ARCHIVE | Black Ops Guitar No. 5: Skeletons

Black Ops Guitar was a column that appeared on starting in 2009. It disappeared in a mysterious site crash. Or maybe the feds got to it.

Figure 1

Figure 1


Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

What about it?

Whereas Black Ops Guitar Nos. 1 – 4 are expressly devoted to making your fingers move in unfamiliar ways—even at the sacrifice of melodic/musical value—B.O.G. No. 5: Skeletons aims mostly to flex the brain. What’s displayed here is not a physical exercise, per se, but a mental one, designed to make you examine familiar material in a new light. There aren’t even any microscopically detailed picking/fingering instructions, if you can believe that. As is often the case, this subject presupposes that you know and understand how the diatonic modes work and fit together on the neck.

The gist of the Skeletons concept is to create new scale shapes by placing arbitrary spatial restrictions on existing forms. Huh? Take a look at Figures 1 & 2. By capitalizing on the guitar neck’s inherent geometric nature, you can derive some unusual sounding patterns by playing only the scale notes in, for example, a three-fret radius. So, while the base Ionian fingering (1.1) spans four positions (II-V), playing only the notes on the third through fifth frets yields a “skeleton” of the original (1.2).  The same goes for the Dorian mode (2.1 resulting in the very boxy 2.2) and all the rest.

Technical note: These forms are only “skeletal” insofar as they are mutations of guitar-based fingerings. There is nothing melodically “outside”: All of the scale tones are represented, just not in the normal order. For instance, in the case of G major, you’ll notice that G, A, B, C, D, E, F# are all accounted for, just juggled.

Why bother?

One of the goals of the Black Ops series is to inspire new guitar habits. These are often in the form of new physical gestures that come from practicing uncommon patterns, but also manifest themselves in new ways of thinking about the guitar neck. Because they cause the scale tones to appear in a peculiar order, these “synthetic” fingerings have unexpected intervallic jumps—which is entirely the point. By building wider leaps into the source material of the fingerings, you’ll likely play phrases unlike anything you’ve previously conceived. Figure 3 is an example of a line improvised using this method. Not exactly typical rock and roll licks, right?

Use this approach when improvising, creating melodic themes or riffs. As with most of the ideas laid out in this series, the present concept is merely a catalyst: While taking this essentially visual approach to playing, be sure not to miss the sound of what you come up with. Internalize the atmosphere of these new, alien phrases and how they resonate against a chord progression. Then call on these boxy shapes to help, uhh, break out of a box.



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