Blue Notes

My love affair with music got off to a rocky start when I was eight or nine years old. The Rabbit decided it would be a good thing to put me in a conservatory—no, not a greenhouse enclosure, though lord knows I deserved it, but a music school. Apparently in the UK it’s also called a ‘conservatoire’—oh, how posh!

My memories are of cold, wet nights in the hilly, old part of town, rain shining off the black and white cobblestones, and a musty ancient building with large wooden double doors. Inside, various rooms with high ceilings and crumbling plaster, containing serious and aged people tasked with teaching kids music theory and making them repeat vocal exercises that numbed everyone into oblivion.

I cannot remember a single thing I was taught, so I can conclude I learnt nothing.

But a couple of years later I discovered rock ‘n roll, and it changed my life forever. By then I had developed a life-long aversion to structured learning and a great interest in learning by doing—the Rabbit bought me a fifteen dollar guitar.

It was made by the Suzuki Violin Company of Nagoya, Japan and bore the number 34. Now, Suzuki may sound exotic, but it’s the second most common name in the land (as opposed to the house) of the rising sun—the equivalent of Johnson in the United States.

Suzuki means bell wood, and Johnson means er… Johnson, so I can see a connection there also, but I digress. I now had a guitar and an epiphany—the guitar was right-handed but I was a southpaw.

Some decades—and many guitars—later, I found the Suzuki Spanish guitar, hundreds of miles from my home, and in surprisingly good shape. I had it properly set up—a number of changes needed to be made to turn it into a leftie—and in the process added another guitar to my collection.

More than one guitar.jpg

School was very different in those days—I had a teacher who played guitar during woodwork lessons—the students would begin sawing and nailing and he would chill out and play a beautiful dreadnought steel-string instrument. Those of us in the class whose interest in music exceeded our enthusiasm for carpentry almost sawed our hands off in excitement.

My first chords were learnt from the photocopied sheets he gave to his music students. I didn’t get those from the classes, I got them from a girl who took the classes—I was all done with lessons. He was a cool teacher, with long hair and hippie ties, in a Portugal that was paralyzed by fascism, dark suits, and short back and sides.

Not long after, I got hold of a book that showed the five pentatonic scales—the mothership of playing the blues. There was a big black guy with a Gibson electric guitar on the cover, and the book was full of weird and wonderful names I’d never heard of—Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King—in fact a whole courtload of kings.

And the little book illustrated how they played—their style. The bending, the hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, everything that turned a guitar solo into a quasi-sexual experience.

And it didn’t have a single sentence on music theory—I was in heaven.

After many years of playing the blues without a care in the world (oh, the paradox) I’ve used the triple C—Coronavirus confinement context—to get into some of the music theory, and it’s been fun.

The major doh-re-mi bla bla scale—which most of us can have a sporting try at humming—was corrupted by the early bluesmen by ‘flattening’ some of the notes. The entire major scale (including the first and last doh or C) has eight notes, and the blues flatten the third (mi or E), fifth (sol or G) and seventh (si or B)—which is why they’re called blue notes.

Its always struck me that the guitar fretboard is a picture of mathematical logic—a direct consequence of the mathematical basis of music—and I’ve always liked math, so maybe that’s why I like music.

What I didn’t realize is that there are seven scales, and they all have Greek names—the ancient Greeks were good at math, and they figured all this stuff out. So the major scale is Ionian, and the minor scale is Aeolian, named after the Greek god of winds.

And there’s even a Lydian scale—I’d love to think it was named after my Rabbit.

I like the seven scales—it goes with the seven days of the week, the seven heavens of Christianity, and the seven notes of each scale. It all has a nice ring of Illuminati and conspiracy theory.

The master of the seventh is of course Muddy Waters, as you will see from the second verse of his classic tune, Hoochie Coochie Man. And when you’ve seen that one, watch Clapton put it to bed.

As for me, it’s time to go see how my Suzie is doing.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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