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Joey TheSaint
Joey St. John-Ryan

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Created: February 11, 2007
Update: July 8, 2012

In Sax on the Web Rock'n Roll Saxophone series:

Fingernails, chalkboards, and the flat five

by Joey St. John-Ryan


Joey "The Saint" St. John-Ryan has been a regular contributor to the Sax on the Web Forum since 1998. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington, where he plays for the internationally-acclaimed jump blues band Tim Casey & the Bluescats. Joey spent the 90's touring with various indie-rock bands out of Seattle, and has also performed with The Wailers, Charlie Musselwhite, Mitch Woods, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and The James Brown Band. He is a regular call for session work in Seattle and Los Angeles as a saxophonist and keyboardist, and was nominated in 2006 by the Washington Blues Society for Best Horn.

All righty. This lesson is going to be fairly brief; we'll cover the Blues Five and the Blues Seven.

In the first lesson, we discussed the placement of the blue notes. To recap, the "blue notes" are not the minor third, the flat five, and the dominant seventh; the blue notes are the spaces between the minor and major third, the flat five and the five, and the dominant and major seventh.

The flat five (F# in the key of C), is used to provide dissonance. (Recap from last lesson: Dissonance is the sense of discord and unpleasantness that results from hearing two musical tones that are not harmonious. C and E, for example, are harmonious. C and C# are dissonant.)

I think of the flat five like a striker for a firestarter, like a knife blade hitting one of those magnesium firelighters. Dissonance. Sparks. Strife. I actually use it sparingly, even though it's allegedly the "true" blue note. I stay the hell away from it unless I really want to say something ugly; when I really want people's attention.

Last time we talked about how to evoke a feeling of sadness by employing semitone shading to the Blues Third.

If the Blues Third is sadness, the Flat Five is discord.

The Flat five becomes more discordant the further toward the tonal center you hit it. At its purest, the Augmented 4th / Flat 5th is "the Devil's Interval," as it was called. Ugly! Clashes with everything. A true "color tone" if ever there was.

The Perfect 5th, however, is, well, perfect. Perfectly harmonious. Playing the 5th against any of the blues changes conveys a feeling of balance; ending a lick on the 5th, similarly so. Again, ask the interstellar musicology commandos why this is so.

So, you take a Perfect 5th, and you flat it a little.

Ooh. Imperfection.

Flat it more.

Keep going, until you're down to the pure Flat Five. Each gradation will bring a new level of discord; you don't have to hit the flat five right on the nose each time.

Placement of the blues third, as we'd discussed, is used to convey sadness and/or happiness. Similarly, the blues fifth is used to convey discord or disharmony. This is in line with one of the great blues lyrical traditions, that of juxtaposing contrasting ideas, e.g., "Got me a good woman / but she don't love me no more," "You can have my husband / but please don't take my man," etc. Discord.

You can inflict a sense of discord through dissonance, and judicious placement of the blues fifth is all about the dissonance. In the key of C, you can hit the F# and bend it up toward G, or hit the G and bend it down toward the F#, or hit it pretty much anywhere in between. The higher you raise the F#, the more grating it will sound. Experiment with it; it really does sound different depending on the placement.

A great example of a blues fifth is in the first line of the alto solo in Lyle Lovett's "M-O-N-E-Y", off the album Pontiac. His alto player, Steve Marsh, hits the flat five just a hair sharp, and bends it sharp over the course of two bars until it's nearly to the perfect fifth.

Think of your blues solos as stories, and the placement of the blue notes as emotions. You now have happiness and sadness (the thirds), and strife (the fifth), to add to your tale of woe.

But a good story needs one more element: tension.

The blues seventh - the dominant seventh, or more precisely, the space between the dominant seventh and the major seventh (Bb and B in the key of C) - is your tension. The interval is crying out for release. The dominant seventh is the leading tone to the tonic, and our ear needs to hear it resolve. That's a fundamental tenet of western music; we were all born to it (excepting Ornette Coleman, Wendy Carlos, or Yma Sumac), so use it to your advantage. You can do this one of a number of ways. My two favorites are:

  1. A repetitive rhythmic figure using only the dominant seventh and hanging on it for 12 or 24 bars before letting it go; and

  2. Bending the flat seven toward the major seven, which turns the interval from consonant to dissonant. Our ear may want to hear the dominant seventh resolve, but it really, really wants to hear the major seven resolve. Bending the dominant seventh up into to the major seventh is a kind of sweet torture - it lets the listener's ear think "Hooray! Release is coming!" and then actually adds to the tension. Gaining the listener's confidence and then abusing it, if you will. Not that you'd actually do that, right? Uh, sure.

Lou Marini's baritone solo on the Blues Brothers' rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago" uses a major seventh - flatted - to - dominant seventh on the V / IV turn in the second ride. I copped that riff when I was about fourteen and used in my audition for my high school stage band - it's been in my arsenal for twenty years, now.

Okay. You've got plenty to work on. These are my best tricks; the rest is up to you.

Keep honkin'!
~Joey St. John-Ryan


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