Arnold Schwarzenegger. Crosby, Stills,
Nash, and Young. Yngwie Johann
Malmsteen. Minor seven flat five.
Can you guess what the four names above
have in common? I’ll tell you. They all have
six syllables. Ar-nold-Schwarz-en-egg-er. 1-2-3-4-5-6. That’s a lot of syllables to have in a
single name. I’ve only got three in mine: Paul-
Gil-bert. 1-2-3. All those names have double
what I have. I’m a bit jealous, but that’s not
why I brought this up. I want you to think
about this: What does your brain do when
confronted with a six-syllable name such
as “minor seven flat five?” I know what my
brain does. It shuts right off. That’s too many
syllables! Especially when I’ve got simpler
alternatives to rely on like minor and major
(both with just two syllables). This leads me
to a story.
A year or so ago, I was giving a lesson to a
student. After exchanging a few pleasantries,
he said that his regular private teacher wanted
to know if I could play any m7b5 arpeggios. It
seemed like less of a musical request and more
like some kind of guitar-jousting challenge.
Something like, “Yeah sure, you can play
widdly-widdly with your rock band, but can
you play an arpeggio that takes six syllables
just to pronounce?”
I managed to squeak out something good
enough to defend my reputation. But since
then, I’ve delved much deeper into this arpeggio,
and I truly love how it sounds. This
month, I want to show you how to play it,
and why it sounds so good. First of all, I have
to comfort you by telling you that it’s an easy
arpeggio. Why do I say that it’s easy? Because
it only contains four notes. Only four! It has
more syllables than notes, for crying out loud.
We can breathe easily and safely turn our
brains back on.
Now I’ll give you the benefit of my
research and take you to Fig. 1
, which shows
the easiest fingering that I’ve found. See, I
wasn’t lying. It has just four easy notes. This
requires a couple of position shifts, but the
shape always stays the same.
I should point out that I’m starting the
arpeggio on the b7 (E), not the root (F#). The
main reason for this is simply because I really
like the shape. I think it’s easy to play, easy to
visualize, and still covers all the notes I want.
If I rebuild the fingering to start on the root,
the shape becomes more difficult and the
sound doesn’t improve in any noticeable way.
So I’m staying with the easy one!
That’s a lot of finger talk. Let’s turn on our
ears and listen to the arpeggio in context, by
playing it over a chord. Our chord will be a
D9, which is a common sound in blues, funk,
rock, and jazz. In Fig. 2
and Fig. 3
, you can
check out the voicing I use along with our
arpeggio in context.
I think that’s a nice sound. But you may
have noticed something odd. The chord is
in D, while the arpeggio is in F#. How does
that work? Here is where I should whip out
some heady music theory to explain the
details of chord substitution, intervals, and
extensions. But I’ve made an executive decision
to use a metaphor instead, and one that
involves Ted Nugent, lots of food, and of
course, the IV chord.
Playing a solo over the IV chord is like
going to a Thanksgiving party at Ted Nugent’s
house. Here’s why: You know that Ted is
going to have a turkey. He’ll have proudly
plucked it out of the forest with his bow and
arrow or possibly even his bare hands. Either
way, rest assured that there is a turkey in the
oven roasting away. So you, the guest, don’t
have to bring any turkey to the party. You
might want to bring some cranberry sauce,
mashed potatoes, green beans, or strawberry
rhubarb pie. But you don’t need to bring any
turkey. Uncle Ted has that under control.
After much playing and listening, I’ve discovered
that the same is true for the IV chord
in a blues progression. The bass, rhythm
guitar, piano, or organ will be playing the root
(the metaphorical turkey) of the IV chord. So
you don’t have to play it in your solo because
it’s already there. It sounds more sophisticated
to play the musical equivalents of cranberry
sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, and
strawberry rhubarb pie, while leaving the turkey
to the accompaniment.
The notes in our F#m7b5 arpeggio are
the cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green
beans, and strawberry rhubarb pie. If you look
at the four notes in this arpeggio they match
up exactly to the notes in our D9 chord,
with one exception. There is no D note in
our arpeggio. We’re not playing the root in
our solo. We didn’t bring the turkey! If you’ve
studied music theory, you know this is called
a substitution. If you’re a guitar player, you
can just think of it as moving a shape a certain
number of frets to get a nice new sound.
To digest this idea, let’s repeat what we
already did, but in some different keys. First
play the chord, then play the arpeggio.
There is some math at work here, and I’m
tempted to start rattling off some notes and
numbers. But I think the best way to “get it”
is just to play these examples a few times. I’m
going to spare you the explanation and trust
that you’ll play these chords and arpeggios for
five minutes. Even in that short time, the pattern
should become quite obvious, and you’ll
no longer need any wordy explanation. Your
fingers and ears will already have it. How do
you know when you have it? Just try playing
dominant 9th chords in some other keys and
see if you can figure out where to put the
arpeggio. I’m betting that you’ll nail it. I’ll give
you five minutes to test it out now.
You’re back. Now let’s do a variation.
Since this arpeggio shape is fresh in your
mind, I want to show you one more substitution
idea. This is where guitar players
have a maddening advantage over piano
players. On a guitar, it’s quite easy to play a
chord and move it up and down chromatically.
All you do is lock your hand into the
shape and move it up or down a fret. On a
piano, chromatic movement requires different
shapes. This can be difficult to play and
also difficult to visualize. I suggest taking
10 smug seconds to gloat about this. Piano
players have so many other advantages, so
it’s nice when we can have one too.
All right. Gloating over. In a blues progression,
there are lots of opportunities
to do this kind of chromatic movement.
It adds a nice tension and release to our
old familiar progression. Now let’s use the
m7b5 substitution we’ve been playing to
outline some of this chromatic movement.
In Fig. 4
, I want to focus on the Bb13
chord. To outline this chord (without the
turkey), I’ll play a Dm7b5 arpeggio. I want
to use the same shape that I showed you
earlier, but for variety let’s start on the high
note this time. Isn’t that cool? I’ve never
sounded so sophisticated in my life. All I
did was go up a half-step for a moment and
leave out the turkey.
I was so excited when I started experimenting
with this sound that I decided
to search for more fingerings and variations.
I’ll quickly show you a couple of
my best discoveries.
First, I found a more typical fingering for
a m7b5 arpeggio. I say it’s “typical” because it
stays in one position. For me, the fingering
shown in Fig. 5
is not as easy to play at top
speed, but it’s in such a convenient location
that I still find myself using it a lot. In Fig. 6
I play it over the IV chord and also over our
chromatic chord move.
Please make good use of these powerful
sounds, and if you missed my column last
month [“The Super-Hendrix Scale,” July
2011], I encourage you to go back and
have a look. It’s all about soloing over the V
chord in a blues, and this will connect very
well with the ideas about the IV chord in
And if nothing else, remember that there
are only four notes in an F#m7b5 arpeggio.
Don’t let that long name clobber you.
purposefully began playing guitar
at age 9, formed the guitar-driven bands
Racer X and Mr. Big, and then accidentally
had a No. 1 hit with an acoustic song called
“To Be with You.” Paul began teaching at
GIT at the age of 18, has released countless
albums and guitar instructional DVDs, and
will remembered as “the guy who got the drill
stuck in his hair.” For more information, visit