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pix How To Learn To Play Music Of Unusual Genres On Electric Guitar pix
pix pix by Kevin Ferguson  

Page added in February, 2001

About The Author

Kevin Ferguson is a guitarist working out of Portland, Oregon who specializes in taking music foreign to the electric guitar and adapting it to the instrument.


His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Strad To Strat II".

Send comments or questions to Kevin Ferguson.

© Kevin Ferguson

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  For the last few years I've often been asked how I learned the music, from hundreds of distinct world regions and periods, that I play on the electric guitar. And though the answer depends on the specific type of music, whether it be polyrhythmic melodies in worship of Boka from Ghana, a 25/8 rhythmically articulated krivo oro tune from the Southern Balkans, a classical raga (raag) based on "Marva that" in char tal (11 beats) from Northern India, Cuban Salsa, European classical violin music, Steel band music of Trinidad and Tobago, natives' music of the Americas such as a Spirit or Ghost Dance Song melody of the Paiute, Kurdish patriotic music, Chinese flower drum song melodies... a general answer may apply: learn from the people who created it. To do this directly is often not practical, but increasingly there are indirect options that can suffice. In this article you will find ideas and advice for exploring some options I have found to be fruitful.

Among these indirect options are mostly the obvious, but the importance of each might not be so apparent. You might be able to use your trained ear and western music theory to analyze recordings and live shows, take lessons from those who know the music on the native instruments, read sheet music, learn about native music theory, history, practice of the music and associated cultural context from which it came and otherwise get familiar with it.

To play a foreign tune on your electric guitar, you need to know both about the foreign tune and technique and ornamentation of the native instrument on which the tune is played and how to play the electric guitar, of coarse. Usually the techniques required on the electric guitar become apparent once one has sufficient knowledge of the stylistic traits of the tune. For example, traditional music of the Balkans often has "rhythmic articulation" which consists of upper chromatic neighbor (1/2 step above, even when scale neighbor is whole step or augmented 2nd above) grace notes preceding the melody note (and sometimes repeated within the time of the original melody note to create a kind of rhythmic trill). With this in mind, the electric guitar technique may be 1/2 step pull-offs together with hammer-ons for the trills.

The remainder of this article is about how to learn the tunes from information and people you'll encounter through recordings, notation, interest groups, interviews, books and networking.


Definitely learn from recordings if you can. Music notation can be good, but transcriptions often miss the ornamentation, subtleties in phrasing and other essential aspects of the music. So, just as with learning a new language, listening to it is essential. It's easier than ever to find recordings of traditional music from around the world and there are many samples on the net (www.debone.com/worldmusic.html has many links) as you likely know already from online CD sellers. Of course, many CD stores now have listening stations which can allow for samples of many CDs from a region to get an idea of variety, not to mention that it is a way to find CDs worth owning. For studying music, you don't always need to own the CD. Libraries often have recordings that are hard to find and are supplemented by interlibrary loans per your request. Also, I have been very fortunate to have made friends and acquaintances here and in other parts of the world that have graciously lent recordings, sometimes large stacks at a time, so that I might learn more about the music that is important to them, music which is often neglected here. Some I have met serendipitously, many others at gatherings where it their interests were to be expected such as in cultural society meetings, etc. There may also be opportunities for listening to live performances and we'll revisit these topics at a later date.

Ethnomusicology departments of colleges and universities sometimes collect recordings of indigenous music from peoples across the globe. The University of Washington has a department with such a collection, for example. Unfortunately, the collection of recordings is generally archived and kept under control, so you may have to get permission and actually travel to the university to hear any of the recordings. However, although faculty and graduate students tend to be short on time, but if you have a fairly specific question you can sometimes get concise useful answers. For example, they may know of sources of recordings, notation, books, teachers, artists, etc. that will help in your quest for musical enlightenment.


As a great supplement to listening, well transcribed music notation for any instrument can give insight to the electric guitarist. Some of the best samples I have came directly are from musicians who play the native instruments and gave me pointers on how to interpret it beyond western traditional sense (I don't mean to keep teasing you, but I'll tell more about how one goes about finding these musicians and live performances in later paragraphs since this one is about different ways of finding music notation). For music of other cultures, there are specialty stores with web presence such as Lark In The Morning (www.larkinam.com) which sell instruments, instruction books and sheet music with corresponding traditional tunes. Used bookstores are sometimes great sources for general reference ("The History of Music" with music notation examples) and sheet music, especially exercises. Exercises for other instruments are great to get familiar with what may be technically or stylistically native or difficult for an instrument you'd like to emulate on the electric guitar.

There are web sites with directly viewable notation of many tunes from around the world. See www.debone.com/worldmusic.html for links to many of these.

And again, I have found libraries to be a good resource for many types of music, especially older and out of print classical and music from around the world. References such as "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" which came out in 1980 in a 20 volume set is good as a supplemental source of academic review and music notation examples of music throughout history of the world. In November, 2000 an updated version was released, so if you need more recent information, you might have to find a library that already has this newer version (reference material is usually not loaned through interlibrary loan programs). I mentioned interlibrary loan for CD's. It applies to sheet music and books as well. Your librarian may be able to tell you how long it may take to get the sheet music or book of sheet music. Sometimes I've gotten materials as quickly as a few days. The longest wait was for Ravi Shankar's out of print "My Music, My Life" which took about 9 months, most of which time I didn't know if it even existed within the library system or not. It was worth the wait. I paid Powell's bookstore (the largest in the country) here in Portland, Oregon, $2.00 to search for a used copy for me and it is one of the books I now own. It has non-western music notation used for prescribing sitar exercises and rendering particular interpretations of some ragas. The explanation of the notation is useful not only for this Indian music, but also similar enough to music notation from China, Vietnam and other countries of the far East that it is a great primer for Asian music notation in general. Shankar tells the story of his teacher's (guru's) life and his own life in a way that is both magical and revealing of a perhaps gullible and sensitive master musician.

As mentioned under "Recordings," ethnomusicology departments can also be a good source for music notation.

Cultural Groups, Organizations, Associations & Societies

Shankar's book also mentioned Kalakendra, the Indian Music and Cultural Society. Through Portland's Central library's community organization database I found that Portland's Kalakendra contact information, the same not to be found in the phone book. The head of the Kalakendra at the time was Nisha Goshi. She is a teacher of northern Indian classical music and a disciple of a disciple of Ravi Shankar. She agreed to give sitar lessons to me while I used a guitar as a substitute instrument. Over time, she guided me through several "thats," musical structures somewhat akin to western scales (melodic minor might be an indicative example with the descent being different from the ascent).

Here's how I found Kalakendra through the library's database: Many libraries have community database access through "DYNA" and other systems that are available through telnet or web pages. For example, the Portland, Oregon Central Library has such a database via telnet -- multnomah.lib.or.us (login as fastcat). From the main search menu enter "18" for "OTHER RESOURCES." From there enter "2" for "Community Organizations." You can then search by keyword or organization name, or browse the list.

Many organizations are not specific to music, but to a culture or dance or instrument, etc. I have found most organization contacts are open to answering questions that will help in one's quest for musical knowledge.

Aside from the ethnomusicology department mentioned before, colleges and universities often have organizations that sponsor events open to the public. Often they're cultural events that feature food, dance, music, clothing, etc. of particular cultures. Here too is an opportunity to meet people and learn. Searching web pages of these educational centers sometimes reveals these groups, but in other cases, making a few phone calls to related departments is required to find these groups and event information.

Many other groups are much less formal and networking is your only hope of finding them. I have found some groups that would meet sporadically at miscellaneous venues or homes. Some I have found out about through resources already mentioned. Others, quite by accident. Guitar societies, though generally biased a bit towards classical guitar, often have members and visitors particularly dedicated to music and often are aware of other musical happenings in your area, or other members who are. Check out the list of guitar societies around the world at www.debone.com/guitsoc.html to see if there is a society meeting near you.

You probably already know about internet newsgroups, but if not you might try searching www.deja.com for the music and associated culture.

Dance group can be helpful for both finding recordings of music and learning the rhythmic elements of the music more completely. Learning different basic "oro" of Bulgaria and Macedonia was a great way to learn some simple approaches to the odd time signatures of the associated music (5/8, 7/16, 9/8, 11/16, 25/8, 29/8 etc.)

Many of these interest groups sponsor live performances of native musicians. In some cases, you can get on a mailing list or other contact method to be alerted of upcoming events. The musicians often have recordings for sale and sometimes are open to answering a few questions, which brings us to interviews...


Interviewing is a way to meet and learn from knowledgeable people who otherwise might not have the time. I interviewed Steve Morse for both web publication and The Portland Guitar Society's Quarterly Magazine, for example (www.debone.com/morseint.html). Finding the person's contact information can be tricky if they are relatively obscure. If they are a musician with a recording with BMI association, contact BMI in New York City and ask for the royalty contact information. Usually the address given will work for sending a letter for initial contact regarding an interview for publication. There can be in person, telephone and written (i.e. via email) interviews. In person interviews may be facilitated by meeting the artist during a tour through your area, provided you have contacted them far enough in advance. I highly recommend finding out as much as you can about them, especially about previous interviews (searching periodical databases via library, internet, etc.) beforehand. You'll both get more out of it that way. I also recommend at least skimming some books on interviewing if you have never done it before.


By now, you probably know I'm going to mention the library again. Well, one thing a library is good for is collecting expensive large sets of reference books. I mentioned "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" before for music notation. It is great for giving you some background information, often a small sample of sheet music transcriptions and other leads through a list of references for a particularly type or geographic origin of music. The information is generally quite academic in presentation and tone and far from complete. However, it often has examples of music, theory and history not found readily from the sources above.

Another reference that is useful is "Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia with more than 40000 original drawings" (The Diagram Group, Ruth Midgley, Managing Editor, Facts on File, 1976). This book will help you learn about the instruments of a region and time.

A related source of information about instruments is "The Lark's March Newsletter," Lark In The Morning (Fort Bragg, CA/Seattle, WA: www.larkinam.com). They also sell books specific to instruments, music and associated cultures, not to mention that they sell the actual instruments, recordings and sheet music.

On the more obvious side, there are books specific to a type of music such as Shankar's book above and Tim Rice's "May It Fill Your Soul / Experiencing Bulgarian Music" which comes with a CD of music samples (The University of Chicago Press, 1994). Authors of these books are of coarse great sources of knowledge. Tim is the head of UCLA's Ethnomusicology Dept. and was quite gracious in his help answering questions related to the Balkan music on my "Exotic Extremes" CD (www.debone.com/exoticextremes.html). Here again, check the library and online bookstores, etc. for specific areas of interest.

There are "World Music" books that often have more recent developments emphasized over older traditional music. Due to the "globalization" of businesses, including music, broadcasting and other related entertainment and news, increasingly modern "world music" examples from far reaches of the world have more in common than ever before. The combinations and permutations of cross-cultural influences have required many of these books to be between 500 and 1000 pages long and still barely scratch the surface of most subjects. However, for understanding the context of the music as it relates to the rest of the world. Books such as "The Rough Guide to World Music" (Simon Broughton & Mark Ellingham, Editors) can help here.

Books on related culture and folklore sometimes give context and help you understand what the associated music expresses in some cases. For example, Isabel Fonseca's "Bury Me Standing / The Gypsies and Their Journey" (Vintage Books/div. of Random House, 1995) is a fascinating and sometimes quite personal account of the history and recent lives of the people that call themselves Rom in The Balkans. This book, together with Tim Rice's, conveyed the importance of "gypsy" influence, among others, on traditional music in the Balkans. "Romanijada" ( is a prime example of Rom music from Macedonia. A number of books on the Ottoman Empire and other history books of the region were useful for understanding the depth of emotion expressed in "Teshkoto" (www.debone.com/wavfiles/teshkotosample.wav) for example.

Also, for the Balkan research, learning a little of the language helped a great deal. A number of Macedonians were very generous in supplying me with sheet music and explanations, with all text being in Macedonian that is in Cyrillic script. Books, including translation dictionaries, helped here.


If you contact the people through interest groups and/or interviews mentioned above, you'll already be networking if they mention others to contact. I don't have much more to add other than to be aware of the interests of the people you know and meet and let them be aware of yours and the others you know.


Through recordings, notation, interest groups, interviews, books and networking you can learn a great deal about music from other cultures. Sometimes the techniques required for the native instruments are different from that usually used for playing the electric guitar. In these cases, learning more about the native instrument playing technique will give insight into how to adapt the associated technique to the electric guitar.

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