Using Piano To Expand Guitar Horizons

I’m hoping you enjoyed last months foray into piano land and that you managed to find a little time to explore the chords, chord progressions and songs that we touched on. Of course, it was just a sneaky little look, but I hope it might have sparked an interest in further study.

This week I’d like to follow on and explain some ways that you can use rudimentary piano skills combined with basic theory concepts to expand your guitar horizons. I had to take piano as a second study at the classical conservatoire I studied at, but I had no idea how helpful it would be, it really solidified my understanding of chord and scale relationships and was massively useful when trying to get my head around modes!

Lets start this week with playing the C Major scale – simply start by playing C (the note immediately left of the group of 2 black notes) and then playing up one note at a time until you reach the next C. It should sound like the sol-fa scale: doh, ray, mi, fah, sol, lah, ti, doh. If not, you either started on the wrong note, or your piano needs tuning! You can keep going and playing further octaves when we start improvising; there’s no limit – just stick on white notes.

The ‘proper’ right-hand fingering would be 12312345 with the thumb being 1, index 2 and so on (obviously different for guitar!). However, most people find it easier just to use one fingering and when you improvise it really doesn’t matter which finger you use (does it matter on guitar?) and we don’t want to always play the notes in order anyway, feel free to jump around (musically).

The next step is to realise that all six chords (we’re leaving out the pesky diminished chord in vii) use only the white notes, and so does the C Major Scale. That is why they fit so well together. You can use that C Major Scale over the chords C, F, G, Am, Dm and Em and it’s all one massive happy family jam!

Last lesson we played triads with our right hand and bass notes with the left. This week we’re going to play the triads with the left hand and scales with the right! So the triad chords will be played with the little finger on the root now and middle and thumb playing the other two notes.

Try playing the C chord and then experiment with the C Major scale – just mess around and see what you can do. Then move up to the D minor chord (each note up one white note step) and keep experimenting with that C Major scale. Great fun!

Now move it up again, so you’ll be playing E minor with the left hand and the same white notes with the right. Notice how it sounds different after you stayed on that one chord a while and the notes that sound good to stop on are now different? If not, listen out for it. The same notes that make the chord are nice to stop on, and the others create tension. This is how modes work - playing the C Major scale over the E minor chord you are playing E Phyrgian mode! Sounds all fancy but it wasn’t difficult, was it? Move that chord up again and keep on experimenting, you’re not playing F Lydian! Impress your friends by moving the chord up again to G and still using the white notes to explore the sound of G Mixolydian. Cool huh?

This is all a little simplified, but that is the point. Some things that seem complex on the guitar are actually pretty simple when laid out in front of you like they are on the piano. The next step is to try to change chords regularly (maybe that I, V, vi, IV progression) and try to keep even four chords per bar with your left hand while making up a solo using the white notes with the right. I do this regularly in workshops, and many guitarists are amazed they can make up a piano solo so easily when they struggle on guitar. Try it out, and it might help you unlock some ideas on our six-string friend!

Food For Thought