Guitar DNA: The Surf Guitar Blue Note
Most guitarists have heard the term b5 (flat five) when referring to the blues. Some go as far to call it the blue note. I’ve always felt the play between the major and minor 3rd to be a more significant player in the blues.
Still, the b5 does have an essential place in blues. The blues has influenced much of contemporary music. Blues is the foundation of the various styles of rock, country, and other forms of music.
One of the spawns of the blues is surf music. It doesn’t take long to hear that surf music uses not only some of the same chord progressions as the blues, but pulls melodies and solos from the same scales.
I’m really into surf guitar. I feel there is a rebellion to the presentation of the music. Dick Dale (the godfather of surf music) was on the fringes so to speak. A tough character with attitude. Dick Dale, along with Link Wray, was part of the early guitar counterculture.
Although surf music was built on blues and early Rock N Roll, artists started to twist the form. Some of these twists would go on to influence punk rock. Bands like the Dead Kennedy’s and the Cramps are two that come to mind. Surf also influenced the new wave movement with groups like the B52’s.
Surf music eventually became popular enough to find it’s way into TV Show Themes of the early to mid-1960s. These shows were implementing some new uses of the b5 note I mentioned earlier but took on a new role in its use.
As a kid, I would watch old tv shows. I didn’t know why I was attracted to these particular tv shows. Why did I prefer the Munsters to the Adams Family? Why did I skip school to watch the campy Lost in Space? It came back to the music. I was attracted to music.
The music landscape of the Munsters was primarily Surf. At the time, I didn’t know what surf music was, but I loved the sounds.
In blues music, when dealing with the b5 in a melody or solo, you will often hear it when traveling down from the natural 5th. A passing tone per se. Or you will hear it in place of the natural 5th. You can also hear blues guitarists bend into the b5 from the 4th.
In some surf music, the b5 gets highlighted before resolving to the natural 5th. It’s often en route to the natural 5th. It’s not always a fast passing note either. Rather a functioning part of the melody. The way it creates tension is different than in blues. If we were talking about food, I would say it’s a bit sourer — a splash of lemon.
Although blues use the b5, it somehow doesn’t appear to be as dissonant as it is in Surf. The intentional tension the b5 creates in surf music sets up a more dramatic resolution.
I wanted to look at two examples of this usage. Let’s start with the Munsters theme. Guitar master Howard Roberts played the guitar part. Many of you know him as the author of many guitar books and a founder of the Guitar Institute of Technology. But, he was also one of the busiest session guitarists of the 1960s. If the TV Show theme had a guitar on it, it was likely Howard. The guitar part we hear on the Twilight Zone theme is Howard.
This riff is built out of the pentatonic blues box with the addition of a few notes to follow the chord changes.
Munsters Theme Study
If we look at one octave of the blues box the most used position we see this:
Typically we would add the b5 here for blues:
For the Munsters theme, it makes sense to play the b5 here:
Same note, but moving the position of the b5 allows us access to different phrasing. This position also promotes the forward movement of the b5 to the natural 5th.
Let’s look at the melody to the Munsters theme at 152bpm:
Use this melody as a springboard to create your variations.
If we look at the song “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” from The Ventures TV Theme Songs record, we see a similar move of b5 to natural 5th resolution in the melody but in a very different position.
Instead of looking at this melody as part of a scale box, I prefer to see it connected to a chord shape. The melody works well in the root 5 open and bar chord shape. Let’s look at these shapes here:
It helps to not only know the shapes but understand what notes are in the chord and where they are on the guitar neck.
The b5 is going to appear on the 4th string. For root 5 major chord shapes the 5th is on the 4th string.
You can see in the melody the b5 to natural 5th resolution. The same melody gets moved to another root 5 positions.
Let’s look at the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” melody at 178bpm:
I love how the b5 hangs a bit. Just enough to make you pucker up before you get a taste of sugar.
I like to try to adapt these ideas to my music. To do this, I’m only going to think about these two positions/options of playing the b5 to natural 5th. Although they exist in more places on the neck, it’s essential to narrow your field of vision. Certain positions can be associated with different types of music.
For instance, the usage such as in the Ventures version of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” isn’t used regularly in blues. It’s the difference between knowing what a word is and knowing how to use it.
let’s look at ways to implant these new ideas into our practice routine.
Loop an E minor chord. Now try improvising using the Eddie Munster position which places the b5 on the B string (2nd string) of the Minor Pentatonic box.
Loop an A Major Chord and improvise using the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” position which places the b5 on the D string (4th string).
It's going to take some time to implement these flavors into your playing. Step 1 is recognition. Step 2 is the application. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t immediately improvise great-sounding surf solos. It takes time. Much more time then even one week. It has to sink in to be effective.
As you get better at knowing the positions of the notes, you can extend your chord progressions. Don’t chew off more then you can handle too fast. Adding too many chords into a progression distracts you from focusing on the new note locations. Practicing over one chord keeps you focused.
I talk a lot about practice techniques in my free ebook “Method of Practice.” Feel free to reach out with any questions!