I am shopping for a new guitar.
While I was at the guitar store, a nice young gentlemen asked me to help him and his son pick out an amplifier. By plugging in. I asked the son what kind of music he intended to play, and he said “Sum 41“, so I immediately thought to play Linoleum by NOFX. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to play it.
So I learned it.
Linoleum is played on two guitars. But I can only play one guitar at a time. So I “merged” the two guitar parts, ensuring that the lead guitar part was played on the highest string, like in chord melody.
If you aren’t familiar with Chord Melody, it’s a jazz thing whereby you play both lead & rhythm at the same time. You just make sure that you invert your chords so that the melody note is always the highest note in the chord. But I digress…
Here’s how Linoleum looks on two guitars, and on one guitar:
Linoleum – Original (2 guitars)
Linoleum – New Arrangement (1 guitar)
Deconstruction & Reconstruction
Merging two guitar parts into a single guitar is something I talked about in a previous post about collaborating with a second guitar player. In that article, I talked about stealing the work of the second guitar player, and using it to enliven your rhythm work. It allows you to add colour to your chord progression, and frees up the second guitar for more interesting lead work.
As mentioned in that post, it’s one of the great benefits of working with a partner: you can merge their response to your chord progression directly into the chord progression. We can imagine that this process of working with a second guitar player led to the current recorded arrangement of Linoleum – the lead work is likely a response to the chord progression, and not something “thought out” or “pre-planned” by the original writer.
Something immediately struck me as odd once I had the song compiled into a single guitar. It’s the chord change from the E to the G#, where both chords use major thirds. The key signature is 4 sharps: key of E major. But if you look at the lead for the G#, it’s a naturalized C. How did we end up with a G# major chord? How odd…
If we were to only use tones from the key of E major for our chords, we would be forced to use a G#m chord. That is, the harmonized chord for E major is G#m, with B as the third. This is the Legacy of Barre Chords, and the legacy of the guitar itself as an instrument.
Legacy of Barre Chords & Guitar as an Instrument
I’m learning to play piano, well, more like adapting my music making to the piano. I wouldn’t say I’m learning piano the way normal people taking piano lessons learn piano. These days, I’m being drawn back to the piano through jazz, because of how easy it is to make the top & bottom of your arrangements move independently of one another. On guitar, you’re really limited in how you can stack the top end. You just can’t put intervals closer than a minor third without some epic finger gymnastics. You’re also limited by how independently you can move the two parts, because you have you split one hand between bass & the rest of the notes.
On the other hand of the spectrum is what always kept me from really learning piano. What always limited my interest in playing piano is how messy things got once you get out of C major. The instrument just isn’t set up for parallel shapes. Even when I was producing, I’d use a live MIDI transposition to transpose whatever I played on the white keys (C major) directly into whatever key I was working in.
What I never realized until very recently, was the full extent of the impact that this “being set up for parallel shapes” has had on popular music.
Guitar & Parallel Shapes
Guitar is a great instrument, a lots of people have learned to play guitar, often without formal training, and often without formal education. One of the integral parts of beginning to play guitar is barre chords. The four-fingered beast. And four-finger barre chords are inherently major chords.
So what we’ve unleashed onto the populace is an instrument where the first thing that millions of people learn is how to transpose the major chord into any key, regardless of context. The minute they can hold the shape, they are off to the races. Think about this in the context of piano: it’s generally unheard of. You’d need to memorize 11 shapes with 2 inversions each to be able to achieve the same result. In 15 minutes, a guitar player can learn to do something that a pianist may require a month, or a year to do.
One way to see the impact of the barre chord is in the collective consciousness of melody. With out barre chords, we never would have melodies like NOFX‘s Linoleum, or another punk classic, Asshole TV by Gob.
Gob’s Asshole TV
The verse for Gob‘s Asshole TV is formed by the chord progression E B C G. The melody notes are E D# E F# G E, GF# D E, with the D# occurring over the B. Where did this D# come from? The barre chord.
Look at the genre: punk rock. Should we expect that the musicians have had a formal musical education? No?
Where else has music been linked to a class of people without formal education, and been dominated by the barre chord or similar parallel chord shapes? Well what about the 1800′s in the American south.
Blues – Parallel Dominant Chords
I’m not a music historian, but I have every expectation that the blues was not originally created on a piano. Its foundation is the transposition of parallel major or dominant 7th shapes. Its use of the bV7 or tritone substitution, and its extension into swing & bebop with VI7 and ii7-V7-I7 for local tonal centers are piano nitemares. It’s inherently anti-piano, and anti-classical theory; I would contend that it is a bastardization of classical theory distinctly caused by the guitar.
But at the same time, the sound specifically created by the blues foundation has laid the groundwork for the addition of these sounds to our collective consciousness through jazz, bebop, and rock & roll.
That is the legacy of the barre chord, and the guitar itself.