psychedelic guitar playing: scales and techniques

NOTE: THERE IS A NEW POST WITH TABS ON THIS TOPIC!

Musicians have to learn scales, for scales are the raw material of melodies as well as the raw material of improvised solos.

For psychedelic music one might denote certain scales, but it won’t suffice to just climb them up and down, as one will have to learn how to use these notes.

From my own experience I would recommend the mixolydian scale. Listen to, for instance, “Ride my see-saw” by the Moody Blues. The solo (near the end) is pure mixolydian. But there is no scale reserved for psychedelic styles. So all the scales common in rock music, above all minor pentatonic, if played in a certain way, will sound psychedelic.

So what are these ways of playing? As a hint, you can read this former post.

Or, listen to this former sound track, using the mixolydian scale.

Keep in mind Indian music had a great impact on sixties’ music, especially around 1966/67. Modal soloing over a droning root can be a key to sounding psychedelic. One of the most efficient playing techniques is the use of just one string, regarding the guitar as a sitar. Crazy vibratos, whammy bar effects, and slides add to an overall oriental impression. Oriental sounding scales, such as harmonic minor or phrygian, enhance that effect. Bendings, at times combined with additional vibrato, and double stop bendings on strings g and b are very common.

There is no particular guitar or amp or scale or substance needed (though it might help), for psychedelic music is an attitude. It emanates from a surreal mindset. Studying surrealism is a good starting point.

A fine analysis of psychedelic music styles (with reference to surrealism) is found in Tim Ellison’s book “The band are not quite right” (free download). Thanks to “psy-curious” who led me there!

Appendix: examples of the above mentioned scales in the key of A:

Mixolydian: a-b-c#-d-e-f#-g-a. Minor pentatonic: a-c-d-e-g-a. Harmonic minor: a-b-c-d-e-f-g#-a.Phrygian: a-bb-c-d-e-f-g-a.

8 thoughts on “psychedelic guitar playing: scales and techniques

  1. Elspeth

    I love soloing over a droning root. Droning root music is my favourite. To me it is Celtic and Eastern/Indian. I have an entire song I composed using the E as droning root and getting the sitar effect. I’ll see if I can send it to you or maybe even post it one day on my blog. As I read yours today I thought: it’s so educational for musicians, for other guitarists. If I come across anyone trying to learn guitar I will send them here.

  2. Gary Post author

    Thank you! I guess my profession as a teacher came through in this post…
    Please send me your song!

  3. ricardo

    Hi Gary, I kept saying to myself that i should check out your site again. I did not realise that it was so diverse ! I also have a great fondness for improvising over a sustained chord or drone. It becomes a form of meditation. I think it was a piece by Steve Reich where sustained chords played on the organ yielded some enjoyable improvisations.
    Learning and practising scales is part of being a musician, but sometimes the most interesting things happen when you step outside a particular scale, – perhaps only briefly in order to create tension and dissonance. And if we take things further, there can be quite powerful effects on the listener by deliberately avoiding harmony all together. For example in experimental music for say horror or science-fiction films. I composed some very strange ‘music’ a few years ago using a diy tone generator, and the results were like the early experiments of the German band Cluster.
    By the way, I was very interested in your modified Ibanez SG.

  4. ricardo

    Hi Gary, I was scrolling very fast down one of your pages and the writing was a complete blur. The name Larry Young popped into my mind. I slowly went back up the page and there he was ! I remember how I used to jam along to the Devotion album in the early 1980s.
    I have sent some mp3s, but apparently there has been some email problems. If you did not receive them I will try again.

  5. David De Candia

    If you haven’t already, try GarageBand smart guitar on the iPad2. Lets you play some pretty far out stuff without requiring any real music theory. Because it’s hard to hit a wrong note, it’s especially suited to those intense psychedelic music sessions where your coordination is a bit loose. Or a lot loose…

  6. Steve B

    I just found out that I play the Mixolydian Scale.
    I never had lessons, my mate showed me a few chords and two scales, pentatonic and C major, the easy ones. But then I seem to have psychedelic soul, so the Mixolydian scale naturally popped up. It started as a lick, and then grew all over the fret board.
    I see that Elspeth speaks about a drone root, well yeah, but I use the open A and open top E. And I play a lot rooted in the E shaped A barr chord position, so I can hit chords and then solo and lick in the pentatonic scale, but then the Mixolydian fits right in. In fact it sounds really cool when you change between the two when playing in a psychedelic style. And you can use the open A drone in place of the base A chord to keep momentum.
    It’s funny, some try hard to play in a psychedelic way, well I would have to try hard not to….
    Of course you have to use pedals, switching between clean driven and phased.
    Phasers are great, but then a wah pedal less driven sounds cool.
    I’ve got an electric sitar, but then I think that you don’t really need it, I think it’s better to suggest the ‘Indian’ feel, or you cut the song up and make it sound a bit contrived/clichéd.

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