ARCHIVE | Grace & Fury #3: Infinite Diminished Labyrinth

“Grace & Fury” was the name of my teaching studio from about 1994 through 2000. It was also the name of an online guitar magazine I operated. In late 2007 I resurrected the name for a column I was contributing to Heavy Frequency magazine. I had planned for a series of six articles, but before I could complete them the HF staff decided to cease operation (uhh … purely coincidental, I’m sure). For posterity and the sake of archiving I’ll repost them here.

Intro

Welcome back to Grace and Fury – thanks for clicking in. In this edition we will continue to build on ideas from previous columns, incorporating such techniques as directional picking and string skipping. Whereas preceding musical examples derived digital difficulty through somewhat standard sounds, the ten measures below will twist the ear and the hands with the dissonant dementia of the diminished scale. This installment’s title may sound like a medieval torture chamber, but hopefully it won’t feel that way. It may sound a bit ugly – or maybe you’ll love it. In the end you’ll assimilate yet another new set of moves into your bag of tricks.

Principles

As mentioned, this piece exists entirely within the diminished scale. In prior articles, musical examples have been derived from seven note diatonic scales. See HF February 2008 for more. The diminished scale, on the other hand, is octatonic, containing eight notes per octave. While diatonic scales are made up of a combination of whole and half steps (a half step being a distance of one fret), the diminished scale has a symmetrical construction. Its formula is a repeating sequence of whole step – half step. In the included exercise the notes are, accordingly, A – B – C – D – Eb – F – F# – G#. In a sense, the diminished scale (like its white bread cousin the whole tone scale – six notes per octave a whole step at a time) is something of a “stunt scale.” It sounds slightly exotic and unusual. Also, owing to its symmetry, it can be moved three frets (the interval of a minor third) up or down and still be the same set of notes. It can be easy to get lost in the infinite diminished labyrinth. But once you understand how it fits together with other scales the applications themselves can be infinite.

By the way, now that the diminished scale has been described, it won’t actually be played in the accompanying piece. Why did I waste your time? That’s just how I get down. Actually, the patterns contained are derived from and based on the diminished scale. The basic building block of the Diminished Labyrinth is (note-to-note) root – minor third – flat fifth, or with respect to the scale, first note, third note, seventh note. This pattern repeats, moves and mutates around the noted three fret distance.

Fretting

This piece contains wide stretches and angular intervallic leaps. As such, the middle finger is never used (unless perhaps directed at the author). Stretches of three frets which would normally be assigned to the index and pinky fingers now often use an index-ring combination in context. As ever, keep the wrist dropped and thumb planted loosely at the middle of the back of the neck. While transitioning between positions make sure to keep fingers close to the fretboard, paying special attention to the vestigial middle finger. Even though it isn’t being used it should not be flailing about and wasting energy.

Picking

If you’ve been slaving away over previous entries such picking as directed here may be becoming second nature. Looking at just the series of down- and up-strokes may may be a baffling proposition. However, once the concept of directional picking (the economic and logical choice of stroke) is absorbed, the picking instructions won’t even be necessary. One pitfall of sweeping across adjacent strings with a single swipe, of course, is the tendency to become rhythmically lax. Make sure to pay special attention to keeping steady. Try to practice with a consistent source such as a metronome or grandfather clock. The metronome will be adjustable and portable, of course, so you might want to lean in that direction. Use compact picking motions for precision always and speed when necessary.

Conclusion

It was mentioned above that diminished patterns fit with diatonic patterns. Try superimposing the Labyrinth where you might normally use a minor scale. This example has several notes in common with the minor scale, notes which can be seen as points of departure and return. Even if you don’t necessarily grasp all of the theoretical hoopla, working in such patterns can lend an air of sophistication to your playing. For a completely mind boggling discourse on similar musical ideas hunt down a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.

Infinite Diminished Labyrinth - 2009 Van Horn

Infinite Diminished Labyrinth – 2009 Van Horn

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