Watch the Focusing On The Third online guitar lesson by Andy Timmons from Electric Expression
We're going to take my song "Electric Gypsy" and use it as a vehicle to illustrate some of the ways that I think about songwriting and soloing. It contains several ideas that might be helpful to you in your own songwriting and your own melodic choice. I'm going to play the actual basic riff of the song and then talk a bit about some of the parts that it contains. The song is in the key of D major. So it's a melody contained in chordal work, which is something I love and something a lot of us were inspired by Jimi Hendrix. In fact, that's the inspiration of the title of that song. It was from a biography I was reading called "Electric Gypsy". I snagged it right from that, full disclosure folks. What's interesting about this melody is that it is largely based on the third of the chord. So if you just learn how to spell each chord, the first chord is D major, which contains the notes D, F#, and A. The F# being the third of that chord. So I've got an open string D and I played the melody on the G string. The F# is the important note of the chord that defines whether it's major or minor and to me that's the sweet note. The root is the tonic, very stable note, but not the most flavor, as well as the fifth, the A. The third gives you that flavor of major or minor. If it were D, that'd be a very sad song, not the same vibe, so we've got the F#. The next chord is A major, we've got A, C#, and E. That C# figures in largely to that melody. The next chord is B minor so I voice lead. You can see it in that B minor chord shape that you already probably know. I use the old Jimi Hendrix wrap around the neck to thumb, that low B note. The next chord is G major so it's just those four chords, D major, A major, B minor, to G major. This doesn't really contain the third, but it's just a nice little bluesy riff. But there it is, it contains some very important nuggets. From songwriting, my natural melodic ear wants to hear the third of that chord at some point in the bar that it's happening. There's a D major chord going on, if I'm writing a song. It's likely to be featured, or if I'm soloing that's the note that most defines to me and the listener what the harmony is, and it seems that all the players that I gravitated to were guys that really had a command of this.
Guys like Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, and Steve Lukather. But even before them, guys like Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, and Pat Martino. They were very adept. If there was no other instrumentation going on, just by listening to their lines, you would hear that harmony outline in some shape or form, and a lot of that's based on the third. Thinking of it in an improvisational way, you can utilize that idea by isolating the third of each chord. Sometimes it's easy to do that by visualizing the actual chord shape. I've come to realize after all these years how much I am guided by my ear and my eye too, because I can see in the chord shape, I know where that third is. There's the F#, so if I want to feature that over that chord and play it into the A major, there's the C#. That's the third B, D, F#, and G major. It's there if you're more familiar with that chord shape. You can make a little exercise out of that. As the chords go by you will hear the harmony go by, into a higher B for the third of that G chord. I'm going to improvise a little bit now, basically staying in a D major pentatonic, but also utilizing the thirds of those chords as they go by. See if you can hear the harmony as I'm improvising. I was utilizing some of that pentatonic that we all know. Looks like the same pentatonic as B minor, because that's the relative minor of D major and then adding those chord tones. Actually a very good exercise to just play the chords for a while. It's a great idea to work on rhythm playing, because it does help you visualize where some of these chord tones are, in addition to where your most basic scales would be formed around. So when I'm playing major pentatonic, I see that part of that triad as the basis - like the home. If you learned different chord shapes, of course there's probably the first D major you learned to A major to B minor or good old G major. This is playing the octave of where you were. That's like that D major form for the A. So many possibilities just being aware of the chords and how to spell a simple triad within those chords and voice leading with some of the thirds.