One of the most important activities for an artist is recording a hot demo tape. Your demo is your calling card for everything from booking shows, to getting press and reviews, and generating label interest. From my experience as an A&R guy at a major label, there are a few basic tips that you should consider for fine-tuning your demo submission.
Step One – Song Selection
Your first demo should have no more than three songs. While you might have a catalogue of hundreds of “great” songs, it is important to select the best three. I recommend no more than three tunes because A&R people or club bookers don’t have time to listen to volumes of music that is submitted to them. Imagine that you are sitting in their place and have one tape with ten songs and one with two, which one do you think you will listen to first?
Make sure that they are all in fact great tunes. One of the first things that you must do as an artist is learn to be truthful with yourself. Every artist knows when they have truly created something great and when they have just pumped out a mediocre song that lacks soul. Don’t send the bullshit. There’s too much of it already and no need for more. The three tunes should be organized beginning with the strongest. And if you only have one great tune, then just send the one. If you don’t have any, wait until you do. You are building a reputation at this point. And if you become known for sending out bad songs, people will stop accepting and listening to your music.
The tempo doesn’t matter. If the tunes are all ballads because that is your specialty, fine. If they’re all dance tunes, fine too. If you have strong dynamics with varied tempos, that can work as well.
The genre also doesn’t matter. If you are considering mixing-genres – for example putting a rap, country and pop tune on the same tape – don’t! It is highly unlikely for one A&R person to be an expert in these three varied genres. If you write music in many different styles, do separate demo tapes for each genre. Pick three pop tunes and send them to the pop A&R person. Pick three country tunes and get them to the country A&R person. But don’t send them all to the same guy.
Step Two – Quality of Demos
Now that you’ve chosen what three songs you want to record. Make sure that you get clean clear copies of them on tape, DAT or CD. With technology moving so rapidly, you can create great demos in your bedroom, even on a four-track, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, go to someone who does and have them record the tracks and vocals for you. It is not necessary to have 24 or 48 track master quality demos but know that many of your competitors do. So you want to have your demo sounding as close to a finished record as possible. Unfortunately, except for a few rare pop A&R men and most of Nashville, the idea of getting a song heard, placed, and cut on an artist from a guitar or piano vocal are long gone.
Today’s demos need to sound like songs on the radio. So if you don’t have your own equipment, get to know engineers at recording studios and see if they will work on your demos in the studios’ downtimes. This will save you money, as the studio rental rates are cheaper during these hours. Many of today’s engineers and studio interns will be tomorrow’s great producers. Doing an internship at a recording studio is one way to get in the door and possibly get some free off-peak studio time. Also, try to get a mastering studio that will adjust the volume, compression, tone and other quality aspects of your demo. (See CD-Demo Master Svc)
Step Three – Package
Forget about the bells and whistles and glossy black folders and photos to include with your “demo package.” No one cares. All the A&R person cares about is hearing a hit when he or she pushes the play button. So keep it simple. Just provide a clearly labeled tape with the song titles, your name and telephone numbers. Make sure the tape or CD quality is clean and not muddy or muffled. If they’ve listened to the tape and they love the songs, they will call you. Trust me.
All the bells and whistles in the world are not going to make them listen any quicker and they certainly won’t make them love the music any more. You should include a brief bio with your demo submission. Some A&R guys must have lyrics when they listen to songs. Some might also require a photo. That stuff, however, is only valuable to me if the band is making some noise already, selling some records or doing something else notable. If you choose to include a photo, make sure that it represents where you are today as an artist and not some years ago. (See the bios in Band Row for examples)
Step Four – Process
It’s important to research label and A&R staff interests prior to submitting your demo. If you send your metal band to a soul A&R person, the recording will likely be discarded. Once you have developed a shortlist of potential labels, send your demo package. After sending in your demo, wait about two weeks and follow up with a phone call or email. If you submitted an MP3 or used another digital A&R process, you should also submit a full demo package with CD or tape.
Relationships are key and you should make friends with anyone who can get your submission heard. This means being polite to the assistant and receptionist and perhaps inviting them all to your band’s shows. Put the label on your mailing list and invite them to your shows, share press clippings, announce CD releases, etc.
Getting a good lawyer with experience doing deals with record labels will help to get your demo heard. A lawyer’s involvement, like having a manager, will validate your seriousness and lets the A&R person know that your demo has been pre-screened.
Björk and the Intersection of Nature and Technology
While the Icelandic performer Björk is a famously eclectic multidisciplinary artist, one of the most consistent themes across her oeuvre is the coalescence of nature and technology. She began her career as a child star in the 1970s, before moving on to punk and new wave bands in the 1980s, coming to international attention with post-punk band The Sugarcubes.
However, since departing from the group and going solo in the early 1990s, she has made it her mission to meld avant-garde electronica with themes of flora and fauna, the elemental extremes of her homeland, and the cosmos. In doing so, she has blurred and transcended binaries constructed around gender; humanity’s connection to the natural world; the distinction between technology and nature; and the relationship between tradition and modernity.
Let us explore these contrasts within her work and their relevance to our constantly evolving world.
Perhaps the most obvious entry point into this multilayered topic is Björk’s inimitable voice. Shaped by the volatile landscape of Iceland, it has been described variously as celestial, primal, visceral, and ancient. She is able to move effortlessly from a gentle whisper, to a volcanic scream, all within a single breath. Whether the eruption is one of joy or sorrow, its efficacy at communicating emotion transcends language. With such an expressive and powerful instrument at her disposal, its addition to even the coldest accompaniment would be an example of the bridge between technology and nature that her work creates. But beyond this, Björk has long proven herself an expert at imbuing electronic music with humanity and warmth.
“People saying ‘techno is cold’ is rubbish”, she said in an interview (Pytlik, 2003). “Since when do you expect the instruments you work with to deliver soul? You do music with computers and get a cold tune, that’s because nobody put soul into it. You don’t look at a guitar and say, ‘Go on then, do a soulful tune.’ You have to put soul into it yourself.” Her skill in this area is not only a major source of her immense success and critical acclaim, but also an example of the ways in which she challenges gendered expectations within the male dominated field of electronic music.
In Western culture, nature has historically been considered a feminine domain, while technology, and electronic music by extension, has been thought of as a masculine domain (Lysloff and Gay, 2003). When a woman sings atop synth heavy production, it is often assumed that male producers are responsible for the pulsating beeps and beats, while the female singer comes in at the end to provide the human element. Due to the history of sexist power dynamics within the music industry, this is sometimes the case. But while Björk has often worked with male producers, she is also a true auteur, and remains heavily involved in each and every aspect of her art.
She has frequently stated that she only collaborates with people she feels are as strong as her musically, or stronger (Lysloff and Gay, 2003). For example, her 2001 album, Vespertine – a sumptuous array of glitchy microbeats and hushed odes to sexual ecstasy and domesticity – was coproduced by the American IDM duo, Matmos. Although they have often been incorrectly credited with the entirety of its production, Björk had already produced 80 percent of the record herself over a three year period, before they became involved (Hopper, 2015). The results are both technically intricate, as well as deeply feminine and naturalistic. Like much of her work, it dismantles both social and artistic gender roles, and exposes the flaws in our binary assumptions.
Beyond gender roles, Björk also blurs the boundaries of where technology ends and nature begins in her art. “For me, nature and technology stand for hope, and for a movement onwards to the future”, she said in a 2016 interview with The Creative Independent (Stosuy, 2016). “…I think it’s also some sort of instinct, just knowing that if there is to be hope, we have to unite technology and nature. You have to make them coexist, and they have to be able to work together. I mean, it has to happen, if we’re going to survive.” This sentiment is more relevant than ever in our futuristic times. Technological advancements have provided us with increased abilities to better explore and understand the hidden depths of our own planet, as well as the outer reaches of space. As climate change accelerates at an alarming rate, such advancements may also provide hope for the future of our planet, and of our species.
But more relevant to Björk are the opportunities technology provide to incorporate nature into her music, not only thematically, but also compositionally. There is no better example of this than the multimedia spectacle of her 2011 album, Biophilia. “Welcome to Biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations, from the tiniest organism to the greatest red giant floating in the farthest realm of the universe”, says David Attenborough, in his introduction to the iOS app released alongside the album. “Just as we use music to express parts of us that would otherwise be hidden, so, too, can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world. In Biophilia, you will experience how the three come together – nature, music, technology.” Björk achieved this by working with world-class programmers to create interactive apps themed around each of the albums songs, with titles like Moon, Crystalline, Thunderbolt, and Mutual Core.
“When I did Biophilia, I was so excited about finally mapping out how I feel about education and how I feel about musicology”, she said to The Creative Independent (Stosuy, 2016).“…when I was a kid in music school, it was almost offensive, how I was forced to study music, or resonance, or timbre, or scales—everything from a normal book…If it’s being seen and heard, it was something that needed to be felt and become visceral and physical.” By making the apps playable along with the albums songs, and as instruments in their own right, they also demonstrated many fundamentals of music theory, and have since been adopted as part of the music education curriculum in Iceland.
Perhaps even more impressive than the app based album is its associated live show. Björk commissioned new and fantastical instruments, like the gameleste, a hybrid between a gamelan and a celesta that can be controlled via MIDI. On Thunderbolt, the bassline was provided by a Tesla coil, which appeared on stage in all its high voltage glory. For Solstice, a song about the rotational axis of the Earth and the sun, English sound sculptor Henry Dagg provided his 2.5 tonne solar powered sharpsichord – a hybrid between a harp and a barrel organ. Also on Solstice, a bespoke pendulum harp is featured. The pendulums were attached to stringed cylinders, passing a plectrum as they swung, allowing the audience to see and hear the force of gravity at work.
Many of these innovations exhibit another major dichotomy within Björk’s work – the combination of the traditional and the modern. To better understand this element of her art, look no further than her 1997 album, Homogenic. Conceptually focused on her native Iceland, its combination of traditional instruments with hypermodern production resulted in music without precedent. For example, on Unravel,
Björk uses a half spoken, half sung vocal delivery associated with Old Icelandic choirmen (Lysloff and Gay, 2003), while a church organ and strings provided by the Icelandic String Octet combine with distant electronic beats. “I asked myself if there is such a thing as Icelandic techno, and how it could sound”, she said in a 1997 interview (Oor, September 1997).. “…in Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers…But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern…That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring. Homogenic is Iceland, my native country, my home.”
These contrasts can also be seen in her visual art and music videos, particularly those made in promotion of Homogenic. In the Paul White directed video for Hunter, a bald-headed Björk sings directly to camera over pounding techno beats, while she gradually morphs into a computer generated polar bear. Michele Gondry’s video for Jóga pans across a series of shifting Icelandic vistas and tectonic plates. At the end of the video, the camera zooms in on an opening in Björk’s chest, revealing rocky terrain and a floating island. The video for All Is Full of Love, directed by Chris Cunnningham, features a gleaming white robot, modelled on Björk, singing the song as it is assembled by machinery. Upon completion, it approaches an identical robot, and the two embrace and kiss passionately.
Another example of Björk combining old and new is her 2004 album, Medúlla. Almost entirely acapella, she worked with beatboxers Rhazel and Dokaka, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, rock vocalist Mike Patton, and both the Icelandic and London Choir.
The title of the album is drawn from a Latin word for marrow; “Not just your bone marrow, but marrow in the kidneys and marrow in your hair, too”, she said in an interview with The Independent (McNair, 2004). “It’s about getting to the essence of something, and with this album being all vocals, that made sense…I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000-year-old blood that’s inside us all; an ancient spirit that’s passionate and dark and survives.” The lyrics frequently focus on nature; Oceania is written from the point of view of the ocean, remarking on human evolution, while Who Is It and The Pleasure Is All Mine are themed around motherhood. But while the albums arrangements draw on classical and folk traditions, and Tanya Tagaq uses ancient vocal techniques, these elements are digitally layered, processed, and altered.
More recently, on her 2017 album Utopia, Björk explored environmentalist and ecofeminist themes. “It’s a proposal of how we can live in the future with nature and technology in the most optimistic way possible”, she said of the album (Sphères, prismes et Utopia pour le nouvel album, 2017). “We have Trump, we have Brexit, we have our issues in Iceland, we have our environmental issues – if there was ever an urgency or necessity to come up with another utopian model, how we’re gonna live our lives, I think it’s now. And this is my proposal.” She went on to say that air is a major theme of the album: “I arranged flute, I started a 12-piece Icelandic flute section and spent a few months recording and rehearsing with them…The whole album is a little bit about air, because we decided to have synths that have a lot of air in them, and we have flutes that sound synthy, so there’s that sort of crossover there.”
This is a recurring characteristic of Björk’s music; the organic becomes electronic, and the electronic becomes organic. In our ever modernising world, it can be easy to feel disconnected from nature. Our skyscrapers get taller, our connections become increasingly digital, and jobs once performed by humans become automated by machines. Although our technological age presents us with near limitless possibilities, it also puts us at risk of losing touch with our natural humanity.
But Björk consistently utilises the most advanced technology available in the present, while constantly looking forward to the future, and never losing touch with nature or the traditions of the past. In doing so, she reminds us that we are all of nature. No matter how much we build up our cities, we are a part of the animal kingdom. The synthesizers and computers she uses to create her music may seem artificial, but they were born out of the ingenuity of clever primates. Now, more than ever, we need artists like Björk to remind us that the distinction between the natural and the artificial is, in itself, artificial.
My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless – The Most Revolutionary Guitar Record of the 1990s
In 1991, My Bloody Valentine released their sophomore album, Loveless. While recognised by generations of critics and music lovers as the magnum opus of both the band, and of the shoegaze style they helped create, it was not the most popular guitar record of the 1990s. Nor was it the most commercially successful guitar record of the 1990s. It was, however, the most revolutionary guitar record of the 1990s.
Most Revolutionary – A Bold Claim
Admittedly, this is a bold claim. After all, the 90s saw the flannel-clad, angst-ridden Seattle grunge scene go global. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, made the transition from subcultural icons to platinum-selling pop-cultural phenomenons.
Alternative rock stalwarts of the preceding decade like Sonic Youth, R.E.M., and Dinosaur Jr, continued to put out critically acclaimed, genre-defining records. In the UK, when the music press turned on shoegaze, Britpop bands like Blur, Oasis, and Pulp, filled the void it left. The decade was rife with legendary rockers. And yet, none of these bands were particularly revolutionary during the 1990s.
Few people would argue against the quality of the best and brightest groups of the grunge and Britpop era, nor the sustained brilliance of their forbears, and neither shall this essay. However, one could certainly argue that while brilliant, they were working off of relatively well-established templates.
Grunge was a logical evolution of 1980s punk and alternative rock, with shades of heavy metal. Britpop evoked the power pop of The Kinks and The Beatles. Bands like R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and The Pixies, were definitely revolutionary in their own right, but by the 90s, they weren’t really reinventing the wheel. Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘revolutionary’ thusly:
“Involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.”
Oxford English Dictionary
The key phrase here is “complete or dramatic change”, and by this metric, Loveless undoubtedly qualifies.
My Bloody Valentine was formed in Dublin in 1983, by childhood friends Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig.
In 1985, they released their debut mini-album, This is Your Bloody Valentine, and the EP Geek. In 1986, these were followed by The New Record by My Bloody Valentine.
David Conway as Vocalist
All of these releases featured vocalist David Conway. What stands out about these records is their mediocrity. They were highly derivative of post-punk and gothic rock bands like The Birthday Party and Joy Division, they sold poorly, and they received an underwhelming critical reception.
Bilinda Butcher replaces David Conway
In 1987, they ditched David Conway, and hired vocalist and guitarist Bilinda Butcher. That same year, they released the single Strawberry Wine, and their second mini-album, Ecstasy.
Trademark Sound Develops
It was at this point that they began to develop their trademark sound. The vague, androgynous vocal style of Shields and Butcher, combined with sweet jangle pop melodies, and feedback drenched noise. They may have been ripping off The Jesus and Mary Chain, but critics and audiences alike acknowledged that they were doing it well.
Kevin Shields’ Experimental Approach
Kevin Shields is by no means a virtuosic guitarist. What makes him revolutionary is not his technical abilities, but his experimental approach. Beginning with the release of their 1988 EP, You Made Me Realise, Shields introduced a new style of playing, known as glide guitar. He modified the tremolo system on his Fender Jazzmaster, loosening it to allow him to hold it while strumming simultaneously, resulting in a continuous pitch modulation. Combined with open tunings, reverse reverb, and layers of distortion, he created sounds never heard before.
“No other band played that guitar like me”, said Shields in Mike McGonical’s 2007 book “My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (33 1/3)”. “No one used the tremolo arm aside from us. We did everything solely with the tremolo arm…I just kind of found my own way, and my own feel, my own way of playing. I didn’t have to consciously think about it. I was able to express this constant feeling of expression. It’s hard to explain the sound of the guitar bending. What you hear is what is between the sound, with the open tunings and the guitar bending.”
Indeed, the serpentine, fluid movement of Kevin Shields’ glide guitar has an allure all its own. At its most subdued, it’s like a strangely graceful drunken dancer. Dipping and weaving, losing and regaining its balance, but never quite falling down. At its most extreme, turned up to eleven and feeding back into itself infinitely, it can evoke orgasmic howls, the throes of passion, or the yearning for it.
Bilinda Butcher’s Vocal Style
“Move on top, because that way, you touch her too”, Bilinda Butcher coos on “To Here Knows When”. The swirling maelstrom of warped guitars seems to do just that, draping themselves over her breathy sighs like a lazy lover in the middle of the night. Stretching all the way back to the blues, rock and roll has always been saturated with sex. Within this catalogue of sexed up classics, Loveless still stands as one of the finest sonic representations of sensuality, and of sexual longing, ever recorded.
Vagueness As A Stength
One of its biggest strengths is its vagueness. The vocals are mixed so low as to be almost indecipherable, merging seamlessly with the guitars. This allows the listener to project their own emotional response on to them. “Loveless intimates sensuality and sexuality instead of stating them explicitly”, says Heather Phares of Allmusic. “Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals meld perfectly with the trippy sonics around them, suggesting druggy sex or sexy drugs”.
Sampled Feedback Technique
Another revolutionary technique employed by Shields on Loveless was his use of sampled feedback, recorded to DAT tape, and played back on a keyboard using an Akai S1000 sampler. “Most of the samples are feedback”, said Shields in a 1991 Lime Lizard interview. “We learnt from guitar feedback, with lots of distortion, that you can make any instrument, any one that you can imagine.” Not unlike Jimi Hendrix, Shields utilised guitar feedback not merely as an effect, but as a major compositional element.
Trace The Loveless DNA
While revolutionary, Loveless was not made in a vacuum. Since the early 1980s, The Cocteau Twins had been making gorgeous, reverb-drenched dream pop.
In 1985, The Jesus and Mary Chain unleashed their gleefully chaotic noise-pop on the world with their proto-shoegaze classic, Psychocandy. Stateside, Sonic Youth eschewed pop appeal in favour of nihilistic walls of noise.
Dinosaur Jr combined soaring, classic rock riffs with extreme levels of gain, and J Mascis’ distinctive slacker drawl. The DNA of all these bands can be found in Loveless.
Had My Bloody Valentine merely regurgitated these influences, Loveless would not be revolutionary. But Kevin Shields broke them down to their constituent parts, and recombined them in a feat of musical molecular gastronomy.
The Cocteau Twins floated along on a cloud of ethereal bliss. The Jesus and Mary Chain injected squalls of harsh noise into Beach Boys style pop, like teenage delinquents spiking the punch at a high school dance.
With Loveless, on the other hand, My Bloody Valentine alchemised walls of fuzz and feedback into achingly beautiful dreamscapes.
The Key Contradiction
This is, more or less, the key contradiction of shoegaze. Its aim is not to merely contrast ugliness with beauty, but to find the beauty in ugliness. When it’s done right, the end result is something akin to watching a star explode. Awe-inspiring, violent, and infinitely more beautiful than a mere twinkle.
Beginning with You Made Me Realise, My Bloody Valentine’s previous releases hinted at this juxtaposition. Loveless saw the peerless perfection of it, on a scale unmatched before or since.
High Expectations For Loveless
The expectations for Loveless were so over the top, that anything short of revolutionary would not have sufficed. Their 1988 EP’s You Made Me Realise, Feed Me With Your Kiss, and their debut album Isn’t Anything, made them critical darlings, and spawned legions of acolytes and imitators. Their pre-Loveless EP’s, Glider and Tremolo, released in 1990 and 1991, respectively, raised the anticipation to a fever pitch.
Brian Eno said of Glider’s trance rock anthem “Soon”, later featured on Loveless, that it “set a new standard for pop”. He went on to describe it as “the vaguest piece of music ever to get into the charts”. “It was the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us”, said Robert Smith of The Cure. “It’s the sound of someone who is so driven that they’re demented. And the fact that they spent so much time and money on it is so excellent.”
Loveless allegedly cost around £250,000 to record, across nineteen different studios, and eighteen engineers. Creation Records was almost bankrupted in the process. While faulty equipment was an issue, Shields’ uncompromising attitude didn’t help. The tambourine part alone in “To Here Knows When” took a whole week to record. He went months without seeing daylight, experienced tinnitus, and severe sleep deprivation. While every engineer was thanked by name in the album’s liner notes, “even if all they did was fix tea”, it’s fair to say that he was not the easiest guy to work with.
Shields Did Most Of The Work On The Album
However, Shields ended up doing most of the work himself. Bassist Debbie Googe is not featured on the record, and her parts were instead performed by Shields. He also took over Bilinda Butcher’s guitar parts, which she apparently didn’t mind.
Drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig experienced severe health problems during the recording. With the exception of ‘Only Shallow’, and his solo instrumental contribution, ‘Touched’, his parts were programmed by Shields from samples of what he was able to play in his compromised state.
End Result Raised The Bar So High
The results speak for themselves. So close to perfect was Loveless, that it effectively lead to the dissolution of the band, and saw the beginning of the end for the mainstream popularity of shoegaze at the time.
Albums released in its wake by UK imitators like Slowdive, Ride, Lush, and Chapterhouse, received mixed to vicious reviews in the UK music press. The work of these bands has since seen a critical reappraisal, but for much of the 90s, Loveless proved too great an achievement to live up to.
April Welsh of Clash magazine wrote that Loveless “raised the bar so high that it subsequently collapsed under its own weight, paving the way for the onslaught of American-imported grunge that followed from its untimely end.” As grunge faded, Britpop took over, and some former shoegaze bands updated their sound to stay relevant.
However, that didn’t stop plenty of American acts, unswayed by the opinions of the NME and their ilk, from absorbing its influence. The Smashing Pumpkins were clearly indebted, and worked with Loveless engineer Alan Moulder.
Billy Corgan told Spin magazine, “It’s rare in guitar-based music that somebody does something new […] At the time, everybody was like, ‘How the f… are they doing this?’”. “When it was done, I was both exhausted and exhilarated”, said Bob Mould of seminal hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü, a significant influence on Kevin Shields. “Loveless had a profound effect on me.” Closer to home, The Edge of Irish compatriots U2, cited Loveless as an influence on Achtung Baby.
In this century, shoegaze has seen a new wave of bands revitalising its popularity. Bands like M83, The Radio Dept., and Deerhunter have been dubbed “nu-gaze”, incorporating synthesizers and electronic elements into their music. Others, like Silversun Pickups, Ringo Deathstarr, and DIIV, sound a little closer to the genre’s first wave. Deafheaven and Alcest have merged shoegaze with black metal, gaining critical acclaim, and pissing off black metal elitists simultaneously. None of these bands would exist without My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.
Since its release, Loveless has been consistently recognised as revolutionary, both by artists who inspired it, and even more artists inspired by it. To imagine rock music without it, is like imagining heavy metal without Black Sabbath, punk without The Ramones, or synth-pop without Kraftwerk. Loveless was not the most popular guitar record of the 1990s. Loveless was not the most commercially successful guitar record of the 1990s. But Loveless was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most revolutionary guitar record of the 1990s.
At its simplest, a guitar scale is a series of notes played in succession with one of those notes being the root note. The root note determines what key the scale is in and the choice of notes to play determine what mode it is derived from.
That is also the simplest definition of any scale on any standard instrument. However, there are some distinctive aspects of guitar scales compared to many other instruments.
Distinctive aspects of guitar scales
You really can’t underestimate the significance of guitar scales in all rock, blues, jazz and related styles.
Focusing on rock and blues as a starting point, scales form the foundation of lead guitar playing and improvisation for both. Scales in Jazz guitar improvisation take on a whole new level of complexity which we’ll leave for another blog post on another day.
So if you want to get even a little bit good at lead guitar playing in rock and blues, you need to make guitar scales your long term friend and appropriately hang out lots with them – because practice makes progress.
This can seem a bit daunting initially. The whole area of guitar scales can get very complex and very ‘musician nerdville’. Stay tuned though, because further down we’ll go through an easy, simple but powerful approach that hits the 80/20 mark for a start into mastering scales.
Guitar Scales can be complex
You can really dive down into the weeds with music theory and scales in general. A lot of musicians love to get very nerdy about all things music theory and the scales based on that theory. There is a lot to drill into if you want to truly master the subject:
Scale theory on the guitar (and other stringed instruments) has the added complexity that you can change the string and position (fret) you want to start from as the root note. Guitar scales typically start on the 6th string (largest string) or the 5th string.
So lets compare doing the ‘Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do’ scale in the key of C on the standard flute compared to guitar. That scale is called the Ionian mode to get nerdy about it – more about modes in a minute. On the flute, you can start the scale from a root note of C in two places (finger positions). On the guitar, just limiting it to options on the 5th and 6th stings, you can start the same scale in 4 different root note fret locations. On top of that, you’ve got multiple options for which finger you start the scale with and what pattern you use if you want to move along the frets or down the strings, or a combination of both… phew. And that is just for one mode. There are 7 traditional modes – so you can multiply all that complexity by 7 (and that’s not even counting some additional ‘fancy’ modes – stay tuned for more on the joy of modes).
Have I convinced you that it’s all pretty complex yet? Actually, writing all this is good therapy for me because it makes me realize why I like to keep it simple and get great bang for my buck with a straight forward but powerful way to hit the 80/20 using scales for rock and blues lead guitar playing.
A bit more on modes
So a bit more on modes – not too much, just enough to get us by. You need to read elsewhere for the full dive in. Modes are important, but sometimes you just want to get playing and dream that ‘lead guitar god’ dream.
There are many different note sequences that can make up a given scale. These are the modes we’ve been chatting about. Try these on for size: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
That list of seven modes is just for the major scale. There is a bunch of variants for the harmonic minor and melodic minor scales as well. Continue the process of brain overload right now with the likes of Superlocrian, Semilocrian, Ultralocrian – and that’s just the extra Locrian set! Here is a schematic from a Wikipedia entry on the subject that goes to some of the complexity I speak of.
To keep it simple, we’re going to quietly leave modes now – go ahead and put them on your bucket list if you must but we are going to focus on the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales as the basis for our simplified approach. This lets us get straight to using guitar scales to achieve our goal of lead guitar magnificence – or at least some passing version of that.
Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales
A pentatonic scale is a 5 note subset of a full 7 note diatonic scale. In other words, we literally leave out a couple of notes because they just aren’t pulling there musical weight for the emotive quality we want. We are going to focus on the Major Pentatonic Scale and the Minor Pentatonic Scale for our simplified approach to scales derived lead guitar playing.
Major Pentatonic Scale (first piece of the puzzle)
The major pentatonic scale has 5 of the best notes from the major scale. It has politely asked the 4th and 7th notes of the full diatonic scale to ‘sit this one out’. This is going to be the scale we use for a rock-based improvisation.
Minor Pentatonic Scale (second piece of the puzzle)
Similarly, the minor pentatonic scale has kept the 5 best notes from the natural minor scale. It consists of 1st, flattened 3rd, 4th, 5th, and flattened 7th. We’re going to use this for a blues-based improvisation.
So now technically, we have the two pieces of the puzzle as a way to keep it simple as a start of your Guitar scales journey.
Motivation for the effort
Of course, aside from the technical stuff, we need a grounded reason to put the effort into learning scales in the first place. Honestly, using this simplified approach, at least at the beginning, is worth the effort to get at least a sense of how fun it is to play lead guitar and pretend you’re a rock legend. Deciding to continue on the journey if you want to take it further will be easier once you get a sense of it.
“the worst thing that can happen is that all the complexity of Guitar Scales can stop you from making a start. Don’t do that – just keep it simple at the beginning”
The Patient Musician – a.k.a me
So the most fun way to begin with scales is not to practice them by themselves in all their different forms, but instead to go straight to the two scales that cover the 80/20 of lead playing for both blues and rock.
What guitar scales should i learn first?
One Pattern to Use
The cool thing is you can do this by learning just one pattern. You can use that pattern in two ways by changing which note on the 6th string is the root note. In this way you can play the two different scales:
with one scale more focused on rock (major pentatonic scale)
and the other more for blues (minor pentatonic scale ).
Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, especially when you are playing along with rock-based music. It is fun to switch between the scales in the same song for different effects. Interestingly though, if you play a major pentatonic scale as lead to a classic 12 bar blues tune, it just sort of sounds ‘not quite right’ compared to the minor pentatonic scale. Check out the Backing Track Blues in G on this YouTube video. Once you learn the patterns as described below, try both scales over the top of it and you’ll see what I mean.
A Single Scale Pattern
So, on with the simple approach. This is the single scale pattern we can use as the basis for our two scales:
Note that the 6th string (the fattest one) is at the bottom of the image.
If we want to play the minor pentatonic scale (the bluesy one), our root note is here:
If we want to play the major pentatonic scale, the root note will be here:
Notice how it is exactly the same pattern for both, just with a different starting root note.
Minor Pentatonic Version of the Pattern
Now if we’re feeling like laying down some blues lead in G to match the YouTube backing track above, we’ll deploy the pattern like this to play the minor pentatonic scale in the key of G:
The red circle labeled ‘G’ on the 3rd fret and 6th string is the starting root note that you would put your 1st finger on (the one next to your thumb):
Next, you play the A# on the 6th Fret of the same 6th string with your pinkie finger,
followed by the C at the 3rd Fret of the 5th string with your first finger,
followed by the D at the 5th Fret of the 5th string with your 3rd finger,
keep going with the same idea until you get to the A# at the 6th fret on the 1st string,
you guessed it, work your way all the way back to the beginning again.
Just to reiterate, for all strings:
use your first finger for notes on the 3rd fret,
your third finger for notes on the 5th fret,
and you guessed it, your pinkie for notes on the 5th fret.
That’s it. You are now playing lead guitar for blues in G using the minor pentatonic scale in G – sort of. Maybe a bit more practice yet then you can start getting fancy by bending the C note on the 3rd string with your 3rd finger for a bit more of that blues effect and also experiment by mixing up the sequence of notes and going back and forward within parts of the pattern as the blues spirit moves you.
Major Pentatonic Version of the Pattern
To get some of that lead guitar happening, we can deploy the same pattern in the major pentatonic version. Say we want to play along to a rock backing track in the key of A – like in this YouTube video:
All we do is slide the whole pattern down one fret and start at a new root note position like so:
We’re using the same pattern and same finger positions but just moving the whole thing down one fret towards the headstock of the guitar.
You can mix it up in a similar fashion to the blues version of the pattern by mixing up the sequence you play and bending the same note in the pattern – this time it’s the B note at the 4th fret on the 3rd string.
Not So Hard and Lots of Fun
So you can see that it really isn’t so hard to make a start using Guitar Scales to play lead rock and blues like a (beginner) legend. Of course, there is so much more to explore with it all, such as dynamically moving positions up and down the neck as you play. Also, this is just one little bit – but a very important bit – of the range of skills it takes to play guitar and patiently get better at it. If you want a comprehensive and systematic approach to improve your playing, you can find yourself a local guitar teacher (which to be honest, can be a bit hit and miss – best to take a recommendation on someone good from someone you trust), try one of the online courses out there. One of the best (if you’re an absolute beginner) is the Fender Play system.
It was a ’54 Sunburst Fender Stratocaster. He bought a new one from Adair Music Company in Lubbock, Texas after he’d seen his guitar teacher play one recently at one of his lessons.
The story is a bit more interesting than that though because Buddy’s first guitar was a 1952 Les Paul. He had bought the Gibson a few months earlier from the same shop but had apparently come back to swap it for one of the slick new Fender Stratocasters. Apparently, beyond just wanting to get his hands on the new revolutionary stylings of the Strat, he was also a bit unhappy with some of the idiosyncrasies that the early Les Pauls are well known for.
Why did he want the new Strat instead? It is said he was lured by the new stylings of the revolutionary new Stratocaster guitar with its visual aesthetic, six-piece saddle allowing precise intonation of each string and much lower weight and better playability than the early Les Paul.
Let’s face it. You can’t really imagine that Buddy Holly magical rhythm guitar ‘twang’ on a Gibson can you? ‘Peggy Sue’ or ‘That’ll Be The Day’ played on a Gibson – doesn’t work for me.
A Mystery Solved?
So the question is, what happened to the Stratocaster he bought that day that arguably so influenced the sound of his rapid list of amazing hits before his tragic death? According to a new-ish documentary called The ’54, it was believed his original 1954 sunburst Strat disappeared after his death and was lost in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. Everyone knows that bit of the legend right? But wait, there’s more! The doco claims the guitar might have survived and ended up in Australia of all places and was purchased by one Gil Matthews, an avid collector of old Fender Guitars. Even if it’s not true, what a great story! Here is the link to the story on YouTube, or check it out below.
Getting the Buddy Holly Sound Now
You’ve got a few options…
The latest take on the old classic.
If you want Fender’s latest take on the old ’50s classic then you could pick yourself up a Fender American Elite Series Stratocaster. Of course it comes with either maple or rosewood fretboard and other little improvements like a spoke truss rod adjuster and a cutaway neck heel for improved access to the high bits. The truss rod adjuster is so not the 1950’s but perfect for actual gigging musicians that need to tweak the neck with temperature changes.
Oh, it’s also got the 4th gen Noiseless Pickups. I reckon Buddy would love it – although he probably would still prefer his original. I know I would if I was him. For the Buddy rhythm sound, select the middle pickup only with the tone knob rolled all the way off.
If you can’t afford a late 1940s Fender Pro-Amp for around the $6-7K mark (that’s me folks!), you can get a pretty good approximation of that amazing Buddy Holly rhythm sound with a Fender amp (or Fender style amp), set with a little gain on the clean channel, added in with some slightly boosted mids and slightly cut trebles.
If you want to belt out some classic Buddy Holly songs on your ’50s sunburst stratocaster, you should check out the amazing array of sheet music available at Virtual Sheet Music. It doesn’t break the bank and in my opinion, is far better than fiddling around trying to find the chords to a song in the middle of a jam with friends. Check out this collection of BH tunes.