THE 9 SHAPES OF HARMONY
This upcoming book presents a new, hands-on approach to jazz harmony based on nine simple fingerboard shapes. It uses a special system of chord diagrams, and thus no music reading skills are necessary. Although much of the material covered is quite advanced, the simplest exercises are accessible to anyone who has mastered the basic open-string chords.
I am in the midst of the writing process, so it will still take time before anything appears in print. Many of my students, however, have already benefited enormously from this material. If you are in the Vienna area, please feel free to contact me directly to learn more or schedule a lesson.
An excerpt from the book’s first chapter:
The 9 Shapes of Harmony
Behind this new approach to jazz harmony is a very simple idea: begin with nine basic fingerboard shapes and use them to explain everything else. “Advanced harmony” is usually associated with music theory classrooms and textbooks, with abstract learning. While the “school” approach helps us understand harmony, it often doesn’t meet the needs of the instrumental musician. Working with notation on paper makes some things clearer, but others become more confusing. Here the guitar offers a unique opportunity: right there in your hands, you have a powerful tool for visualizing chords and progressions as you play and hear them. Harmony can be grasped, not only mentally, but also with the fingers.
As guitarists, most of us began with the major and minor chords needed to accompany simple songs. Or we started out in a style where that wasn't the first thing we learned; maybe we were pumping power chords to play rock or learning classical pieces from sheet music. At some point, however, almost every guitarist masters the basic open position chords. On the guitar it’s so easy to play the songs you want to sing, around the campfire, in your church, at parties with friends... The great thing about this kind of playing—and I tell all my students that they shouldn’t neglect it—is that it puts us inside the music. Pretty soon our inner ear starts helping us find the next chord. If we are playing a three-chord song with G, C and D, simply guessing what chord is up next gives us a 50% chance of being right! With practice we quickly learn to follow our instincts.
When faced with more challenging harmonies, we tend to think that our intuition is no longer much help, and that the intricacies of jazz can only be mastered by understanding the theory and then applying it to our playing. The problem here is that the theory is much more complicated than the music itself. Still, the music is complicated enough that the seat-of-the-pants approach we used for those three-chord songs won’t work anymore. And so we tend to rely on a few pre-learned patterns to get through complex chord progressions. This approach works, but it doesn’t get you inside the music, and even non-musicians are likely to hear that after a few tunes. What amazes me the most about the greatest musicians I've worked with is the amount of intuition and freedom in their playing, regardless of harmonic complexity. The 9 Shapes concept has helped me in following these players and developing my own intuitive sense of harmony...
Here you see a view of my studio. The colorful poster has been hanging there for years, since the 2012–13 exhibition organized by my curator friend John Silvis. It features an artwork by Ryan Ford. This is not a screenshot from the well-known video game. Ryan built the blocks out of wood! Over the years, this image has become a silent companion to my work with sound and shapes on the fingerboard. It all started with an idea I had when I was hiking in the Alps. With no guitar at hand, I had to figure it out in my head at first – and I still emphasize the importance of clear visualization. Thinking of keys, chords, extensions and alterations offers you more or less unlimited possibilities. The sky up there is vast, but you have to watch where put your feet, or your fingers! In the present moment, the human mind is actually very limited. Psychological experiments have shown that the brain can only deal with a few elements at once – seven is often given as a “magic number.” Tetris, like chess, is based on seven shapes. Playing harmony using nine shapes turns it into a whole new game. And it gets addictive.