Rock Guitar is not Limiting

The Secret

It all boils down to something very simple: Instead of Middle C on the piano, one starts on a guitar with the open low E string or A string as the center of his or her universe. The C Major scale is unceremoniously let go. The pentatonic minor scale [R, m3, P4, P5, m7] over parallel fifths [root-fifth "diads" as opposed to triads] becomes the secret formula, the basic framework to hang everything else on. Old Blues records provide the basic feel, phrasing, nuances and even subtle deviations from the formula. One has to listen. The way it all lays on a guitar fret-board, with the notes that can bend one into another, becomes something completely different from Asian music. (Look up "pentatonic scales" in an old music text and you'll land in the chapter on "Chinese Music".) Over the course of a musician's life, this new starting point can be expanded upon just as much as someone who started with the C major scale on Middle C.

A Common Misconception

Many trained musicians scoff at this approach - they say it's very "limiting" with a snide tone of voice. But it's their imaginations that are limited. All this is, is a different starting place. One can go as far as one wishes. Over a lifetime, one can add tones to the pentatonic scale to make diatonic, exotic or even synthetic scales. These can all be applied to any tonic in our twelve tone system, and harmonized in any way, with extended or altered tones. One can add the third (or any other note) to their root-fifth diads. Form and structure can be molded at will.

The Ego

I believe that many of those musicians cop their elitist attitudes because they originally played rock music for the wrong reasons. They cannot admit that it's just not their music. They have to criticize it because they have a problem with other peoples' success in that realm. They don't even know how far some artists have taken it (Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, et al.). They also don't respect the artists who stay within that simple formula. It never occurs to them that someone else with different tastes is just simply playing the music they love. It also never occurs to them that the artist has developed something that doesn't show up on manuscript paper (Clapton's finesse and intonation, for instance). The ego has attached itself to harmonic complexity.

Since their ego is in the way, they are hearing harmonically simple music as if it were transcribed into music notation (as if a machine would be reading it and playing it back). The music is filtered through a “matrix of even-tempered thirds” inside their brains. (To visualize such a matrix, harmonize a scale all the way to the 13th for each degree and connect the dots so that it looks like a grid.) Under the cloak of “harmonic simplicity”, all the subtle microtonal nuances are lost. They pass through the "matrix" unheard. If these listeners could let go of their egos and relax their ears micro-tonally, a whole new world would emerge for them. Their brains are conveniently filtering out the human element, so that it is easier to criticize the music.

Music Is Infinite

In this context, Middle C on a keyboard is completely arbitrary, it has no more significance than any other note. (It only makes sense in the historical context of Western Europe's development of written music.) Also, dividing the octave into 12 tones is completely arbitrary. Tempering the notes so that all keys will be in tune is yet another arbitrary adjustment. There is nothing wrong with this at all – a lot of beautiful music has been created this way. It is just that a musician who adopts harmonic complexity as a sole criteria cannot hear the beauty that falls outside of this system. An inflexible grid is imprinted in their brain and they can't hear or see anything but numbers. All other sound passes through that grid in their brains - no wonder they don't hear anything. These subtle micro-tonal deviations that do not register are the secret to all folk, "street", and indigenous musics. Ask them to sing along with a rock or blues song and you will hear them unconsciously tempering all the notes.

The Living, Breathing Note

A real live note played by a real live human is a living, breathing note - deep and complex with life in its own right, regardless of context. An "A" may fluctuate around 440 Hz, for instance, as it lives and breathes. The brain of the "over-educated musician" is ignoring these microtonal variations, in affect "rounding off" the notes to "whole numbers" so that they can plot these "points" on a "graph" (i.e. notes on a music staff). Heard this way, the brain only "sees" twelve discrete tones per octave, i.e., twelve discrete points. This type of listener therefore is looking for "mathematical manipulation" i.e., ways to mathematically combine and juggle these notes (extended/altered chords, chord progressions). Music therefore becomes math, and only math. These listeners therefore dismiss anything they "see" as mathematically simple. They might be happier pursuing a degree in mathematics at a university. Calculus is far more interesting than viewing music in this way, anyway.

Live And Let Live

It's as easy as falling off a log! Let go of the ego! If one plays from the heart, one doesn't resent anyone else for what they play. Playing from the ego cheats the performer as much as the audience. The magic of music is far greater than egotistic self-gratification, and feels better for all concerned. Anyone that needs to educate their audience can go teach in a music school. Anyone in the audience that wants a harmony lesson can just go to a music school.

Bud Tristano, April 10, 2015

© 2015 Bud Tristano