I wanted to take a moment to share my current musical project. I’m working on a set of original arrangements and/or recompositions of jazz and folk standards for fingerstyle electric guitar. My goal is to create a set of twelve arrangements; as of now I’ve got three. I’ll be sharing samples of my work in-progress on Bandcamp. I’ve got lots more to say about the project but for now I’ll keep the announcement short and invite you to listen here:
In a recent post I wrote about a fretboard insight that came to me as I was revisiting the well-known CAGED system. Here I’d like to offer an alternate presentation of the same insight. So what is it, exactly? I think of it as a way of generalizing CAGED beyond five positions, to cover any position on the fretboard.
In this post I’d like to share a way of thinking about the guitar fretboard that occurred to me when I was revisiting the well-known CAGED system. I had known about CAGED for years, but only recently did it give me an “Aha!” moment.
What I’ll be presenting here is not CAGED itself, but rather a set of observations that were prompted by CAGED. As with anything relating to guitar, someone’s probably thought of it before, but I couldn’t find a similar exposition, so I’m offering my own.
Here’s a short piece I’ve just finished writing for guitar; maybe it will become part of a series. The style here is romantic and the texture is more homophonic than contrapuntal, a departure from the keyboard-oriented canons I’ve been working on recently. It feels good to now be writing for the instrument I actually play. This is in fact my first “composed” piece for guitar — my past guitar work has been improvisational and it’s taken me some time to move from a spontaneous to a planned approach to working with the instrument. One thing I’ve learned is that writing for guitar involves a constant interplay between abstract musical thinking and a nut-and-bolts examination of the instrument’s possibilities and tendencies. I suppose that’s true for any instrument, but it’s especially so for the guitar because the guitar is polyphonic, but not in the rational, orderly way the keyboard is polyphonic; instead, in a quirky, limited way, where the fingers of the left hand can quickly become immersed in a nightmarish game of Twister if the composer isn’t careful. But one nice thing about being the author of the piece you’re playing is that if a certain note gives you trouble you have the authority to change it, and I did that several times in the course of practicing this! In the clip, you’ll hear me playing my 2009 Connor guitar. Feedback is welcome.
This diagram shows the fretboard layout for a 6-string guitar in All Major Thirds tuning, assuming the open strings are tuned to E, G#, C, E, G#, C as recommended by Ralph Patt. I made the diagram because I’m beginning to learn this nonstandard tuning and I wanted a study aid that emphasized the amazing regularity of the system.
Notice that because the three open bass strings are tuned the same as the three open treble strings (modulo an octave), the entire pattern of notes among the bass strings is repeated among the trebles — the left and right halves of the diagram are identical.
Each of the four colors used in the diagram indicates one of four possible augmented triads (modulo inversion and enharmonic respelling). Notice, for example, that two copies the F Augmented triad (F A C♯) occur along the first fret and are shown with a light green background. At the fifth fret the same set of notes occurs in a different inversion — now the notes are ordered A C♯ F; again they are shown with a light green background. Finally, at the ninth fret, the notes occur in the order C♯ F A.
The “fret dots” on the left are positioned according to most common inlay pattern for standard tuning. For simplicity, notes are always spelled using sharps instead of flats, though of course all the notes in the diagram could be written in multiple ways.
An intriguing property of this layout is that any block of notes spanning three strings and four frets can be considered as a “tile” that repeats across the entire fretboard, in a way where the tiles don’t overlap and also don’t leave any gaps. In the image directly below, I started by drawing a box around the notes across the bass strings at frets zero through three; next, I placed boxes around all other instances of that same pattern. (The notes with a gray background aren’t actually on the fretboard, of course — I included them to make the pattern clear.)
This next diagram is similar to the previous one, except I outlined a different block of notes:
Other regular tunings like All Fourths also give rise to tiling patterns like the ones above, but in the case of All Fourths, non-overlapping tiles won’t form nice, simple rectangles, and it’s not possible to “fit” as many complete tiles on the fretboard. Here’s one way of tiling a fretboard tuned to E, A, D, G, C, F:
If you’ve followed my guitar posts here, you’ll know that I like the All Fourths tuning (E A D G C F) because it imposes a regularity on the fretboard that allows a player to shift chord and scale patterns across strings without fingering adjustments. It’s also a comfortable tuning to explore if you’re familiar with standard tuning, since only the highest two strings are changed: you can reuse any chord or scale pattern that you’ve learned on the lower four strings, which are already tuned in fourths.
I had been cautiously avoiding other nonstandard tunings since switching to All Fourths around a year ago — I didn’t want to spread myself too thin. But a blog visitor recently asked why I hadn’t considered All Major Thirds tuning here, and I couldn’t resist the invitation to experiment. Now, after exploring M3 for a week, I’d like to share some initial observations. (Alexandre, thanks again for the question that prompted this!)
One way to implement M3 is to keep the guitar’s lowest string at E and tune major thirds above that, giving E, G#, C, E, G#, C. This is the 6-string setup recommended by Ralph Patt, who is considered to be the originator of M3 tuning. Notice that while P4 tuning expands the guitar’s range by a semitone, M3 narrows it by a major third (the highest string drops from E down to C), which is why some M3 players prefer a 7-string guitar. And while P4 only requires two strings to be retuned, M3 requires five retunings, which makes it a very different beast from standard tuning.
One of the first observations people make about M3 tuning is that you can play an entire 12-note chromatic scale in a span of four frets, with the same finger always playing the same fret, without shifting hand position. Since any octave-repeating scale is a subset of the chromatic scale, this means you can play any scale you want without a position shift or stretch. (If you’ve grown up adjusting to the shifts and stretches of standard tuning, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how remarkable this is.)
A nuance I haven’t seen emphasized elsewhere is that all this holds true regardless of which finger you use for the root note. You can start the scale with your index finger or your pinky, and in each case there’s no need to move your hand or stretch beyond four frets. The diagram below shows four different fingerings of the chromatic scale, corresponding to the four fingers you could use to play the root. The numbers indicate which finger is used to play the notes at the corresponding fret — in the first example we play the root with the index finger (1), in the second example we play it with the middle finger (2), and so on.
Just as the chromatic scale can be played with any starting finger, without a position shift, so too can any scale be played with any starting finger, without a position shift. What’s more, the four single-position fingerings of any given scale bear noticeable similarities to each other, as they are composed of the same building blocks — it’s easy to learn all four fingering patterns at the same time! In the remainder of this post I’ll elaborate on this point with the major scale as an example.
In working out 7-note scales in M3 tuning I’ve found it useful to think of these scales as stacked tetrachords. For our purposes a tetrachord is any sequence of four notes spanning a fourth (alternatively you could think of a tetrachord as a sequence of three intervals that add up to a fourth); here we’ll only look at tetrachords that span a perfect fourth but in a followup post we’ll consider tetrachords that span an augmented fourth. The major scale is nicely regular in that it can be seen as two stacked copies of the same whole-whole-semi tetrachord pattern. Starting at the root, say C, and traversing a whole tone, another whole tone, and finally a semitone gives us C, D, E, F. Starting at the fifth, G, and applying the whole-whole-semi pattern again gives us G, A, B, C. Put them together and you have the entire major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The diagram below shows how the whole-whole-semi tetrachord pattern is fingered in M3 tuning, with all possible starting fingers. Notice that the first two examples have the same shape though they employ the fingers differently.
Now we’re ready to finger the major scale itself, not just in one way but in four ways that are interrelated. Since the major scale consists of two copies of the whole-whole-semi tetrachord, each single-position fingering of the major scale can be understood as a pairing of two of the whole-whole-semi fingerings we saw above. Let’s say we want to play the major scale starting with our index finger on the root. First we’d play the whole-whole-semi tetrachord pattern starting from the index finger (I’ve colored this pattern dark blue in the diagrams). Notice how the pattern ends with the second finger playing the fourth degree of the scale. Next we need to skip a whole step up to the fifth degree of the scale, which falls under the pinky. Keeping the hand position fixed and applying the whole-whole-semi fingering starting from the pinky (I’ve colored this patten cyan) completes the scale. What if we wanted to start playing the major scale with the pinky instead of the index finger on the root? The reasoning is similar: first play the whole-whole-semi tetrachord pattern starting from the pinky; then, since the pattern ends on the first finger, skip a whole step up to the third finger and play the tetrachord patten that starts from the third finger (green). The diagram below shows all four fingerings of the major scale as combinations of the whole-whole-semi tetrachord fingerings from the previous diagram:
Of course it’s possible to conceive of scale fingerings in terms of tetrachords in other tuning systems, but M3 is the only system I know where it works so well — where you can mix and match tetrachord fingerings as we’ve seen to build scales that stay entirely within four frets. In a followup post we’ll take a look at other tetrachord patterns (like semi-whole-whole, whole-semi-whole, etc.) and how they can be used in M3 to finger the natural minor scale, the melodic minor scale, and pretty much any scale you could imagine.
In guitar playing, it’s easy to fall into the habit of applying more pressure with your left hand fingers than you really need. You might not be aware that you’re pressing too hard until find your left hand becomes tired or strained. This habit is hard to diagnose because it doesn’t always come with visual or auditory cues: you might not be able to see signs of excess pressure when you look at your left hand in the mirror, and you can’t hear it either. Here’s an exercise/experiment that can help you build control over left hand pressure and ultimately find the minimum level of pressure needed to get a clear tone. The idea is simple: play a scale and try to make every note buzz. That’s right — while buzzing is usually considered a mistake, in this exercise it’s the goal. Try to make the string just barely touch the fret, so that it rattles against the fret when you strike the note. You should be able to hear the note along with the buzzing: don’t press hard enough that the buzzing goes away and you get a clear tone, but don’t press so lightly that the string never comes into contact with the fret and you get a muted sound. You’ll probably find that it’s easy to create buzzing for one note in isolation, but it will take some practice to be able to achieve buzzing consistently as you play up and down the scale of your choice. That’s because buzzing only occurs within a narrow pressure range, and the right level of pressure differs slightly for each note (it depends on where the note is on the fretboard, on your guitar’s action, on the shape and height of the fret in question, and possibly also on the strength of your right hand stroke). So, by learning to achieve a consistent buzz as you play up and down the fretboard, you force yourself to pay close attention to left hand pressure and you learn to control that pressure in very precise way. (Remember, by “consistent buzz” I mean that every single note should buzz: no note should be clear, and no note should be fully muted. If you find yourself playing too many clear notes, keep practicing!) The next step, once you’ve learned to achieve a consistent buzz, is to increase the pressure very, very slightly so that the buzz goes away. Instead of doing this all at once, you could try playing a scale in alternating fashion, where one note buzzes, then next is clear, the next buzzes, and so on. Spend some time with this, and you’ll get a good sense of how it feels to play with no more left hand pressure than you need.