ARCHIVE | Grace & Fury #4: Take Five

“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.


Hello there. Ready for some jargon-infested musical minutiae, trifling details, and technical nitpicking? Then by all means, step right in! Ok, it won’t be all that bad. In reality, if you’ve been following Grace & Fury (or would like to jump back to Grace & Fury #1 and catch up) hopefully you are noticing that the attention to such details as are always presented is adding up to a different touch and approach to aspects of your playing. Alert! Incoming pomposity: the great Andres Segovia said, grandiosely, “It is always about discovering what, hidden, does not lie on the paper.” Huh? He was referring to the importance of the interpretation of a piece of music, the value of not just rotely playing notes, but making something great out of what is essentially a set of instructions. But the same could be applied to these exercises: to internalize the principles that repeatedly appear in these pieces – not to simply play the notes – is to grow as a musician. And that’s what we’re talking about.


I know what you’re thinking: what does a Paul Desmond jazz standard have to do with anything? We’re not talking about that Take Five. The “five” in question here refers to the pentatonic minor scale, that warhorse of a musical building block which has served so many a guitarist well. Whereas we’ve previously explored and exploited somewhat more melodically complicated fodder (fancy scales, weirdo arpeggios, if you’ll permit my theory talk) the workout here is based around, of course, five notes. Take Five is so far the shortest piece presented in this series in terms of number of measures, number of notes. The intervallic formula for this scale is root – minor 3rd – fourth – fifth – minor 7th; compared with previously used diatonic scales, pentatonic minor is sort of an exoskeleton. The holes in the scale (the missing 2nd and 6th) give it a less strict definition. This simplicity is part of its universal appeal.

Short and simple though this bit may be, the piece still covers some ground. The structure of Take Five is based around the concept of “pedal point.” This is a term borrowed from the pipe organ discipline where an organist may sustain a constant note by holding down a foot pedal – and I don’t mean a Crybaby wah-wah. This held note serves as an anchor of sorts, atop which various musical ideas unfold. In our example, the pedal tones (E ascending, A descending) function as pivots to which the other notes of the scale bounce back. You’ve likely heard such sequences many times; now to play one.


While a pentatonic scale is certainly very simple to play, its use here is stretched to the extreme – literally and figuratively. While the pattern starts with the ring finger on the pedal point, before measure one is even out a subtle shift takes place with the index finger assuming that position. There are multiple points where consecutive notes on different strings (adjacent and non-adjacent) are fretted by the same finger. This is not to say that the fingertip actually jumps about. Instead, pressure must be rocked back and forth. Notes should not ring out; even in the case of measure two where the G and E notes are both played on the 12th fret by the index finger, the strings should not be held down as with a barre chord.

On the descending half of the exercise (measures three through six) the pinky serves as the pivot with the other fingers passing down through the scale. Generally, picking is the most difficult aspect of string skipping, but here the fingering gets demanding too, as the rocking gesture combines with some wide stretches, culminating in a seven fret, six string reach over the interval of a 20th.


Take Five is a strict alternate picking workout – down, up, down, up all the way. However, those downs and up (bi-polar picking?) cover up to six strings. I’m always preaching economy of motion, but a certain amount of movement is necessary to simply pick the low E followed by the high E. Try to keep the pick moving smoothly through the plane just above the strings. As mentioned previously, strings are, in reality, very small – there is no need to get bogged down by digging in deeply with the pick. Use only the very point of the plectrum to play the pedal points.


Should you throw this lick in the next time you’re jamming on Johnny B. Goode? I’m not sure that’s advisable. Again, it’s not the notes themselves, but the principles and gestures introduced to the brain and hands that are important. Spending some time with this (or any) exercise will give your fingers new habits that will spice up your playing and increase your vocabulary. And that, friends, is how you incorporate Segovia, Paul Desmond and pipe organs into one article on guitar playing.

Take 5 - 2008 Van Horn

Take 5 – 2008 Van Horn


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