Posted: April 15th, 2020
I spent a lot time thinking about one specific subject: What frustrates and confuses new guitar players more than anything else when learning lead guitar? It sounds like a straightforward question, but I believe it's more complex than seasoned players think. It's so hard to take a few steps back, and look over something through the eyes of a beginner once you've poured thousands of hours into something. To be completely subjective about something is a whole art into itself. Songwriting, painting, illustration, design, mixing music.....all these artistic endeavors will ask you at some point to step back and review your own craft. Does it suck? What does it need? Can I remove myself from it so I can determine what will make it better? And using that same subjective lens when evaluating the education of guitar is just as tricky.
There are well known pitfalls that brand new players all have to face. Just learning how to strum the instrument - and do so with confidence - is a big step. And of course there's the nightmare-fueled encounter with your first barre chord. Building up the dexterity and strength to quickly (and accurately) land those barre shapes can be downright scary for new players. What I wanted to figure out was the next big stumbling block once players move to the next level. Once you leave the bottom of the neck and have mastered the basic chords, what monster is patiently waiting to absolutely wreck your progress? Is it scales? Is it learning to listen? I spent a lot of time watching instructional guitar videos on YouTube. I read through plenty of forums, and countless Reddit threads. And I also reflected on my own personal experience helping other people learn. And the answer - in my humble opinion - is box placement using modes.
Box placement using modes is the progress killer.
Modes seem to have quite the reputation online. I must have watched a hundred YouTube videos explaining modes and how to use them. I can honestly say that the great majority of them just generate even more confusion. Some instructors obviously know how they work, and how to take advantage of them on the instrument, but they lack the ability to clearly explain the subject. I feel like the subject of modes is something we're terrified to introduce to any new player. It's as though we just assume that guitarists can't handle the concept of modes or how they effect early usage of scales. I just don't think that's true. We have to stop approaching modes as some mystical technique that should only be tackled at the very end of learning the instrument. It's just silly, and I believe that most guitarists are smart enough to learn about them at early stages.
If we just embrace the fact that we're ALWAYS playing in a mode, things aren't nearly as intimidating. After all, the great majority of the music we listen to lives inside two modes. Ionian and Aeolian may sound like super scary technical terms, but they're just basic labels for the natural major and natural minor scales. The term Ionian isn't scary once you explain how it's used to create Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Once a new player understands that all the other modes (excluding Locrian) are just simple one-note variations of those two natural modes, they can breathe a little easier knowing all this knowledge is obtainable. Once those new players have drilled the five box shapes into memory, it's almost a joy showing them how they can use those exact same shapes to play in any mode they want. The trick is simply showing them how to properly setup their box positions. You can teach a new player the five boxes, and instruct them how to set those shapes up for G Major fairly easily. But, you also have to clearly help them understand how to do that exact same thing in A Major. Or F Sharp Major. Or ANY key. Figuring out where those boxes go for minor keys is even easier since they (should) already know the box shapes. We use these exact same shapes for every key - and every mode.
The madness of re-numbering boxes
So what makes managing box positions so difficult? Why does the simple act of bouncing between a major and minor mode using pentatonic scales become so confusing? Why does setting everything up to jam inside Dorian get to convoluted and hard to explain to a new player? Well, I'll tell you why. We gotta stop renumbering and relabeling box shapes. The madness has to end. What am I talking about? If you show a new player how to setup their box shapes for a major key, that's pretty straightforward. Then you show them how to setup the same shapes for a minor key - but you RENUMBER the boxes? So now, what we were using as box 1 is no longer box 1. Most guitar instructors will assign "box 1" to a different shape. Even worse, we tend to reassign the box numbers again when setting up different modes. What this actually causes the new player to do is think of all these different modes as totally different scales. Which they're not different at all. By constantly changing the numbers of these shapes to accommodate the new key or mode, we're completely confusing guitarists. We have to stop doing this. Box 1 should always be box 1. Box 5 should always consistently be the same box 5. Here's the key: If you never change the labels assigned to these shapes, then you've removed the biggest stumbling block for learning lead guitar.
MAPS to the rescue.
This is why I cooked up the MAPS system. It stands for Modal Anchor Point System. It's also pretty easy to understand - which is very important if you're trying to teach someone a new system. If we keep our box shapes' numbers or labels the same - no matter what - then all we have to do is assign anchor points for each mode. We only need to establish where ONE of those boxes is supposed to be placed. All the other four boxes must connect the same exact way. We just need a single point of reference, right? By placing an Anchor Point on the Low-E/6th string, we can designate a "starting point" for each mode. If that starting point happens to be the note of the key we're playing in, then things become even easier to use. So that's what I've done with MAPS. For more information on exactly how these Anchor Points work, I suggest checking out this guide. To understand how it all connects together, I'd strongly suggest looking over the entire Scale Hacker Pack.
I could be wrong about all this. I don't think I am though. I really hate the whole concept of "well, we have to teach it this way because that's how we've always done it." That's a terrible method to use - especially if there's a better way. So I hope you check out my MAPS system in more detail. Even if you've been doing "the lead guitar thing" for a while, I think you may find it a better way to approach keys and modes. Thanks again for checking out the Tonetracer stuff. Hopefully I'll have a few videos up before long to demonstrate how all this works with some "motion graphics After Effects eye candy" thrown in to help clarify everything. I promise it sounds far more complicated than it actually is to execute. Take care!
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