Yes, I know – but as it turns out, writing about Allan Holdsworth is no easier than learning to play his material... I will get there, I promise! But in the meantime, this is a subject close to most musician's hearts.
A few lessons ago I was sitting down with one of my students who's a very talented acoustic singer songwriter, and our assignment for the lesson was to take the key of G, harmonise it to the level of 9th chords, and work out voicings for them. Now, you might think that activity is a waste of time for a student who primarily strums and picks folk/rock type stuff which tops out at triad levels of complexity – it's going to have no direct impact on someone who is not a “muso” but predominantly a writer, and a younger (thinner, less grey, more attractive) me would probably have agreed with you. Teenage me would certainly have agreed with you. But fat old grey me has the wisdom of ages behind him.
A musician like this works on feel – that is playing something that instinctively resonates within them, something that they understand. Triad harmony is easy to get your head around – major happy, minor sad, sus4 and sus2 a bit ethereal, diminished CRAZED DEMON VILLAIN AXE MURDERER etc. If you understand them, you can use them effectively without having to think, it's as simple as an artist painting with primary colours.
But what artist do you know of who paints solely with primary colours?
So just as an artist will blend colours to create depth, highlights etc, we can blend our tonalities – major 7ths, for example, inject a sense of wistful melancholy into a major chord, whereas minor 7ths dilute the funereal nature of a minor chord without changing the underlying tonality too much. These are shades of grey, secondary colours. The 9th chords we looked at take things further, adding in additional layers of subtlety that can add an extra dimension to an accompaniment part. In time, by taking the time to listen to and get the feel of these chogrds and the 9th interval, I'm pretty certain these chords will wind up in my student's compositions, and they'll be there because she feels that they should be. Perhaps a C passage will become a Cadd9, or an Em bar will feature an F note weaving in and out – not because she sat down to write something with a m7b9 in it, but because she wanted the extra tension that b9 would bring.
By the way, check her out on Soundcloud – soundcloud.com/beth-hartshorne. You'll be glad you did.
This principle was rammed home to me again yesterday with a student trying to create a solo for their TUNEICEF track – we ran a few passes with G major pentatonic and got a few ideas, but it was obvious there was more to come. The style of the backing and the way my student was playing set me in mind of the anthemic solo played by Slash on “November Rain” - so we set about learning it. And as we learnt it, we kept the backing chords in mind and discovered that part of the reason it sounded so good, as well as the call/ response/ call/ conclusion patterns it revolved around, was because Slash was targeting the 3rd of each chord, which of course is the emotional centre of the chord – it's heart, if you will.
So what did we do? We looked at his chord sequence, plotted the 3rd of each chord and proceed to build a melody around those notes.
You could argue that we were cheating, that Slash played by feel alone, and you're probably right – he would have learned a great many solos by that point in his life, many of which will have riffed off the 3rd of each chord, and he will have absorbed that sound instinctively. My student, however, is 15, and has nothing like that wealth of experience behind him. So we dissect what makes the solo work, we reproduce it in another context, and we use it as a start point. Before too long, what he's doing consciously will become instinctive and his feel for soloing will have improved massively as a result.
I can apply this to myself, as I'm trying to learn Holdsworth's “Hall Of Mirrors” - all chords, and his approach to chords is as alien as his approach to everything else (to the point where I've found myself cheering on the rare occasion I see a chord voicing I can understand), but it's haunting and contains changes Holdsworth makes seem effortless that I would never have even thought of trying. But that's because I never tried to understand them, until now. Perhaps in time some of his unreal genius will rub off on me through it, and some of those bizarre but breathtaking changes will work themselves into my playing and writing.
So, to summarise:
When you play by feel, you play what you understand. So try and understand everything.
See you next month.