How I Use Pentatonic Scales in Everything I Play

by Joe Walker, 18 Aug 2011, in Theory

Every rock-influenced guitarist learns the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales early on. The mileage you can get from those two scales alone is endless. Furthermore, it's not uncommon to substitute different pentatonic scales over the same harmony. One might throw in some A minor pentatonic licks over Dm, emphasizing E, the 9. I've heard many jazz players use and speak of superimposing pentatonic scales over more complex harmonies. But I've taken it beyond substitutions and superimpositions; I regard pentatonic scales as fundamental to my playing.

The three elements commonly used to understand music are chords, arpeggios, and scales. Unless you're dealing with really crazy or "world" music, the scales used are almost exclusively 7-note scales: modes of the major scale, melodic minor, harmonic minor. (The whole-tone, half-whole diminished, and whole-half diminished scales are the three exceptions. Even harmonic major, for the crazies, has seven notes.) Mastery of music created in this manner (most of Western music) requires the ability to translate quickly between chords, arpeggios, and scales.

Pentatonic scales sit between the (usually 4-note) arpeggios and (usually 7-note) scales above. I use them as much for visualization on the guitar fretboard as for note generation and theoretical analysis.

The Other Pentatonic Scale

The major and minor pentatonic scales are modes of each other, so I consider them as coming from the same source. For simplicity, I'll use the major pentatonic as the parent mode.

But there's another option. I wrote about it a long time ago: The Other Pentatonic Scale. I've taken to calling it the "dominant pentatonic scale", as that's how I use it most. Its notes are 1 2 3 5 b7, or over G7, G A B D F. There are many different ways to use this scale, but again for simplicity, I'll use the dominant pentatonic as the parent mode.

(Incidentally, the modes of the major pentatonic and dominant pentatonic are the only possible 5-note scales consisting of only major seconds and minor thirds. See How Many Scales Are There? if this fascinates you.)

Pentatonic Assignments

In my last post, I discussed the 10 Types of Jazz Chords I consider when improvising in jazz. This is my primary focus in using pentatonic scales, to embellish and improvise upon established chord progressions. Below is a list of which pentatonic I assign by default to each of these 10 categories. More than one will fit in nearly every case, but I limit my starting point in each category to a single pentatonic scale.

  • 6 (69, major triad)
    maj pent on 1: 1 2 3 5 6
  • maj7 (maj7b5, maj13#11, Lydian)
    maj pent on 5: 2 3 5 6 7
  • 7 (13#11, Lydian Dominant)
    dom pent on 1: 1 2 3 5 b7
  • 7sus (Mixolydian)
    maj pent on b7: 1 2 4 5 b7
  • 7b9 (13b9, natural 5, symmetrical dominant)
    (No pentatonic fits. Use dim arp on 3.)
  • 7alt (altered 5s and 9s, altered dominant)
    dom pent on b5: b2 3 b5 b6 b7
  • m7 (more ii than i, Dorian)
    maj pent on b3: 1 b3 4 5 b7
  • m6 (tonic minor i, melodic minor, m/maj7)
    dom pent on 4: 1 b3 4 5 6
  • m7b5 (m9b5, Locrian Natural 2)
    dom pent on b6: 1 b3 b5 b6 b7
  • dim7 (symmetrical diminished)
    (No pentatonic fits. Use dim arp on 1.)

Pentatonic Visualization

Now, don't jump to assume that basing your playing on pentatonic scales will make your playing sound forever pentatonic. Practicing arpeggios doesn't make your playing sound unnecessarily arpeggiated unless you don't progress beyond arpeggios. Likewise, pentatonic scales are just a starting point for achieving whatever sounds you want to.

The primary advantage on guitar is visualization. All of these pentatonic scales are most easily played two notes per string in any of the standard CAGED positions.

C Major Pentatonic:
C Major Pentatonic

C Dominant Pentatonic:
C Dominant Pentatonic

Any advanced guitarist with experience in rock or pop is as familiar with the five positions of major pentatonic as a fish is with water. Using them as a basis for understanding other chord types is a huge advantage, because you deal with all the old familiar shapes and fingerings. The dominant pentatonic, on the other hand, is far less common. The only reference I've heard about it being a useful scale in its own right is from a Robben Ford instructional video. He used a different mode, from the "m6" category above (1 b3 4 5 6), creating a Dorian sound over a m7 chord. Other than that, I've never heard of someone using this scale the way I do, so it's probably a minor hurdle to learn it as well as one knows the major pentatonic. But there are only five positions to memorize; it didn't take me long.

Using the specific pentatonic scales above, many standard jazz progressions take on a simple beauty. In a I-vi-ii-V progression, the prescribed pentatonics differ by only one note between consecutive chords. (See Pentatonics over Jazz Chords.) And alternative perspectives on harmony tend to reveal themselves a little easier. The pentatonics for Imaj7 and iiim7 are identical, so I-vi-ii-V and iii-vi-ii-V are treated the same. A progression like the following snippet from "Just Friends" doesn't immediately tell you that you can move the same lick down by half steps through all three measures.

Bbm7 Ebm7 | Fmaj7 | Abm7 Dbm7 |

But when you begin these three measures with Db major pentatonic, C major pentatonic, then B major pentatonic, you'd have to be asleep to avoid utilizing this chromatic descent in your improvising.

Finding Arpeggios and Scales

Pentatonic scales sit between arpeggios and the standard 7-note scales. You can use any pentatonic scale as a starting point for finding either the appropriate arpeggio or 7-note scale. Drop one note for a 4-note arpeggio, or add two notes for a 7-note scale. The key is knowing which notes to drop or add. For example, over C7alt, I start with the appropriate pentatonic: b2 3 b5 b6 b7 = Db E Gb Ab Bb (equivalent to Gb dom pent). I can drop Gb for a nice Bbm7b5 arpeggio, or I can drop Ab for a Gb7 arpeggio, or I can add C and Eb to complete the altered dominant scale.

In one of my first blog posts on From the Woodshed, I explained my theory of Constructing Jazz Scales from Chord Tones, in which I arrive at the generally agreed-upon "most consonant scale" for every chord type by adding the note a whole tone above the 3, 5, and 7 of any kind of 7th arpeggio. The same principle applies to every one of the pentatonic scales above (with one exception), even the two diminished arpeggios when no pentatonic works. An easier way to see it is to add the higher of the two skipped notes in any minor third. C dominant pentatonic (C D E G Bb) has minor thirds between E and G and between G and Bb. Therefore, add F# and A, and you get the "most consonant scale", Lydian Dominant. Try it with the others; it works every time (almost).

The one exception is the maj7 category. Using this rule adds #4 and #1 (instead of the root) to the scale. Sense can be made of this if you consider going "Double Lydian", another concept I discovered in the early days of this blog in the post Beyond Conventional Extensions. I encountered the name in a class at SDSU, and employed it in one of my compositions, The Kármán Line.

Pentatonic Tricks

There are all sorts of tricks that can be used with pentatonic scales on the guitar. I feel like I discover a new one every few months.

Pentatonic Sweeps
I wrote about Pentatonic Sweeps a few years ago. I'll demonstrate it more completely one of these days once I'm halfway decent at it.

Since all of these are two notes per string, you can burn straight up and down by picking the first note and hammering-on or pulling-off the second. Your pick can run through all six strings like a sweep while your left hand does most of the work.

Any kind of sequence will work fundamentally the same way between different pentatonic scales, again because they're all two notes per string. The picking pattern is necessarily identical.

Mimic a Motif
Want to apply variation to a theme? No problem! Visualize your theme on the appropriate pentatonic scale, and apply it to a different area of the same scale or to a new scale if the harmony has changed. Did I mention "two notes per string"? They're all the same! There's a low note and a high note on the sixth string, a low note and a high note on the fifth string, etc. Take one idea and apply it in dozens of different ways without changing the underlying fingering.

Bebop-ish Scales
Bebop Mixolydian adds the natural 7 to the standard Mixolydian scale, allowing a player to run straight through the scale with only chord tones on the down beats. Since every note in one of these pentatonic scales is a strong tone (if not a chord tone), you can do the same thing by adding in-between notes on the upbeats. They can be chromatic or derived from the appropriate 7-note scale, but you have many options beyond the 8-7-b7 descent of Bebop Mixolydian.

Get Outside
With pentatonics, I have two quick strategies to introduce spurts of outside sounds in my playing. Since the most magnetic of chromatic notes is a semitone below the target note, why not play a succession of these little leading tones? Momentarily switch to the pentatonic scale a half step below the one you're working with and back again. It twists the ear and snaps it back like a rubber band. I got the second trick from harmonizing bebop lines in an arranging course at SDSU. Take a moment to imply the V7alt of the chord you're playing over. Since I'm most familiar with the root mode of the dominant pentatonic, this translates to playing the dom pent a half step above the current root note. Make sure it resolves before the next chord comes up.


I've written a handful of articles on pentatonic scales in the past. It's an obsession. In addition to the content linked to above, check out Strange Uses for Pentatonic Scales, Pentatonic Slides, and SDSU Oral Exam: Analyzing My Own Solo.

10 Types of Jazz Chords

by Joe Walker, 12 Aug 2011, in Theory

10 TypesWhen approaching improvisation over an established harmony in any genre, it helps to sort out the types of chords you're dealing with. My approach is rooted in jazz theory, a heavy component of which is improvisation: knowing how to approach a given harmonic progression.

Players like Joe Pass and Jimmy Bruno like to reduce the number of different chords as much as possible. Watching Joe Pass's interviews and instructional videos chronologically reveals the following regression (not direct quotes):

  • "Dere are five types of chords: major, minor, dominant, half diminished, and fully diminished."
  • "Dere are tree types of chords: major, minor, and dominant."
  • "Dere are two types of chords: major and minor."

Pat Martino is known to view every single chord type as a substitution for some other minor chord.

While I usually favor mental shortcuts, and the Pass/Bruno approach is perfect for beginners or for strictly tonal jazz standards, I fear it conflates too many distinct chord types.

I think most would agree with me that there are as many types of chords as you have different ways of dealing with them. That's the point of separating or combining chord types in the first place. However, you lose many harmonic nuances if you combine too much. For example, C6 and Cmaj7 are very similar. In most cases in jazz, they serve the same function. But my improvisational approach is slightly different with each. Over C6, I wouldn't hesitate to use the root, while I'd be careful with the 7. Over Cmaj7, I'd embrace the 7 and avoid the root.

So I came up with a list of chord types, partial to jazz, that cover the different ways I deal with chords. Each of these is still a parent category for more specific chord types, but I chose these because I didn't feel like anything is lost by dealing with every chord within each category in the same way.

The name of each category is the most basic chord type that usually falls into it. I include some other chord types and scales to give an idea of what each category entails.

  • 6: 69, major triad
  • maj7: maj7b5, maj13#11, Lydian
  • 7: 13#11, Lydian Dominant
  • 7sus: Mixolydian
  • 7b9: 13b9, natural 5, symmetrical dominant
  • 7alt: altered 5s and 9s, altered dominant
  • m7: more ii than i, Dorian
  • m6: tonic minor i, melodic minor
  • m7b5: m9b5, Locrian Natural 2
  • dim7: symmetrical diminished

I've been using this system in its current state for a couple years now, and it's served me well, but it isn't perfect. There are times when a chord falls into a different category than the way it's written. In less tonal, chromatic modal tunes (Shorter, Hancock, Evans), some chords won't fit any of these categories. Or I might drop the same chord into different categories at different times (or even within a single measure). It helps to view the above list as "ways to deal with chords" rather than "chord types".

I'll end with an example, a static Cm9 chord. I might start by using the "m7" category, using Dorian and minor pentatonic. For some contrast, I could move to the "m6" category, using melodic minor. For some outside tension, I might use the "m7b5" category, tweaking the ear a bit with Locrian Natural 2.

Stay tuned; I have another post prepared to elaborate on how I treat each of these categories.

SDSU Oral Exam: Analyzing My Own Solo

by Joe Walker, 12 May 2011, in Compositions,School

Yesterday I completed the final degree requirement for my Master of Music in jazz studies at San Diego State University. I submitted myself to a one-hour oral exam with the three jazz professors. The atmosphere was more like an exit interview than an exam. We discussed my experiences, the program, and a few items I was asked to prepare ahead of time:

  1. a transcription and analysis of one of my improvised solos from my recital
  2. analysis of one of my original compositions
  3. repertoire and text selections for various levels of high school and college jazz performance groups and classes

In this post, I'll focus on the solo transcription. I chose "The Kármán Line" because it was my most confident solo, both in my mind when I played it and in its sound when I listen back to the recording. (And it fits nicely within the length restrictions without cutting it short.) I was weaving through overlapping pentatonic scales for this entire solo. The composition lends itself nicely to that technique with both inside and outside playing. (See my original post on "The Kármán Line" with the full lead sheet.)

Here's the video from the recital itself:

Here's the solo transcription.

Before looking through my annotated transcription, take note of the following analysis terms used by Prof. Rick Helzer. DP1 through DP4 are digital patterns, specific collections of notes within a perfect fifth. They are, in order, 1 2 3 5, 1 2 4 5, 1 2 b3 5, and 1 b3 4 5. Each digital pattern can be played in any order over any rhythm. LM is "Lydian Mode" and is identified whenever the soloist unambiguously employs Lydian. MDH is "Melodic Delay of Harmony", when the soloist continues to imply the previous bar's harmony for the first bit of the current bar. MA is "Melodic Arpeggio" and denotes any use of a full 7th chord arpeggio in any inversion.

Here's the annotated solo transcription.

Pentatonics in Motion

My default scales for the entire piece were minor pentatonic on every m7 chord and minor pentatonic built on the 3rd of every maj7 chord. Each of these has a backup scale for a less rudimentary sound, found by moving the scale root down a perfect 4th. Over a m7, 1 b3 4 5 b7 becomes 1 2 4 5 b7. Over a maj7, 2 3 5 6 7 becomes 2 3 b5 6 7. Particularly over the maj7 chords, weirder sonorities can be achieved by successively dropping the scale root by perfect 4ths. I used the next two levels in composing the tune and in my solo: b2 3 b5 6 7, b2 3 b5 b6 7. Prof. Helzer's approach to this concept names the latter two sounds "Double Lydian" and "Triple Lydian". See my SDSU Jazz Seminar Periodic Journal 1 for further discussion.

Noteworthy Moments

  • m1: offset melody reference
  • mm3-4: nice little development
  • m5: MDH unintentional (oops!)
  • m12: DPs everywhere, but none crossed my mind in the moment, all result from pentatonics
  • mm15-16: Double Lydian tension
  • m17: straight melody reference
  • m20: Triple Lydian with melody reference
  • mm22-25: nice development
  • mm27-28: simplify for tension
  • m32: Triple Lydian
  • mm31-36: nice development, progressing in mm37-40
  • mm34-36: Double Lydian
  • mm47-48: Triple Lydian
  • wind down to clear ending at top of form

Strengths and Weaknesses

In addition to the accidental MDH in measure 5, there were a few moments when my note choices lacked the conviction shown in the rest of the solo. I also could have expanded my range, exploring higher and lower registers than those I used. More double-stops and chords would have been nice to build intensity.

The strongest element of this solo was my development of little ideas. I love what I came up with in measures 31-40. Combined with subtle references to the melody, I felt like I crafted a very intelligible path through the tune. I also enjoyed the tension moments, usually coinciding with similar moments in the head, in which I used the "Double Lydian" concept to pull farther away from the Lydian sound before snapping back to consonance on the next chord.

Albums in My Blood

by Joe Walker, 9 May 2011, in Thoughts

I got to thinking lately that there's a certain set of albums that I know extraordinarily well. They're the ones I wore out (not literally; too young to have enjoyed the degradation of vinyl) when I started listening to music on my own. Some I never listen to anymore, but each one has a special place in my musical background. There's plenty of music that I've since studied, loved, performed, and beaten into my head more extensively than anything I heard as a teenager, but those early albums were my beginning. It doesn't matter what else I obsess over or whether I ever hear them again, their influence will always be with me in a way nothing else will.

I've never thought about this enough to compile all these albums into a list. Given their status in my development, I might do myself a service to identify and embrace them. I tend to ignore them as I continually explore new avenues, but if I could hold up any collection of music that might uniquely define a part of me, this is it.

I divided them into three periods. Pre-Guitar is what I listened to prior to the day I started playing at age 14 in February 1998. Beginning Guitar is the small explosion of listening I did in the next year or two. Intermediate Guitar begins with my discovery of Stevie Ray Vaughan and ends with my departure for college and a world of mp3s in August 2001.

Pre-Guitar: 1990-1998

I suppose I was a late bloomer musically. There was a decent amount of music around when I was small. My parents usually listened to oldies or classic rock in the car. I was into MC Hammer for a while. But I didn't catch on until high school that there's so much more to hear and love.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Soundtrack
That's right. It was one of the first and few cassettes I owned. I haven't heard it since I was 9 years old, and I can't recall any of it now, but I might sing along with every word and note if I heard it today.

Dangerous - Michael Jackson
This was the first CD I owned. I was into Free Willy, and I thought MJ's eyes looked cool on the cover. Plus "Black or White" and "Jam" blew my mind through radio.

Phantom of the Opera
I was in love with this music in 6th grade. Never saw it live. Finally saw the movie in 2005. The final cadence of "Music of the Night" will crush your soul then send you to the rapture with five little chords.

Graceland - Paul Simon
I never knew what it was like to enjoy every track on an album until I borrowed this from my parents. I always assumed there would be a few weak links. But they don't have to be there if it's a masterpiece.

Achtung Baby - U2
Another of my first CDs. My aunt gave it to me so I could "listen to some real music." She was way ahead of me, because while I listened to it constantly due to lack of selection, I didn't love it until I gave it a re-listen a few years ago.

Skynyrd's Innyrds - Lynyrd Skynyrd
My dad and I used to listen to the extended version of "Free Bird" on the 10-minute drive to my summer swim practices every day. During the breakdown with the fast repeating patterns, he'd say "I can do that."

Bringing Down the Horse - The Wallflowers
"One Headlight" was the first time I flipped out over a new song on the radio and had to buy the album.

Jimmy Buffett
I heard this stuff more than anything else growing up. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Beginning Guitar: 1998-1999

I plugged away at my dad's old acoustic guitar with Internet guitar tablature for a few months before I took my first lessons. Greg Wright was my guitar teacher in the Kirkland/Redmond/Bellevue, WA area. I quickly learned all the power chords, pentatonics, and palm-muting I needed to recreate the post-grunge alternative rock I was digging.

Ixnay on the Hombre - The Offspring
Credit "The Meaning of Life" for spurring me to pick up the guitar. That's one killer riff, and it still gives me chills.
Smash - The Offspring
Ignition - The Offspring
Americana - The Offspring
By the time Americana came out, I had reached a level where I could pick out guitar parts and learn them before the end of a song. This was the first time I did it with an entire album.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness - Smashing Pumpkins
"Bullet with Butterfly Wings" kicks ass.
Siamese Dream - Smashing Pumpkins
I never owned this, but borrowed it from a friend so I could learn "Mayonnaise".

The Colour and the Shape - Foo Fighters
One of my all-time favorite albums, I still come back to this once in a while.
Foo Fighters - Foo Fighters

Sublime - Sublime
"Same in the End" helped me discover the gain knob on my little Fender practice amp. Never turned it down after that.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik - Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Under the Bridge" is required repertoire for every budding guitarist. (Side note: "Sir Psycho Sexy" was playing in a family pizza establishment in Bellingham, WA when I picked up an order a few months ago. I discreetly suggested they skip to the next track.)

Even though I've never owned their albums, I also count as heavily influential all the radio hits from the following bands.
Green Day
Pearl Jam
Stone Temple Pilots

Intermediate Guitar: 1999-2001

Within a year after picking up the guitar, my listening and playing moved from grunge/alternative/pop/punk sounds into blues- and virtuoso-rock. My world revolved around Stevie Ray Vaughan, and for the first time I was listening to music for the sake of hearing great guitar playing.

Texas Flood - Stevie Ray Vaughan
My dad played this album for me in late 1998. He'd heard it before, but both our jaws hung open for the entire 40 minutes. It turned me on my head, and for a while nothing but SRV could satisfy my ears.
The Sky Is Crying - Stevie Ray Vaughan
In the Beginning - Stevie Ray Vaughan
Live Alive - Stevie Ray Vaughan
Live at Carnegie Hall - Stevie Ray Vaughan
In Session - Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan
In Step - Stevie Ray Vaughan
Couldn't Stand the Weather - Stevie Ray Vaughan
Soul to Soul - Stevie Ray Vaughan
Family Style - The Vaughan Brothers

Smash Hits - Jimi Hendrix
South Saturn Delta - Jimi Hendrix
Everyone knows Hendrix from a young age through classic rock radio, but Stevie's recordings of "Voodoo Chile", "Little Wing", and "Third Stone from the Sun" showed me there's a lot more to experience than "Purple Haze" and "Fire". This album was a collection of unreleased but well-recorded bluesy/psychedelic tracks.

Lie to Me - Johnny Lang
Wander this World - Johnny Lang
This guy was hot shit, a big blinkin' beacon on my radar as I went on my blues kick. I loved his playing, but he reminded me that the human voice is a hell of an instrument, too.

Damn Right I Got the Blues - Buddy Guy
My dad took me to my first BB King concert in the summer of 1999. I revered BB because I knew of his influence, but it was all three opening acts who really caught my attention: Indigenous, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Buddy Guy.
Trouble Is... - Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Live On - Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Things We Do - Indigenous

Surfing with the Alien - Joe Satriani
My first taste of virtuoso rock, I heard "Satch Boogie" on the radio one day and had to have it.
Crystal Planet - Joe Satriani
G3 Live in Concert - G3
And my first taste of Steve Vai, who later became another favorite, up on the pedestal with SRV. My impression of him hasn't changed since then: love his playing, can't stand his hamming.
Passion and Warfare - Steve Vai
Totally blew my mind, but what a weird dude.
The 7th Song - Steve Vai
My girlfriend gave this to me in high school, so I married her.

National Guitar Workshop 2010, Day 5: Jody Fisher's Class, Paul Gilbert Clinic

by Joe Walker, 20 Sep 2010, in NGW

Day 5 at the National Guitar Workshop was Thursday, July 15. (See Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4.)

Jody Fisher's Class

First thing in the morning, I sat in on Jody Fisher's class again. As I've done for the previous four NGW summaries, I'll spew my notes below.

When I walked in, he was talking about Pat Martino's clinic on the previous day. He brought up an important point. Most advanced guitarists will say they don't view the neck in sections or positions, but rather one giant matrix all at once. But what we rarely hear is that they didn't always see it that way. As beginners, we see the fretboard as one big landscape to explore. This relates to Martino's suggestion to approach the guitar with a child's curiosity. As we progress, we have to chop up the neck into positions or regions in order to learn it. These borders eventually dissolve, and we see one big picture again.

Jody told a quick guitar anecdote, which I've regrettably forgotten, but the punch line was "I'll tell you where to put your fingers."

By studying songs, we learn lots of well-crafted melodies.

Here's a crazy suggestion for improving your time and swing feel. Choose some music with a rhythmic feel you'd like to internalize: Basie or Blakey or whatever rhythm section catches your fancy. Play it loud in your home when no one's around, turn out the lights, and dance. Go nuts and get the pulse in your body. I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds pretty fun.

Jody took the class through the daily exercises he'd introduced earlier in the week. He called the first "maximum pressure," in which you hold your first finger on the first fret, sixth string, as hard as you can without compromising your hand technique. Hold it for several seconds, then switch to second finger, third finger, fourth finger. Continue through all six strings, move up a fret, repeat. Continue up the fretboard as far as you like. My fingers felt pretty good when we finished, like little hammers ready to bop notes on the head. The second exercise was for the right hand and was quite simple: two minutes of tremolo picking as fast as you can (again, without compromising your technique) on each string. Vary the dynamics. These exercises are part of a 30-Day Guitar Workout Jody has put together.

He chooses to play without his wedding ring, as it gets in the way. He used to take it off on stage right before playing, then realized how bad that must look.

Jody spoke at length on fingernail maintenance. I've never played with nails and don't intend to, but I found the discussion fascinating nonetheless. He detailed an involved routine of files, sandpaper, buffers, and glass files, as well as repair procedures with super glue and ping pong balls. Then he described a really cool protip. Buy some emory paper from a hardware store, and fold it over one string at a time. Pluck the emory-enveloped string 100 times with whichever finger(s) you'd use on that string. You end up with perfectly-formed nails custom-gauged to your strings.

If you're getting lost in a song's form, count when you have to. But only count until you can feel it. Then forget about the counting. If you have to count, you're lost.

Jody took the class through the chords, melody, and improvising approach on a harmonically simplified chart for "Bye Bye Blackbird." He played the chords while each person in the room played two choruses. His suggestion to jazz newcomers was to reduce all improvisation to the changing key centers. "Bye Bye Blackbird" has only a few: F major, G minor, and a few passing chords. We repeated the process with "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," which only uses C minor and Eb major. Jody had the students improvising only on C harmonic minor and Eb major, watching out for two bars of C7 in the bridge. I think this is a great way to get people started improvising, even if this isn't compatible with more advanced lines. It's easier for a player to change his approach later than to take on more than he can handle as a beginner.

Jody ended the morning's session with a packet of licks over common progressions. He had the class memorize a couple of them, and he talked about the utility of having a bank of licks available. He made an analogy to language that I've heard many times: you learn letters first, then you pay less attention to them as you learn words and phrases in chunks. In the same manner, licks function as a common vocabulary from which a player can effortlessly draw without thinking about the individual notes.

Paul Gilbert Clinic

In the afternoon, we closed down the NGW office again for Paul Gilbert's clinic. Upon arriving, he had delivered a packet of his thoughts and drawings for the clinic, produced post-midnight the night before. I recall taking the packet to the copy center and realizing it wasn't a copy, but handwritten in fresh pencil.

Paul's first topic was rhythmic versus non-rhythmic playing. Most playing is rhythmic, showing a strong connection to the pulse of the song. He demonstrated a few non-rhythmic applications in blues and rock solo settings, playing loosely, behind the beat, or frantically, fitting in as many notes as possible. He mentioned that during his time on the G3 tour with Satriani and Vai, he realized that more rhythmic soloing tended to cut through when they where all simultaneously wanking on their three-way finales. Good tip.

Transcribe drums. "It's a great way to steal without being caught." He demonstrated by assigning notes to a famous Bonham fill.

He played a few bluesy numbers and a Rush tune with NGW faculty members Blake Colie and Baba Elefante. Then he brought out a pair of congas to demonstrate a cool concept. He talked about his early years when he and his friends, possibly influenced by DiMeola, were strictly picking every note they played in order to get the loudest sound possible. Paul realized that playing some notes legato would allow the less-frequent articulated notes to be picked even harder. Translating this concept to the congas, he showed that trying to hit every beat prevented his hands from getting very high. If instead he skipped a few beats, creating a stuttered eighth-note rhythm, he had time at certain moments to bring his hands all the way over his head before slamming down. This holds true with picking, as the extra bit of time your left hand takes for a hammer-on or pull-off provides your right hand with an opportunity for a minature wind-up before picking the next note harder than you normally could. He played a simple pentatonic lick, first picking every note, then using the same rhythm he had created on the congas, filling the unpicked spaces with legato notes. I normally don't like sprinkling non-slide legato around my playing but this sounded awfully convincing, and had more varied dynamics, so I've been trying to get the technique under my fingers.

After playing a Muddy Waters tune, Paul talked about keeping the rhythm in your body. He used a Keith Richards riff to make his point. You wouldn't bob your head to that riff with each chord hit, stiffening up for the shorter hits and syncopations. You'd bob to the beat. "The wheel of rhythm is always spinning." One must think of how one would look while dancing with a girl. You'd look good while dancing to the beat, but like a goofball if you coordinated your moves with a syncopated rhythm.

Paul and the band played the Doors' "Light My Fire." Paul duplicated the crazy keyboard part note for note. I noticed that all three players were watching each other at every moment possible. I don't think the others had ever played with Paul before rehearsal a few hours prior, but their dynamic shifts were very well coordinated, as were most of the song transitions and endings throughout the clinic. I was impressed.

Another quick tip between songs: strum and hold a chord while reaching with your right hand behind your left hand to bend one of the notes up to a new chord tone.

The aforementioned "rhythmic playing" is much easier to develop with other people. "Music is social!"

A young kid asked a question: "Are you a shredder guitarist or just a rock guitarist?" Paul was stumped and thought he might go see a therapist about that one.

Someone else asked a question about writing songs. Paul first mentioned that some people find it very easy to write songs. Adopting a British accent, "Ay, I just woke up and I've got this song in me head. Yesterday . . . (strums chord) Oh, it's the greatest song in the world." The rest of us have a harder time and just need to steal things. Like transcribing drums, Paul suggests stealing things that won't get you caught. If you think a song has a really great tempo, go ahead and steal that tempo. The point is to have some kind of launch pad for your original ideas. And whenever you're stumped, go find another little idea to steal, alter, and make your own.

"Shostakovich's fifth symphony is the most metal piece ever written."

Paul closed out his clinic with a tune for the youngsters: Pat Travers's "Snortin' Whiskey and Drinkin' Cocaine."