Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chapter 8: Your Friends and Neighbors

I'm covering the low end at a four-piece jam. Guitar, bass, drums, keys. I had been listening to "Waiting Room" by Fugazi, and I had worked out the opening riff. I liked the sound, I liked the range. We stop a song, I call out the key, and we go in.

The keyboard player takes a step back from the keys.

Why? Why did that simple choice alienate that musician? I can explain this with a little bit of theory. Not much, don't worry.

Consider the Circle of Fifths. Starting at C and going right, you see all the sharp keys (G, D, A, E, B), and going left, you see all the flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db). If you've been playing a little while, you will look at the first four sharp keys and feel comfortable. Guitarists, especially guitarists used to playing first position, open string stuff, are very comfortable with C, G, D, A and E. Things just lay out perfectly on guitar with those keys, because you have a maximum number of open strings. Guitarists tend to gripe when you get into the flats. "F? F!"

The good point is that, once you forget about open strings and play closed positions, things get easier. If you barre every chord, a Bb is like an A played up one fret. Everything is pretty much parallel. The core concept of CAGED theory is that once you can play a scale in one of five positions, you can move that scale to another position and get another scale. You have to learn one thing five ways and you pretty much have it in every key. On bass, I was thinking of F# as G minus one fret.

Now, let's look at it like a keyboardist. That scale is F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D# and E#, which is F. Writing that on staff, you'd mark it with six sharps, or six flats if you're thinking of it as Gb instead. There are only five black keys on the keyboard. And because the keyboard layout is not uniform, the scales and chords are not as instantly transferrable between keys.

By calling out F#, I pushed the keyboards to the most foreign landscape possible.

Every instrument has tendencies like that. For example, horns love the flats, and if you ever want to learn a sax lick or figure out a song with a big horn chart, always look for Bb first.

A man's got to know his limitations, and it's good to know the limitations of your band members, too.


Sammy said...

Dude, the diagram you have here for the Circle of Fifths is the best, most comprehensive I've seen. I've been looking for something like this to no avail. Thank you!!

Sammy said...

And, as it turns out, I'm an idiot. It's linked back to good old Wiki, sitting right there the whole time.

Dave Jacoby said...

Glad I could help, if only finding the good pic.

Anonymous said...

I'm a guitar player, but about 2 years ago I bought a keyboard just to mess around on and help with music theory stuff, and it has helped. Keys have their advantage. Once you known what one chord type (eg. 7th sus4) you can easily figure it out anywhere, so in the example of C7sus4, you have the root, then a gap 4 keys between the root and the next key, then a gap of 1 key, then a gap of 2 keys. If you then move the root to F#, and apply the same "maths" you'll have F#7sus4.

The same applies for working out scales quickly by eye, just by thinking in terms of Whole and Half steps (eg. WWHWWWH = maj scale.) Simlply start at the root of your choice and count.

Your right in terms of remembering scales. On guitar there's 5 scale shapes, and 5 pentatonic shaps, and you can do it all with that. On keys each semitone has it's own scale shapes.

So while there's a lot more to try to memorize, it's also much easier to just eyeball the scale on the fly.

P.S. On keys, besides C and G, my next most well known scaled is actually F#. I picked specifically because it was mostly black keys... and it has a nice "shape" too :D

Dave Jacoby said...

I've heard of a songwriter, a famous one who wrote a lot of the standards, could only play on the black keys, and so built a piano with a clutch so he could play any key he wanted with his knowledge. And I saw a video where they showed a gospel musician playing "Amazing Grace", noting that it's all the black keys. So there is something to that.

I'm thinking about a keyboard. I want something about like a Squier Affinity Telecaster for keyboards. Not great, without the bells and whistles, but it has some usable tones and it isn't a crappy plastic thing. You can gig on an Affinity Tele if you had to. I've heard good things about the Oxygen 8 keyboard, and the price is about right. Specifically, I do not want onboard speakers, and I'd love it to be able to talk via USB to a computer so I can change settings, upload sounds and sequence things. Any suggestions?