Crossing the Time Line

I’ve spent a good bit time over the last few month breaking down and learning Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover”. This has been no small task, but it has been incredibly rewarding. Not only have I added a cool piece to my repertoire, but I learned a few new things from Mr. Johnson. One of the big ones was playing uneven groups of notes over even time divisions. This is an old trick that jazz & fusion drummers use and, to my ear, this sounds pretty hip. Let’s dive in and turn the math into music!

Let’s start with this A minor pentatonic scale from the bottom to the top and back:

A minor pentatonic

A minor pentatonic

Now let’s run this in groups of four as sixteenth notes. That is, we’ll play the first four notes, then the second four notes, the third four notes, and so on:

A minor pentatonic in groups of four

A minor pentatonic in groups of four

Basically we’re “chunking” the scale into groups of four note, which happens to map nicely to sixteenth notes (of which there are four per beat). This is a pretty common alternative to simply running the scale up and down. The problem is, if you run this kind of pattern for very long, it starts to sound like an exercise. It’s almost too mathematically perfect. So let’s take the same idea and mix it up a bit. Let’s run groups of five notes as sixteenth notes:

A minor pentatonic in fives

A minor pentatonic in fives

We haven’t changed the basic rhythmic structure—it’s still just a steady stream of 16th notes, but the cycle of notes that our brains perceive as a pattern falls on different boundaries (marked with the “|” characters). The pattern doesn’t start at the beginning of each beat. In fact we have to cycle through several times before we get back to a five-note pattern starting right on a beat.

Because of this, it takes a few cycles for this pattern to resolve rhythmically to the listener. For whatever reason, I hear these in pairs of five-note groups. A single five-note group sounds a little funny, but a pair works well. Of course, too many pairs and you’re back to playing an exercise. Snooze-ville.

Normally we play pentatonic patterns with two notes per string. Your index finger plays the lower note and the remaining three finders play the upper notes. The way the math works out, you’re going to alternate between your index finger and the others in the same way as if you just ran the scale straight up and down. That’s different from the four-note groups where you often have to play notes on adjacent strings with the same finger. Go back and take a look at the group of fours to see where this happens.

OK, let’s try going the other direction. Let’s stick with sixteenth notes, but let’s play a cycle of three notes:

A minor pentatonic in threes

A minor pentatonic in threes

Pretty hip, no? This is the kind of thing drummers think about, but it works great on the guitar too. It adds a great sense of tension-and-release to your playing. It takes a couple of beats before the ear can hear the pattern in the context of a different beat. This is a great way to spice up stale old pentatonic licks.

Now let’s apply the same idea to diatonic scales. The basic rhythm is going to be the same but, because we usually play these scales with three notes per string, the fingerings will be a little different. First, here’s an A Dorian played in four-note groups:

A Dorian in fours

A Dorian in fours

Ho hum. Pretty standard stuff. Now let’s try the five-note groupings:

A Dorian in fives

A Dorian in fives

Once we move to playing three notes per string, the fingerings for the five-note groupings get a little trickier. As you ascend, the finger that plays the last note of one grouping has to play the first note of the next grouping. For notes on the same fret, you’re going to have to use a “rolling” motion so that your finger can move from one string to the other quickly, but without sounding two notes at once. For notes that aren’t on the same fret, you’ll either have to switch that finger quickly (and cleanly) or temporarily alter your fingering for a particular five-note group. When you descend you have a similar fingering challenge. The finger playing the last note of one grouping has to start the first note of the next grouping.

Let’s try it now with groups of three:

A Dorian in threes

A Dorian in threes

I find that the fingerings for the three-note groups are a little easier than the five-note groups.

The examples I’ve shown here are interesting for a few bars, but sound pretty academic in large doses. So the trick is to take these basic mechanics and apply them to your phrasing. You want to start and end these types of phrases in a rhythmically sensible place. As always, you’ll have to experiment to find out what sounds good to you.

Let’s put the theory aside and look at a real-world example from Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover”. Right after the manic chicken-picking part and just before the first verse, he plays this descending pentatonic flurry based on groups of five:

Groups of five: Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs Of Dover” finale

Groups of five: Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs Of Dover” finale

See the groups of five? More importantly, can you hear them?

This might seem like more of a mathematic exercise than a musical one. The point isn’t to play odd counter-rhythms because you can, but because they have an interesting sound. They just happen to have this interesting mathematical property. Put another way, while the math describes this sound, it would still exist on its own even if we didn't have the math to describe it.

As you experiment with these ideas, be sure to play with a metronome, click or drum track so that you can hear the groupings as they move in and out of unison with the beat. That oscillation is the key to making these kinds of licks sound cool.

Here are some audio samples for the examples above: