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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly


Caveat: I don't know anything about Tom Hess personally. I haven't explored his website, I haven't watched any of his Youtube videos, I don't know what kind of music he plays (I get the impression it's Metal), I don't know how good of a player he is - but I followed him on Twitter because he promotes and markets himself like crazy. He's got 3200 followers on Twitter - he appears to be a marketing powerhouse in the same niche as me. I haven't been so good at marketing because marketing and promotion is something I've not been interested in - I just want to play the guitar - and consequently have always let other people do it (labels, agents, managers, promoters, bandleaders etc - it just seemed low-rent to promote myself) but now, because of moving my teaching activities into the online world I'm having to learn about it in order for to be viable and to keep making a living with the guitar - so I've been educating myself and watching other guys do it and trying to learn from other people's mistakes and successes. Shameless self-promotion is one of the keys to success, and I think I could learn a thing or two about it by watching Tom Hess. I've made a living, raised 5 kids and paid the bills with a guitar for 40 years - but I still want some relevance for at least 20 more years (if I live that long) and thus the move into the interweb thingy, and thus the necessity of self-promotion and marketing.

It's a rare day that Tom Hess doesn't tweet 2 or 3 things that ALWAYS lead back to his website. That's how I came across this article. And now look - he caused me to write a blog post that links back to HIS website! Dammit! See how that works?

Anyway, whatever his strengths and faults may or may not be (I trust I've distanced myself enough - just in case he turns out to be a douche), he and I are on the same side of this issue. If you don't know what the CAGED system is, consider yourself lucky. Just know that it's a VERY limited approach that promises mastery of the fretboard but falls woefully short.

The issue of the CAGED system arises because I have to deal with students who've picked it up by randomly surfing around on Youtube and don't realize what a dead end it is. I usually just tell them it sucks and to abandon it and trust me! I actually had a site member unsubscribe after getting into my 5-Lesson Foundational Series because memorizing the Key Circle was "too complicated"! He said he would just pursue the CAGED system on his own. I didn't argue with him - I just told him it was very limiting and good luck.

Hess's critique of the system is mostly about the scale and arpeggio patterns that are derived from it. I feel that the chordal aspect of the CAGED system is also very damaging. He very briefly touched on the chordal aspect and I'm sure we would agree on that as well. However, I would like to address something specific in his article:

Problem #1: The CAGED system makes it harder to develop your guitar speed… and makes it impossible to reach your maximum speed potential.

His solution to this problem is the 3-note-per-string scale patterns - which do not occur in the CAGED system. Now it could be I'm inferring what he did not imply, but it seemed to me that he was presenting an either/or proposition. It turns out that, yes, the very first scale I teach my students is the 3-note-per-string, 2-octave major scale patterns (it appears he was presenting the Natural Minor/Aeolian Mode as his examples). I agree with all his reasons why the 3-note-per-string scale patterns are most efficient - that's why I teach them first, among other reasons. However, all fingerings should be mastered, not just the 3-note-per-string patterns. Yes, certain fingerings lend themselves to speed more than others. I get the impression from his tweets that Tom is preoccupied with speed. That would make sense if he's into metal. There's a lot about good, creative metal - yes, there is such a thing - that necessitates a very high level of technique, which would include blistering speed.

Hess is concerned about efficiency, and rightly so. Economical movement has been one of THE most important concepts to my playing ever since I studied classical guitar with Douglas Niedt at the UMKC Conservatory of Music back in the '70's. And efficiency demands a working knowledge of every possible fingering for any given scale - including the fingerings that Hess seems to dismiss because they are less efficient - from a pick-hand perspective.

Having a single fingering (the 3-note-per-string pattern) for, say, a Major Scale, may be the most efficient pattern from a speed perspective but not necessarily so from a musical perspective - and my preoccupation is with music, not speed (of course, the goal is to have it all). Did you know you can play a Major Scale (or any scale for that matter) in all 12 keys around the Cycle of 4ths, starting from each root, and never shift more than one fret from any key to the next except from Db to Gb which involves a shift of 2 frets? THAT is efficiency! But it's only possible if you know every fingering - including the less efficient, asymmetric ones. When using only the 3-note-per-string pattern every shift is 2 frets instead of one and the shift from Gb to B would be 5 frets instead of 1. That's less efficient.

I could say much the same thing about moving from any scale to any other scale in any other kind of key scheme - chromatic, whole-tone, minor 3rds, or any number of disjunct movements you want to come up with.

The ability to access whichever fingering involves the least amount of movement becomes invaluable when playing through changes. If you're changing the scale every 4 bars or even every bar (or even every 2 beats) the least amount of movement reduces the potential for error and increases speed potential. If you are playing a tune in a style that is diatonic - that is, the entire tune is in a single key and therefore a single scale will suffice - then you could get away with a single fingering for a single scale, in which case the argument could be made that the 3-note-per-string pattern would be optimum. Personally, I wouldn't make that argument because there might be some melodic possibilities that are easier to execute with one or another of the options - but if speed is your primary objective, alrighty then!

I remember a lesson (also back in the '70's) with the wonderful jazz guitarist Danny Embrey. He challenged me to solo through the changes of Stella By Starlight in a single position on the neck. I couldn't do it because I basically had a single fingering for everything. I could solo through the changes, but I had to jump around like a monkey on acid from chord to chord. I subsequently worked hard to rectify that insufficiency.

Here is a demonstration; playing the Major Scale in every key around the Cycle of 4ths and never moving more than 2 frets from one key to another. To do this, I use every fingering, not just the 3-notes-per-string pattern (I call it "the 1st-finger pattern" in the video). This video is part of the lesson on Major Scales that includes explanatory text, 6 fretboard diagrams of 6 fingerings for the Major Scale, as well as 5 demonstration videos. The entire lesson can be found here for free, but you must be a site member and logged in to view it. In the meantime, here's the concluding video:

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