Tag Archives: guitar instruction

Cowboy Constellations!

Time to use your imagination!

When I use a star map to seek out constellations in the night sky I often wonder what drugs might the ancient Greeks have been on, for them to be able to see a star formation such as this one…

The Constellation “Aries”

…and then imagine it to represent a lovely ram, such as this:

Aries Hallucination

However, such hallucinatory flights of fancy eventually became go-to memory aids for such important tasks as navigation and predicting the change of seasons.

Much like the early astronomers, we guitarists also mentally “connect the dots” of chords, scales and arpeggios, often thinking of them as memorable “shapes”. It’s a big part of how we store and recall information we’ve acquired. We discuss scale “patterns”, chord “forms”, speak of harmonic intervals and even represent sounds as capricious black birds that play upon the five horizontal wires of the music staff.

Birds On A Wire, Musical Digital Artwork, Works of Bart, San Rafael California

The imaginative process is of course different for every player, but as a veteran guitar instructor I can easily spot a student who isn’t really seeing the “big picture”, due to what usually has to do with a simple oversight on their part. With this post I hope to shed some starlight 😉 on how I “see” chords when I look down upon my fretboard.

This common (yet understandable) error made by beginning guitarists has to do with the personal mental image or concept that they have created in their mind for each of the various “forms” of the simple open position “Cowboy Chords” (here I’m referring to the Major chords E, A, D, G, C, and the Minor chords Em, Am and Dm).

Chord Grid for Fadd9

Most players build their chord vocabulary by studying “grids” (such as the one pictured above, for Fadd9) to learn exactly where their fingers should be placed on the different strings. We memorize these “fingerings”, adding more and more of them to our trick bag as we progress. However, if a player’s concept of the chord includes only the locations for each of his/her fingers, it can lead to confusion for them when they advance into playing chords higher up the fretboard.

One must form a mental picture that includes ALL of the notes within the chord.

For example, if you look at this chord grid, depicting the fingering of an E Major chord:

Chord Grid for E Major

and see only this…

You might, like those ancient Greeks, be led to connect the dots and imagine a constellation that looks something like this:

If that’s the case, then there are clouds in your sky. This chord includes THREE OPEN STRINGS as part of its form – and each of these is sounding its own musical pitch that must included in your mental “picture” of the chord. I see an E Major chord more like this, and try to encourage students to adopt this visualization:

The Constellation E Major

Notice that MY concept of the chord has expanded to include those three other “stars”. The bottom star is one that should definitely not be omitted, as it is the root note of the chord!

Now, to see if you understand this ancient ol’ mind, I give you all of the COWBOY CONSTELLATIONS. See if you can figure out which chords they represent. If you can, then you’re on the right track.

Or maybe I’m as wacko as those ancient Greeks! 🙂

If you enjoyed this little mental workout, please share it with others. I won’t mind that one bit.

Let that be a lesson to you.  😉

© 2017 Matthew Woodward

Pentatonic Scale Exercise : Checking Out Your New Neighborhood

More than anything else, it takes practice to become accurate and speedy within any form of scale.

If you are new to the 5-note Pentatonic Scale, the following exercises will not only help you get better at cleanly picking fast runs, but will also help you gain a better sense of the tonal center of the scale and how far away from it you are. As the title said, I call this approach “Checking Out Your New Neighborhood”. First we’ll begin by exploring the C Major Pentatonic Scale. After that, more examples follow, using the A Minor Pentatonic Scale.

Think of the root of the scale as your “home” (in this case, the tonic or root note C), and the other notes of the scale as destinations both up and down the street from where you live. When you first move to a new home, it’s normal to begin exploring your neighborhood by going just a short distance away from home. As you become familiar with your area you gain the confidence to venture further away.

The exercises below use the C Major Pentatonic Scale in the V (5th fret) position to take you a certain number of notes away from your home, first above, then below, then in both directions. Once you’ve gone the specified distance, you turn around and head for home. By the final exercise you will have learned to play an important pattern for two octaves of the entire scale, both ascending and descending.

The note groupings are circled. Repeat each example many times until you feel comfortable with it, then move on to the next one. Do your best to play these exercises at a constant, unvarying tempo (speed). Alternate picking (down and up) is essential.

As promised, the following exercises use the A Minor Pentatonic Scale, the Relative Minor scale to the C Major Pentatonic Scale. Scales that are relative to one another share the same notes in the same order, but have different starting notes (more on this in a later post).  You will see how the overall patterns for both scales are indeed the same. The examples proceed in the same fashion. Good luck!Later posts will dig a little deeper into the theory and discuss the nature of these scales and where it is appropriate to use them. For now, this post lets you get your feet wet, learning the patterns you’ll need to play lead with speed.

Let that be a lesson to you. 😉

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you did, please feel free to share it with others…I won’t mind.

© 2014 Matthew Woodward

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