Sketching Chords

I know you’ve heard me talk about this before, but it’s worth thinking about for a bit.  You’ve probably noticed that when I’m playing guitar I often play only two or three notes, sketching out a chord rather than playing every inch of it.  In part that’s because I figure it leaves more room for other players to add in the notes they hear, and that makes the playing more inclusive.  I also tend to think it allows the listener to fill in the spaces with their own imagination.  And what I know for sure is that anything that helps the listener to be engaged in the music is a good thing.  I also think that’s the same mechanism that also makes a really good, original version of a well known song so captivating.  But that thought’s for another day.  For now let’s just stick with that sketched out chord.

So what does it take?  Well, there are a couple of things you probably already know.  Like if the chord has a letter attached to it that note is probably important, right?  So if you’re playing by yourself and the chord is a G-something, you need to play a G-note.  See, you knew that.  Yeah, alright, it means you’re going to have to figure out where the notes are on the guitar.  But trust me, you don’t need to know the location of each and every G-note on the guitar.  Figure out which G-note is on the bottom of your G-chord and that’ll get you where you need to go for now.  And that’s the other thing you probably already know–if you’re playing a fairly normal chord chances are the lowest-sounding note is ‘doh’, which is the letter-name of the chord.  So you already know where to find a bass A-note, a C-note, a B-note, a G-note, an F-note, a D-note–they’re all the lowest note of a basic chord in DADGAD.  If you want to figure out where other notes show up you can count them.  It’ll help things along if you can remember that there is no note between a B-note and a C-note, and there’s nothing between an E-note and an F-note (yeah, one of the few things you kinda need to flat-out memorize), but aside from that there’s a sharp or a flat between every note.  You tend to use sharps when you’re going up and flats when you’re going down.  Going up it’s C, C-sharp, then D and going down it’s D, D-flat, then C.  C-sharp and D-flat are two different names for the same note.

If it’s a straightforward chord the next most important note is 5-notes up from the bass note (the distance between those two notes is called a 5th, easy, eh?).  Remember when we’re counting in music there is no zero, so 5-notes up from our G-note is going to be a D-note (that’d be G, A, B, C, D).  So the two most important notes in a G-chord would be a G-note and a D-note (of course in doh-speak that’s ‘doh’ and ‘soh’, but you knew that).

So do me a favour.  Before we go ahead with the rest of this thought, spend a bit of time finding ‘doh’ and ‘soh’ for a bunch of the chords we’ve already gone over.

For a C-chord that’s a C-note and a G-note

For an F-chord that’s an F-note and a C-note

You can probably figure out the rest from there.  Oh, and one more thing to know–it doesn’t matter whether the chord is a major chord or a minor chord, ‘doh’ and ‘soh’ are still the two most important notes.  So in a B-minor-chord that would be a B-note and an F-sharp-note.  Anyway, spend a bit of time finding ‘doh’ (also called the ‘root’ of the chord) and ‘soh’ (called the fifth) in as many chords as you can figure.  Once you’ve got that down I’ll show the rest of what you need to sketch a chord.

Have fun.


A small thought, but probably worth setting down here.  No matter how much time I might put into it I will never, ever learn everything there is to learn about music, nor will I ever be a perfect player.  No matter how much I learn, no matter how much I improve, there will always be more to learn, more to work on.  And that is one of the most beautiful things about music.  If you understand that and it delights you, you are a natural musician in what I think of as one of the most important ways.  And I suspect that if the thought disturbs you, you are not.


The wind makes no sound until it wraps itself in the leaves of the trees

and that sound is just a noise

until it makes someone feel something

then it’s music

On Composing


sweep, sweep

sweep, sweep sweep

If you keep at it long enough, it sets up a little rhythm.  And if you keep up the rhythm long enough, it sets up a little tune.  And if you keep up the tune long enough, it’ll feel welcome, and then you can write it down.

And that’s called composing.

My child’s mind didn’t know any of that, of course.  But that’s a fair approximation of how it always came to me.  I would notice sounds around me, or sounds that I was making without thinking about it.  I would hear the pattern that the sound made, not necessarily a regular three or four beats, often it was just a phrase that had its own internal logic somehow.  That’s what I was trying to capture with my whistle.  Just a kid, with no idea.  But that’s a story for another time.  What I know is that people ask me how I can write songs, or compose melodies, or improvise the way I do.  For me it’s pretty straightforward.  I just have to turn up the volume on what’s in my head all the time.  Or grab pen and paper and get it down.  For me the challenge was never coming up with melody.  The challenge was figuring out how to get it down somehow, so it was reproducible.  Because, you see, as you start to write it down it changes.  The very act of getting it down changes what you’re hearing.  I think that’s why I sometimes prefer to record it instead of writing it out.  In a past life I had arranged things so that it was no big deal to sit down and record.  That was why.  I likely won’t ever have that again, not that kind of space on my budget.  But I do know that I will likely always hear music in my head.  And so, retired or not, I will always need to get it down.

Sweep, sweep.

What Would It Take

I had one of those concepts that folks in oldtown used to give me a hard time about.  I had such a lousy experience back there that I really hesitate to bring it up, being new around here and all.  Maybe not the smartest way to make new friends, but I know I’ll kick myself if I don’t at least acknowledge the thought somehow.  So I’ll put it down here in case someone sees some merit in it.  If not, no big deal.

We were having a conversation, wrapping up some of the details and de-briefing after the musical.  Wasn’t the first time someone had mentioned that there’s a special thrill people get seeing a work in progress.  I don’t know how we got there, but I found myself thinking that it would be interesting to find out how many folks in the region hold open rehearsals, or similar opportunities to see things while they’re being worked on.

And at that point it fell to my mind that it would be really interesting for a community this size to make an organized, long-term effort to develop a local, informed, engaged audience specifically interested in seeing works in progress.  Interesting, and actually quite do-able.  Strikes me that you’d actually be inviting folks to become ‘tastemakers’, an especially potent idea if the finished work is meant to be exported to the rest of the world.  And an engaged audience could only serve to increase the number of folks keen to see how the story ends–how things look on opening night.

You can see how this would work for all of the performance arts and beyond, and would probably attract interest across artistic disciplines.  Someone who finds that they enjoy seeing theatre in development could well be just as keen to see an open rehearsal for the symphony and so on.  Especially interesting when we consider that much of the audience in a medium-sized market like this one is apparently made up of people who regularly attend more than one kind of artistic event–what some experts refer to as ‘culture vultures’.  Starts to look like there may be some of the building blocks already in place.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a whole range of works that you could go to see while they were still in development.  What an incredible feeling, for your neighbours to know that they saw it before it made it to the big time, even had some input into how it was shaped…

And wouldn’t it be wonderful for the artistic community as a whole use that focus to take on the task of developing a knowledgeable, informed and engaged audience base?  Of course that sense of engagement would mean there would end up being real dialogue between the artists and their audience.  And while I know the thought of actually talking with the folks who see their shows would give some artists the heebie-jeebies, I find the possibilities for meaningful exchange really exciting.  Oh, I know it wouldn’t happen overnight, but it would be so amazing when you got there.

What would it take?

About a Good Session

kbsitepicsession020I don’t think it’s about having rules, my experience is as soon as we make ‘em someone will bend them to their advantage, although I have had people strongly disagree with me.  I figure it’s about learning how to behave well with one another, not about memorizing regulations.  No big deal, assuming we’re all actually interested in learning.  But I do know there are some things I like about a good session;

  • we’re all careful not to play louder than the person leading the song
  • maybe a few solo pieces, but mostly we do things that invite participation
  • everyone takes the time to tune so we’re all in the same place
  • when we’re not playing we’re listening, and not just for our friends
  • we all bring things we’ve just learned as well as old favourites
  • not everything is played at maximum volume
  • folks tend to talk shorter than the song they’re about to play
  • all eschew the epic, leaving more room for others
  • we try to mix it up, so not everything sounds the same
  • it’s about cheering on one another, not about outdoing everyone

It’s not hard, really.  Mostly it just takes being thoughtful.  Although every once in a while someone comes along who thinks they know better.  At which point you either let them run roughshod over everything, or you take them aside and explain what’s going on.  There’s often a decision point while they decide whether to be upset about being told how to behave.  But I think it’s maybe more useful to point out what the culture of the room is about, what folks are actually trying to do here.  If they’re just looking for a bash and thrash they’ll eventually get bored and leave.  I figure they can go be ignorant lots of other places.  A good session takes some doing.  Nothing hard, but it needs to be done.


Well, it’s Tuesday, so I need to decide whether I’m going to the session.  I think so… mind you I’m feeling like I don’t know any songs.  I mean apart from the 14 in the show.  But aside from that, I guess I need to make a bit of a decision some time soon.  If I’m going to continue playing the bass I really need to get in more conditioning time.  The upright takes a lot of muscle, and I’m just not built like a bass player, so it’s too easy for me to overplay and develop an injury.  In a past life I managed to spend time on the instrument every day, even when I wasn’t gigging on it, just to stay in shape.  And I had a couple of friends I could call on to come over and work a few tunes with me, kind of like a pair of runners putting in miles.  But being of no fixed address kind of put a stop to that.  And life’s taken over for a while now, as sometimes happens.  Fair enough.  But if it’s going to continue to be part of my life I need to make that room somehow.  And if not then maybe it’s time to put the instrument into someone else’s hands.  I’m not in any particular hurry to drop it.  But that conditioning is going to make a decision for me sooner rather than later.  In the meantime I think I’ll go play some tunes with some nice people.  See if I know any songs.

In the Way

It’s the small things that get in the way.  That was my point, I suppose.  Not that I needed to hammer it, just wanted to make sure I got the thought across.  We were talking about playing guitar.  Like many people before, he said, “I just don’t get to it.”  I asked where the guitar lived.  In the case, in the closet.  Okay, let’s think about this for a second.  Barely enough time in a day, having to convince oneself to find even a couple of minutes to spend with the instrument.  I’d managed to get across the idea that if we wait for a big block of time we’ll never get there–a couple of minutes will have to do.  No really.  And hey, more often than not that two minutes turns into five or ten, maybe more.  Bonus.  And somehow all the other life stuff still gets done.  But it simply wasn’t happening.

I could just hear the thinking–I’ve got a minute, maybe I’ll play my guitar, oh I’ll have to get it out of the closet, and then it probably won’t be in tune, no I guess I don’t have enough time after all.  And all that thinking would be so fast, so automatic, so wordless, that there could be no internal discussion, no appeal.  And the instrument would remain untouched, eventually discarded for something more sensible.

“Take it out of its case, put the case away in the closet.  Leave the guitar on the couch, on the bed, propped in a corner, anywhere that you can get to it easily.  That way when the urge strikes you can get to it immediately.”  He told me he was quite certain it wouldn’t make any difference.  “Humour me.  You’re really disappointed about this, give it a try for a couple of weeks.”

By the next visit he was convinced.  “I just pick it up now, several times a day, sometimes for a lot longer than I mean to.”

We did the math, he was playing his guitar for at least ten minutes every day, a few minutes at a time, most days closer to half an hour, sometimes more.  Turned out at the moment he was getting more time in on his instrument than I was.

“Before it was something I only did when the timing was perfect.  Now it’s just something I do.”

My point exactly.

Still Not a Series

kbsitepicsession018Still not a series, but this is worth seeing.  What we’re looking at here is the moment when I have to make a choice.  It really doesn’t help much that I’m more or less in front of the guitar player this time so I can see their fingers.  You see I’m playing the bass.  Which means I’m supposed to show up on the downbeat.  We’re in mid-swing and I’ve never played this song before.  We’ve come to that point in the song where it could be a C-chord coming up, or it could just as likely be an F-chord.  Or it could be where they do that fancy chord they forgot to tell me about.  And when this picture was taken is at the very moment where I have to make a decision or I’m not going to make it to the downbeat on time.  Place your bets.  Why do these people put up with me?

Not a Series

kbsitepicgig017I really had no intention of turning this into a series, but I thought the picture might be a source of some further amusement.  As you know, it’s a good thing I’m not relying completely on seeing people’s fingers when they want me to play along.  The view from where I stand isn’t always the most revealing.  And of course learning how to read the tempo when you can’t actually hear something is another trick.  I know I’m not the best at it, but people mostly don’t mind me thumping along.  They’re pretty encouraging actually.  I try not to disappoint, but I must admit this moment made my eyes water a little bit.  That the view is from behind is normal enough, but this is a little more special.  The player is left-handed.  I thought it was worth documenting.  Why do these people put up with me?