Thursday, March 15, 2007

Modal Mastery I: Seven Days to Basic Competence

Back in my rock and roll days I went through a phase during which I spent several hours per day playing scales. In fact, I spent so much time on mindless scale exercises that it became a hindrance to other aspects of my musical development. This poisoned my outlook so much that when I switched to traditional guitar, I vowed never to waste so much time on scales again. Well, never say never: I've recently been running into some technical limitations with respect to single line playing, and there is no way around the problem other than to put in a lot of time playing scales with a metronome. It's not so much velocity I'm after (I have a ridiculously slow natural maximum, so that would be fruitless anyway), but strength and solidity. Scales can give you that like nothing else.


One of the nice things about being a mature musician is that you know how to practice smart, versus just practicing hard: Having been through the scale work before with plectrum technique, I know exactly what I need to do with alternating finger technique to get the desired results in the least amount of time. What you have to do is break the elements down and go through the permutations in the most efficient manner possible.

For the modes, there are the seven basic two-octave forms - those things are constant between plectrum and finger-style techniques. The right hand is exactly twice as complicated with finger-style technique though: Instead of having just upstroke and downstroke beginnings to deal with, there is rest stroke, free stroke, starting with i, and starting with m. With twenty-eight basic variants to deal with, you can easily see that getting bogged down is a real danger.

In order to avoid getting hopelessly mired in endless variations, it is necessary to combine the permutations into a single routine. The first step - the preliminary phase - is to make sure you have the seven two-octave in-position mode forms securely under your fingers.


These are the forms I'll be using. You should get to the point where you can comfortably and effortlessly play through these seven mode forms at 120 BPM (As though this page was a piece of music) before proceeding.


Once you have the forms under your fingers, then it is seven short 90 minute sessions to basic competence. Doing one of the forms per day ought to be no problem for even time-starved players. Here is the schedule:

DAY 1:

Form I: Ionian

01) Play from position IX to position I and back using rest stroke starting with i at 120 BPM.

02) Play from position IX to position I and back using rest stroke starting with m at 110 BPM.

03) Play from position IX to position I and back using free stroke starting with i at 100 BPM.

04) Play from position IX to position I and back using free stroke starting with m at 90 BPM.

Here, you can see that I have combined metronome work on a single mode form with all four right hand permutations. This is the basic pattern, which we will now repeat.


05) Play 01 at 80 BPM.

06) Play 02 at 70 BPM.

07) Play 03 at 60 BPM.

08) Play 04 at 50 BPM


Now, we will start to accelerate back to 120 BPM and beyond. Remember to allow only one finger on the fretboard at a time. The reason for this will becaome apparent when we start playing patterns in step two.

09) Play 01 at 40 BPM

10) Play 02 at 50 BPM.

11) Play 03 at 60 BPM.

12) Play 04 at 70 BPM.


13) Play 01 at 80 BPM.

14) Play 02 at 90 BPM.

15) Play 03 at 100 BPM.

16) Play 04 at 110 BPM.


Now we are right back exactly where we started from.

17) Play 01 at 120 BPM.

18) Play 02 at 130 BPM.

19) Play 03 at 140 BPM.

20) Play 04 at 150 BPM.


I knew going in that my maximum comfortable velocity was circa 180 BPM, so at this point I start proceeding by increments of 5 BPM.

21) Play 01 at 160 BPM.

22) Play 02 at 165 BPM.

23) Play 03 at 170 BPM.

24) Play 04 at 175 BPM.


And at this point I start increments of 2 BPM.

25) Play 01 at 180 BPM.

26) Play 02 at 182 BPM.

27) Play 03 at 184 BPM.

28) Play 04 at 186 BPM.


My goal for this series was to be able to comfortably play eighth notes at 190 BPM (By day seven), so from here I proceed in increments of a single BPM. Depending on your natural maximum velocity - I have the slowest maximum of any guitarist I've ever heard of - you'll start slowing at whatever is 30 BPM below your natural max.

29) Play 01 at 187 BPM.

30) Play 02 at 188 BPM

31) Play 03 at 189 BPM.

32) Play 04 at 190 BPM.


I started this project about ten days ago, so I'm well into the second phase now. During this first phase I kept a diary, and my failure point when I started was 184-186 BPM. By the time I finished I had increased that to 192-194 BPM, which is positively screaming for me.

One thing to keep in mind is that natural maximum velocities are genetic: If you are slow, there really isn't much you can do about it. These maximums vary not only by individual, but - as a percentage - by race as well. I'm a Caucasian of northern and western European ancestry, and we - as a group - tend to possess the lowest natural maximum velocities. Southern and eastern Europeans are by and large faster, and the negroid races posess the quickest velocities of all. There are always exceptions of course, but Paganini and Liszt were both southern/eastern Europeans, and I can think of no transcendental virtuosos who were northern/western Europeans. Al Dimeola, Paco DeLucia et al would tend to confirm this, but Ingwie Malmsteen seems to be an exception. Then there are people like Andre Watts and Stanley Clarke, who effortlessly reel off impossibly fast and smooth linear passages that also require incredible strength. It isn't fair, I tell you, but it is reality.

I learned about this years ago when I was a runner, by the way: There are two general types of muscle fibre - fast twitch and slow twitch - and they can function in two possible ways - aerobically or anerobically. Fast twitch anarobic guys become world class sprinters, while slow twitch aerobic guys become marathon runners. The perfectly balanced kick ass at about 10K.

I have all slow twitch aerobic muscle fibre, so I can run forever, but at a snail's pace. That translates perfectly to the guitar for me: I can jam for ten hours, but I can play no fast licks. I was much faster with a plectrum, but the slowness of my baseline - and everybody's baseline "speed limit" -is manifested in rapid alternating movements like fingers, arms, and legs going back and forth.

The idea here is simply to minimize my weakness in the area of single line playing as much as I can, not to join Paco DeLucia, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin (Another exception) to form a quartet of Guitar Monsters.

BTW: If you have a lower natural max than I do, I'd really like you to contact me. I'm convinced that I'm the slowest guitarist in history. There ought to be an award for that!


A reward like that would do nicely.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I can think of no transcendental virtuosos who were northern/western Europeans"

John Bull and Glenn Gould. Probably Brahms and Orlando Gibbons. "Transcendental" is another matter.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Glenn Gould isn't a bad example, but when I say transcendental I basically mean heinously fast with respect to velocity. For guitarists that list is populated by Italians and Spaniards: Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola, Steve Vai... you get the idea.

11:46 PM  
Blogger nezer said...

Any chance of getting this as a PDF?

1:40 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Hi nezer,

The music pages for the first two installments of this series are available at My .Mac Downloads Page right at the top. As far as the instructions in the body of the post, you'd have to cut and paste those.



1:51 PM  
Blogger nezer said...

Thank you kind sir!

11:31 PM  

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