By Wayne Erbsen
I once heard it said, “There ain’t no notes in bluegrass music, you just pick it.”
While it may be comforting to suggest that music theory and bluegrass music don’t mix, in fact, knowing a little so-called music theory could be downright useful if you want to develop as a musician. Granted, many people are scared to death of musical scales. Trust me, this won’t hurt (all that much), and soon scales will be your new best friend.
First, since bluegrass is often played in the key of G, we’ll start by learning a G scale. Like all scales, a G scale starts and ends with a G note. After the G note it just goes up the alphabet. Keep in mind that a G scale has one sharp, an F sharp. So a G scale would go G, A, B, C, D, E, F# G. That’s it.
Don’t know where to find these notes on your instrument? OK. I’ll help.
On a banjo in G tuning: G=3rd string open or unfretted. A=3rd string at the second fret. B=2nd string open. C=2nd string first fret. D=1st string open. E=1st string second fret. F#=1st string fourth fret, G=1st string fifth fret.
On a mandolin: G=D string fifth fret, A=A string open, B=A string second fret, C=A string third fret, D=A string fifth fret, E=E string open, F#=E string second fret, G=first string third fret.
On a guitar: G=third string open, A=third string second fret, B=second string open, C=second string first fret, D=second string third fret, E=first string open, F#=first string second fret, G=first string third fret.
On a fiddle: G=D string with ring finger, A=A string open, B=A string index finger, C=A string middle finger, D=A string ring finger, E=E string open, F#=E string index finger, G=E string middle finger.
Now, let’s learn what I like to call “the Magic Numbers.” This is nothing more than assigning numbers to each of the eight notes of a major scale. For our G scale, it would be G=1, A=2, B=3, C=4, D=5, E=6, F#=7, G=8.
What’s so good about the Magic Numbers? The Magic Numbers will mean you can take one little lick and turn it into many little licks, all in different keys. This process is called transposing. Stay calm. I’ll show you.
Let’s learn a simple walk-up or intro to a song like Pig in a Pen, which is a fairly common bluegrass song. The melody starts on a G note. As an intro to the song, we can walk up to that first G note. How do we do that? By starting on a lower note, in this case a D below (in pitch) the G. So a nice little walk-up would be D, E, F#, then the G. Try it.
Using the Magic Numbers, let’s give numbers to our walk-up. 5=D, 6=E, 7=F# and 8=G.
Now let’s say we want to steal this lick, and use it as a lead-in to a C chord. A C scale with the Magic Numbers is C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7, and C=8.
So if we transpose the same lead-in we used in G using the Magic Numbers, we’d have 5=G, 6=A, 7=B and 8=C. So presto, you have recycled your G lick into a C lick. It’s a miracle!
Now your “homework” is to take some of your favorite licks, figure out the names of the notes, assign them Magic Numbers, and transpose them into all the popular keys like G, A, C, D, and if you’re brave you can try B flat, B and E.
Brilliant musicians who have what we call “good ears” don’t have to mess with the Magic Numbers, or anything else, for that matter. They just hear these things, and can do them effortlessly. For the rest of us with “tin ears,” it’s no crime to use tools like the Magic Numbers to help us teach ourselves how to play our instruments.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin.