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The Middle Four

Hello Troubadourians! This column is sort of a continuation of last month’s column. Sort of, inasmuch as I’m going to share some of the things I’ve used to help me play the guitar the way I want to play and to become the best player I can possibly be. I’ll share some of the concepts, techniques, and exercises that I’ve used to sound like myself and play in my own style. I hope you can use them to sound like you. The first thing I learned was to play all of the first position chords in the context of songs. I think I had an advantage when I was a beginner because there were lots of songs that were playable using only first position chords that were also considered “cool” by me and my friends. Especially my female friends. While I wasn’t inspired to learn the guitar because I thought it would help me with the ladies, it didn’t take me long to figure out the advantages of being able to play—and sing—someone’s favorite song. Playing songs helped me change chords smoothly and really helped me to hear how songs are put together and where and how to feel and anticipate chord changes. This might be the most important skill I’ve ever learned. Over my years of playing I’ve been able to grow my ear for changes and structures from the simple songs I started with to the most complex songs that I might encounter as a sideman or studio player. Which brings me to the next thing I learned that I’ve found almost as essential. That would be learning to read music and learning music theory. Full disclosure: I’m not a sight reader or a music notation zealot. At one time—for about three months—I was a passable sight reader only because I was taking a class in sight reading at Community College. My ear has always been much more developed than my reading but there is no substitute for being able to figure out a song or piece of music from the sheet music. I’ve also found an education in music theory to be very valuable. Beginning with the Circle of Fifths, and progressing to more advanced harmonic concepts, studying music theory helps to understand structure and to become unstuck when I’m trying to break out of playing or compositional ruts.

The next skill, by no means less important than those above, is timing. Some people are born with an internal clock that helps them play in time. I happen to be one of them. Which is lucky for me because I’m not disciplined enough to work with a metronome. Metronomes are very useful machines but I’ve never been able to use them effectively. Still, I recommend them for people to use for improving their timing. An equally effective method for getting your timing together is to play with other people, especially in a band situation. There’s nothing like trying to play a song with other musicians to get your timing together. Get two or more musicians together in the same room and play the same song, which is the fastest way to expose whose timing doesn’t cut it. You either get it together or get kicked out of the band. Players who mostly play solo (or alone) often have difficulty playing in time. I really can’t stress how important it is to play in time, so whatever method works for you, do it often. Just that small thing can make you sound like a much better player. An extension of playing in time is being able to play rhythmically. Sometimes the beat isn’t as simple as one-two-three-four. Often, there is a distinct rhythm to a song. As an example, the “Bo Diddley Beat,” which is a very distinct, yet simple, rhythm. Surprisingly, a complex rhythm like “Listen to the Music” is a derivative of the Bo Diddley beat. If you can play Bo Diddley you can probably play just about any Doobie Brothers song. Get the rhythm down, then get funky. The funk is all of the subtle shifts in timing, the ebb and flow, the push-pull, the feel or whatever you want to call it, is where the life of the rhythm resides. No, that part isn’t easy. Some would say that you have to live it before you can play it. Maybe, but I know you have to hear it and feel it before you can play it. Jump in and play. Let the music take you where it will…

Notice that so far, I haven’t said anything about soloing. Here goes. Scales and modes are the place to start for that, but only as a way to get your fingers used to the idea of playing single notes. The fact is that while melodies are based on scales, scales in and of themselves aren’t particularly melodic. Melodies are what drive songs and are what should drive solos. Some players are technically proficient enough to play pentatonic scales fast enough and rhythmically enough to entertain and impress musicians and regular listeners alike. For the rest of us, playing a melodic solo is the better choice. Of course, it’s easier said than done. One of the things that I’ve found extremely informative is to find melodies in the chords of the song. Trust me, that’s probably where the writer found the melody in the first place. An extension of that thinking is where to find melodies when you want play more free-form and improvisational. For me, I find most of the good stuff is in the middle four strings of the guitar. While the high and low E strings are essential to complete playing, there are infinite melodic concepts if you don’t tie everything to the E strings. Once I discovered this concept, for a time I would remove both E strings from my guitar when I practiced so that I couldn’t go anywhere else for ideas. You don’t have to go that far but I certainly recommend that if you want to get melodic with your solos, you separate yourself from the tyranny of the E strings. Once you master the Middle Four, you’ll see the guitar—and the E strings—in a completely different way. There is a pleasant irony to getting your melodic information in the middle four strings which is that you chord concepts will grow exponentially. So, we’ve come full circle. From basic chords, to melodic leads, to complex and interesting chords. One idea informing the next one.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

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