This concept is very useful to guitarists regardless of any particular style or genre of music being played. My explanation will be as simple as possible to include as many players as possible and their varied levels of music theory knowledge. Yes, it is helpful to understand music theory when playing the guitar.
First it is important to understand that any chord that is played is in a certain key that is based on a certain scale and the chord is in a certain position in that key. The most common scale used in Western Music is the Major scale. The example that is going to be shown will the use an Am7 chord in the key of G Major. The Am7 chord is based on the 2nd note in the G Major scale and the G Major scale uses all natural notes except for an F#. The natural harmony of the G Major scale is: Gmaj7, Am7, Bm7, Cmaj7, D7, Em7, F#dim7, Gmaj7. For you theory beginners an Am7 chord is not always in the key of G, which is another discussion.
What we are going to do is to follow the notes of a G Major scale up the 1st string on the guitar placing inversions of an Am7 chord underneath the melody note using all of the notes in the key in the melody including the notes not found in an Am7 chord. Using this concept on the chords of the tune you are playing with the proper melody note will enable you to play melodies with chords on the guitar.
It is best to use 3 or 4 note chords when doing this and obviously you can use the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings for your melody note.
These kind of musical devices can be daunting for a person who hasn’t done them before, don’t let the difficulty scare you off. If you need to find a good teacher who knows his stuff who can take the time with you to explain what you don’t understand. Begin working. You can do it.
The most powerful and most used progression in music is dropping a 5th in the root. Anyone has merely to play a Dominant chord of a key followed by the 1st chord or Tonic of that key to understand why the monks of Europe in the Dark Ages named the 5th chord of a key Dominant. It is an inherent rule of music that the Dominant chord leads to the Tonic. Anyone can hear the settling of the tone center when this particular chord change is played.
For this particular example of chord substitution I’m going to use an E7 going to an A7 resolving to a Dmaj7. The A7 chord in this progression is going to be substituted by an Eb7 chord which is the same chord type an augmented 4th away in the root. You can hear in the example that this is a pleasing similar sound. I don’t know why this works but it does. It also happens that the 3rd’s and 7th’s of the A7 and the Eb7 are the same notes reversed in position, making the different chords quite alike. What you can realized out of this harmonic device is a chromatically descending chord progression that is different from the cycle of 5th’s with the same amount of solidity and power. When using this device you must adjust the chords to reflect the notes of the melody that are happening when the chord substitution is being played.
There is so much to think about when discussing chord progressions it boggles the mind.
A good starting point in understanding chord progressions is the flow inherent in most any musical piece. Fast or slow, happy or sad, poignant or ludicrous, rebellious or patriotic each tune is built around defining the flow of the piece reflected in style, tempo, rhythmic and harmonic structure.
There are two basic overall rhythmic flow types in music: vertical and horizontal. A good example of vertical music would be a John Philips Sousa march where the rhythm is defined by micro stops in time enforced by emphasis. A good example of horizontal music would be a Bill Evans ballad that magically floats thru time and space. Most tunes are somewhere in between.
Musical compositions are based on establishing a tonal center, going away from it, coming back to it. How you do this is dictated by the style of music and the level of the composer/arranger. There are 3 basic types of harmonic chordal progression: diatonic scale motion (Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7,etc.), cycle of fifthing (C7,F7, Bb7, Eb7, etc.) and going from relative major to relative minor (Cmaj7 – Am7). You must remember that these progression types have been noted in a simplified manner. The amount of sophistication, creativity and inventiveness that can be applied is endless. The goal of jazz progressions is to proceed fluidly forward with no effort.
When I was a young person I was always amazed by anyone who could play anything. Since I didn’t know a lot about the technical, theoretical end of music I was easily impressed by anything that sounded good to my untrained ears. I didn’t realize that that was as far as most people took it, they just liked it or they didn’t and that was all there was to it.
I wanted to play and I wanted to be good but I didn’t know how. What happened, because I didn’t understand how or why, is that I placed myself in a position of un-understanding which hindered my musical growth for many years. I hadn’t been shown and I wasn’t a savant. I lacked a good music education and my musical growth suffered until I came in contact with competent teachers who had experience and knowledge.
It took me the longest time to start writing drum parts. How could I do that? I wasn’t a drummer. It wasn’t until I asked Bill Muha, a drummer in one of my bands, for advice and he told me that drumming really clicked for him when he finally got the basic swing beat. In 4/4 time the snare on 1 & 3, the bass drum on 2 & 4 and the ride cymbal on 1, the and of 2 and 4. I went home and wrote that rhythm into my Finale software program and played it back. Lo and behold my understanding clicked. Here was a rhythmic flow defined by a combination of 3 simple parts. Granted this isn’t the end all of drumming but it allowed me to open my mind and place my feet on solid ground to proceed forward. Thanks Bill.
Music – the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.
Noise – random or unpleasant sound.
Playing music for the trained musician is manipulating patterns in sound. The patterns manifest themselves in melodies, bass lines, rhythmic figures and harmonic structures. The ways that these components fit together are many and varied. It is interesting to note that the basic rules of music theory aren’t man made ideas, they are the result of people listening to what sound does with itself and were compiled over many years.
There are savant players, but for many of us musical freedom is achieved through an intense study of scales, bass lines, chord changes and rhythms until we start seeing the inherent patterns in music and can start to extrapolate upon them and come up with new ways to play within the system.
We can insert uncommon musical patterns into tunes as long as we do it properly. In general it is done by going out of the norm and coming back in. In most types of music there is a tone center which must be dealt with and genre considerations.
Listen to the blues lick and note the descending whole tone scale fit in where it normally should not be. It fits because it is a pattern within itself and is properly resolved back into the blues structure.