Updated: Mar 2, 2020
In the latest ABRSM book for Grade 1 guitar, there is simple Spanish piece called Spanish Knights. The music has a key signature with one flat. One of my sharp-thinking students had been playing it for a few weeks and then looked baffled for a while. I asked him what was on his mind.
“I don’t know what key it’s in. It’s got one flat - that means it’s either in F Major or D minor....but it doesn’t seem to be in either of those. It starts and ends on ‘A’, but it’s not A Major is it? What’s going on?”
What a great question! But where would he find the answer? How about looking in the Grade 1 music theory book? You would think that it would be there somewhere, but it isn’t. It’s not in any of the other music theory grade books either, all the way up to Grade 8.
I had come across the same problem myself many years ago and found no answer then. I hadn’t noticed the weird key signatures but I had noticed a certain sound that didn’t sound like the usual type of music I’d heard and learned. I remember thinking ‘what is that sound?’ It’s different! It’s interesting! What is it? I heard it in Spanish music and liked it so much I took up lessons in flamenco guitar. I still didn’t learn what ‘that sound’ was – nobody told me!
Then I found out that the answer is pretty obvious to jazz and Rock musicians. Later in life I had jazz guitar lessons and learned about MODES – scales within scales. The answer turned out to be simple: In a scale of F Major, turn the third note (A) into the first note to get A Bb C D E F G A and there you have it! There’s that mysterious ‘Spanish sound’ that I loved – the so called Phrygian mode. And you can do the same for any note in any Major scale. Each new scale has a different flavour and a different Greek name!
My Jazz guitar teacher told me that the modes somehow don’t make it into the standard musical syllabus. He saw it as a sort of ‘secret’ that you have to discover. He told me that in a school he worked in, the head of music would put his head round the door and ask: “What’s the Dorian mode, again?”
I thought it would be a good idea to put this ‘secret’ into an easy tutor book so that a Grade 1 classical guitar player would have the answer to why Spanish Knights isn’t in F or D minor. I wrote and self-published a book called Classical Guitar for the Serious Beginner. I included not only these modes but also something else that doesn’t get a lot of mention in tutor books. Guitar composers like SOR and CARULLI used ‘broken chords’ to create melodies. Playing guitar can improve a great deal when you can see the chords, not just individual notes. You hold a left hand finger shape down and all the notes are there with very little movement or effort. The notes will ring on too rather than die away immediately they are plucked and released. You can also see the chord progression easily in the music which helps in understanding theory.
My book attracted mostly good reviews, but there was one negative one from amazon.com who advised a potential buyer not to ‘waste your money’ – It was the worst tutor book he’s bought especially the ‘disjointed approach to scales and chords’. Although every book on amazon has some bad reviews, being a bit of a sensitive soul, I felt quite angry and hurt by this. I showed a professional guitarist the comment, who laughed and said that the reviewer just didn’t understand. I still unpublished it though. My aim had been to make it as short and inexpensive as possible but I felt later that more examples might have made it clearer.
I am now offering a free pdf version of the book that I can email to anyone who would like it. I may well expand on the book and re-publish at a later date if people benefit from the pdf version.
Just let me know if you want to receive it through email and let me know what you think of it. Many thanks for reading!