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Mark Wingfield – DOGMA

Mark's Blog on Guitar, Jazz, Music, Technology, Advice, Opinion, Lessons

I’ll explain an approach I find helps with a lot of people.  The first principle is to make it simple.  When you are improvising, I find any real thinking gets in the way, what you want to do is connect with the musical moment, your imagination, your gut feelings, and of course the other musicians.  I find thinking generally gets in the way of these things, so keeping it simple is essential.  So if you start with making things as simple as possible, distilling what you need to know as much as possible, you’ll have more of a chance of being able to make use of what you need without engaging “the thinking brain” too much.  From there, as time goes on you can expand, learning more, hearing more, knowing more.  But it builds gradually on top of a solidly learned, simple basis.  In other words, when improvising, in terms of theory and fretboard knowledge, you can only really use effectively, what you know automatically.  A very experienced player, who draws on a vast knowledge when playing, can only draw on it because they know it so well, that its ‘built in’ and doesn’t really need to be thought about anymore.

Training your ear to know your “sound pallet” is the main point of what I’ll now explain. I’m centering on this because of all the things you can learn as an improvisor, this is by far the most powerful.  And in a very real sense, anything else you learn just feeds into and supports what your ears know.  If your ears don’t really know what’s happening, then learning other theory or techniques, are not really going to help your improvising much.

The first thing you want to make sure you know is the 12 interval sounds against a root.  I suggest you learn this really solidly from the start, so if someone tested you, you’d instantly be able to name them all. Then your ready to begin the following exercises.

So keeping it as simple and distilled as possible, what I suggest is start by dealing with just three types of chords, Major 7, minor 7 and dominant 7.  Start by keeping the root note the same for everything you practice. And learn the sounds of various intervals over these three types chords.

Keep in mind, there are numerous ways to approach ear training, no one way covers every angle.  I have chosen the follow approaches because I find that once you’ve learned these, your ears will naturally be able to fill in the gaps with minimal effort.

So start with a CMaj7 chord. Set your DAW to play this chord continuously, or make a recording of yourself playing the chord, or even play it on a keyboard and keep your foot on the sustain pedal.  However you do it, you need the chord to play indefinitely, either sustaining or playing repeatedly.

Then, while listening play the following intervals over this chord: Root, 2, M3, 4, #4, 5, 6, M7

Most people will not like the sound of a 4 over a sustaining Major 7 chord, though in context, it is used all the time.  So its worth really having a good listen to this sound even if only to know that you don’t want to use it.  Some people like it.  I’ve left out the b2, b3, #5/b6 and b7 as they are very dissonant.  You may want to return to the #5/b6 later, when you’ve got the others solidly learned.

Then do the same with the C minor 7 chord with these intervals:

Root, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 6, b7

Get these learned solidly and don’t worry about the b2, M3, b5.  However you will need to return later and learn the M7.

Finally the C dominant 7 chord, here you have more to learn because so many intervals sound good over this chord:

Start with these:

R, 2, M3, 4, 5, 6, b7

Then move on to these:

b2, #2, #4/b5, #5/b6

With all of the above, its very important to sing or hum these as you learn them as well as playing them on the guitar.  The voice has a special connection to the brain which greatly helps learning the sounds.  In fact, if you can’t hum a given interval without playing it on the guitar, that’s a sign that you don’t know the sound well enough yet.

While you’re learning the sounds of the intervals over the chords above, once a week move the root note to a new note.  Eg: E Maj 7, E min7, E dom 7.  But keep the root the same for all three chords.  The next week move them all to G or Bb etc…

Most people find, that by the time they’ve learned the sounds of the intervals over the three chord types above solidly, they can already hear the intervals over other chord types, like diminished and sus or can do so with just a little bit more work.

When you have all these solidly learned so that if someone tested you, you’d get them all correct, try this exercise:

Play a II V I chord progression in C and sing/hum the root of each chord as you play them.  Move the progression to another key and do the same for all keys.  Next do the same exercise but singing the 3rd of each chord, then the 5th then the 7th.  Then sing the 2 over each, then the 4s and the 6s.  In all keys.

The third exercise, which you can start at the same time you start learning the intervals over chords is to spend an hour a day learning tune fragments.  This exercise consists of turning on the radio, TV or CD and figuring out three or four note fragments of melodies on the guitar.  The object of this is not to perfectly learn whole melodies.  The object is to pick out as many notes as you can – as you listen.  So to begin with, choose something easy, pop songs on the radio, CDs which are not too complex etc…

Start by just finding two or three notes of the tune as you listen, on the guitar, and work up to more over time.  If you find this impossible, start by using a CD or computer where you can press pause and rewind as many times as you need to, to figure out a melody fragment.  Eventually, when you’ve done enough of these, and the interval work is progressing, you will be able to start finding the notes on the guitar without stopping the music and rewinding.  Your aim is to get to a stage were you turn on the radio, hear a simple pop tune and play it, or at least part of it, after hearing it once. Or follow along echoing the notes as they are played on the song.

I find that once you’ve master these things, or even just the intervals over chords, you will begin to be able to hear what things are going to sound like on your fretboard before you play them.  Then with any new thing you learn, a cool lick from this person or a nice phrase from that, you’ll very quickly know what it is and it will very quickly become part of your pallet of sound colours, because your ear understands what it is.

I have an app available on the Apple App Store which covers some of the topics above that may be of interest.  The App deals with understanding modes and includes detailed exercises, diagrams and plenty of videos where I demonstrate the concepts.

You can get the app iPad version here

Or the iPhone version here

Or just go to the App Store and search for Understand Modes.

 

A lot of jazz students are looking for rules on what to play and what not to play in various situations and I hear a lot of discussions of this sort go on.   Whether its rules for which notes you should play over various chord situations or which notes you should avoid and what the exceptions are and why etc…  I find these questions common amongst jazz guitar students, but also with other instruments, so I thought I would write something about learning rules for improvising.

I think learning rules from other people, a book or a teacher is the wrong approach to learning how to improvise well over chords or any playing situation for that matter.

Pretty much any rule you can come up with, someone will break it and make something great happen. My advice is that its all about using your ear and your own taste. If it sounds good to you then it is good, if it sound bad, its bad. The key is hearing it and playing it. If you hear it, then its already working, and as long as you execute it well, its going to sound good.

So I would suggest that you spend time trying out different notes in different chord progression situations and learn what you like the sound of and what you don’t. Write down what you discover and learn that, rather than trying to think it through too much. Put your time into learning what you discover. In the time it would take figure out the right a of rules based on theory, you could actually experiment with the possibilities and decide for yourself, using your ear, what works for you and what doesn’t.

You should to minimise the thinking you do while improvising. The less thinking you do the more you can become immersed in the moment of and the spirit of the music. The part that should be working overtime is your ear and imagination, not your thinking brain. The good thing about learning by listening is that its easier to remember.

Relating sound to the taste of food might be useful to explain this. I don’t like the sound of a major 3rd sustained over a minor chord. I don’t need to think about that any any more than I need to think that I don’t want to bite into a raw ginger, because I know how it will taste (I hate ginger). But I also know that there are rare situations where a major 3rd can sound good sustained over a minor chord. Its like this, I don’t like the taste of ginger, I just don’t like that flavour as a rule. But, I love ginger in curry. I don’t need to think about it or know why that is, I tried it and now I know it. Its really the same with notes over chord progressions.

My opinion is that theory is pretty much essential for a jazz player, but only in so far as it provides a road map for your ear and fingers. Which road you decide to take on the map in any situation is purely down to your ear and your own individual taste. I don’t believe theory gives you the best answer to those choices.

Certain phrases can completely break the rules and allow a note which would otherwise sound bad to sound extra specially amazing, the highlight of a solo. Played another way and it sounds like a wrong note. It works because the player heard it that way, in the moment and then played it. This same principle is true of all improvised playing. Even if you are playing very standard “safe” notes, if you actually hear it that way, its going to sound good. If you don’t hear it – the same notes could end up sounding like an exercise rather than music.

I hope this is helpful.

New album:

Aug 21

I Walked into the Silver Darkness – Mark Wingfield & Kevin Kastning

When I first heard Kevin’s music I was immediately transfixed.  That rarely happens to me.  I knew instantly that I was listening to something completely original sounding.  This very rarely happens to me. I was also gripped by the depth and richness of the musicality. I listened to it several times and then thought… hey I wonder if we could do something interesting together.  I had no idea what we would do.  But I had a feeling that I really should contact Kevin and suggest it.  I could hear that although we approach the guitar totally differently and that he was obviously very acoustic, and I very electric, that on an artistic level, there was a real connection there.  So I emailed him and suggested we talk about a possible collaboration of some kind.

We booked a studio session for Nov 2010 as I was going to be in the U.S. during that time.  As the session approached we emailed and agreed that we were not going to have any compositions or any preset musical ideas.  Our concept was loosely that we would improvise with the aim of making it sound like a composition, but that was all. I found myself in the strange position of being a week away from a recording session and having no idea at all, what we were going to do.  That’s not something I’d ever done before.  But I remember Kevin saying he had a strong feeling that something good would happen.

When we entered the studio we started recording as soon as we picked up our guitars and I remember thinking, well it could be useful to record while we experiment and work out how we’re going to approach this.  But that idea went out of my head by the end of the first four minute piece we played.  It was immediately clear to me that what we had played was a finished piece. Every piece that followed was like that, finished and complete. There was no question of experimenting or needing to work anything out. We took a short break between each track long enough to say, “who’s going to start?” or “shall we start this one with a tempo?” or “why don’t we change instrument/sound” and then we would be straight into the next piece. I have never experienced anything like it. So each piece on this album is a first take, completely improvised, not based on anything prewritten with no overdubs.

As we played I knew what we were creating was something special, it felt very organic and yet we were going to places in the music which normally just don’t happen in improvisation.  We were ending up in musical places that normally only happen when the music is carefully composed. Of course as is usual when improvising, we were listening very closely to each other and reacting to what each other played from moment to moment, but there was this whole other level happening where strong compositional elements emerged in the music as we played.  Listening back it is this which I find most central to what makes this music unique.

I am interested in how the sounds of every day objects as well as unusual noises can contextualise music.  For example, if you hear a sound, a noise, that you can’t quite identify, your mind is likely imagine a place for that sound. If on the other hand you can identify the sound as say, a cooking pot, you might imagine a kitchen.  But if you hear a sound you can’t really identify, your mind has the opportunity to come up with an imaginary place. This is what interests me.

The type of sounds you choose to work with will have a big effect on the sorts of imaginary place the listener will invoke.  So if I use tiny incidental sounds recorded with a microphone a couple of centimetres away, even though you might not know what the sound is, it may evoke a feeling of intimacy and perhaps calmness.  Where as if I base the sounds on something large and metallic, with considerable physical movement involved its likely to have a very different effect. Even if I heavily process these so that they sound nothing like what they were, the place they create is likely to be colder, and perhaps even menacing.

What find particularly interesting is the use of sound which are not specific and can’t be identified exactly.  This is because it invites the listener to invent a place for the sounds.

There are other ways to invoke the imagination with non-musical sounds. If you collage various sounds that could never fit with each other in real life another interesting thing can happen. It can be like being in one place while thinking about something else, which is something we all do. Or it can be like travelling through places, while various different thoughts pass through your mind, some related to where you are and some not.  Collaging sounds can evoke all sorts of interesting things and states of mind, and again often to do with real or imaginary places.

One of the central points of interest for me in this process is that using sounds can engage the listener’s imagination in a very creative way.  The place evoked by the sounds is likely to be an imaginary one and this becomes a creative act by the listener.  If the music then inhabits this imaginary place, the listener is creatively collaborating with me in the music in an interesting way. Although I think there can be ‘objective’ elements in music, which to me, can be extremely important, the subjective elements present huge imaginative possibilities for the listener and player.

Of course it works in the same way when improvising with or writing for other musicians.  If I trigger samples of unidentified sounds or sound collages with the guitar while improvising with another musician, the music they make can inhabit whatever place these sounds evoke in their own minds.  This will of course affect how they hear the music and how they play.

View out of new house window

View out of new house window

Have moved to the new house and finished setting up new studio.  The new location is fantastic, on an island in the middle of a river with road access and only an hour from London by car or train.  The surroundings are inspiring, beautiful trees along the water and birds flying everywhere.  A great place to compose and record as well as an excellent setting for workshops.

I was discussing practice a little while back with Elliott Randall (Steely Dan, Reelin in the Years fame amongst many others) in the Global Guitar Bar. I met Elliott quite a few years ago playing with him in the ResRocket band. A number of interesting ideas came out of our discussion and got me thinking about the whole area of practice, in particular what key things facilitate and increase control over the fingers and and ultimately the strings.

So I decided to draw together all the ideas I’ve learned and discovered over the years to help students move forward in ways that fulfill their potential.  Many of them need demonstrating so I won’t explain them here, however I can outline some of the concepts that underly them.  Grasping these concepts alone can greatly raise your chances of success in this area.

So I’ll start with the first one here and plan to add more as time goes on.

Its important to consider the fact that the key to all good technique, whether its playing very fast scale passages or slow blues, is developing and maintaining detailed control.  In fact reaching an accomplished level of technique in any style can be defined in this way. There are specific ways to facilitate this.

Its first important to establish in your mind, what areas of technique you actually need, to express what you have to say on the instrument.  If you try to practice every possible area of technique, not only will you spread your time too thinly, but organizing it in a useful way would be virtually impossible.  If you want to actualize your playing potential, you need to direct the time you can give to practice, efficiently into the appropriate areas.  If you get this wrong you’ll waste a lot of time and effort without seeing the results you could be seeing.

Below are some things to consider when determining what kinds of areas you need to practice.

For improvisors:

If you are primarily an improvisor some of the skills your fingers need are quite specific. You have to be ready to do a big range of different things at any moment.  You never know what’s going to happen next, so you can’t rely on set patterns or things you’ve worked out in advance.  You have to be able to play whatever comes into your head and that will react to the music, which will be different every time.  This takes a certain kind of technique and practice.

Some types of improvised expression need a lot of speed some don’t.  Some types needs a lot of detailed articulation, some less so.  Some need harmonic agility but not others.  All need an able ear.

For non-improvisors:

If improvising is not such a big part of your playing, or not part of your playing at all, then you will need to concentrate on other areas.  Some of the things you play might be quite different from anything anyone would or could improvise. What you are concerned with is being able to play sets of ideas, which you have worked out or learned, as naturally as possible with as much feel as possible, while keeping the execution as close to the intended idea as possible.  This takes a certain kind of technique and practice.

Some of these styles require a lot of fast playing, others almost none.  Some of these styles are primarily about detailed articulation, others not so much.  Some players combine several different styles, some only one.

I’m stating the obvious here, but for a reason.

You need to examine very carefully what you do play, or what you want to be able to play.  This is the starting point for establishing exactly which areas, out of the incomprehensibly vast areas that actually exist, you need to focus on in practice.

I can’t emphasize how important this process is if you want to reach your potential.  A lot of young players make this mistake of thinking they can cover everything, that its indeed important to cover everything. Or that they don’t know what they might need to play in the future so they’d better cover everything.  This is the wrong way of looking at things.

Its easy to prove this to yourself, buy just comparing the best players of different styles you know of – try some famous ones.  You’ll see that part of what makes them so good, is that they sound different from each other – they don’t sound like anyone else.  They have found their own road and travelled so far down that road that no one else can follow them.  That, by definition, means they have concentrated on some areas more than others.  They have found the areas that are important to what they want to say and put their time into those.

The term “Jack of all trades and master of none” really does apply here.  Some young players are so star struck by their favourite players that they believe they are capable of playing anything.  The myth is that these god like  players can play anything brilliantly, but they just choose out of all that, to play what they want.  Its important to realise that however good these people are, they are human beings with human limitations.  This is a myth.  No rock player for example, however good, can play jazz as well as a great jazz player.  No jazz player, however good, can play rock as well as a great rock player.

The reason is that these two disciplines are fundamentally different, they consist of different skills, different musical languages, different sensibilities and different mind sets.

You might be a rock player or jazz player who plays classical as well.  Its a mistake to think you can be equally brilliant at both.  Choose one and use the other only if it will in some way help your primary focus.

Once you have your focus you can look at some of the other important factors in how to spend your practice time.  As I said above, the specifics of these need to be demonstrated, but the underlying concepts can be explained.  I plan to cover these in turn in future posts.

You want to sound original?  You think you’re going to do that by listening to your favorite players?  Its not likely.  What you play is a product of your inner emotional content filtered through musical paradigms you inhabit. This means that if you listen to a small number of players over and over again, you’re very likely to sound like them, instead of finding your own voice.

Give up listening to any of the music you usually listen to.  If you normally listen to rock or jazz, spend three months listening to nothing but Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Bartok alternatively, spend that time listening to tribal chants from Niger, Bulgarian folk and Japanese Shakuhachi music.  If you normally listen to rock and country, listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett.  You get the picture.  Become immersed, completely in this different music.

Spend a month or two listening to this new music every day, and don’t listen to any of your normal music.  Then pick up your guitar and play along, join in, become assimilated.  Try to play what they play. You’ll probably play rubbish.  Keep going.  Even after some time playing along, its more than likely you’ll still play half formed infantile meanderings compared to the musicians on the recordings.  Stop playing and listen to the music for another month, keeping in mind what you learned about the gaps between what you can play and what’s happening in the music.

A month later, play along again only this time play your old style to it, be that rock, jazz or whatever.  Bring your baggage into their world and dump it.  More than likely you’ll have made a hell of a mess.  Try harder.  Try to make your old style fit this new music (which shouldn’t be that new to you by now).  Take some little piece of what you find into yourself.  Continue with this for two weeks.

Next, don’t listen to anything for a month, but you must play and practice every day.  Only play unaccompanied (ie no band or backing music) and stay with what ever new ideas you picked up, don’t play any of your old style at all (not even as a warm up).  Your task is to get used to any new ideas you’ve picked up and try to extend them.

After this month is over, go back to your usual music and ways of playing for a month.  Then do the steps above again.

You will probably find that none of these new ideas come into your playing during the months that you play ‘normally’.  But don’t be disheartened, year later some little strands of originality may emerge.  You’ve found a place to start, you’ve got a foot in the door, and it will only get better from there.

Some people say jazz is “intellectual” music or “head” music but actually its the opposite. Most jazz is total gut driven, instinctive music, its primarily about the heart not the head – which is one reason its so related to the blues.  If you don’t hear this when you listen to jazz, you need to look to yourself for the reason, not the music.  The emotion is there for all to hear.  In fact you could say that a lot of jazz is just that: pure emotion translated into sound in as pure a way as the players are capable of (that varies from player to player and performance to performance).  If you are not hearing this, then you are not listening in the right way.  But what ever you do, don’t misunderstand what jazz is about.

To learn how to play jazz you have to learn a lot about how music works and that takes serious study and you have to get very good on your instrument. To be able to really play jazz though – you have to learn all this so well that you don’t think about it when you play.  Its just like learning a language.  Say your native language is English and you want to learn to speak French.  You have to learn all the vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar etc… But to be able to really speak it well – you have to learn all this so well that you don’t think about it.  When you are talking to someone you aren’t thinking about sentence structure and when you play jazz its exactly the same.

Every good jazz player knows: if you are thinking you are not playing.  You are basically playing what you hear, what comes into your head and the musical sounds that form in your head are based on how the music makes you feel.  Of course to be able to do this does take years of study and practice and I think this is why people sometimes think jazz is intellectual music.  But to say that is to misunderstand what is actually happening for most jazz musicians when they play.

Yes of course a jazz player has a fleeting thought here and there about which scale to use or what chord is coming next, but primarily they are immersed in the feeling of the music, and reacting to that on an emotional level from moment to moment, this is the essence of what good improvising is all about.  So its primarily not an intellectual activity, but an emotional one.

There are numerous resources on the web where you can find jazz scales and lists of which scale to use for which chord. This may all seem confusing, and as if there is a vast number of scales to learn and lots of memorizing to do to know which scale fits with which chord. However this is the wrong way to look at it.

If you understand what these scales are made of (which is actually quite simple) and also how chords are constructed (which is equally simple), it will be obvious which scale fits with which chord – no memorizing will be necessary beyond that.

It’s similar with learning scales. If you understand how scales are constructed, in other words what one scale contains compared to another scale, learning them will be much easier. In understanding them this way, you’ll see that it’s not really a matter of memorizing lots of scales but more like choosing a palette of colours to paint a picture.

Learning the fingering shapes for scales is something you will have to do and this does take some practice. Learning scale shapes, like learning chord shapes, is to a large extent about practising them until they become part of “muscle memory”. In other words, your fingers just know them without you having to think about it.

However, it is important when doing this practice, that you at the same time learn what these scales contain – so that by the time your fingers know the shapes, they also know what the scales contain – without thinking about it. I’ll explain what I mean about this below.

You want to minimise thinking (eliminate it if possible) when you play. This means building in everything you need to the point where you don’t need to think about it. Getting to this stage is just a matter of the right sort of practice.

Knowing what different scales contain is important. It makes it much easier to learn them and use them. What do I mean when I talk about what a scale “contains”?

Each scale contains a set of notes, one of which is the root note. Think of the root note as your home point in the scale. Also, very importantly, realise that the root note of the scale is always the same as the root note of the chord you are playing over at the time. I can’t emphasise enough how important this last point is.

Every other note in the scale is some distance from the root note. This distance defines the sounds of each of the notes in the scale. These “distances” are called intervals.

Each interval has its own sound, and learning these sounds is probably the most important thing any player who wishes to improvise can do.

Knowing how these intervals sound when played over major, minor and dominant 7th chords, gives you the tools you need to use scales effectively. When you know these sounds, it becomes patently obvious which scale to use for which chord. It will become crystal clear, because you’ll know how each interval in the scale will sound over the chord, so it becomes very easy to choose the scale with the intervals you want to hear.

This assumes, of course that your fingers have learned the shapes, and you’ve learned where the intervals are in the shapes – which as I said earlier is very important to do as you practice the shapes.

Using the methods and tools outlined above, you can learn scales in a quick and efficient way, and you’ll know how to use them.

I believe that in fact in many cases it already has.

Below I explain why this is and what is at the heart of the problem.

I’m a logic user, when Logic 9 came out I had a look at the features and I found several of them disturbing.  A lot of the new features are catering to players who can’t stay in time, want to ‘fake’ solos by recording at half speed and vocal performances which are micro ‘composed’ by the producer rather than the singer. Sad days for music IMO.

Worse, if you are a jobbing producer or engineer today – you are expected to take music made by a groups of people who can’t play or sing their way out of a paper bag – and make it sound like a polished record. So… Apple with Logic 9 are providing what the market wants, commercially you could say they don’t have a choice.  Or do they?  Apple have in many ways created the direction their products have taken rather than simply responding to the base market demands.  In this case they seem to be abandoning that philosophy and catering for the lowest common denominator.

Who needs a drummer who can keep time right? Who needs a singer that can phrase? Who needs a guitarist who can play in time? These features feed the production of a lot of sterile generic product IMO.

Used ‘ethically’ of course these tools can fix a slip-up in an otherwise fantastic take under tight studio time restrictions. But we all know that they won’t be used like that a lot of the time, they’ll be used to construct technically accurate performances from musicians and singers who don’t have the talent or commitment to their art to produce listenable music any other way.

You can’t stop technical progress though and I’m a fool to rail against it I know. I mean look at the internet, century old newspapers are crumbling before our eyes, replaced by newswire rehashes and blogging – threatening the end of investigative journalism, one of the pillars of democracy. should we be worried?  So who cares if music is crumbling under the same technological steam roller?

I shouldn’t really be worried, good music and musicians will always rise out of the sea of crap what ever happens – look at the Mars Volta for example!  And there are loads of other great bands out there, but I still cringe to see what we are demanding of our studio tools.

Of course its possible to use these new tools in creative ways, but that’s not why they’ve been put in there.  What I have a problem with is using these tools to ‘create’ performances that the listener takes as real (and they will take them as real).

The reason I have a problem with this is partly because its tricking the listening public and I don’t like that. But also because the result is inevitably a sterile version of the real thing.

Real musicians and singers, the good ones, don’t play perfectly. There are small mistakes, but the overall performance has something that goes beyond the technically perfect and imparts something far more valuable to the listener. But you can’t do that unless you can play or sing well in the first place!