Tag: guitar

Book review: Guitar Looping – The Creative Guide by Kristof Neyens

creative_loopingFor completeness I include my review of Guitar Looping: The Creative Guide by Kristof Neyens. This is in the same series as Guitar Pedals by Rob Thorpe. These are both quite short books but I’ve found them useful.

A looper pedal is a simple recording device which is started and stopped using a footswitch. A loop can be built up by making successive recordings, or layers, one on top of another. Typically loops are only a few bars long at most but modern looper pedals can record for tens of minutes.

I bought a looper pedal a year or so ago (reviewed here) and, to be honest, it has languished a bit on my pedalboard. I think the problem is a lack of education in the right format. Also I probably should have started with the simplest looper available, the author uses a tc electronic ditto rather than a step up (my Boss RC-3).

In common with Guitar Pedals, Guitar Looping contains lots (117) of short examples annotated in normal musical notation and guitar tab notation with accompanying audio files downloadable from the website. There is a brief text introduction to each example. I find these nice exercises in ear training, it’s good to be able to follow along with the tune.

The author is quite fond of the volume swell as part of a loop, this has got me thinking I need a volume pedal – previously I couldn’t see the point of them. This presents a problem because I’ve run out of space on my pedalboard!

Aside from the technical skill of starting and stopping loops at the appropriate point, there is also the skill of controlling the volume of your play within a layer and also getting the volume of different layers right. The loops illustrated often contain a percussive layer made by playing with strings muted, a rhythm/bass layer and a melodic layer which may be single notes or simple chords. Neyens talks about providing both harmonic space and dynamic space in layers. That’s to say there is no point in recording a layer loud and filled with sound because there is nowhere to put additional layers. This means that individual layers can sound quite simple and sparse. To get harmonic space you might play low notes with an octave pedal, on the lower three strings and melodies on the higher three strings, further up the neck.

The other useful piece of information I picked up was how to make your guitar sound like a clarinet! You pick the string 12 frets from where you are fretting – so if you are holding down the low E string on the third fret you need to pluck it and see. Try it and see.

After reading this book I’m using my looper pedal a bit more, there’s a lot of ideas in here and perhaps the most important thing is a stimulus to play around a bit – it doesn’t cost anything!

Book review: Guitar Pedals by Rob Thorpe

guitar_pedalsAnother brief sojourn with a guitar related book, this time Guitar Pedals by Rob Thorpe. It has the lengthy subtitle "Discover How to Use Pedals and Chain Effects to Get The Ultimate Guitar Tone", and the front cover continues with a range of other promises as to content. This isn’t intended as a criticism, it just struck me as an usual stylistic effect.

For those not familiar with electric guitars, an guitar effect pedal is a little box of electronics, around the size of a cigarette packet but rather thicker, with a socket on one side to take input from a lead from your guitar and a socket on the other side to send the modified signal out to your amplifier. On the top face of the pedal is a switch to turn the effect on and off, and one or more knobs to configure it. Guitar pedals are usually grouped together on a pedalboard which will hold up to 10 or so of them, chaining their effects together. They introduce effects such as distortion, reverb, delay and so forth.

If you watch videos of live music you’ll most likely notice the guitarist and bass player with a pedalboard on the floor at their feet, occasionally poking it with a foot to change the sound of their guitar.

Guitar pedals are a cheap and easy way of changing the way your guitar, I have a couple of more expensive Boss pedals which cost about £100 and a couple of Donner pedals which were under £40.

Guitar Pedals runs through chapters describing a bunch of distinct effects, talking first about the background of the effect before going through some short examples of the effect in different contexts with different configurations (these appear as written guitar tabs, and accompanying downloadable audio files), and finishing with some examples in real music.

Since reading "The Birth of Loud" by Ian S. Port it struck me that much of the development of the electric guitar and its ecosystem has been the story of electrical equipment abused. Particularly so with distortion /overdrive pedals described in the first chapter – the original distortion pedal made by Gibson in 1962 (the Maestro FZ-1) attempted to replicate the effect Link Wray achieved in Rumble by stabbing his speakers with a screwdriver! Jimi Hendrix was a fan of the Arbiter Fuzz Face but quality control was so poor he would buy a bunch of them and pick the best (or even get his guitar tech to cobble together a pedal from the parts of multiple examples). Purple Haze is an example of Fuzz Face in action. Overdrive is what you get when you turn the volume of your amplifier right up – pedals can achieve the same effect without making a really loud noise.

Next up is a chapter on delay – essentially an echo effect which was originally implemented on tape. I’ve always thought of delay effects and reverb being related with reverb the more important of the two. Reverb and compressor effects each get their own chapter but Thorpe sees them as more production effects than pedal effects per se. Tracks like Beautiful Day by U2, King of Zion Dub by King Tubby and Country Boy by Albert Lee use delay.

The chapter on modulation effects covers phasor and flanger effects, where part of the signal is phase shifted and mixed with the original signal. Shine on you crazy diamonds by Pink Floyd is an example of a phaser in use, and Barracuda by Heart uses a flanger. Also included are chorus effects (where part of the signal is delayed) and tremolo (where the volume is modulated). The first chorus pedal, the Roland CE-1 started life in Roland’s Jazz-Chorus 120 Amplifier. A background in physics is quite handy here, vibrations and waves are at the heart of any physics degree, as are operational amplifiers – pedal effects are these things in action! Come as you are by Nirvana is a good example of the chorus effect, and How soon is now by The Smiths demonstrates the tremolo effect (for this performance the tremolo effect comes from the amplifier rather than a pedal).

My wah pedal is my favourite, and it gets a chapter largely of its own. Think Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix (watch his left foot at the start of this video) or the theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes. A wah pedal is an adjustable band pass filter, in the same why that the tone knob on any manner of audio equipment is an adjustable low-pass filter. The wah pedal is unusual in that you adjust it during play – the position of the pedal controls where the band pass sits, other pedals have their configuration set before hand and are simply switched on and off. All I can say is it’s great fun to play with!

Next up are octave pedals and other pitch shifters and harmonisers, I’d assumed the point of an octave pedal (which plays a note one octave above or below the note you are playing) was to emulate a bass guitar, but it seems not.Jimi Hendrix’s Octavia pedal added a tone an octave above what he was playing, on tracks like Fire and Purple Haze. Jack White of The White Stripes uses octave effects to add notes both an octave above and below the played note to give a "thicker" tone – try tracks like Ball and a biscuit and Blue orchid.

Originally effect pedals contained simple analog electronic circuits (or even liquids) which did one job, now with digital processing a single pedal can emulate many different effects. I must admit I find multi-effects pedals a bit overwhelming – it’s no fun trying to navigate 50 or so effects, and their configuration on a one inch display with a couple of buttons.

The book finishes with a chapter on ordering of guitar pedals, and how this can change the sound made and finally there are some interviews with professional guitarists, and how they arrange their pedals. A point that both Thorpe and one of his interviewees makes is that tone, the sound of the guitar, depends a lot on the player and how they play. Chasing after a tone by buying the same pedals as your heroes is a losing game.

Guitar Pedals is a short book, it doesn’t have the high production values of the Rikky Rooksby but it carries much of the style – embedding the example riffs in the chapters works really well for this book. Online guitar courses tend not to cover effects pedals, this book fills the gap pretty well.

Book review: Riffs: How to Create and Play Great Guitar Riffs by Rikky Rooksby

riffsAnother guitar book in this review, I previously read How to write songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby, this book Riffs: How to Create and Play Great Guitar Riffs is by the same author.

A riff is a short musical phrase which is repeated throughout a track, it is common on guitar in rock music. It’s pretty easy to identify a riff in a rock song – which bit of "Smoke on the water" by Deep Purple do you think of when I mention it? "Back in black" by AC/DC? "Money" by Pink Floyd? That’s the riff. Later in the book Rooksby tells us that a riff can be as little as a bar long and 4 bars at an absolute maximum but it can be reinforced by repetition and variation. It’s surprising how few notes are required for a riff – two or three are sufficient at a push, five or six are plenty.

Riffs (the book) is structured into 6 sections, the first three sections cover riffs built on intervals, scales and chords respectively – there are roughly ten types of riff in each section. Section four covers playing and recording riffs, beyond the bare notes in the riff. Section five is a masterclass with John Paul Jones, of Led Zeppelin. The book finishes with a section which provides notes on the tracks on the accompanying CD which are illustrations of all the different types of riff with a few extras.

The first three sections running through the different types of riff features examples from "real" music to illustrate (and usually several examples per riff type). I really like these examples to refer to in discussions of music, I’m not at the point where I can read Rooksby’s commentary and understand what he means but the examples help make sense of the words. I found myself sitting with Spotify beside me as I read playing examples as they were mentioned.

It becomes clear looking at the examples which types of riff are the important ones – they feature the most well-known examples. For example, the mixolydian scale riffs include "I can’t get no satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, and the chord version of this scale include "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen and "Won’t get fooled again" by the Rolling Stones.

Rooksby comments that it isn’t entirely clear what is a chord progression and what is a chord riff – he differentiates in terms of speed and distinctive rhythm – riffs are faster.

Guitar tabs are not provided for the examples, I suspect this is largely for copyright reasons. The book contains references to several hundred tracks – I don’t like to think about the amount effort required to collect permission for all of the guitar tabs for the key riffs!

The techniques section talks a bit about the process of composition – recommending a drum track to assist the process. One of the key insights in the book is how key the rhythm is to a recognisable riff. He also talks in this section about how riffs are arranged both in terms of what the bass and drums are doing with the riff and also how the riff is created potentially with multiple guitars configured differently to "thicken" the sound.

I’m ambivalent about masterclass with John Paul Jones, it read like a high level technical discussion which went over my head but it was interesting to see where riffs come from "from the horses mouth".

The accompanying CD contains 56 tracks, almost all under a minute long and most of much less than that. The first 16 tracks fit in with a more tutorial introduction. The core 30 tracks illustrate the types of riff introduced in sections 1 to 3. Each track has the riff in standard musical notation and guitar tab format. The tracks feature the riff with an accompanying drum and rhythm (chord progression) track. I really liked this section, it helped clarify what each of the riff types sounded like and how they were constructed. It was also rather nice to be able to follow along matching up the music to the tabs for short musical phrases.

Experienced musicians make much of the importance of ear training, normally bemoaning the fact they did not do more when they were learning. I think they forget how hard it is, ear training is a combination of listening and knowing what is likely to come next on the basis of musical theory (or a lot of experience). If you don’t have that implicit knowledge, ear training is really hard. This book is handy in providing musical context.

In common with How to write songs on Guitar, I really liked this book. Rooksby’s writing style is good, there is some music theory but what makes it great is putting that theory into context. My next task is to go through the riffs recorded on the CD with my guitar and the book and see if I can recreate them.

Book review: How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby

how_to_write_songsIn a somewhat uncharacteristic turn my next book is about writing popular songs: How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby. For me it follows on from Guitar Method – Music Theory by Tom Kolb. I’ve read several books about music theory as I’ve learnt to play guitar and they have left me a bit cold. The presentation of the algorithms to generate scales and chords is my sort of thing but there were always references to how chords made you feel that were never really explained. I was never clear on what I was supposed to be doing with this theoretical knowledge.

After Guitar Method I thought the next thing to do was look at chord sequences, and this book came close to the top of my searches. I also got Chord Progression Encyclopaedia by Tammy Waldrop which does exactly what it says on the cover – list out loads of chord progressions for guitar.

How to Write Songs is quite a different book, in fact it was just what I was looking for! It puts the musical theory I’ve learnt into context. It covers off some of the traditional musical theory of scales and chords but hones it down to what you are likely to actually need to write songs. The four ingredients are rhythm, melody (the tune of the voice), lyrics and harmony (chords). Rooksby seems to prefer "melody first" songwriting but outlines other methods on an equal footing.

How to write songs is divided into 16 sections, these cover the four ingredients listed above and some other things too. The sections on chords are nicely laid out, with which strings are providing which notes included (this is helpful because to the beginner this can be a bit mysterious). Rooksby also talks about how different chord variants "feel". The chord dictionary is spread across a couple of sections with more complex "fancy" chords covered in the second section.

Central to writing songs are "turnarounds", repeated sequences of chords that are used to build the harmony (chords) of a song. The melody (tune of the voice) fits in with this, or doesn’t, for effect.

There are sections on making demo recordings and a couple on more guitar specific techniques, I particularly liked the section on "altered tunings". I have seen these tunings annotated in guitar tabs but not been clear as to why they are used. Rooksby provides a good explanation as to the various types of altered tunings and where they are used. In a number of places Rooksby refers to how chords, particularly those including notes from a second octave are easier to play on piano.

The book finishes with three sections which recommend individual tracks, and albums that Rooksby sees as good examples of the songwriting art and some quotes from famous songwriters as to how they go about composing. The theme of whether songs are invented or discovered comes up a few times here.

Rooksby is opinionated in various places: he doesn’t like drum machines, fancy chords, or spontaneous decorations of melody (called melisma). This gives the book a human touch, and I suspect his opinions are pretty sound.

One of my frustrations with learning guitar is that numerous teachers go on about ear training, they often talk about not doing enough of it when they were learning. I realise now that there is a very good reason for this: ear training is actually really hard if you don’t know about the structures and chord sequences you are likely to hear. This is because for the naïve listener there is a large number of possible notes they could be hearing, and it is difficult to identify what it is. However, learning how songs are structured, and some of the theory and the options narrow down dramatically.

Everything in the book is supported by references to popular songs, and typically multiple songs are referenced for each point, so you’re likely to have heard at least one of them – and these days its very easy to find music online. I’ve listened to a lot of Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys which turn up a few times, I suspect the same will apply to many people (just with different artists).

The next steps for me are to look at the "song chords" table which lists the chords in each key, and also look at the chord sequences with their examples. Rooksby has written a number of other books, I think I might add his book on riffs to my reading list. Finally, I’m making Spotify lists of the recommended tracks and albums.

The production values for How to Write Songs are high, it is clearly and neatly laid out and well-printed. The prose is enjoyable and manages to avoid sounding dry which is a risk when writing about music theory. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in how popular music "works" on guitar.

I must admit I’d assumed that Rooksby was an American, possibly someone who had written a few songs I knew, but it turns out he is English, lives in Oxford and has a PhD in English literature (website)!

Book review: Guitar Method – Music Theory by Tom Kolb

music_theoryThis is less of a book review and more some notes on music theory as it applies to the guitar. It is based on Music Theory: Everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask by Tom Kolb from the Hal Leonard Guitar Method series.

I’ve been playing guitar for a couple of years, and I found myself increasing asking why I am doing things and how are songs constructed. What notes belong with which chords?

The book starts with a tour of the fretboard, the version below is from the Youcisian website, I use Youcisian app for learning guitar – it’s great.

Kolb recommends learning the fretboard by picking a note and playing it up and down the fretboard at all locations. I have a new toy to help with this – a Polytune 3 tuner pedal!Guitar Fretboard Notes Diagram

I particularly liked the figure showing how notes on the traditional stave matched up to locations in guitar tab notation.


P5 Figure 2 – how notes are repeated in traditional music notation and tabs

The observation that that the 5th fret on one string is the same note as the open note on the next string, except G to B when it is the fourth fret. This allows you to tune a guitar to itself, It seems like a useful cross-check. There was also a section on tuning using harmonics. I sort of got this working on my acoustic, I found I needed to watch a video: Justin Guitar – How to Tune Your Guitar using Harmonics to understand what I was trying to achieve.

The second chapter is on traditional musical notation, I feel I should know this but it isn’t a priority.

Chapter 3 is about scales and key signatures, there is an algorithm for generating the notes in a major scale. Figure 3 on p17 shows the C major scale in 5 locations on the fretboard.


Page 17 – figure 3 the C Major Scale at different locations on the fretboard

There is similar expression to generate minor scales.


Page 22 Figure 15 shows how the scale formula for major and minor scales compare.

Figure 13 (p21) shows how the C major and A minor scale compare


P21 figure 13 the C major and A minor scales compared


P21 figure 14 the A minor scale at different locations on the fretboard

Chapter 4 talks about intervals (steps between notes) and their names. The names of the intervals are listed.


P25 table of interval names

Each fret on the guitar corresponds to 1/2 a step. The different intervals form different patterns on the fretboard, these patterns are moveable but they change around the G-string because the interval to the G-string is four steps rather than 5.


P26 figure 5 interval shapes on the top strings


P26 figure 6 interval shapes on the bottom strings


P28 A list of popular songs illustrating the intervals

Chapter 5 introduces us to triads which form the basis of chords. The pattern for major triads is 1-3-5 and that for minor triads is 1-flat 3-5. Augmented triads are 1-3-sharp 5 and diminished triads are 1- flat 3 – flat 5

Chapter 6 – harmonizing the major scale chords are related to scales via the process of harmonisation. The chords of a scale are given Roman numerals with the case indicating whether they are major or minor chords, and a o superscript indicating the diminished vii chord. The chords for the major scales are shown in the figure below


P36 Figure 3 Harmonized major scales

Jazz, blues and other music styles use 7th chords which add a seventh to the 1-3-5 pattern. This produces a harmonized chord table which looks like the above but with a 7 added to each chord! Actually the I and IV chords get a maj7 and the V chords just a 7.

Chapter 7 following on from the harmonized major scale get to construct a whole load more chords with different names by modifying the basic 1-3-5 formula.


P41 Chord names

Power chords are unusual in that they are comprised of only two notes 1-5, the rest are three or more. This does not say anything about the voicings of a chord, the exact notes on the fretboard which are played. Slash chords are sometimes just simplified names for chords which have a complex formal names. There are polychords, indicated by one chord name over another, like a fraction which suggest two chords played together they are not very relevant to guitarists.

Chapter 8 – we can repeat the exercise of harmonising the major scale for the minor scale. This changes the pattern of major and minor chords. Relative scales such as C major and A minor use the same chords but they take different roles in the chord number sense.P50-relative-scales-harmonized

P50 Figure 3 shows how the Roman numerals and chords of the A minor and C major scale relate.


P50 Figure 4 shows the harmonised minor scale

Chapter 9 if we know the scale a set of chords belongs to in a song them we can play notes from that scale as a solo over it. Progressions often start and end on the I chord so we can use that as a clue, and the V chord is distinctive too this seems to be because it is the "dominant" chord. Popular music often sticks with one key centre but other forms of music such as jazz can switch from key centre to key centre but they usually return to the original key centre.

Chapter 10 – the blues doesn’t follow the same scheme as discussed to this point. There are a number of different standard blues progressions based around the I, IV and V chords. The blues makes a lot of use of the minor pentatonic scale


P63 Figure 8 Formula for the pentatonic scale along with the major scale for comparison


P63 figure 9 A minor pentatonic scale at different positions on the fretboard

The blues scale has a different formula again, handily the formula and the scale at the 5th and 11th frets are shown in the same figure for the A blues scale. We should play notes from this scale of the A7(I), D7(IV) and E7(V) chords.


P64 Figure The blues scale formula with positions on the fretboard.

There is also a major pentatonic scale.


P64 Figure 12A The formula for the C major scale and the C major pentatonic scale, compared


P65 Figure 12B The C major pentatonic scale at different places on the fretboard.

To make matters more confusing it is not uncommon to mix the major and minor pentatonic scales with the same root together (parallel scales)!

Chapter 11 covers the modes of a scale. Modes of a scale use the same sequence of notes but with a different starting note because they use the same notes they differ from the scale starting at that note. The modes have names Ionian, Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.


P68 Figure 3 the modes of the C major scale and their notes on the fretboard

The chapter covers each mode, showing formula (notes), construction, category (major, minor etc), differentiating scale degree. chord types, harmony (Roman chord numerals), and common progressions as well has patterns on the fretboard.

Chapter 12 other scales and modes, this starts with an encyclopaedia of further scales, such as the whole tone scale and chromatic scale, showing information similar to that shown for the standard modes. This chapter includes information on arpeggios and how chords relate to scales.

Chapter 13 chord substitution and reharmonization. These appear to be ways of modifying chords, either by changing or adding a note or by substituting chords in a progression. What chords can be substituted for which depends on the family the chord lies in (Tonic, subdominant, dominant). This is one of those places where the function of chords are hinted at, tonic being something that "resolves" the key, IV chords move away from the tonic and V chords move towards it.


P88 Figure 2 Chord families illustrated for the C major scale.

I find it useful to think in terms of computer code, what information do I need to generate the fretboard, scales and  chords.

  • Fundamentally we need the notes A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#
  • From the notes we can generate the fretboard given there is a half step per fret and the notes on the open strings (E-A-D-G-B-E) – it would be interesting to know which octave a note sits in;
  • Using the scale formula I can generate the major, minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic and blues scales from the notes;
  • Given the harmonisation of a scale I can get the chords in the scale;
  • Given the chord compositions (i.e. 1-3-5) I can generate the notes in a chord and the names of the chords;
  • There’s probably an interesting exercise in generating chord voicings and scoring them for playability and sound;
  • Finally, we can calculate the modes of a scale;

Missing from Music Theory is much description of the "function" chords, these are hinted at in terms of returning to the root chord and resolving tension. Chord progressions and song structure are also not covered.

It seems like the next steps are looking at some of the songs in my songbooks, or tabs on Songsterr and working out which chords are being used and hence which scales, and what the chord progressions are. I should also be able to work out which scales riffs come from. It would be good to learn about song structure too.