the fingerboard, in order to familiarize themselves with the feel, the traps and the sounds of it. This kind of process can enable musicians to defend any performing or technical aspects of their playing, as opposed to slavishly following a purely dictated system.

stergiosClassical violin technique has of course its own rules and principles. They are the quintessence of human experience and laws of physics, and have good reasons to exist. (We should not forget of course that even within this framework of generally accepted rules there are different violin schools, like the Russian or the Franco-Belgian. There are even different bowing techniques in ‘authentic’ performances of early music, e.g. baroque, which involve different hand positions from the traditional classical/romantic way of playing). At the same time, they are also style-defining and therefore necessary only for those who are after the instrument’s maximum technical capabilities or certain sound qualities. These sound qualities are not necessarily ‘better’ than others and they certainly do not constitute a musical article of faith. Holding the violin the classical way is not really a prerequisite for playing or enjoying, since obviously not everyone is interested in learning how to play Paganini’s caprices.

The mosaic of individual approaches in old-time fiddling serves different musical ambitions, intentions and tastes. It represents a sizable reality in our musical world which cannot be ignored, and rightfully claims its stolen space of meaning and value next to everything else. It is not a threat to ‘orthodox’ violin technique, but explains it further, enriches it and probably questions it from time to time. In my mind, watching people adopting all weird approaches to playing the violin is charming on its own. Above all, it satisfies my strong instinctive need to see all the possible ways people do what I do, keeping my eyes and my ears thirsty.

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Self-learning and music: It’s all up to you

Self -learningSelf-learning in music is a highly ignored and underestimated concept.

Formal music learning is a privilege. This is firstly because a lot of people are not capable of funding their music tuition. Secondly, people very often tend to be interested in musical styles and traditions that were developed and popularized outside their cultural boundaries. Thus, the presence of knowledgeable and specialized teachers is often highly improbable. These two facts impose great difficulties on the prospective music learner. As a consequence, a lot of people resort to self-tuition or other forms of informal learning.

All learning processes in music are really mixtures of individual effort, as well as help and influence from other people. In that sense, providing a definition of ‘formal instrument tuition’ is risky. For the Western world and the principles that govern its educational fabric, self-tuition is defined by the absence of musical institutions, systematic lessons and exams. Formal tuition however is largely culturally defined, and is strongly related to the dominant values and principles among different societies. For some cultures like the Balinese and many African musical traditions there is no philosophical or practical separation between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ modes of learning. The learning process may take place within a particular social context in which everyone is responsible for his own musical development always in strong interaction with the social environment.

There is no analogy between academic interest and research, and the number of people that become interested and involved in music through self-tuition. The biggest part of the academic world is concerned with institutional education matters while vast numbers of people perform, learn and create music outside the world of institutions. Peter Cope in his article ‘Informal learning of musical instruments: The importance of social context’ in Music Education Research, (2002) puts it rather ironically: ‘(…) one could be forgiven for missing this aspect if one relied entirely on the research literature’.

Self-taught musicians exist in the practice of all musical styles. Although the way people get involved in music depends on cultural and musical contexts, every music tradition has benefited from the presence and creativity of self-taught musicians. The desire to be involved in music knows no musical boundaries.

Many philosophers and important philosophers of education like Dewey, Neill, Godwin and Freire have stressed the importance of self-education and the importance of recognizing that ‘Man is a creature that loves to act from himself’ and people internalize knowledge through excitement and pleasure. These writers have often been suspicious of the role of teachers and instructors, without however always underestimating it. They have unfolded the dangers of extensive moral, psychological, practical and systematic guidance. These views do not neglect the significance of the social factor, but also recognize that human nature is too complex to be guided by the narrowness of educational and guidance methods invented by others.

Even more so today, with all this kind of information readily available on the internet, with people sharing their ideas, knowledge and experience on websites and youtube, and with vast amounts of information being uploaded and downloaded all the time, we can definitely say that the future historian will be very strict with people who are privileged to have access to all that information. There are no excuses anymore. All we have to do is grab that knowledge marching in front of us.

The major pentatonic scale: Tips on how to use it

Major pentatonicThis session is a short introduction to the major pentatonic scale. This scale is widely used by musicians all over the world, so it deserves our attention early in our sessions. Pentatonic scales are made of 5 different notes and are extremely useful and interesting. This is because they seem to have an innate musical meaning and they tend to sound more as ‘real music’ compared to the heptatonic scale we have all heard and sung many times in our lives: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Whatever musical style you are into, the simplicity, openness and inherent musicality of the major pentatonic scale will always enrich your playing.

Its general formula is 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, supposing that the major pentatonic scale is named after the 1 note. The G major pentatonic scale then is G, A, B, D, E. Familiarize your left hand with the fingerings for all 12 major pentatonic scales. Ideally, you should learn to play the scale using the whole range of your instrument. If not, I would at least strongly recommend playing scales and arpeggios starting on the lowest note available. How high up on the E string you want to go depends on your intentions and stylistic needs.

Keep in mind that for every major pentatonic scale there is an equivalent scale called minor pentatonic built out of the same notes. The relative minor pentatonic scale is always found one and a half step lower than the root of the major one and its formula is 1, 3, 4, 5, 7. Once we learn the major pentatonic we immediately get the minor one for free. So when we say G major pentatonic (G, A, B, D, E) we also mean E minor pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D) and vice versa. It is basically up to us whether we’ll be thinking major or minor. Let’s agree that in this session we’ll be thinking major.

Tips on using the Major Pentatonic Scale

Suppose our guitar friend is playing a D major chord. A typical application of the major pentatonic scale is to play the scale building it on the root of the major chord, in this case D major pentatonic. Sounds like this:

Don’t forget that if the chord changes to Bm we can use the same scale. (D major pentatonic=Bm pentatonic)

We can use ideas and structures that are built on a different root than that of our chord we want to play on. One example is playing our scale 2 semitones lower than the root of the major chord. This is especially effective in modal tunes where the harmony moves to the major chord built on the 7th degree of the scale. When this happens we can play the same major pentatonic on both chords creating two different colours. Here is how the C major pentatonic scale sounds when our guitarist alternates between D and C major chords:

You can find a good example of this idea in mandolinist’s John Reischman Cd “Up in the Woods” in “Ponies in the forest”. This is a tune in D major where he is using sounds from the C major pentatonic scale (2 semitones lower than the root) on both D major (the 1 chord) and C major (the 7 chord). Let’s see our contribution to the harmony when we play C major pentatonic against a D major chord:

C note is the flat 7th.
D note is the root.
E note is the 9th.
G note is the 4th.
A note is the 5th.
We can find this harmonic environment in many tunes like Salt Creek, Red hair boy and June apple.

Another use of the major pentatonic scale is on dominant chords, the third of the 3 big families of chords. Dominant chords are major chords with a flat 7th. Again, as in major chords you can play the scale building it on the root of our dominant chord. So if we had a D7 chord we can play the D major pentatonic scale. Although our scale does not provide the important 7th degree of the dominant chord (the note C), it is still a major scale and sounds fine.
Another idea that works well within a jazz context is to play the major pentatonic scale whose root is one step lower that the root of the dominant chord-same thing we did with major chords. For example, on a E7 chord we could play D major pentatonic (D, E, F#, A, B). Here our contribution to the harmony is as follows:

D note is the flat 7th (good starting note…)
E note is the root
F# note is the 9th (nice to land on…)
A note is the 4th
B note is the 5th

I find this sounds better on dominant chords which do not resolve to the tonic (1 chord). But this is just me, so follow your own taste.
When our dominant chord does resolve to the tonic (the 1 chord) in a 5-1 resolution, then we can basically use the major pentatonic scale built on the 1, on both 5 and 1 chords. So if our guitarist is playing D7 that leads to G major we can play G major pentatonic sounds on both chords.
So, the beginning of the jazz standard Sweet Georgia Brown for example, follows this progression (in the key of G): E7-A7-D7-G. Now, let’s apply these 3 ideas. I ‘ll be playing-thinking D major pentatonic on E7 (one step below our root), A major pentatonic on A7 (typical application) and G major pentatonic on both D7 and G since D7 leads to the tonic key of G. You will listen to this progression twice. Sounds like this:

We can also use the major pentatonic scale to create a more bluesy colour. We can do that by playing the major pentatonic scale built one and a half step above a major chord root. For example if we are playing in G major environment we can play Bb major pentatonic. Our contribution then is:

Bb note is the flat 3rd
C note is the 4th
D note is the 5th
F note is the flat 7th
G note is the root.

Let’s apply this idea on a typical swing progression in the key of G. The progression in our example is Em-A7-D7-G6 and you will listen to it 4 times. I am going to treat all 4 chords as being in G major environment. In the beginning I am going to play some simple G major pentatonic material, and then I will play the Bb major pentatonic at the end. Listen to the blues effect:

Flat 3rd and 7th are typical blues notes. We provide them by playing Bb pentatonic on G major. The blues will be discussed in more detail in a future post.

These are a few suggestions on how to start using the major pentatonic scale. We need to keep in mind that what sounds nice to our ears is also a matter of context, judgement and interpretation. However, due to its inherent musical meaning the major pentatonic scale is an interesting area for experimentation in our pursuit for nice sounds. One way to look for these sounds is to spot an important harmony note or groups of notes (usually 3rds and 7ths, or extensions like 11#, 9, b9) and then see which pentatonic scales are these notes part of. The combination of emphasising these key notes, the inherent meaning of the scale and your taste will yield some good results.

Good Luck!

Watch this demonstration of the pentatonic scale by Bobby McFerrin.

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