Lots and Lots of Colored Dots: A Fretboard Explanation of Pop Tonality

grid of colored notes

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One day early in my teaching career, I was doing as one does — combining a lesson about AC/DC’s “Back in Black” with a lesson about the E-minor blues scale (the undisputed easiest scale you can play on a guitar’s EADGBe fretboard) — when all of a sudden, an unseen force made me grab a blue marker and color the blue note blue.

“There, kid, now you won’t forget where the blue note is, ’cause it’s blue.”

The blue note (the one in this scale, anyway) is the note that’s not a member of the pentatonic scale, and so that’s why it has a cool name. Now, it could have all just stopped right there, but students have a way of asking their teachers pesky questions like, “What are the colors for the other notes?”

Um, what do you mean, “What are the colors for the other notes?” They’re just black dots on a fretboard I teach you to play, and then your parents give me money, and then I go buy another Big Muff…. But, I mean, guess we could color the root or something. Roots are important. What color are roots? Plant roots are brown, how about that? And we might as well color the other diatonic notes green because the rest of plants are usually green.

We had stumbled on something that looks like this.

Soon after, other scales started lobbying for their own colored markings. Alright, what about the major root? I’m out of plant colors, so let’s go with red. Red’s the first color of the pigmental alphabet; why not use it for the first note of the majorest of all scales?

Next we need the notes missing from the pentatonic scale. How about purple (because of The Purple One, obviously). I started calling these notes the “fa-ti” notes — an allusion to solfege (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) in order to make the point that it’s the “fa and ti” notes that are missing. Then, as a mnemonic, I twist the vowel so it sounds like I’m calling them the “fatty” notes, as they literally make the scale fatter, also phatter. Do people still say “phat?”

Once every 100,000 years or so when the sun doth shine and the moon doth glow, I have a student chill enough to handle it when I make it sound like a British person saying “the farty notes.” And I explain about how the pentatonics have “purple flatulence,” and yeah, it’s this whole thing. Anyway, here’s what that looks like next to the blues scale. And here’s a dot-legend too, on the house!

Yes, fret-heads, you may have guessed that until now, we’ve been inhabiting the “G neighborhood” of the fretboard, or perhaps more accurately, the “Em neighborhood.” And if you’ve been paying close attention, you’re probably jonesing for a graphic representing all the fretboard neighborhoods. Let’s even throw in the minor leading tones so we can talk about harmonic minor and natural minor.

(Note: I want to stress that normally I use blank fretboards and markers, not MS Paint. It’s way better pedagogically to teach this stuff one dot at a time, sometimes weeks apart. However, since you’re still reading this, I’ll assume you’re geeky enough that you won’t mind if I dump it all on you at once like a giant bucket of Skittles.)

We’ve added two new colors here: orange, to represent the minor scale leading tone (the 7th scale degree of the harmonic minor scale). I figured orange because Halloween songs often use harmonic minor scales (and you know, pumpkins and stuff). And there’s also a little yellow dot on one of the greens to remind people that you either play or don’t play that note depending on which scale you’re playing, harmonic or natural (Aeolian) minor.

Alright, so using this Miley Cyrus-level drug trip colorscape, we can extrapolate and contemplate all three and a half scales commonly used in popular music: blues/rock, major, and minor (both natural and harmonic). The more perceptive lot of you might be pondering why I didn’t include melodic minor. Sure, it’s partially because I ran out of colors, but it’s just that I don’t teach that to my students at this level. And this is also just an experiment in redesigning notation, so feel free to make up your own color for this scale’s wonky 6th and 7th scale degrees!

Moving along — how about the chart again, but now with all the various chord neighborhoods outlined! The grey lines connect all the major chord forms, and the yellow lines connect the minors. I sort of flip-flopped the color logic here because I just feel bad for minor, always being stuck with the stigma of being “the sad one” — thought I’d give it a nice yellow, sunny color, and then a cloudy gray for major.

If you’re going to be a true artist, you guys, you have to defy expectations.

I’d like to share another way I use colored dots, to teach about what I call the “blues addies,” or the “blues pop-upers.” We can get fancy and call them the blues transients. Here’s the scale, and then I’ll explain.

What we have here is a three-octave expansion of the original brownbluegreen blues scale moving diagonally up the neck, now with red, orange, and yellow dots to represent the “blues transients.”

To understand blues transients, you have to know that the blues, and many of its offshoot genres, uses mostly major-triad I7, IV7, and V7 chords along with melodies mainly using the blues scale, which itself is minor in nature. This major-minor-smashed-together “supermode” can make for some really interesting tonal happenings, because each chord will have one or two notes in it not found in the blues scale. If we know this, then we now know we have one or two more notes that we can insert into our melody at any given time!

No, the world is not going to explode if you play an “orange IV7 transient pop-up” note during a “yellow V7 chord.” All this fretboard graphic is meant to represent are the times when some notes are more commonly played than others — that’s it. And most blues players already know all this stuff simply “by ear.” They don’t need colored dots to tell them when certain notes sound good.

And now, for good measure (and since you’ve lasted this long), here’s my best MS Paint stab at redrawing the “G neighborhood” to include that freakish animal known as the melodic minor scale. Contemplate at your own risk:

If you’ve enjoyed this experiment, spend a little time with these pictures, and with your guitar if you have it handy. If it turns out to be too convoluted to process in real time, and you never end up using any of this, no worries.

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