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by Mike Keneally

Guitar Player, September 1994

My reason to live number one is a small creature currently having a nap in the other room -little girl Jesse, two weeks old as of this writing.

A scant few things are tied for number two: one is beer, and another is the building of tweaked harmonies. My May '94 "D.Is a Wuss" column (no, D. hasn't written back yet; thanks for asking), which featured the first eight bars of a piece I did called "Fencing," brought forth some interesting letters, one of which asks, "How do you come up with those harmonies?" The facile -but accurate- response is I just did whatever I thought worked, but let's have a look at the first two bars (Ex.1) to see what I actually tried to accomplish.

You'll recall that guitar 1 was improvised onto tape, and the other two guitar harmonies were written afterwards. The first two notes of the improv are F# and then E a minor seventh up. Our harmonization options are limitless. On the ground floor of Option World, an F# could be the root of an F# chord, the third of a D major, the fifth of a B. When I saw that the next note in the bar was that higher E, something told me that these two chords should ne a fairly, dense, ugly cluster opening to a wider, somewhat prettier voicing. So I had the F# function as the third of a D chord, but not a standard D major. Guitar 2 plays the D below F#. This gives us a glorious, clunging third/fourth dissonance, to my ear a striking way to begin a piece. The bass (not transcribed) anchors the D.

Deciding to make the second chord open wider than the first raises new options. I chose to have the E function as the top note of an Fmaj7 (with no third, so as to make the voicing wider). So guitar 2 goes from G to C. The bass, however, is still playing the D from the first chord, so this one is transmogrified into Dm9.

The last four chords in bar 1 are all ugly; by the point I'd realized that the last chord in bar two needed to be a major triad, and some form of irritant was required before the Vangelis-like triumph of such a resolution. The four notes of the improvised parts were B, Bb, A, A, the first three notes traveling down chromatically and the last one going an octave up. Guitar 3 follows the same topographic approach; E, Eb, D, G, the last note a fourth up, while guitar 2 cuts its own path: Eb, B, Db, Gb, the last note up an octave plus a fourth. So those four voicings are Eb, B, E; B, Bb, Eb; Db, A, D; and Gb, G, A (the notes of the last cord are crammed right next to each other for another fabulous clunge). Yuck! I love this kind of thing. For the first two chords the bass is still clinging to D; for the second two, it's down to C#.

The voicings in bar two start with some ugly chords leading to E major at the beginning of beats two and three, during which the bass is doing a little line in B minor. I enjoy using conventional tonality as a comfort zone, even if only for a second or two. Having that E major chord occur twice makes the surrounding ugliness seem more playful; no matter how frightening things may get here in the thicklets, we've still got this E to keep us cozy. Then it's back to mom's arms all the way with the final C# major chord bending up to D major. (Yes, we're still in D, even though we ventured far away from it.)

Later in the piece a formula emerges, on that I kep in mind while doing the original improvisation. It's a procedure that Scott Thunes was kind enough to turn me onto during the Zappa tour in 1988: If you take any four-note diminished chord and lower any one of the notes a half-step, you get a dominanth -7th chord. Take as an example the diminshed chord in Ex.2, Ab, B, D, F. Lower each of the four notes in succession: G, B, D, F (A G7 chord); Ab, Bb, D, F (Bb7); Ab, B, Db, F (a Db7, in which case the B would be normally notated as Cb); Ab, B, D, E (an E7, so Ab woudl be notated as G#). I laced the piece with diminished arpeggios that morph into dominanth -7th arpeggios. I then reinforced them with the two harmony guitars so that entire chords undergo this transformation very rapidly. A taste of this occurs in bar 7 (Ex.3) [Ex.3 seems to be missing from the archives. Sorry]. As the piece continues, the formula is exploited ever more violently.


Mike Keneally is very happy these days. To hear "Fencing" in total one would do well to find his solo album, hat, available on Immune Records. A new solo album is on the way.

[You might have noticed that I couldn't figure out where to find the "flat"-sign, so anywhere where there's a "b" letter with a note/chord I meant it to be a flat note/chord.   -AA]

©1994 Guitar Player Magazine

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