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Remember when alternative music was actually an alternative to popular music? As “alternative music” grew in popularity, by merit of terminology, one would have expected the label to change to “popular music”. But it did not. Nirvana, for example, was one of the most popular acts in the world, but they were still labeled “alternative”. Go figure. Now when someone refers to “alternative music”, I have no idea what they are talking about.
Along these lines is the phrase “Thinking outside of the box”. There was a time when this meant to think differently, more originally, from a fresher perspective. These days, it has become more of a catchphrase. It seems that everyone is thinking outside of the box. So if we want some different, fresh and original thinking, maybe we should get back in the box.
I thought that would be an amusing introduction to this entry, although tying the two together will be a stretch, at best.
Today’s topic is two-tiered. First, I’d like to talk about stepping out of your comfort zone, which I guess could qualify as “out of the box” thinking. Second, I’d like to talk about use of the pentatonic scale for blues applications. This one will plant us firmly back in the box. Why a discussion on both? Mainly because I just had a unique experience that got me thinking about both. I’ll share.
My background is heavy metal, shred-style guitar playing. My main influences have names like Van Halen, Vai, Malmsteen, Gilbert, Kotzen, etc… So when a friend approached me to sit in with his country/classic rock band for a party, I said “Oh, Hell no”. Not because I take issue with those styles. I have a lot of respect for players in those genres. My concern was that I would sound silly trying to squeeze in harmonic minor 64th note runs, sweeps, taps and divebombs over “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (anyone remember the “Johnny B Goode” scene in “Back to the Future”?)
However, after some consideration, I started thinking that this might be a good opportunity to hone my skills by trying something I never would have bothered with, left to my own devices. Besides, I know the blues scale, and that’s pretty much all you use in country/classic rock, right? Well, I’m happy to say that that is not correct at all.
One of our songs was “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. A quick listen reveals some pretty cool lead work, complete with some quick runs, which is right up my alley. But after diving into it, I found some very unusual tonal structuring, intricate phrasing, and to my horror, finger-style picking. Another song we did, “Smooth” by Carlos Santana, actually featured some extensive harmonic minor work. This surprised me. In both cases, yes there was some pentatonic, bluesy lead playing going on, but there were other things happening that made it very interesting.
Long story short, I learned the songs (more or less), played the gig, it was fun, and I walked away with a new appreciation for musical styles I hadn’t really thought about previously. But best of all, I’ve got some new licks and techniques under my belt.
The moral of the story: It’s a good thing to throw caution to the wind every now and then. Step out of your comfort zone, and you’ll be rewarded with a fresher perspective and some new tools. You don’t necessarily have to love the material, you don’t even have to use what you gain, but it might just be the thing to bust out of a rut or amp up your technique to make you just that much better.
P.S. For all of you more evolved (older) players out there: Yes, I know that Santana and Knopfler influenced all of the guys who influenced me. You can feel all good that you knew that before I figured it out. Good job. Now get off my case or I’ll take your fiber and pill dispensers away from you. : )
Next week: Pt 2 – How to apply the pentatonic scale for happy blues and mad blues.