All Down The Line

Mar07

Now that we’ve talked a bit about strumming, let’s move on to the next logical topic… fills. Often what keeps a good beginning or intermediate player from making the next step forward is an inability to incorporate fills into his or her playing.

What do I mean by “fills?” If you listen to good guitarists you’ll note that they often put in a riff or a run of notes when changing from one chord to the next. It’s usually very short and rarely complicated… a hammer-on here, a pick-off there, maybe a bit of a scale. But for all its simplicity it adds a great deal of flair to your playing. A fill is nothing more than an interesting transition from one chord to another.

Over the upcoming months, we’ll be looking at and analyzing fills as well as the theory behind them which should give you plenty of knowledge to come up with fills of your own. This will not be a sequential series of lessons however… there’s only so much of this that a person should be subjected to at one time. So we’ll cover an aspect of the fill today and then take some time off and just when you’re least suspecting it, boo! Be forewarned!

The Direct Approach

The simplest fills are best summed up by that wonderful cliché “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” You’re on a C chord (in a song conveniently in the key of C major). The next chord in the song is a G. All you have to do is walk up (or down) the C major scale to G. Pretty easy, isn’t it?

How about a real life test? If you look in the TAB for Take It to the Limit by the Eagles, this is what the first two lines look like:

Take It To The Limit

This song is a waltz (it’s in 3 / 4 time), so if I were to play it with the most simple strum pattern possible, this is what it would look like:

Simplest pattern part 1
Simplest pattern part 2

Now, I’ll add an initial bass note at the start of a chord change and use a C to F (and F to C) scale fill. Try it now:

Adding bass notes part 1
Adding bass notes part 2

You can hear how even a simple fill such as this one can really do a lot for the solo guitarist. Just by adding this C to F scale, you’ve added a bassist to your guitar.

I’d also like to add here that slower songs in 3 /4 time are excellent ways for beginners to practice this technique. Hey, you don’t even need a song. Pick an easy key (C, G, D or A) and then try the following pattern:

I – - / – - – / IV – - / – - – / I – - / – - – / V – - / – - – / I

Notice that in the keys of D and G, you’ll have to adjust for the fact that your low E string is just that, low E. So when you want a low D, you’ll have to settle for the open D string instead, like this:

Example with G and C chord part 1
Example with G and D chord part 2

The important thing to remember about any fill is the timing. You need to know how many beats have on your starting chord. You need to know on which beat your chord change takes place. Obviously, this pattern will not work in 4 / 4 time because there is an extra beat. But, that’s pretty easy to work around.

Another chord transition where you can use a simple scale fill is when you switch from a major chord to its relative minor (or vice versa). Since the relative minor is always the VI of the major, it’s two steps away from the root (going down). So if you were playing a song in 4 / 4 time, the transition would be something like this:

Transition 1

Yes, I know that looks pretty confusing. It’s easier to fill in the Roman numerals with actual chords and notes. And I’ll use “major” and “minor” to help clear it up a bit more.

Transition 2

Transition 3

Here’s another example, but this time it’s in 3 / 4:

Transition 4

And of course, it’s easy to reverse this transition when you go from any relative minor to its major. There are so many songs where you can use these transitions that I can’t even begin to list them. Just look at the songs you play and see how many times there’s a C to A minor switch. Or D minor to F. Or A to F# minor. You get the idea.

Walking Down The Stairs

For those of you who may consider yourselves above all this, may I offer you the humble scale as a songwriting/song analysis tool? It even gets into those hard to clean areas…

You might remember in the Solving the Puzzle column that, in decoding John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, I was able to figure out the chord progression of the last line of the chorus simply from the descending bass line. Sometimes it can be that easy. Let’s take a look at how progressions are built out of descending scales.

First, we need a descending scale. Is C major okay with everyone?

Transition 5

Since this breaks down nicely into eight notes (somebody knew what they were doing when she or he came up with the scale), we’re going to work in two measures of 4 / 4 time. I’m going to alternate bass and strum in eighth notes. In this first example, I’m going to use just the C and F major chords and write the other bass notes off as passing tones. If you play along with this, please take it slowly and listen to what’s going on. I’d rather you concentrate on why this works then worrying about playing it perfectly.

Example in 4/4 time

Now most of you will recognize this as part of a song you know. There are zillions of songs that use this progression. And if you try it out in other keys and different, there’ll be no end to the songs you think of.

I’m going to rewrite this progression into a chart, which will keep our esteemed editor from killing me for using so much TAB. Take a moment to see where I’m going with this, okay?

Transition 6

All right, is everybody with me? The “notes” are the descending C major scale (it must be like walking down stairs for you by now). For those of you not familiar with the “/” terminology I’m using in the chord section, it simply indicates the bass note that goes along with the chord we’re playing. So “C/B” is a C major chord with a B note in the bass. “F/D” is an F major chord with the D note in the bass. Let’s try using a progression that corresponds with the actual notes in the scale. For the B note, we’ll still use the C/B chord for the time being.

Transition 7

This sounds pretty good too. It’s actually pretty amazing all the different combinations you can come up with. Say I’m in one of those moods when I want everything to be in a nice pattern. And I also want to have a nice traditional IV… V… I (F… G… C) ending.

Hey, no problem! Look:

Transition 8

Okay, by this time I’ve gotten bored with the C/B chord and I’d like to try something new. Since B is in the G chord, that’s a good possibility. Nah, it’s done all the time. E minor? Better. Hey, how about E7, especially since I remember from Scales Within Scales that E is the V of A minor? Yeah! That should work great.

Transition 9

Now that’s cool. In fact, until I get to the E note in the bass, it sounds just like “Bell Bottom Blues.” It really is amazing what one chord change can bring about.

Itty Bitty Steps

Using scales to help write chord progressions gets more interesting when you start throwing in some (or all) of the chromatic steps. For the charts in this section, I’m going to eliminate the “BEAT” part and simply concentrate on the bass note and the accompanying chord. The tricky part here is figuring out when to bail out. By this I mean deciding when to abandon the scale and get back to your basic C, F and G routine. As with all progressions, it really becomes a matter of personal taste. To start, let’s look at a progression that I’m certain will sound familiar to most of you. Again, I’ll be using the key of C but it’s a simple matter to transpose these into other keys.

Transition 10

Here, the descending bass line dictates the form of the C chords. B, when added to a normal C chord gives us a C major 7th, while Bb brings about the C 7th. All this happens in wonderful melodic half steps. I could even extend this two more steps, comme ca:

Transition 11

Isn’t that pretty? The progression of a minor fourth to a root is incredibly appealing. You may also note here that I take advantage of the G note not only to reestablish the root (C) but also to set up the final V… I transition.

I’d like to correct a grievous error on my part. In the Scales Within Scales column, I wrote the following:

One of the more prominent exceptions is the I… V of II… IV… I progression. In the key of G it would look like this: G… A (or A7)… C… G. It’s a very pleasant transition, used in songs on all ends of the spectrum (Paul Williams’ Old Fashioned Love Song, Donovan’s Atlantis and Brain Damage by Pink Floyd just to name a few).

My “V of II” should of course be “V of V.” you’d think that after spending quite a bit of time explaining the concept (and even making out a chart!) that I would not have missed such an obvious mistake. Please accept my apologies.

That being said, allow me to show you how to use your descending chromatic scale to incorporate this cool progression into a song. Here goes (and again, key of C):

Transition 12

If you are so inclined, it’s a fairly easy task to go from the F back up to a G (for a C or a G chord) and then to a final C.

Try to take the time to play these progressions in other keys. If you need help figuring out how to transpose them, please email me. You’ll find it’s nowhere near as difficult as you might imagine (and certainly not as complicated as I make it seem sometimes!). Once you get used to hearing these progressions, as well as the bass lines that clue you in to them, you find that you’ll be able to pick them out of songs you hear. Now you have yet another tool to help you decode a song without the use of TAB.

For songwriters, being familiar with fills composed of simple scales can help make your own songs more interesting, music-wise. If you have a chance, take another look at Solving the Puzzle where we analyze the bridge of Richard Thompson’s Walking on a Wire. Thompson cleverly uses an ascending scale in the key of A (even though the song is in G) in order to create an intricate and gorgeous chord progression for his bridge. You don’t have to get that complicated, but an ascending or descending scale from a given point could help get you unstuck from a tired progression or even liven one up.

And if you’re a bassist or a guitarist who dabbles with the bass, then I cannot possibly stress the importance of knowing how the notes of your scale interact with the chords of a song. We’ll being taking a look at this in an upcoming column.

Again, if you have any questions, comments (or corrections!) or requests, just drop me a line. Thanks for taking the time to visit Guitar Noise and I’ll see you next week.

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About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles.

In April 2013, David also joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages.

And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David also contributes frequently to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He also is the author of three Idiot's Guide to Guitar books: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Rock Guitar and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Bass Guitar as well as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Ukulele and the co-writer of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Art of Songwriting.

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