The Tree Of Possibility

Hello all, and welcome to this new series of articles.

The guitar has some inherent limitations that can serve a useful purpose or constitute a barrier to our development as artists and musicians. In the following articles I will try to explain what some of these "traps" are and how to make sure that not only we don't fall into them, but rather use them as doorways to increased knowledge and creativity on the instrument.

This month, let's discuss patterns. This can mean scale patterns, chord shapes, or any other kind of set fingering that is "movable".

The main problem is that the patterns that make the guitar such an accessible instrument are also the most common traps into which a great many players get stuck. Take for example the basic pentatonic pattern. The usual way to recognize and use this pattern utilizes probably only a hundredth part of its potential. We see countless guitar players just doodling around this position, maybe they add a couple of notes on the top two strings, and there's their solo or improvisation. Sounds familiar? Then when the next song comes in a different key (say A), they just move the position to the 5th fret and play the same thing all over again.

Now, if you never progress from this stage, you will never truly be playing the guitar. The guitar will be playing you. Your limited knowledge is dictating not only what your fingers are playing, but also what your ear perceives as "creative". You might very well be playing the same solos as everybody else and think you are being original! If we understand this concept, of the origins of our limitations, we are well on our way of freeing ourselves from their boundaries.

So let's check out a "healthier" way of looking at this pentatonic pattern:

  1. Recognize the problem: I only know this scale in one position on the neck;
  2. Recognize where the problem originates: I am not familiar with the nature of the scale or its theory, or if I am, I haven't taken the time to understand it completely;
  3. Plan a solution: Figure out where this scale comes from, and make sure I do understand its antecedent(s);
  4. Implement the solution: Fully understand the antecedent and the theory, and also its implications on the fret-board;

So let's take this pentatonic example and see how you could work on it to progress to a complete understanding of the scale.

At point 1, you might be tempted to get a book and learn all the positions and fix your problem that way. Don't. Finding something you don't understand all over the neck will not make you understand it better, but less. So instead, let's figure out where this pentatonic box comes from: the natural minor scale. So now we have figured out that the position you have been playing indiscriminately over all chord progressions known to man is actually a minor scale.

The next obvious step is to learn the minor scale. This is where most people get lazy and give up, and revert back to their pentatonic box. But we are fearless musical adventurers, so we find resources on the minor scale and just as we set out to learn it all over the fret-board we realize that in order to understand the minor scale we need to first learn its "parent scale", the major scale. And when we finally nail the theory and technique of the major scale, we realize that we should really learn the major pentatonic before proceeding to the minor, as it is so closely related to the major scale. In the end, something we thought we knew (the pentatonic box) has actually set us back a few weeks (or months) just in order to catch up with its antecedents.

But as you are despairing over why would you ever read that article on guitar9 that got you into this pit of disillusion you realize that not only have you learned in a few weeks what you had never learned in all these years of playing, but also that you now have a method and a knowledge that will allow you to study many more areas of music and guitar. Reverting back to point one, you will now have learned all your positions on the neck for the pentatonic scale but your knowledge will be organic, and not encyclopedic. Storing information is quite useless on the guitar. Making whatever information you have alive under your fingers I the real key. Simply memorizing the patterns, as stated earlier, would have been useless.

Basically you have moved from sitting on a single branch (that pentatonic box) to staring at a big tree. Now you can move out and explore more branches. For example, you might have never understood the modes because you were missing its antecedents (the major scales). But now you realize that if you could derive a pentatonic scale from a major scale by simply removing 2 notes, you shouldn't have too many problems making one note sharp and thus playing the Lydian mode. That will open the door to all the modes of the major scale. Once you understand that, you might wonder about other scales (melodic and harmonic minor, semi-diminished, etc.) and their modes. And then what chords would work with them, and then what chords you might use to substitute them, and then, and then...

So the idea is not to worry so much about what you think you know, but rather on the things you don't know. Most students hit a wall when their teacher does not see clearly what level of understanding they are on. That creates disequilibrium between the student and the teacher and learning will just not happen. It's like a kid trying to look out the window that is taller than he is. If you want the kid to see the ocean, you can't just tell him to look. You have to give him a stool he can stand on so that he can look for himself. If you are your own teacher, treat yourself gently, and give yourself ample attention and opportunity.

This article might sound a bit clinical in the approach that it presents, but you shouldn't get caught up in that. Explaining things on paper generally requires clear expression that can make things appear a little cut and dry or cold. Actual learning is ever changing and flowing, and you should keep that in mind. If you have a good teacher, he will make sure you are introduced to each subject in a creative and flexible way. At the same time, guitarists do not typically approach their instrument with the discipline that is required of most other instruments because the guitar is so readily accessible; you can play a song in 2 or 3 weeks! But the pattern of learning is the same for every endeavor in life and sooner or later we all need to move away from this initial approach and into the discipline (however creative and fun it might be) that is required to truly master an art.

Thank you for reading and should you have any questions you can contact me at the web site andretonelli.com. You can also check out some free videos on my youtube, iTunes music and iTunes podcast channels.

Andre Tonelli is a guitarist, composer, producer, and teacher renowned around the world. His music has been heard by millions, either performed live, on radio stations worldwide, or at other events.

His latest CD is entitled "Power World Fantastic", an all instrumental guitarfest.

Andre Tonelli

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