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Pfft…yeah, right.

As if a rock guitarist could explain the essence of the greatest guitar chord book ever written.

Then again, some would argue it’s one of the worst books written because of wildly unstructured layout. I mean, if I’d written an all encompassing book like this, I might have started with power chords, working my way into the jazz genius.

Man, the nerve of this blogger–thinking he knows how a chord BIBLE should be written!

I bought this book back in college. Let’s not mention dates, but I had hair back then. I got it because my teacher recommended it and seeing that I was logging in 4-6 hours of practice each day, why not invest some of that time into something besides Satriani solos?*

I think I skipped the first six sections (chord formulas? Polytonal chords?) and hit on Section 7: Essential Chords because with a title like that I had to take it seriously. But if you’ve seen those two pages you know what you’re in for; something involving lots of aspirin.

But I plowed through that list over several months, forgot most of it, but picked up some cool voicings that I use to this day. Then over the next five years I spent unhealthy hours pouring over all this chemistry, writing notes in the margins, writing progressions of my own to see if I understood the information. Many years later, I still find those papers in my drawers, and they don’t make a darn bit of sense!

I finally burned out on trying to make sense of Ted’s genius. I wasn’t qualified to handle it. I moved on to lessons in guitar magazines, “easier” books, exploring on my own.

At some point, long after college, I opened up a page of progressions in Chord Chemistry and played through them. Back in college these chords were just weird shapes I tried to memorize unsuccessfully. They sounded cool, but I was annoyed that I couldn’t unlock the secret as to why they sounded cool. But in this moment they suddenly made sense. The voice leading, substitutions, inversions–I GOT IT!

Well, not always to the point where I could be certified as a chord chemist, but I saw the connections between what Ted was teaching versus the “easy” stuff I’d picked up previously. Puzzle pieces came together so compositional riddles could be solved.

I have a few pointers for tackling the information in this crazy text. What makes me qualified to do so? Teaching guitar for twenty years, for starters. I probably lost students trying to force this material on them prematurely, so I learned what they should tackle FIRST before digging into Chord Chemistry.

  • Power Chords: Yes, the ones that let you play Green Day songs. If you can’t rock out and hold solid grooves with power chords you’ll have more fun licking dirty guitar strings** than reading Chord Chemistry.
  • Open Major/Minor Chords: Because…if I have to explain why you’re better off practicing on a couple rubber bands!
  • Bar Chords: Often called the Caged System. Learn these shapes in major, minor, major 7, dominant 7 and minor 7 FIRST!*** Get those down and all the crazy 13ths, #5/b9 chords will make WAY more sense.
  • Triads: Major and minor shapes all over the neck are a must. I’m tempted to say you should learn these before the bar chords, but greener players tend to get frustrated with such thin sounding chords, not to mention liking the freedom of hitting more strings that bar chords offers.

Hey, all this info is on my poster, getting the shameless plug out of the way. It’s also covered in Ted’s Essential Chord List, though buried with all the inversions you probably won’t need for awhile. So…practice this up to your threshold, then move on to non-Ted stuff so your brain can process it.

What’s valuable to you in Chord Chemistry varies on experience levels. Personally, I found Section 15: Triads to be mind blowing. I’d already been playing bar chords for many years, so learning how to create diatonic chord scales on the p.82 shapes opened my mind up to all sorts of ideas.

I also absorbed Section 10: Moving Chords a 4th early on. Something about being able to take a shape I knew on one set of strings and create the same chord on another group helped me come up with ideas faster than just memorizing a bunch of chord boxes.

Section 18: Blues Progressions should be closer to the front of the book, IMHO. For rock guys like myself, at least. Seeing how all these crazy chords can be used in a I-IV-V context is a lifetime of new doors opening. If you have a basic grasp of diatonic harmony concepts you’ll find another year or two of practice just absorbing the turnarounds on p.99. bIIIM7–bVIM7–iim7b5–V7??? I know…but it sounds awesome!

I could write at least a blog a month on new things I’ve learned from this book, but I’ll leave it with this: My biggest mistake when I first bought Chord Chemistry was approaching it like a method book to study front-to-back. Frustrating! Study the sections that make sense to YOU and inspire you to practice. If you’re confused by the concepts on a page move on to something else. Come back to the confusing chapter a few months (or even a few years) later and you’ll be surprised that it suddenly makes sense.

*Which I couldn’t play, anyway. I mean, I could play them, but not in any way a fan would recognize.

**Your own dirty strings, not someone else’s. That’s just unhygienic!

***But don’t beat yourself up if you learn a ninth chord before doing this. You’re supposed to be having fun!

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Warning: Another very basic guitar lesson post–nothing fancy here! So if you’re all ready comfortable with playing in 3/4 time sorry I wasted your seconds clicking on this post. ๐Ÿ™‚

But as I’ve introduced students to the concept of odd time signatures I’ve noticed their comprehension is blocked by a very straightforward roadblock…what’s the difference between odd time and common (4/4) time when the building blocks (quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.) are the same? For example, if you’re simply playing a quarter note groove is it in 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 1,000,000/4 or what? The roadblock is something along the lines that odd time signatures should have, well, ODD rhythms!

And they can, but they don’t have to.

Check out the top example the PDF I put together. A repeating measure in 3/4 followed by the exact same quarter notes in 4/4. Close your eyes and you can’t tell which time is being played. It’s all about how you’re counting in your head. Are you counting “1-2-3, 1-2-3…” or “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4…”? That’s it.

Now you’re disappointed. Odd time grooves sound so cool when Rush/Tool/Dream Theater use them. How come mine sound dumb? Because you’re just learning them, duh! Learn every easy rhythm your ears can find and suddenly those complex riffs aren’t so complex.

The second row on my PDF is basically the same riff twice except the second measure in 4/4 has an extra note the 3/4 measure doesn’t. Simple, eh? But now you’re starting to hear the difference.

The first measure of the third row was one of the first I learned where the concept of 3/4 first clicked for me, perhaps because it’s two dotted quarter notes that completely fill a 3/4 space. There’s a smoothness (in my opinion) that has a distinct 3/4 feel without feeling odd to play. The second measure of that row is the same thing with the added note on the fourth beat, a helpful way to compare the feels of similar riffs.

Tip of the iceberg with this stuff. There are so many resources to learn just about anything on this I wouldn’t know where to start. Oh, wait…this link has some cool tips on it.

Not to mention the odd time lessons and other cool chordal tips found my rhythm guitar poster.

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Dude…SERIOUS man crush on Victor Wooten! No…that didn’t come out right. SERIOUS love for his playing (though I’ve never met the man… ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) He’s got this killer instructional video where he gets all serious about groove & stuff. There’s this one freakishly brilliant chapter where he talks about getting in tune with the groove that you’re locked in no matter when the beat starts, stops or slows down. Here’s the video.

Badass! Say it out loud–I did.

Lots of ya have drum loops via your drum machine, ProTools, Logic, Garageband. So you don’t need what I’m offering here. But I know lots of ya (including my students) who don’t use any of that stuff–it’s all about the practicing. So I made this simple mp3 to help practice Victor’s concept. The first minute is a four measure drum loop at 95 BPM. The second minute is the same loop except I removed every fourth measure. Next minute I removed the last two measures. Next minute, the last three measures. Then the final minute is simply the first beat of the first measure.

It’s up to you to find the grooves. You’ll notice some rhythms are pretty easy to keep your place in, while some really force you to concentrate. Then you get to Victor’s idea of improvising the embellishments to the groove and you’ve got your work cut out for you! But my opinion is to always work on the simplest stuff first, let natural boredom guide you to the more fancy riffs.

Extreme time mp3.

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This is for the advanced beginner or intermediate players out there. So all you cats comfortable with diatonic harmony can spare me the rants about how easy this is. Besides, you sould be practicing right now!

I often get the student questions about how to play in a particular key or how to make your chord progressions more interesting. They know a bunch of bar chords, maybe even dabbled in the ones with the fancy names like 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. But bouncing around the shapes randomly doesn’t satisfy, so how do you lasso the chords into something decent? Tricky question to the less experienced, compounded by the experience level of the player and how much music theory they have under their belt. But to get the ball rolling I’m going to start with a straightforward outline that will get you making the music first. Then you can tackle other questions later with your teacher…or give ME a call if you’re in Marin County and could use a few more lessons. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Let’s focus on the key of C Major. You’re pretty much restricting yourself to the following chords (for starters):

I = C major

ii = D minor

iii = E minor

IV = F major

V = G major

vi = A minor

vii = B diminished

That’s it. If you restrict yourself to playing just those chords anywhere on the neck you’ll be playing in the key of C and it will sound pretty smooth as you switch them around. Get to work, you’re done here.

Or perhaps you’ve come back wondering why things are better than you started, but not quite what you were hoping. Going from B diminished to F major doesn’t cut it for your ears or whatever. Over the years (or more likely the centuries) certain progressions in a key have become so popular to certain styles of music that they’re practically rules of engagement. Arguably the most popular progressions in a key are…

I-IV-V (C-F-G in the key of C). The vast majority of blues uses these changes, not to mention a significant chunk of most of styles of music.

ii-V-I (Dm-G-C in key of C). A HUGE part of jazz, though quite useful in other styles too.

What’s that…you haven’t dealt with Roman Numerals since the second grade??? Then welcome them back, as you’re going to find them useful in music theory. Ya see, it’s a pain in the butt to talk about chord changes with your band in terms of all the chord names. “We’re going C major, D major and G major in the verses, then we’re going to switch to B major, E major and F# major in the bridge.” The brain doesn’t like that, so we’ll typically say, “I-IV-V in C for the verses, then I-IV-V in B for the bridge.” Assuming you’re comfortable doing this in all keys, such a direction is pretty easy to absorb.

What’s that…you’re sick of playing just major and minor chords? Well hey, I never said you were restricted to them! I, IV and V are always major-TYPE chords, so you can start putting those major 7 and major 9 chords to use as substitutes. ii, iii and vi are reserved for minor-TYPE chords, which means minor 7ths and such will also give you the variety you seek.

The V chord is also cool because it’s often (ALWAYS to many players) reserved for dominant 7th chords and other chords in the dominant family. So you’ve got one more option to play with.

Oh, but there are some many other options, so many things to try, rules to break! All in due time. I gotta get some practice time in myself… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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You know what makes me nuts?* Coming up with awesome chord progressions and jam ideas for my students then forgetting all that info when I finally get some time for myself to compose. I’m spouting all sorts of wisdom about how you can combine this chord and that chord, apply a certain mode over it and whammo–something outside the box that sounds like it isn’t a mistake. The back of my mind is screaming REMEMBER THIS CONCEPT WHEN YOU’RE AT THE SCRATCH PAD! Then I’m in my Logic or Pro Tools arrangement window, staring at blank tracks. Bloody frustrating when it happens.

I finished a lesson with a student this morning and didn’t want to let the energy dissipate. We were talking about modes, the mixolydian in particular. We’d spent so many lessons going over I-IV-V in major that it was a breath of fresh air to show him how you could do I-IV-v in mixolydian and the accompanying modal scale would work beautifully over it. A cool way to put this stuff to use besides saying “Hey, we’re jamming a G7 chord–I’ll play G mixolydian!”

Probably getting over many of your heads with the theory…and this post probably won’t step into beginner waters, but I’ll take a few steps back. Hopefully you know what a harmonized chord scale is (it’s covered in my guitar poster if you’re in the market for some educational art). It’s the foundation of the majority of popular music. That is, most I-IV-V blues tunes, ii-V-I jazz turnarounds, stuff like that. A lot of theory books get into how–as one example–G Ionian is the same thing as A Dorian, which is the same as B Phrygian and so on. Totally legit, but my ears often have trouble hearing anything except the parent G Ionian/Major scale when I do it like that. So then my brain starts thinking what if I do, say, a Lydian progression…then I try to remember which Roman Numeral chord is major or minor based on the shift from the parent major scale…

And my brain shuts off, forcing my fingers to go ADD and play stock shred riffs I learned years back. Bad Keith.

The link below is simply a list of modes and their accompanying chord harmonies. Not much in the mood for getting into all the theory behind it (and this guy does a better job) because right now we just want to play first, ask questions later. So assuming you know how to harmonize a typical major or minor scale this chart will get you trying out chord progressions using the modes much faster.

In case it’s not obvious…your ears are the ultimate judge, not the theory. It’s OK if some of this stuff sounds bad to you, but if ALL of it does then I guess you’re only destined to be in a blues or country band.

Oooo…that was a cheap shot! ๐Ÿ™‚

Keith’s Lesson: Modal Chord Scales

*Everything, really. After a past rant to my parents I said, “I’m going to make a great old man.” My Mom replied, “You’re all ready an old man!”

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You want to see Google crash your computer in flame wars? Type the above question into the search bar! Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I recall more than one snippy post by a player who lashed out because they felt someone’s comment about their guitar was actually a direct insult at his own. Good times.

I didn’t realize the depth of the Taylor vs. Martin debate until I spent a year working music store retail. Guys would come in dead set on one or the other either because one company’s marketing had a better hold on them or they played someone’s guitar that wasn’t set up properly or simply turned out to be a bad apple in the orchard. Because you know…if one apple is bad it must mean the entire orchard is contaminated!

I should probably disclose my affiliation up front…Ovation! Well, my $400 Celebrity Deluxe with the plastic back has been my only acoustic for 16 years. Ignorance is bliss! But then I’m working the store, having to demo all these guitars for first timers, exaggerate my limited knowledge to the high-end customers. Holy cow…is THIS what I’ve been missing in a solid body acoustic? Spruce, rosewood, cedar, mahogany??? I wouldn’t have appreciated it when I bought that Ovation…must have taken me 16 years to relieve my ignorance. I dialed myself into an amazing Taylor over this past summer.

Martin sucks.

Heh, heh…no, they don’t. That was just a lame grab for more blog comments. Once I got serious about wanting a solid body acoustic I spent all my lunch breaks and spare moments on the floor with every Martin and Taylor in the store, even if it was 15 seconds to listen to an E chord. Seriously, they’re all fantastic in some kind of way, but which way is *my* fantastic? Sound is somewhere near the tip of the iceberg…FEEL is the other major one. I had $3000-4000 Martin D-this and Taylor 800-that and even though they sounded great they were hard to play under my fingers. IMO, there needs to be an immediate feeling of effortlessness when you demo…assuming you’ve been practicing regularly.

The common assertion is that Martins sound more mellow and Taylors sound brighter. Maybe, but I found Martins that had some quality brightness. The other issue I noticed customers forgetting is the comparison of solid versus composite bodied guitars. For most manufacturers you’re not getting an acoustic with all real wood until you hit about $1500 bucks, give or take a few. Hit the $300 zone (again, a few exceptions here and there) and you’re getting an acoustic with a real wood top and composite everything else. That leads to the next test, fairly judging a guitar in your price range. I was pleasantly surprised many times at the sound quality of, say, a $600 Martin or Taylor. If you’re feeling like you need to spend at least $1500 to get quality, don’t! There are some amazing acoustics under $600…but not all of them! Use your ears. I used to compare the $100 acoustic Fender or Ibanez (GREAT deals for the entry level) to these higher end models. Such an exaggerated comparison is sort of like clearing the palette when you’re wine tasting.* It really helped me show customers what they were getting for their increased investment.

In terms of the companies, I found Taylor a lot more fun to work with. Granted, I was only in the store for a year, but we hosted Taylor Road Shows and Find Your Fit events where we could demo one-offs and unique guitars as well as get educated on the differences between the different lines (310 vs. 316…I never quite got a handle on all of it). Serious drool time. But I suppose that’s all second to the guitar you’re going home with. I could probably take this blog many more pages if I got into the other guitars with religious followers: Guild, Gibson, Takamine, etc. Some have also suggested skipping all these brand names entirely and going with an independent luthier, a compelling case if you’ve ever checked out the ones here in the North Bay or been to the Healdsburg Guitar Show.

It’s all marketing in the end. Get the one that sounds great and feels effortless in your hands.

*Can’t believe I just made a wine reference, living so close to Napa!

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Lots of emotional cliches in guitar playing, self esteem issues. Maybe it only happens to those who aspire to get better professionally, which might be a cliche in itself because what is professional? Getting paid, maybe–though there are plenty of people getting paid for what some would consider poor playing.

Speaking as a guitar player why do we compare ourselves to other guitarists? You put the best jazz guitarist in the same room with the best rock guitarist along with the best classical player (a debate in itself as to who’s the best) and none of them will come out the winner, as there are too many skills for one human to master–on top of evolving the art form. But still, I go through these phases where despite my steady efforts to improve musically I hear other players and say, “Damn, I’ll NEVER touch that!”

Then I get the occasional slap of realization that my head is in the wrong place.

Case in point. I’m working one of my jobs, a music store called Bananas At Large. My boss is this smoking country rock player. In my spare moments I’m demoing pedals, amps and guitars, often bummed that my fingers aren’t up to the task. Everything sounds to me–at best–like a derivative Satriani/Vai/Johnson/Clapton riff. Boss comes over to try out my guitar and everything sounds like freakin’ music instead of my noisy exercises. Cool, country shredding.

So I’m telling him I want to get a book on orchestration to help with my game/film scoring projects and how it’s tough to study that material when I also want to pick up some new guitar books. He busts out this offhand comment about how he wants to pick up some of these rock riffs I’ve been playing in the store. I’m shocked. Why would Boss want to study my dumb, cliched riffs?

Because they weren’t dumb or cliched to him??? Hmmm…

I reply that I need to learn his insane country riffs and he tells me something to the affect that he hasn’t come up with anything new in two years; he simply plays the same things over and over at his gigs. I seriously doubt it, but at that moment I got it…we’re both stuck in these plateaus, trying to figure out how we could take our playing to the next level–while dealing with the usual work and family obligations.

It’s that important. Creative types get it, ya know?

This incident reminded me of another one years back. I was in a rock band that rehearsed in the basement of this duplex. I’d hang out before or after practice in the upper apartment, where the drummer lived. One perfectly weathered summer afternoon I was chilling with the band in the living room, goofing off on a cool Rev. Gary Davis-inspired song that I’d picked up in a book. The drummer’s new roommate came in, this cat named Josh Zee. This dude was a badass player in our books. He was in a band called Protein that had been signed, put out a few albums, attracted crowds to their gigs. He might have even started up The Mother Truckers at that point. Anyway, he just comes into the kitchen to do something, spots me playing this riff.

“How are you doing that?” He asks.

I’m kinda distracted, talking to bandmates, watching TV. But I play it for him. He watches my fingers intently, then leaves the room and comes back with his guitar. “Let me see that again.”

I play it. He fiddles with it for a few minutes.

“Like this?” he asks. He nails down the riff that took me at least a week to get within five minutes. Sweet! This local hero I respected as a player was asking ME to show him a riff.

Again, I’m surprised. This guy has accomplished stuff! Toured! Been signed to labels. He has fans who follow his projects and here he is, asking this bald guy he barely knows, who’s band wasn’t going anywhere* to teach him something in a spare five minutes. It was cool and a bit humbling…

Because his attitude was in such a great place. He loved guitar so much that he didn’t care where new information came from. And that’s what I’ve always aspired to ever since–even though I still forget it occasionally. Every time I learn something new in music, a riff, some theory, it’s like the depleted batteries are suddenly recharged. It’s different from writing a cool piece of music you’re happy with…more like guns reloaded, ready to jump back into musical battle!

No…that analogy is too violent for music…but you get the point.

*Despite that, it was one of the best bands in my life!

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