Whole-tone Fretboard


I love Messiaen – his harmonic language makes me tingle. Unfortunately, he never wrote a note for guitar – perhaps he was dissuaded by the instrument’s somewhat dry, brittle timbre, inability to sustain notes, limited dynamic range and general obscurity in classical western canon. Whatever the case, everyone and their grandmother seem to own a guitar today, so it’s about damn time people start writing for it (by “writing” I don’t mean throwing together 4 diatonic chords in 4/4 time… there’s far too much of that crap, whatever you may want to call it, going on these days).

As a guitarist/composer I’ve been exploring various applications of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition on the guitar, with tremendously frugiferous results. The first, and perhaps most famous, is the whole-tone scale, popularized by Debussy. Messiaen obviously did not “invent” it, but he categorized it as the first mode of limited transposition. Messiaen himself didn’t use it too often, believing that Debussy had taken it as far as it could go. I would have to respectfully disagree. While I myself haven’t come up with any earth-shattering masterpieces, I hope that guitarists will start experimenting a bit more with it. I would rather hear a whole-tone heavy metal solo over the usual metallica-esque modal stuff any day.

Below are guitar fingerboard diagrams for both transpositions of the whole-tone scale. This is the first in a series of posts exploring the different modes on guitar. All fingerboard patterns are, unless otherwise noted, in standard tuning.

Notice the very simple pattern on the fingerboard, it is much easier to memorize than even major/minor scales. The pattern varies slightly between the G and B strings, as is always the case with the guitar’s tuning. Each position also repeats itself at regular intervals. For example, play the first transposition beginning on the open low E ascending 3 octaves to the open high e:

e —————————————-0—–|
B ———————————-1–3——–|
G —————————-1–3————–|
D ——————-0–2–4——————–|
A ————-1–3—————————–|
E —-0–2–4———————————–|

The pattern will be identical, no matter where you begin the scale. (The 5-fret stretch may be tricky for some, but there are no alternate fingerings that eliminate it).

An alternate fingering pattern:

e —————————————–2—-|
B ———————————–3–5——-|
G ————————-1–3–5————–|
D ——————-2–4———————–|
A ———1–3–5——————————|
E —-2–4————————————–|

I prefer the first one, but you should be familiar with both patterns. Personally, I find chords to be a little bit tricky, but melody and especially 2 or 3 voice counterpoint sound fantastic.

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