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Different types of nylon string guitars

Growing up, I always thought nylon string guitars are for classical music and all nylon string guitars are alike. But later realised there are distinct differences between the guitars and nylon string guitars are predominantly of three types, 1. guitar that is predominantly made for classical music, 2. guitar that is primarily used in flamenco, 3. guitar that serves both the purposes to some degree.

  1. Classical guitar:

Classical music is such that requires a melody to be played over a harmony, sometimes a counterpoint, meaning two different melodic lines, but either way, the music is more tone dependent and hence require the notes to resonate for longer. The weight of the guitar, type of wood etc have a huge impact on resonance and usually the darker the wood on the guitar body, the heavier and more resonance offered. Rosewood and Mahogany are the two most common woods of which classical guitars are made of.

    2. Negra guitar:

Flamenco Negra guitar falls in between the classical and pure flamenco guitars. The side and back of a Negra guitar is made of denser wood such as the rosewood and a lighter spruce top to give a mixture of decent sustain but a thinner percussive sound.

   3. Blanca guitar:

These guitars are purely made for flamenco playing, low sustain but bright punchy tone, perfect for flamenco playing. These guitars are very light. Usually the back and side of this guitar is made of Cypress and a Spruce top to give that kind of tone desired in flamenco music. The look much brighter than the classical guitars, identifying the colour is one way to remember the differences between nylon string guitars.

Modal interchange: Andalusian cadence and Neapolitan 2

Modal interchange basically means borrowing chords from a parallel mode. There are many significant such modal interchanges that are widely used and hence quite popular among composers and songwriters. Both Andalusian cadence and Neapolitan 2 are examples of borrowing chords from the Phrygian mode. Given that Phrygian is a minor mode, we often see these 2 examples in songs written in minor keys. In a minor key the chords  are i iio III iv v VI and VII, with one four and five being minor chords, three six and seven as major and two being the diminished. In a Phrygian mode, two becomes a flat major and five is a major instead of a minor. So if there is a song written in the minor key, but five is played as a major instead of minor, that modal interchange is also called the Andalusian cadence, something we hear in flamenco a lot. The other example is playing a flat major two instead of a diminished two. This modal interchange is called Neapolitan 2. In Neapolitan 2, often that flat major two is followed by a five dominant 7, back to one.  Let’s say a song is written in the key of Am. If a progression goes like Am Bb E7 Am, that Bb chord would be a demonstration of the Neapolitan 2 followed by 5 dominant 7th and back to Am. This approach is used if the goal is to enhance the sadness in the tune.

Use of half diminished chords in popular music

Diminished chords are inherently very strong due to the presence of tritones in them and therefore not the best sounding chords in contemporary pop music. However we often do see the use of half diminished chords as passing chords in modern pop songs which can create an interesting tonality. When using the diminished chords as passing chords, we use the slightly modified version of the diminished triad, which is called the half diminished or minor 7 flat 5 chord. The notes in these chords are 1 b3 b5 b7. The idea is to use the half diminished as a passing chord between two adjacent diatonic chords to create a chromatic line. For example in the key of F, we could play F and Gm, the I and ii chords in the key, using F# half diminished as a passing chord between them. In pop music, we most often see the use of diminished chords between two adjacent chords but feel free to experiment in other ways to see what sound you can come up with.

Some tips for guitar players on how to prepare for a recording session

For a performing guitarist and composer, one of the major tasks is recording new tracks at the studio. Any studio session requires adequate preparation which is slightly different than the preparation for a live performance.  I’ll try to highlight some of the things that I personally do and find them to be good practices to get the best out of a studio session.

  1. Composition to performance:

If you are performing a piece that you have composed, take your time to learn the piece first and then go back to the drawing board again to make some changes in the piece that you have written. Often you may find a slightly more musical expression or minor changes to what you originally wrote, after you learn to perform it. Once all the changes are incorporated and you are comfortable with your performance, take another few days to play it frequently and then hit the studio to get the most natural performance.

    2. Recording a cover song/piece:

When you record a cover song or playing a musical piece that is already released, my suggestion is to again take a few days, preferably a week (depending on the complexity of the piece) and then hit the studio. A very important thing is to be able to add some embellishments to the original. A cover should sound like the original, yet should also carry the signature sound and expression of the performing artist. Adding that will make the cover you recorded a unique piece with added musical nuances.

    3. Record on your best day:

If you have the luxury of having your own studio then start recording when you feel the inspiration. Sometimes you may feel technically confident but lack the inspiration to start recording, feeling tired or just not at your musical best. Try to avoid those moments but hit the studio the moment you feel that inspiration. It could be at midnight or at times relatively unusual. Make the most of that moment when you feel you are in the zone. All the magic happens during those moments!

   4. Learn to accept failure:

Unless it is a major commercial project and you have a deadline to meet, learn to accept that the take which seemed somewhat ok is not usable and retake the entire thing. Sometimes, either out of fear or impatience, we try to move on with a take that is functionally ok with minor issues and feel we can mix it to fix it. To get the best output, my suggestion is to stay honest, accept the take wasn’t the best, and reschedule another session. Until you feel that what you recorded captures the best expressions you can possibly create with your guitar and it represents the highest level of your musicianship, keep recording.

How much practice famous guitar players did?

We all know the importance of practice to improve the repertoire and build good motor skills. The two parts of good practice is the quality of the practice and the duration of practice. We often have this question about how much practice is needed. I always request my students to practice at least 20 minutes a day. But what about the famous and virtuoso guitar players, how much practice they did during their formative years? I have done some research on this, watching different interviews, reading different articles and came out with these numbers. To my best of knowledge, these come from authentic sources and are reliable.

  1. Steve Vai: During high school, he used to practice 9-15 hours a day. Unlike many other rock musicians, he was very good at reading and writing staff notation, knew how to play many different instruments, extremely good at music theory classes and knew how to write scores for an entire orchestra. It is also well documented that his parents supported him unconditionally from a very early age in his musical journey.

  2. Slash: He is a prolific BMX rider and used to practice around 12 hours a day during his pre Guns and Roses days.

  3. Jimi Hendrix: It is known that Jimi Hendrix used to feel very nervous without a guitar in his hand and would pick it up soon after waking up in the morning. There are even stories that he used to go to sleep with his guitar laying next to the bed. No real number on how many hours of practice he did, but based on these stories, it is possible that he practiced around 14-16 hours a day.

  4. Zakk Wylde: In an interview he admitted that he used to practice roughly 14 hours a day during the time he was in high school.

  5. Yngwie Malmsteen: In his own words, “Initially, it was insane – basically, all waking hours. I would sacrifice everything. I wouldn’t go to school. Then when I was a teenager, they had to drag me to parties and stuff like that because I was extremely dedicated, to the point of insanity I think.”

Minor cliche

A cliche in general is referring to something that has been used or heard numerous times. A minor cliche in music is using a descending (more common) or ascending (relatively rare) chromatic lines within the chord harmony to create a melodic movement pleasing to the ears. This idea is used in many different songs, notably Something by Beatles, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin etc. 

The most common example of a minor line cliché, is the descending chromatic line that comes down from the root of a minor triad. Since we can play minor triads all over the neck in any inversion and on any set of strings, both open and closed positions, we can start this cliché in many places and with many fingerings.

The ascending minor line cliche is also often referred to as ‘James Bond’ line cliche. Listen to the theme song of James Bond to see if you can hear why it is called that 🙂

 

2 very popular minor progressions

These are two of my favourite and also two very popular minor progressions:

Minor progression 1: (Sensitive female chord progression)

i      bVII     bVI    III

(In the key of Em this translates as Em  D   C   G)

Minor progression 2: (Andalusian cadence)

i     bVII   bVI      V

(In the key of Em this translates as Em  D   C   B)

 

The V in Andalusian cadence is anon diatonic chord, best way to think of that as a modal interchange, a borrowed chord from E harmonic minor.

 

 

Lead note, Bass note and Guide tone: Three essential elements of chords

When we play a chord, we mostly focus on the chord quality and they key. It is true that if we play the right type of chord on the correct key, it will sync with the song. However, to make the chord sound even more soothing to the ears and sound perfectly synced with the underlying melody, we need to understand the concept of Bass note, Lead note and Guide tone of a chord.

Bass note: The bass note of a chord is the heaviest sounding tone in the chord. A chord missing a heavy bass element will not sound very rich, specially if it is played in the absence of a bass guitar keeping the chord rhythm as the main harmony. Not all notes work well as the bass note. In a triad, the best sounding bass is the root note itself, the second best is the fifth and the weakest sounding bass is the third. For example, in a C chord, the notes are C (1) E (3) and G (5). The C note is going to sound best as the bass note, G will sound pretty good too but E will sound quite weak. The same order applies for additional chords too. For example, in a C Major 7 chord, the notes are C (1) E (3) G (5) and B (7). The same sequence applies here too with C being the best sounding bass and B being the weakest sounding bass.

Lead note: Lead note of a chord is the highest pitched note. There is no hard and fast rule on what lead note will sound best for a chord. However when we play a chord, we should try to keep the lead note of the chord same as the main note of the underlying melody. If the underlying melody is the vocal part of the song and on that chord, the singer is mostly singing the note G over a C chord, then we need to play the C chord in a way where G remains the highest note. This is the reason learning inversions of chords is so very essential. Setting up the chord right can make the sync between rhythm and harmony so much more pleasing to the ears.

Guide tone: Guide tones of a chord are the essential notes that define the chord’s  core tonality. Foe example a major chord is bright and colourful. whereas a minor chord is relatively sad and dark. This difference is solely created by the third interval of both the chords (C major C E G and C minor C Eb G), therefore it can be said that the third interval is the guide tone of the major/minor triads. As a guitar player if we just played the root and the third excluding the fifth, we could still hear the major or minor tonality. For 7th chords, the guide tones are the 3rd and the 7th. So similarly, if we just play the root, third and 7th, we will be able to hear the core tonality of the chord even if we skip the fifth.

Learning the chord progression of a song by ear

There are numerous ways musicians learn songs by ear. Some methods are faster and more efficient, others are time consuming but more accurate. This method that I follow can be a little time consuming. But following this method, not only you can find out the chords but you will know a lot more about the structure of the song, which will allow you to be more accurate with your chords. This will also give you the control to modify and perhaps improvise to give your own touch. More importantly, this will allow you to find out chords for songs where no guitar has been used. Following are the steps:

Step 1. Follow the vocal lines and try to hum the essential notes.

Step 2. Find out how to play the notes of the vocal lines, one line at a time.

Step 3. After playing a few lines on guitar, try to understand the tonal centre, where all the notes want to resolve into, or lay out the notes of the vocal lines you played and see if they form any scale pattern.

Step 4. Once you identified the key of the song, find out what diatonic chords are available for that key.

Step 5. Use trial and error to find out the chords that matches the actual song. Most chords are going to be diatonic chords, occasionally you may find one non diatonic chord here and there but that is very uncommon in popular music.

Step 6. Find out the strumming pattern. If there is no guitar in the song, create a strumming pattern that matches  the drums and bass grooves.

Essential and Nonessential tones

An essential tone is a note that belongs to the harmony (chord) that’s played on top of that note. On the other hand notes that don’t belong to the underlying harmony is labelled as nonessential tones. Nonessential tones are also known as passing notes or auxiliary notes.  When writing a chord progression for a melody, we should try to use chords that have the most number of essential notes in a given bar of the melody.

Let’s assume the first four notes of a melody are C F E and G. The chord that makes most sense to be played on top of this melody is the chord C which contains C-E-G notes. In this case the melody contains only one passing note which is F, which is also a consonant and a diatonic note in the key of C. So a C chord makes total sense and this is how we need to write chord progression for a given melody. We could even play all 4 notes to construct the chord which would be a ‘C add 11’ chord.

Sometimes more than one chord may make sense for the underlying melody and it is at the discretion of the composer to decide what chord to be used.