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Jazz Cat Blog

Basic music theory

Posted by on July 5, 2016 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

When I take on a new student, the first thing that I go over are the raw mechanics of music. Even if the student has several years of experience, I refuse to simply take for granted that they know this material.

If they know it, great... it will only take us about three minutes to brush through this and we can move on. However, if there is any of this that is not known, I hammer it out with them and make it clear that this is the one thing that I will be a total Nazi about and literally insist that they memorize it before we move forward.

The reason is that it's absolutely essential to having a clue about how the guitar (or any instrument) actually works and because it's so horribly overlooked by so many teachers.

The reason given for this sin of omission is that students these days are less and less interested in music theory, they just want to know how to play.

This is a crippling stance to take, because this is how you learn to play.

That is, unless you really insist on doing it the hard way.

In truth, I think it's sort of ridiculous that this stuff can even be considered music theory. That's akin to saying that the English alphabet is literature. It's not. It's a set of symbols, used to form words, which are strung into sentences and paragraphs, verses, stanzas and chapters, which are combined into works which we refer to as literature. 

It is really stupid simple to learn this stuff, actually. 15 minutes of practice on this each day and in a few weeks, you'll have it down cold and you'll pretty much know it for life. You'll understand what other musicians are talking about and this will make you feel empowered and that, will make you learn faster, because you'll be excited.

Nothing creates success like success

Here is all that you need to know to get started:

These are the only letters we use in music. The examples above are all what we call naturals. They are not sharp or flat. See below:

Here are the possibilities in sharps: 

Here are the possibilities in flats:

We have two alphabets, sharp and flat. There are sharp keys, like G Major and D Major for example and flat keys, like B flat Major and E flat Major.

Songs are written in keys and so a flat key will use the flat alphabet and a sharp key will use the flat alphabet. Don't try to understand this for now, just memorize the two and it will make sense later. Your brain will not bleed, I promise.  

So, you accept the fact that you need to know this, now how do you practice it? Easy, pick a string and start with the note name of that open string.

The sixth string is E, so begin on E and go by half-steps (one fret at a time), playing and saying OUT LOUD! the note names, as in:

E   F   F#   G   G#   etc.

Make sure to go up to the 12th fret and back down to the open string again. In case you don't know your string names, here is a diagram: 

That's all you need to get going. Every song you try to learn, every new chord, every scale or arpeggio, they will all be much, much simpler, with this information under your fingers. Enjoy.

My name is Magus (Kevin Trent Boswell) and I am a guitarist, vocalist, songwriter in NC. 

Making Scales Useful

Posted by on May 31, 2016 at 4:05 PM Comments comments (0)

I hear a lot of guitarists and other musicians talking about scales like they are totally useless. While there are many great players who never properly learned scales and they still play fantastically, this does not mean that you shouldn't learn them.

In fact, those cats who skipped over them, did so because they were never taught the value of scales. Also, they got really good but they did it the hard way. Think of how many hours per week you currently practice.

Now double, triple or even quadruple that. That's usually the amount of time those players put into their skillset. Learning the basic scales (Major, minor, Dominant, etc) can put you way ahead of the game. I'm going to give you a few reasons to learn scales and then a few ways to approach them.


1. It will speed up your progress. The fact that you know where to go on the fretboard to play within a given key will accelerate your learning and your ability to jam with other cats.

2. Knowing scales will give you the ability to converse with other musicians in a way that makes you feel empowered, because you understand the lingo and the subject matter.

3. Melodies come out of scales. Sure, there are many examples of melodies that break away here and there but most popular melodies are pulled right out of some type of scale, even if the musician didn't realize that's what they were doing.

4. Solos come from scales. Sure, many careers have been built on nothing more than a firm grasp of the minor pentatonic and the Blues Scale. Still, having a handful of other basic tools (again, Major, minor and Dominant) will give you a much wider palette of colors from which to paint your individual masterpiece.


Here is the C Major Scale, played up on frets 7-10. However, you can apply these principles to any scale. Play the 7th fret with your 1st finger, 8th with the middle finger, 9th fret with the ring finger and 10th with the pinky. Stick to that fingering, throughout. 

1. First, just play the scale very slowly, up and down. No tempo, just get it "under your fingers" and timing comes later.

2. Next, put it to the metronome in quarter notes (one note per beat).

3. Then, proceed to 8th notes (one note on the down beat and one on the up beat, etc).

4. Then try triplets and 16ths, if you know how to do these. If not, skip them for now.

5. Next, try "thirds". This means play the notes 1, 2 and 3 (C, D, E). Then, 2, 3, 4 (D, E, F). Continue in this way, 4, 5, 6   5, 6, 7   6, 7, 1.   Get this to a decent place, going both up and down the scale.

6. Then proceed to "fourths", which is the same idea but four notes at a time instead of three. 1, 2, 3, 4     2, 3, 4, 5    3, 4, 5, 6    4, 5, 6, 7   etc.  Get that up to speed, going up and down.

7. Next is "broken thirds". This is skip forward, step back. The pattern goes 1, 3    2, 4    3, 5    4, 6    5, 7    etc  

Just this handful of basic ideas should start generating some useful solo ideas for you, even after just a few weeks of practicing them.

Have fun!

My name is Magus (aka Kevin Trent Boswell) and I teach guitar lessons from my home in Raleigh, NC and by Skype or FaceTime. Contact me at (919) 599-0539 to set up lessons with me. 

Learning a jazz standard

Posted by on May 30, 2016 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Before I go acting like these are all my own, genius ideas... let me just state right out that I got most of this from Jamey Aebersold and his excellent work over at

If you want to order something from them, they usually send out a free copy of a great little reference called the The Free Jazz Handbook, or at least they used to.

So, here's what I recommend for getting a tune under your belt.

First of all, some great advice I got from a guy at an open jazz jam in Wilmington, NC, years ago. He said if you're just learning, then pick three tunes, no more. Pick a blues, an AABA form and a bossa nova groove (like Song For My Father or Blue Bossa, something like that).

Whatever tune you pick, go through these steps, in order. Some of the steps will go quicker than others. Don't rush. This is something you've chosen to do for the rest of your life. Therefore, it is your life and you probably shouldn't rush your life 8)

1. Listen!  This may seem obvious but players often overlook it, going straight to the chart. Listen to the original, the earliest known version, by the composer if possible.

Play it many times and really pay attention. Then, listen to versions by other artists, both older and more modern. Get a sense of the various "takes" on the song.

Don't forget to learn the words to the tune and sing along with it, so you get an idea of the pitch changes. This makes a huge difference, later on.

2. Learn the melody... very, very slowly. Don't try to play it in time. Just muddle through it, slowly and get the notes right. It's perfectly OK to stop and start again. Don't go back to the beginning though. Just pick up wherever you left off. Get the melody "under your fingers" in this way.

Also, make sure if you're a guitar player that you're in the correct register. Standard sheet music is played an octave lower on the guitar.

You can also think of it in the opposite way, that the music is written an octave higher than what you play on your guitar.

3. Now, try playing the melody at a slow tempo, seeing if you can make it all the way through without mistakes. Use a metronome or drum machine to keep yourself honest on the timing.

4. Next, you'll want to work through the chords. Start with the simplest forms you know, even if they are not appropriate for the song. Some will boo and hiss at that bit of advice but oh well. I say start with whatever comes naturally to you and then work out better chord voicings, later.

Get to where you can make it through the whole song, in tempo (slow, of course).

5. Next, work out some jazzier chord voicings. You'll want some sparse, three-note voicings, on adjacent strings. This will help you to fit in with a combo setting where there is a piano, bass, horns, etc. Big, bulky chords are great for big band settings but in small combos, they will stick out like a sore thumb.

Try to use good "voice-leading". That's a subject unto itself, so we'll look at that another time. Just file it away in your mind for now and do your best.


Practice makes perfect, right?


No such thing as perfection.

Practice makes improvement!

6. Once you can get through the tune playing the harmony (the chords), then record yourself playing several choruses (passes through the song).

It doesn't have to be a good recording, a crappy one will do just fine. You just have to be able to hear the chord qualities (major, minor, dominant, etc). It's probably a good idea to include the metronome or the drum machine, too.

This keeps honest jazz cats honest :) 

7. Now, you have a recording of the harmony, so you can practice playing the melody, over the harmony. If you have the ability (with a second recording device or overdubbing), you can record you playing the melody over the harmony. That's optional.

What is important is that you get the chords and the melody really solid. Players will perhaps forgive a lousy solo. If you butcher the chords or the melody, they may throw things at you :mad: 

8. Once you're able to play the melody over the harmony well enough to do it with other musicians, then progress to soloing. Do this in BABY STEPS! Unless you're a masochist, that is.

I suggest you do these exercises, one at a time:

* Play the melody but throw in extra notes. Also, try staggering the rhythm of the melody. Try playing phrases backward or slower or faster, be creative and have fun.

* Play just the 1 (the root note) of each chord. Do this in time, with your recording. Maybe throw in the octave, after you get comfortable. Maybe two octaves.

* Play (again, with the recording) the third of each chord (example: CMaj7, the third is E and for Gm7, the third is B flat).

* Play the 5th of each chord. Spend the least amount of time on this step, because the 5th is usually the most "stable" chord tone and we usually ditch it altogether, in favor of the third or the seventh. Which brings us to...

* Play the 7th of each chord. Again, do this with the recording, in time. If you need to work through it without tempo first, that's fine, just work your way up to the tempo as soon as you can.

* Next, play the triad, the arpeggio of each chord. For a CMaj7, that's C, E and G, at least for now. Later, you can add 7ths, 9ths, etc. Spend a good amount of time on this, you can fake your way through a lot of stuff, just doing this.

* Play the first three notes of the scale through each chord of the tune.

* Play the first five notes of the scale, through each chord.

* Play the entire scale, ascending, through each chord.

* Play the entire scale, descending, through the chords.

* Play up and down each scale, through the chords. Make sure to use the correct scale. Our CMaj7 would use the C Major Scale, while the Gmin7 chord would use the G Minor Scale and something like a Bb9 would use a B flat Dominant (7th) Scale, which is essentially a major scale with a flat (minor) seven in it, instead of a major seven.

* You can then try things like playing the scale ascending and arpeggio, descending. Then, the opposite... arpeggio ascending and scale descending.

* Try doing most of the stuff mentioned already but adding in 9ths (for all chords), 11ths (mostly just for Major chords) and 13ths (mostly just for Dominant chords).

That's more than enough to get you started. If you work (or rather play) diligently at this, you'll find that interesting ideas start to bubble up, naturally, all on their own!

Have fun and don't let anybody tell you that you're not good enough. Practice hard, play hard and remember that music is an art form, not a competition. 

My name is Magus (aka Kevin Trent Boswell) and you can hear my tunes here: CD Baby